Abstracts by Author
"Conjuncture and Reform in the Late Konbaung Period: How Prophecies, Omens and Rumors Motivated Political Action During the Years 1866-1869"
Contrary to the modern Western concept of reform, the precolonial Burmese concept of pyu pyin was not linked to the notion of progress, but to the notion of "regeneration." These reforms, called here "cyclical reforms," were meant to restore a pristine and ideal order. Their implementation was strongly connected to the "prophetic reading" of a time. Following Buddhist cosmology, wordly affairs reflect cosmic order, so that prophecies, omens, rumors and other extraordinary signs were immediatly reported to the king and interpreted by his experts in wordly matter knowledge (lawki piñña). When these "prophetic readings" were inauspicious, "cyclical reforms" were carried out to restore the socio-cosmic order. But there were also reforms, here called "conjunctural reforms," which were a more specific response to a changing context. Within this frame work, it is productive to bring the conception and practice of reform during the middle and late Konbaung period (1820s-1880s) under scrutiny. At that time, the Burmese government had to adjust to the coming of a new colonial order. The reign of king Mindon (1853-1878) was particularly rich in major sociopolitical changes and implementation of reforms, which were drafted as a response to the new "conjuncture."
The years 1866-1869 are particularly formative for two reasons. First, the year 1866 is the major political turn of king Mindon's reign. The heir-apparent, the Kanaung prince, leader of the "conjunctural reform" program after his brother Mindon took power, was murdered during a coup d'etat in August. Thereafter, king Mindon led both "cyclical" and "conjunctural" reforms until changes in the international context of Burma in the 1870s put an end to his attempts. Second, these years are particularly well-documented, both in vernacular and western primary sources. Only a careful and close examination of both types of sources will allow us to analyze how "prophetic" information was interpreted and understood at the Burmese court and allow us to see how this understanding influenced decision-making and choices of the appropriate type of reform, whether "cyclical"—a reversion to normative or ideal conditions—or "conjunctural"—a creation of a new precedent.
U Tun Aung Chain
“U Pe Maung Tin’s and Luce’s "Glass Palace Revisited" pp.52-69
A leading contemporary Burmese historian, U Aung Chain Tun offers a thoughtful and illuminating perspective on U Pe Maung Tin’s translation ion of The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma with G.H. Luce.
Michael W. Charney
"Rise of a Mainland Trading State: Rahkaing Under the Early Mrauk-U Kings, c. 1430–1603" pp.1-34
This study of the rise of the maritime kingdom of Rahkaing (Arakan) in the 15th and 16th centuries attempts to demonstrate how the kings of Danya-wati gradually drew other power centers in the Rahkaing littoral (including Mekha-wati, Dwara-wati, and Chittagong) into its political orbit. Vital to this political centralization were the collateral processes of increasing maritime trade, demographic growth spurred by resettled war captives, the suppression of rival lowland tribes, supplies of firearms, and the development of a multi-directional system of religious patronage. By the end of the 16th century, Mrauk-U rulers, as both Buddhist kings and Islamic sultans, controlled the entire Rahkaing littoral as one kingdom and had begun their expansion into neighboring regions as distant as Dacca in Bengal and Pegu in Burma.
"The Academic Life of Savages"
Knowledge, in the context of Karen culture, has long been transmitted verbally through oral poetry, known as hta in S’gaw Karen. This form of knowledge transmission has been transformed by the continued hegemony of colonial ways of knowing that privilege written tradition and scientific objectivity. New ways of knowing, through text, has displaced orality so deeply that it is virtually irretrievable. This article is an experimental reflection on Karen ways of knowing and an attempt to speak back against the oppression of the written word. In this article, I explore modes of knowing and power through hta in the context of my own experience growing up in Western systems of education. The hta is first written in S’gaw Karen in a missionary script, followed by an English translation and a brief discussion. As hta is an oral form, I have recorded an audio version produced after the piece was written down. My aim here is to make something new out of cultural traces that remain from the long period of colonisation.
The Sixth Buddhist Council: Its Purpose, Presentation and Product
During the mid 1950s, the Burmese government organized and funded the “sixth Buddhist council,” a two-year gathering of monks and laypeople in which the Pāli canon was recited. In this article, a number of previously unexplored sources have been drawn from in aid of providing a better understanding of the purpose for which the event was held and the way in which it was presented to the wider public. These sources advertized the council as an effective means to purify Theravāda Buddhist scriptures and thereby protect the sāsana from decline. They consistently portrayed this work of purification as an international collaboration involving monastic groups from all major Theravāda Buddhist countries, despite evidence to the contrary. This article also includes a detailed analysis of a section of the principal textual product associated with the council, the widely used Chaṭṭhasaṅgīti Piṭaka series of the Pāli canon, providing insight into its sources and editing methodology.
"A Cross-Cultural Encounter in Pre-Colonial Burma: Henry Gouger’s Narrative of Commerce and Captivity, 1822-1826"
The article brings to life the adventures of an Anglo-Indian merchant, Henry Gouger, whose Ava sojourn and incarceration during the First Anglo Burmese War (1824-1826) generated years later A Personal Narrative of Two Year’s Imprisonment in Burmah, published in 1860. The author examines what he calls the mentality of a private trader in the 19th century, against the background of the competition between two expanding empires, that of Ava and the English East India Company. By drawing upon the recent literature on travel narratives and cross-cultural encounters, the article restores to Henry Gouger an individuality enabled by liberating his story from the distorting focus on Orientalist stereotypes nefariously furthering colonialist agendas.
Megan Clymer and Min Ko Naing
"Conqueror of Kings: Burma’s Student Leader" pp.33-63
During the democracy uprising in 1988, Paw Oo Htun, whose nom de guerre, Min Ko Naing, means Conqueror of Kings, emerged as one of the movement’s most prominent student leaders. Together with other student leaders, he revived the umbrella students’ organization the All Burma Federation of Student Unions. Today, while serving out a twenty year prison sentence, Min Ko Naing remains a symbol of the Burmese student movement. In this essay, interviews with close friends and student colleagues help document his story.
"The Weikza's Role in Arakanese Healing Practices"
This article analyses the fact that in the Thandwe area, in Arakan State (Western part of Burma), weikza-related practices are largely widespread among healers and are highly appreciated by consultants. Taking the example of the diviners and the "masters of the upper path", I show that weikza knowledge and techniques potentially guarantee healers a wider field of action and a higher respectability, both of which are essential qualities for healers. My opinion is that this advantage comes from the fact that the weikzas' status, as well as the practices associated to them, combine and mix aspects which are – cognitively – kept distinct: Buddhist and non-Buddhist, this-worldly and other-worldly aspects. The force of the weikza phenomenon resides in its ambiguity and hybridity.
"Temples and Rainfall in Ancient Pagan" pp.19-44
This article examines unusual features of various religious buildings located at Pagan, such as below-ground monasteries and brick-lined water-catchment basins, to establish that low rainfall of less than 24 inches annually was a constant in the local climate throughout the Pagan period. Confirming this fact sheds light on the critical role the construction of religious structures played in linking the inadequately watered capital to outlying irrigated agricultural lands, thus ensuring the necessary provision of food to the city. As the population of Pagan grew, the need to increase food supplies from the outlying areas created an incentive for focusing the practice of the Merit Path to Salvation on the erection of still more religious buildings, thus creating the "forest of temples" seen at Pagan today.
A Buddha Image for Exorcism
Buddhist iconography reflects extraordinary conservatism so that the appearance of images exhibiting unconventional features attracts immediate attention. This article examines, and documents a recently discovered image whose unusual features become intelligible when viewed in the context of Buddhist exorcism as practiced by weikza congregations. An identification of the image as exorcist is facilitated by dating its casting to the reign of King Bowdawpaya (aka Badon Min, reigned 1782–1819), a period of Buddhist heterodoxy when cabalistic squares (in) were widely used. The image is further identified as an exorcist Healing Buddha by setting it within the two hundred year iconic development of Burmese images that hold the myrobalan, a medicinal fruit whose use is believed to assist in expelling evil from the human body. An examination of contemporary weikza practices shows the additional iconographic anomalies to embody weikza concerns: in containing the occult letters sa, da, ba, wa appearing at nine locations on the body and the robe, the offering of two myrobalan fruit with contrasting gestures, the unorthodox wearing of the monk’s robe, the wide striated belt, the deliberate grinding away of the image, and a “relic” enclosed within the body.
A peripheral observation in this study concerns how closely nineteenth century visual representations of weikza saints such as Bo Bo Aung are homologus to those of the standing Healing Buddha.