- Myth and History in the Historiography of Early Burma: Paradigms, Primary Sources, and Prejudices
This book brings together five essays by Michael A. Aung-Thwin on the history and historiography of the Burmese kingdoms of Pagan and Ava between the twelfth and early fourteenth centuries. In these essays, each of which is presented as a chapter, the author reexamines five events that, over the course of the last century of Western scholarship, have come to be viewed by Burma scholars as watersheds in the history of Pagan and its successor state, Ava. Stated briefly, the five events are: (1) the Sinhalese capture of Pagan and execution of its king, Kulakya, in 1165 C.E., (2) the flight of Pagan's King Narathihapade in the face of the Chinese (Mongol) invasion of 1284, (3) the destruction of Pagan by Chinese forces in 1284, (4) the murder of Pagan's King Kyawswa by the "Three Shan Brothers" in c. 1304, and (5) the founding of the kingdom of Ava by a descendant of the Three Shan Brothers, Thadominbya, in 1364 (p. 2).
Leading Burma scholars have commented on the significance of the five events and in the process woven them into a more or less continuous narrative. G. H. Luce claimed the Sinhalese capture of Pagan ushered in Pagan's golden age, insofar as it led to the ascendancy of Burman over Mon culture at the capital, and the adoption of Sinhalese Theravada Buddhism as the state religion (p. 26). Pe Maung Tin and G. E. Harvey saw the flight of Narathihapade and the sacking of Pagan by the Chinese as marking the end of the Pagan Empire. And D.G.E. Hall, among others, asserted that the political machinations of the Three Shan Brothers led to the birth of a new Shan dynasty at Ava in the aftermath of Pagan's destruction (p. 126).
Through a careful review of epigraphic, archaeological, and chronicle evidence, Aung-Thwin demonstrates that the five events are myths with little or no basis in historical fact. Exploring their origins and the motivations underlying their articulation, he shows that four of the myths (nos. 1, 3–5) are of recent vintage, being the product of late nineteenth- and twentieth-century British colonial historiography, while the fifth (no. 2) can be traced to indigenous Burmese chronicles. He argues that these myths were shaped by particular political and intellectual biases of their creators, and that when these biases are recognized and set aside, an entirely different and more cogent picture of Burmese history comes into view.
Aung-Thwin develops his critique incrementally in each of the five chapters, and in each he offers an alternative to the prevailing historical theory under consideration. In his conclusion, he discusses the intellectual, political, and social trends in nineteenth and twentieth-century Burma that shaped the historiography of pre-colonial, colonial, and independent Burma (p. 3). He ends with a brief look at contemporary Burma in the aftermath of the failed democracy uprising of 1988, where he touches upon the continuing process of historical myth-making in the rhetoric of the military junta and its opponents in the democracy movement. [End Page 143]
Aung-Thwin identifies three prejudices in particular that have influenced the interpretation of Burmese history by modern scholars. The first is the "reification of ethnicity" by which he means the attribution of historical causation to ethnicity. He notes that Western scholarship has tended to view Burmese history as an "endless series of battles between ethnic groups," a perspective not shared by indigenous chronicles. Burmese sources, he observes, do not portray the various rebellions, wars, and coups they record as being caused by ethnic differences, but by the quest for power by elite groups competing for the throne (p. 146).
The second prejudice is the "idea of progress" by which Burmese history was placed within the "ancient, medieval, modern" paradigm of Western historiography. Burmese history as a whole was conceived as moving through stages of progressive transformation...