Academic journal article The Historian

Southeast Asian Slavery and Slave-Gathering Warfare as a Vector for Cultural Transmission: The Case of Burma and Thailand

Academic journal article The Historian

Southeast Asian Slavery and Slave-Gathering Warfare as a Vector for Cultural Transmission: The Case of Burma and Thailand

Article excerpt


SOUTHEAST ASIA, perhaps more than any other region in area studies, struggles to define itself as a legitimate cultural zone for academic research. This has much to do with the dominant framework for understanding the region as the center point in the long-distance trading routes that extended across Eurasia and India to China. World History, or macro-level historical approaches to Southeast Asia, focuses on the networks of trade and cultural exchange that link this area to strong influences from distant extra-regional zones. Studies of these exchange networks demonstrate the undeniable religious, cultural, and artistic diversity of Southeast Asia.

The downside of this analytical framework is that it suggests an unruly cultural hybridity that undermines claims to an autonomous regional culture that could unproblematically be called "Southeast Asian." This article seeks to counterbalance this view by analyzing slave-gathering warfare and the resultant forced migration of large populations within the region as a network of cultural exchange that magnifies rather than disperses our academic sense of Southeast Asia as a legitimate region. To do this I have chosen to focus on two cases of cultural and artistic exchange between Thailand and Burma that resulted from the capture and relocation of Thai artisans to Burma, the first in the sixteenth century and the second in the eighteenth century.

It must be noted before proceeding that Burma/Myanmar and Thailand are the modern names for nation-states whose antecedents as kingdoms and empires did not correspond to present-day boundaries. However, I will use these geographical terms anachronistically so as not to overburden the text with multiple era-specific terminologies.

The great majority of Southeast Asian scholars work without regard to World History, although much of the work in this region unconsciously mirrors the field's concerns. (1) This is because globalizing forces such as long-distance trading networks, trans-regional migration, and religious pilgrimages are critical to understanding the region's political, economic, and cultural development over the last 2,000 years. This is largely because of Southeast Asia's geographic position in the East-West trading networks that developed at the dawn of the first millennium when efficient seaborne trade began to link India and China. Such trade was facilitated by a new understanding of the Asian trade winds, which blow westward beginning in April, peak in July, gradually die out, and then reverse direction to blow eastward. International traders were forced to take refuge in Southeast Asian ports until the winds changed direction. Early state development in the region was facilitated by these sojourns. These "entrepot states" grew up during the first five centuries of the Christian era. They centered on cosmopolitan cities that served as "neutral meeting ground," where business could be conducted in relative safety and comfort. (2) Pundits and holy men traversed these trade networks, and early Southeast Asian states, to varied degrees, harnessed trade-based business acumen to Indic models of statecraft and religious organization to develop ever more complex civilizations. (3) In the literature, the resulting cultural transformations in the region have been called Indianization, Hinduization, Sinicization, Buddhicization, Islamicization, and, following the period of European colonization, Westernization.

Southeast Asianists often treat the region as a "crucible" where many of the world's religions and civilizations interacted for the first time and learned to accommodate one another, making the region "one of the great laboratories of human civilizations." (4) The dominant analytic framework demonstrates how local states and societies have absorbed potent cultural forms and ideologies from foreign groups and bent them to serve local, cultural, and political demands. As Tony Day contends in a recent work on Southeast Asian statecraft, "Foreignness haunts the formation of Southeast Asian states. …

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