Matthew J. Walton
A concern with unity has been a consistent theme in modern Burmese politics. This article examines a particularly problematic conception of unity that I argue draws strength from its resonance with Buddhist moral notions of the self and overcoming self-centeredness. As a moral concept, this narrative of unity is idealized in devotion to a common purpose and loyalty to a group or community; it requires subsuming one’s own interests for the benefit of the whole, something that encapsulates the Buddhist practice of rejecting atta (ego). Disunity, then, is the result of a group of individuals committed only to their own benefit; it is evidence of moral failure. This discourse of unity has been an effectively anti-democratic disciplining tool (deployed by both governments and opposition groups) for suppressing internal dissent. Despite General Aung San's oft-quoted slogan of “unity in diversity,” political movements in Myanmar have been more commonly characterized by hegemonic attempts at imposing a top-down unity that labels deviation from or criticism of dominant positions as disloyalty. This article examines the perpetuation of a rigid, unitary understanding of unity and argues that developing a more flexible and accommodating notion of unity will be a necessary step in the process of national reconciliation.
Burma’s 66 years civil war is the longest armed conflict in the world. This article analyses the complexity of one of the many ethnic armed conflicts between the Karen and the state. The Karen ethno-nationalist struggle is rooted in the ethnic categorization and identity politics of colonial order, which has influences the political orders after independence. Al living generations in Burma have to some extend experienced violence. Violent disorder and memory of suffering and victimhood dominate a majority of the Karen. The author argue that the prolonged violent conflict has widened the ethnic incompatibilities and impacts the current ceasefire negotiations. Internal segmentation of the Karen society as well as internal divisions and conflicts has also had a considerable impact upon the track of this conflict. Cultural, religious and political diversity among the Karen – and other ethnic groups – further complicates prospects for a political solution to the armed struggle.
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.
Many historians who have written about the administrative changes implemented in Upper Burma at the end of the nineteenth century have focused on the village system and the Upper Burma Village Regulation of 1887. They emphasize the transformation of the precolonial local administration, particularly the abolition of the position of myothugyi as an outcome of the introduction of the village system. However, their descriptions pay little attention to local society, simply regarding it as a passive subject affected by colonialism. Thus, in order to elucidate the relation between the colonial administrative policy and local society, this article re examines the village system and illustrates how the system developed at the district level, by focusing on the early arguments. After investigating the arguments of the central government and district officials on the village system, the article highlights the significance of additional regulatory rules introduced in 1890, and the case of the Shwebo District to reinforce the article’s arguments.
This article describes Buddhist murals illustrating some unusual features and surviving in the small brick temple number 36 at Sale, one of the major satellite towns during the Pagan period. The town is located on the east bank of the Irrawady River thirty miles downstream from Old Pagan. The temple and its principal Buddha image can be stylistically dated to the thirteenth century. A dated inscription, a later intrusion on the murals, provides solid proof that the murals predate AD 1582. Likely postdating the temple, the murals show mixed features, some indigenous but others perhaps introduced from Sri Lank and north\central Thailand into the area during the mid-fourteenth century, the proposed date of the murals. These features had never been combined in such a fashion before and the resulting combination perhaps lasted only shortly in the mural tradition of central Burma. This is evidenced when the content of Sale 36 is compared with Pagan-era murals and others surviving from the fifteenth century. The intrusive status, in the mural tradition of central Burma, of the Sale 36 materials is explained in a context of trans-regional movements of the Mahavihara monastic lineage, originated in Sri Lanka, widely active in lower Burma and parts of Thailand during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Sale 36 murals might reflect the presence of this Sinhalese order in central Burma as well during the mid fourteenth century. These rare murals, a later addition in an already existing small temple, might correlate with a temporary role played by the Sinhalese order in central Burma during a limited period. It probably ultimately yielded to a more popular and more powerful Aran sect of the area.
The Indo-Chinese frontiers, including both the mainland and insular parts of Southeast Asia, were once described by Heine-Geldern and Furer-Haimendorf as “ megalithic culture.” This article will explore through an anthropological lens, the tradition of engraved steles in Burma’s Chin State. Given the stones’ relatively recent erection ( ranging from the mid- nineteenth century to the mid-twentieth century) and the interconnected role themes such as ancestrality, mobility and territory played during their creation, the analysis will focus on the idea of those steles as belonging within the wider concept of a memorial space. The Chin standing stones highlight due to the plurality of their appearances and their various roles, the exceptional diversity – linguistic, cultural, religious and political – that characterizes the social landscape of Chin State. Whether or not the patterns of those engraved scenes are accompanied or not by written texts, they make for remarkable archives for historians as they are often the only tangible sources, or in situ archival documents, for society where an oral tradition still prevails. Art historians will try to assess the style and overall composition of the stones before attempting to decipher their artists. Moreover, anthropologists will more likely want to examine the relationship between the stones and the territory – in the context of clan segmentation and internationalizing migration dynamics.
The extreme social and linguistic diversity of Chin State, emphasized throughout the literature, has begun to overlap with an increasingly extended mobility. As seen within village and clan segmentations, urban migrations, Christian networks, economic expatriation; even where mobility becomes structural to chin subgroups, memorial art appears to be a major vector of social ties in ways that are both perennial and inconstant. Despite the colonial and dictatorial violence that plunged Burma into civil war, social – and, therefore, memorial – change is expressed less in terms of rupture than of metamorphosis. At the same time as new leaders emerge and clan membership disappears behind denominational affiliations, ancestry has tended to turn more and more into a memory exercise taken over by Christianity.
The author, granddaughter of Daw Nan Saw Kyi, subject of this issue’s Scholarly Curiosity, narrates the story of a courageous, independent minded and resourceful woman who began her social and political activism early on. In 1938, together with some friends, she founded the Red Cross Association in her native town. Daw Nan Saw Kyi’s skills, dedication, perseverance as well as endurance were severely tested during the horrific fighting that raged around Mogaung in 1944 and 1945, when together with others she extended whatever aid was available to masses of streaming refugees and wounded fighters and soldiers, casualties of the slaughter that pitted British, Japanese and Burmese armies against each other. Daw Nan Saw Kyi’s involvement was only the preliminary stage of a life time of activism on behalf of various communal needs, informed by her deeply held Buddhist beliefs.
Thakin Kodaw Hmaing is arguably the most important Myanmar writer of the last century, known to young and old, both for his politics and his contributions to Burmese literature. He was the first of only two Burmese ( the second one being U Thant) to be honored, however reluctantly, by U Ne Win’s government, with a grant of land plot for a private burial shrine near the Shwedagon pagoda. This literary figure’s immense national prestige encourages the Journal of Burma Studies to introduce one of his most famous poems to its readers, a novel development in the after life of the hugely influential Thakin who is utterly unknown beyond his country’s borders.