Mranma Pran: When Context Encounters Notion

By Aung-Thwin, Michael | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Mranma Pran: When Context Encounters Notion


Aung-Thwin, Michael, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


Introduction: Some issues and problems

Relegated to analysing the notion of 'Mranrna Pran / Burma' as envisioned by its historians, I began by jotting down their names, starting with the Pagan and Ava periods (ninth-sixteenth centuries) and ending with 2007, just to see who might belong to that 'community of interpretation'. The task turned out to be more daunting than first imagined, not because the list was so long, but because of the many questions raised.

One of these is whether or not the term 'Burma' should even be used, a foreign word imposed by a colonial power without the knowledge and consent of the governed, and never part of everyday speech amongst the vast majority of the people in the country. Even during the height of the colonial period, if a Burmese speaker were asked the name of his / her country, the reply would have been Mranma Pran, not 'Burma'. Given the theme of this volume, the issue is not trivial, for the use of either word reveals to which universe one belonged: the Burmese or English-speaking world.

Another problem is determining what constitutes a 'historian'. Is it only someone who has earned a Ph.D. in the discipline of history at a western (or westernised) academic institution? What about pre-colonial, indigenous scholars who neither trained as 'historians' in a 'discipline' nor received any degrees? The decision restricts which texts qualify as 'history' and which do not.

In traditional Burma, since neither the training nor the knowledge obtained was dissected into modern western categories, little or no distinction existed between a 'historian' and other kinds of scholars and between history and other kinds of knowledge. There were clerics who wrote on the 'history' of Buddhism for religious purposes, where successful political and military leaders and historically important events were considered only incidental. Ministers wrote ayedawbon (literally, 'important royal accounts') of certain kings they considered exemplary, whose contents, however, were as much 'history' as 'biography'. Scribes kept accounts of daily events at court that became the basis for chronicles' narratives. Provincial governors maintained administrative data, while headmen and headwomen kept censuses of the villages and towns in their charge-the stuff of which socio-economic history is made. Generations of abbots maintained unofficial accounts of their respective monasteries that often shed light on the local scene.

In short, one's definition of what constitutes a historian and history--indeed, even the fact that this volume is the product of a twenty-first-century academic panel organised around western academic disciplines and their categories of knowledge-determines who is to be excluded from the 'master list', a decision that ultimately decides whose 'voice' will be heard.

There are other subtle ways in which this selection process occurs. Since many early historical texts are undoubtedly lost, only those that survive will be 'heard'; of these, most are relatively late and usually of the yazawin genre (literally, 'royal genealogy'). This means texts belonging to the last several centuries (and dynasties) and of a particular 'community of interpretation'--the court elite--are favoured. Indeed, even though the Burmese word for 'history' today is thamaing, (1) texts called thamaing (accounts of local religious sites and events) are not, by and large, the source material for the writing of Burma's history; yazawin are. Thus, even if this study were based on all yazawin that have ever been written and not only those that have survived, it would still represent only a particular 'community of interpretation'. Moreover, the explosion in the production and distribution of electronic printing during the past few decades favours the recent past as well as the technologically advanced world. From the outset, then, certain periods of history, certain genres of sources, and certain cultures are automatically 'privileged'. …

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