A history of Myanmar since ancient times: Traditions and transformations
By MICHAEL AUNG-THWIN and MATRII AUNG-THWIN
London: Reaktion Books, 2012. Pp. 325, Illustrations, Notes, Bibliography, Index.
For over thirty years, Michael Aung-Thwin has been informing and challenging students of Myanmar with original and often provocative publications on the country's history, culture and politics. More recently, Matrii Aung-Thwin has written a searching reappraisal of the so-called Saya San rebellion in the 1930s. Both family members have now collaborated on a comprehensive history of Myanmar that traces the country's development over more than two millennia. As Ian Brown states on the dust cover, it is 'a strongly argued book with a clearly stated perspective ... a stimulating, often pugnacious reading of the history of Myanmar'. It is also a significant and timely contribution to Southeast Asian historiography.
The authors' approach is explained in a prologue and introduction. The main text opens with a description of the 'material (physical) and human environment', which is seen to constitute 'invariable and persistent foundations for the study of Myanmar' (p. 29). The remainder of the book is organised essentially along chronological lines. Chapter two is a masterly survey of Myanmar's prehistory from around 40,000 years ago to 500 BC. Next follows a chapter on 'the urban age', which is described as the country's 'formative period'. This reviewer lacks the expertise to comment on the arguments made in the latter two chapters but they clearly reflect an exhaustive examination of available sources and an original approach to an often neglected subject.
Chapter four describes the 'classical' period, and revisits several themes pursued by Michael Aung-Thwin in past writings about the nature of Myanmar society during the Pagan era. Chapter five is an account of the origins and development of, and the relationship between, Upper and Lower Myanmar. Again, the book rehearses arguments made in earlier works by Michael Aung-Thwin, relating in particular to the vexed question of the 'Mon paradigm'. The next two chapters describe Myanmar's second 'unification', its expansion during the sixteenth century and the country's later political and economic development. The authors argue that Myanmar's history is defined less by momentous events than by recurring political, cultural and religious patterns, such as the dominance of the central dry zone.
Chapters eight to ten deal with the Konbaung dynasty, Britain's three-stage conquest of Myanmar, and the Second World War. These periods are covered well and offer a range of insights, again based on extensive research and a healthy scepticism toward the received wisdom. For example, the authors reject the 'reification of ethnicity' by foreign historians, who are accused of giving undue weight to racial factors in their construction of Myanmar's past. The colonial period is characterised as 'order without meaning', while the period 1942-62 is described as 'disorder with meaning' (p. 33). In these terms, the period after Ne Win's military coup, viewed by the authors as the beginnings of Myanmar's real independence, represents 'order with meaning'.
Chapter eleven argues that the coup maintained the integrity of the union and restored law and order to 'an anarchic and fissiparous civilian society' (p. 34). Chapter twelve expands this thesis, describing Myanmar under a socialist government and, since 1988, two military councils. Some of the points made in this chapter are compelling, and help provide a lively alternative explanation for developments since the 1988 uprising. That said, the official version of events could have been treated more critically and greater weight given to other possible explanations. For example, given the way they were conducted, it is difficult to accept that the 2010 elections reflected widespread support for 'incumbency and continuity rather than inexperience and unpredictability' (p. …