restricted access 1. Keynote: The Myth of "Splendid Isolation"
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1 Keynote: The Myth of “Splendid Isolation” Michael Aung-Thwin Thank you for honouring me as keynote speaker for this marvellous occasion, especially since it is an international conference being held in Myanmar Pyi, and of all places, at Pagan. I could not have imagined as a Yangon tha (“son of Yangon”) growing up in Yan Kin (and South India) that one day I would be back to give such a keynote address. That reminds me of the time when I was a young lad in Yan Kin during thingyan, when people would build floats, and go around town reciting the poetry they had composed in front of judges who gave them scores for originality and “importance”. Much of the poetry was social satire. I remember a few stanzas of one of these composed by nearby high school students: rn\kc\;®mio>mxa eNXAKå, er mlaliu> eKÁ; tlMu;luM;, quM;Tp\, el;Tp\ AKn\;etX, AKk\epåta, Tk\liuk\Sc\;liuk\, Duplex k SraetX, pn\;pc\etXka ertrW´rW´" That’s all I remember. For those who don’t know Burmese, much will be lost in translation because of the metre, rhyme and context. But let me try anyway: 17-J02381 01 Bagan and the World.indd 1 9/10/17 8:42 AM 2 Michael Aung-Thwin At Yan Kin in summer, with no running water, beads of sweat, Three- and four-storey apartments, difficult to go up and down, The sayas in the Duplexes, their flowers are awash with water. So, it is indeed an honour, from Yan Kin cha teik (young whippersnapper) to keynote speaker. Now, to bite the hand that feeds me. The conference premise states: “It has often been the case that the history of the ancient cities of Myanmar has been examined in splendid isolation, without sufficient reference to their external links”, and so “it is this aspect of regional and broader connectivities of Myanmar polities which we hope to underline through this conference”. The conference will attempt to produce an “overview of the relations between historical Myanmar polities and other Mainland Southeast Asian political and cultural centres, including those of the Tai, Thai, Mon and Khmer, as well as with the polities of India, China and maritime Southeast Asia … [to] … examine the external linkages of the major Myanmar polities and their urban centres prior to the 16th century”. I have no quibble with the goals of the conference and its attempts to demonstrate these external linkages. But I do have a quibble with the premise that the study of Myanmar’s ancient cities has been done in “splendid isolation”. First of all, since the period under discussion extends to the 16th century, it includes not only the earlier cities of the so-called “Pyu period” but later ones such as Pagan, Inwa, Bago, Muttama and Toungoo, all predating the 16th century. The contention, therefore, is that all these cities have been examined in “splendid isolation”. Second, and perhaps the more important aspect of my quibble, there is the question of what we mean when we say “city”. I don’t want to debate whether or not a city is orthogenetic or heterogenetic and all that John Miksic has to say about that subject, just to ask the following: Are we referring only to the physical entity outlined by its brick walls? Or does the word “city” include the “stuff” inside it? Are we talking about just the “box”, or the “contents” of the box as well? I can’t imagine that by “city” all we mean is the “box” and not its “contents”: the peoples, the languages, the products (such as literature, art, artefacts, architecture), the conceptual system including notions of power, legitimacy and authority, along with the symbolic dimensions of the city itself. How can one talk about the city of Pagan, for instance, without talking about its rulers, its people, its art and architecture, its 17-J02381 01 Bagan and the World.indd 2 9/10/17 8:42 AM Keynote: The Myth of “Splendid Isolation” 3 symbolic dimensions, its wealth and power, its political and cultural role, its significance to the country’s history? All these are legitimate parts of the discussion, so the question is whether they too have been examined in “splendid isolation”? My answer is for the most part, “no”, with an important exception which I’ll get to later. The issue is thus much broader, so that the premise of the conference must be expanded...