Journal of Burma Studies - Volume 15.2
"Kingship by Merit and Cosmic Investiture: An Investigation into King Alaungmintaya's Self-Representation"
Alaungmintaya's rise from village headman to kingship in less than five years raises manifold questions regarding the perception of Buddhist kingship in Myanmar. The new king had to establish his credentials not only on the battlefield, but also within a particular cultural and religious environment. Based largely on the edicts and letters of the king himself, this paper takes a look at the way that the king communicated his claims to royal status to other kings and his subjects. It focuses in particular on the common notion of kingship by merit which, in the king's mind, not only explained and legitimized his political rise, but also made explicit the cosmic relevance of his mission to protect the Buddhist religion. For Alaungmintaya, kingship was not only a reward due to past merits, but the fulfillment of a higher mission with divine approval. By paying close attention to the religious connotations of key terms within their cultural and textual context, the paper tries to highlight the complexity of royal self-representation.
"The Making of the Culprit: Atula Hsayadaw Shin Yasa and the Politics of Monastic Reform in Eighteenth-Century Burma"
The paper attempts to reconstruct the career of Atula Hsayadaw Shin Yatha (1700-1786), one of the key monastic leaders of eighteenth-century Burma, an advisor to the king Alaungmintaya, a prolific author, and a culprit portrayed as the enemy of the sasana in several influential religious chronicles of the Konbaung period. It is built as a survey of available materials on this important historical figure with a special emphasis on his monastic affiliation, his role inshaping the religious policy of Alaungmintaya, his banishment from the capital in the 1770s, and his trial, which took place in 1784. The paper explores how the image of Atula as a culprit was constructed and how that has affected the current understanding of monastic reforms in eighteenth-century Burma.
"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.
"Narratives of Nation, Questions of Community: Examining Burmese Sources Without the Lens of Nation"
As much as scholars know that Burmese identity was never singular or completely unified, we still allow the mirage of a singular nation to quietly seep into the assumptions that frame our research. As Prasenjit Duara has argued, the nation has become the subject of history. It shapes our disciplines and our orientations, as we write for and about Burma studies. A focused look at one moment in Burmese history, one document and even one person, however, reveals that even when efforts to produce a feeling of unity was at its peak, Burmese sense of themselves and their worldviews were inherently multiple. Diverse and hybrid modes of Burmese identity thrived even in the heart of the anti-colonial nationalist movement, and it was this multiplicity that made the response to colonialism possible. This article offers micro history of a single moment in the rise of the anti-colonial nationalist movement, looking at the meeting minutes of the Ninth All-Burma Conference of Burmese Associations and the biography of U Kyaw Yan a key figure of the period. Focusing in this way exposes the inherent multiplicity of Burmese worldview and identity at the micro level and help to make us, as scholars, more attuned to its impact in Burmese history in broader terms. In this, I offer a simple and perhaps obvious point: that when we return to the primary sources we find that history and the lives, motivations, and interactions of those we study are never as simple as the stories we tell about them.
"The Position of the Rajavasa Katha in Mon History-Telling"
The Mons are are considered one of the foundational peoples of Burma. In comparison with Burmese-language sources, there are fewer Mon-language texts concerning history. The Rajavasa Katha is a collection of Mon-language historical texts and includes some of the longest, most elaborated, and well-known narratives in the Mon language. One of these concerns the rise and career of the Mon military hero and ruler, Rajadhiraj, forming a work perhaps better known in its Thai and Burmese “retellings” as a classic somewhere between history and literature. Yet for Mon scholars and intellectuals, this narrative seems to hold an equivocal position: while no one would dismiss it, it nevertheless does not seem to have the position of importance that it would seem to deserve. This essay is an attempt to understand where and how Mon scholars position these narratives within the Mon intellectual environment. This environment, in turn, is contingent upon the wider Burmese intellectual environment, itself a development out of indigenous practices and conceptions introduced through contact with British educational and intellectual traditions. This discussion touches on how history is conceived of, written, and retold in modern Burma, and the consequences that these conceptions have for Mon history. One of the most salient of these is that many Mon intellectuals consider the first millennium as the most important for Mon history, with more recent centuries–and the sources associated with them –less important to what is most central to be transmitted and told to the story of Mon history.
"From Gold Leaf to Buddhist Hagiographies: Contact with Regions to the East Seen in Late Burmese Murals"
In 1767 the Burmese army sacked the Thai city of Ayutthaya, and multitudes of people were captured and relocated to the Burmese central zone, including artists and theatrical performers. This event has been considered seminal in the emergence of Thai influences on Burmese art, including mural painting. Yet, Burmese deportations of people from the Thai, Lan Na, Sipsong Panna, and Shan States regions occurred on a number of occasions prior to the late eighteenth century attack. And, trade networks and religious exchanges between monasteries formed alternative routes of communication between Burma, Ayutthaya, Lan Na, Sipsong Panna, and the Shan States. Unsurprisingly, such variant interactions had an impact on artistic production in Burma prior to the destruction of Ayutthaya and the relocation of artists to the Ava region. The information utilized in Burmese murals ranges from central Thai elements of style and dress to the narratives and methods of religious practice found particularly in Tai regions. This paper explores these aspects in Burmese mural paintings from the seventeenth, eighteenth, and nineteenth centuries in order to suggest the extent and nature of this impact, as well as the various means – social, religious, political – by which it came about. The murals ultimately present a view of Burma readily absorbing external material due in part to shared religious beliefs and fluid political relationships in the region.