Journal of Burma Studies

Volume 16.1, Abstracts

Reading "Saturn": Interpretive Practice Under Censorship in Burma

Jennifer Leehey

The article analyzes a short story called "Saturn" written by Win Sithu and published in Burma in 1992. Of particular interest is the way the story relies on culturally-specific logics to produce effects on readers. Written in the context of strict state censorship, the story eludes easy interpretation and gestures towards meanings that would be dangerous if identifiably contained within the text itself. The complete short story in translation is provided in the appendix.

A Textbook Case of Nation-Building: The Evolution of History Curricula in Myanmar

Nicolas Salem-Gervais and Rosalie Metro

This article aims to analyze the history curriculum used in primary and secondary schools under the SLORC/SPDC from the perspective of the State's nation-building endeavors. To do so, we provide some background on history textbooks during colonial, parliamentary, and socialist eras, and then describe three shifts in discourse on national identity in post-socialist Myanmar: the replacement of Aung San by the Great Kings as main national references, the projection of "Myanmar" identity back in history, and the designation of Thais, along with British colonialists, as historical enemies of the nation. We argue that those shifts constituted a step away from a national identity based on some extent of inter-ethnic compromise, toward one based on an ancient and glorious indigenous essence. We then examine the textbooks of two ethno-nationalist groups, the KNU and the SSA-S to illustrate the discursive similarities across political boundaries.

While revisions of national history are common around the world and might even be a sine qua non for the emergence of a nation, we suggest that the SLORC/SPDC's narrow conception of national identity, coupled with the underfunding of the welfare state and especially education, has often been counter-productive to state aims, undermining the success of schooling as a tool of nation-building and lending legitimacy to radical ethno-nationalist conceptions of history and identity.

Verging on Modernity: A Late Nineteenth-Century Burmese Painting on Cloth Depicting the Vessantara Jataka

Gillian Green

This large (428 cm x 82.5 cm) opaque watercolour painting on cotton cloth is stitched into a cloth border. Its composition depicts events in the Vessantara Jataka narrative. Traditional Burmese painting on manuscripts and murals were surveyed for similarities but this demonstrated that the representation of the main protagonists in the panel was entirely novel. Compared with published nineteenth century Burmese paintings on cloth a group of paintings dated to between approx. 1885 and 1910 described as 'family group portraits,' showed the greatest similarity. Formal studio photographic portraits popular with elite Burmese families of that period also show striking compositional similarities.

Contexts for the use of these cloth paintings on this theme were investigated. Initially the long painted cloth scrolls employed in the annual Vessantara Festival in northeast Thailand and Laos seemed to provide a model but in the absence of any record of a similar function in Burma, this theory was rejected. Observations and photographs published by travellers in Burma in late nineteenth century illuminate a number of community events in Burmese life for which paintings on cloth (or paper) did serve a purpose. 'Family group portraits' are discernible in the photographs at these events. It is proposed that a small group of traditional Burmese painters stimulated by the challenge of photographic images, turned their hand, for a short period to emulating these photographic images on cloth for these purposes. The reasons for the choice of the Vessantara Jataka in this case as a subject are discussed.

Scholarly Curiosities

Notes on a Burmese Version of the Vessantara Jataka, as Represented on Three Shwe Chi Doe in the NIU Burma Art Collection

Catherine Raymond

The Burma Art Collection at NIU possesses a rare set of hanging textiles of narrative scenes, in appliqué, embroidery, and sequins —called shwe chi doe ("gold thread embroidery") in Burmese, but more commmonly referred to in Western sources as kalaga— which probably dates from the late 19th/early 20th century. The NIU pieces are evidently unique, as they comprise a series of three sequential kalaga illustrating the Vessantara Jataka (Wethandaya zat, in Burmese); focusing on the concept of perfect generosity, dana.

In this note, Catherine Raymond discusses the persistant popularity of the Wethandaya zat. Referring also to Burmese mural paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, she addresses the particularity of the Burmese version(s) of the Vessantara, which illuminate certain details of these three kalaga which would otherwise be less easily interpreted. Similar shwe chi doe from different collections around the world have also been recently documented, which may provide additional guidance in analyzing both the function and the provenance of the NIU Wethandaya set.

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