Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Asia Stuff: Southeast Asian History


I am still reading "In Search of Southeast Asia --A Modern History and enjoying it greatly. The map on page 98, alone, entitled "Centers of Power in Southeast Asia at the End of the Eighteenth Century" explains so much, if one has the background to understand it. I just spent an hour searching on-line for a copy to share, but, alas, it seems no one has prepared it for electronic distribution.

A couple excerpts with comments.

First from page 61, in the chapter entitled "The Buddhist Kings," we have this description of the style of leadership favored by the early modern monarchs in the regions where Theravada Buddhism dominated. These areas, by the way, included Burma.

"By portraying his subjects as 'dust under the royal feet' or 'slaves of the lord,' court language and its accompanying etiquette kept the ruler at a distance from others. Physically concealed behind the walls of his palace, the Buddhist monarch often found his capacity to influence events outside his entourage limited; in many cases, the historical records, composed at court, exaggerate the king's effectiveness and importance. Inside the palace, his actions were regulated by Brahman advisers, and his opinions were formed from conversations with favorites. Constricted by a costume that, in Burma, weighed more than fifty pounds, acting on information that was always secondhand and frequently false, and stifled by protocol, astrology and precedent, the Buddhist monarch of eighteenth-century Southeast Asia was frequently a prisoner of his situation. Since the population often viewed the monarch as godlike, an imminent Buddha, Buddhist monarchs occasionally proclaimed themselves gods. Twice in eighteenth century Siam and Burma monarchs were deposed for proclaiming this delusion." (Page 61)

There you have it. Arrogant and out-of-touch. The pattern continues.

Personally I find it interesting to not only compare this with the modern Burmese government, the obvious and immediate comparison, but to also compare it to various patterns in Chinese history where rulers also made odd decisions based on second hand information received in isolation.

Also of interest is the information that Burma, even the central region, has historically been linguistically diverse. For instance, we see.:

"From the collapse of the Empire of Pagan in 1289 to the sixteenth century, the region now called Burma was divided among several contending political centers, each representing a variation of the Buddhist state form created at Pagan but expressing itself in a different language. The Mon speakers in the south, linguistically akin to the Cambodians or Khmer, centered on Pegu. The rulers of this state resisted incorporation into any greater state centered in the north until the middle of the sixteenth century. For three hundred years after the fall of Pagan, northern Burma was dominated by petty Tai-speaking princes from the contiguous Shan plateau who were never able to overcome local forces until Tabinshwehti, the Burmese ruler of Toungoo, conquered both the north and the south between 1539 and 1555." (Page 62.)

This paragraph jumped out at me as it indicates some possible reasons for both the insecurity of the current Burmese government and also the underlying linguistic complexity of the country. I've made some (admittedly clumsy) attempts to learn Burmese since working with refugees and one thing I've soon noticed is that they do not speak the same way when speaking Burmese, a language that for most of them is a second language at best. As the current regime does seem intent on imposing the Burmese language on all citizens, its interesting to see that the Burmese language was not necessarily that of all of Burma throughout all of its history.

Finally, one thing that many Burmese refugees have shared with me is stories about friction and hostility from the Thais after fleeing into Thailand.

This paragraph offers some insight into that area.:

"From the sixteenth century on, the Siamese and Burmese courts were preoccupied with each other's affairs. They were bitter competitors and mortal enemies in a war that, with some silences, lasted over three centuries. Each king was jealous of his own prestige and mindful of the importance of repute in holding together an extensive empire. An event, act or gesture at court that could be interpreted as a sign of weakness might lead to the defection of enough provinces and tributary vassals to bring about the downfall of an empire. The kings solicited vassals, promising them protection from other powers. In return, they demanded loyalty and assistance, as well as regular and substantial tokens of submission, such as the gold and silver ornamental trees regularly received in Ayudha from the Malay sultanates of the peninsula and the northern and eastern Lao states. To the rulers of such second-level states, it was a complex world indeed. They had to measure carefully the strength of all their neighbors, taking the greatest care to avoid offending dangerous enemies and useful friends. It was not unusual to find in the Lao and Shan world of the north, on the Malay Peninsula, or in Cambodia what the Thai called a 'two-headed bird' looking in two directions at once, paying tribute to both its neighbors." (Page 65.)

I'm not yet advanced enough to truly understand what this means in terms of, for instance, understanding the situation of the modern Karen people who straddle the Thai-Burma border, but my instincts tell me this could be quite valuable information.

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