Anthropological Communities of Interpretation for Burma: An Overview

By Hlaing, U. Chit | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Anthropological Communities of Interpretation for Burma: An Overview


Hlaing, U. Chit, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


The empirical foundation for anthropology as an intellectual discipline is ethnography, which I define as the systematic description of cultures and societies based on direct observation. Even so, a lot is omitted here. It is not clear what counts as 'anthropology'. I omit most 'description and travel' (the category of the old Dewey decimal system for library cataloguing), which contains an unmanageable plethora of works in various languages. Yet everything not written by an academic anthropologist cannot be omitted either, keeping in mind that anthropology, as such, did not exist before the second half of the nineteenth century. I shall therefore include just motivated ethnographical accounts, by which I mean accounts based upon deliberate needs to describe and somehow make sense of the social and cultural life of people(s) in Burma. However, we need to distinguish two lines of such work: (a) studies on individual peoples, and (b) more synoptic investigations, which may be focused upon one people but studies them in the context of the larger congeries of peoples and institutions, systemically or comparatively. In the case of (a), there may be nothing relevant to what looks like Burma, and Burma may turn out to be merely the official 'place' (country, colony) within whose legal precincts work is carried out.

In this connection, I am reminded (1) that 'the history of Burma' does not imply more than the history of a sequence of socio-political entities that have 'evolved' into what we now call Burma, a product in many ways of British colonial construction. Its predecessors were indeed not 'Burma' or Myanmar at all. 'Burma', or rather bama in the Burmese language, is simply a contraction. In fact, until the European era, myanma pyi did not refer to a nation but merely to the territory where the Myanma people, the 'Burman', lived and were dominant. Rather, the situation was similar to Siam in 1933 when the new government of the constitutional monarchy renamed the country 'Thailand' (pratheed thai). That expression meant not the kingdom, but 'the country of the Thai people'. In fact, before the name-change, the country was known by complex, Sanskritic formal names. As in all the Indianised states in the region, the colloquial practice was basically to use the name of its capital city. Thus the Europeans regularly referred to 'The Kingdom of Ava' (Inwa pyi), 'The kingdom of Pegu' and so on. Following similar principles, a capital city could be called by the formal, ritual name of the state. Ayutthaya was called 'The City of Siam'. In the case of Burma, at least, the formal, 'classical' Sanskrit name did not refer to the central state at all but to the symbolic 'kingdoms' that it contained, such as Sunaparanta and Tambadipa, respectively, the lands of the upper Irrawaddy-Chindwin valleys and those of the lower part of the Irrawaddy valley. Ritually, they constituted imaginary subordinate kingdoms to a king-of-kings, in Pali, an ekaraja. (2) Even in the middle of the nineteenth century, the ruler of Sunaparanta and Tambadipa did not refer himself as the King of Burma / Myanmar in a letter addressed to the then President of the United States.

Nevertheless, an obvious continuity of states exists. Each successive state regarded itself as a sort of proper successor to the previous states. To that extent, but only to that extent, it makes sense to speak of 'the history of Burma' as the history of successions and systems of states leading up to what is now Burma. Nevertheless, even given these limits, the discussion is not intended to be comprehensive. No doubt, works of genuine anthropology and ethnography, and works by significant anthropologists, have been overlooked. For this, apologies are due. On the other hand, I have included some works that are not strictly about Burma, where such works relate to the adjacent areas of China or Thailand and are relevant to peoples who also live in Burma, and thus cast light upon the ethnography of those people in the Burma context.

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