Hidden Words Hidden Worlds

A review by T. F. Rhoden of Hidden Words Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar, edited by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum.

The crisis of recent months between the majority Buddhist Burmese and minority Islamic group calling themselves Rohingya serves as a reminder that Myanmar (Burma) is not a unified country in the sense of one nation, one state. The central government’s overreaction to an increase in Islamic radicalization in some rural areas by the brutal expulsion of 600,000-plus souls across the border into Bangladesh—though violent and tragic—should not be mistaken as unique in Myanmar’s history.

Stretching back at least seventy years to Myanmar’s independence in 1948, the various conflicts between the majority ethnic Burman along the central Irrawaddy valley down to the delta and the hundred or so different ethnolinguistic groups that populate the republic’s borders with Bangladesh, India, China, Laos, and Thailand attest even more vividly to disunity. The response to the Rohingya crisis is not without precedent. Wave the compass in the direction of northeast Myanmar and another ferocious struggle comes into purview between the central government and the Kachin peoples. Despite valid steps toward democratization—maybe less valid toward political liberalization—these types of communal conflicts have never not been an empirical reality for independent Myanmar. This cruel misalignment between majority-versus-minority aspiration is well documented both inside and outside Myanmar.

Less well documented are those perspectives that often never make their presence felt outside the smaller linguistic communities in Myanmar. The literary anthology Hidden Words Hidden Worlds: Contemporary Short Stories from Myanmar, edited by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum, is a fascinating reversal to the usual absence of non-Burman viewpoints. The short stories gathered here are an eclectic mix by fourteen different authors. The writers are… [click here to continue to read full text]

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*Review of edited book by Lucas Stewart and Alfred Birnbaum originally published in Asian Review of Books by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit of Rakhine Hills for this re-post goes to the talented DG-Photography via a post by Nada Haensel in Destinations Magazine. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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History of the Shan State: More Nationalism, More Stupidity

A review by T. F. Rhoden of History of the Shan State: From Its Origins to 1962 by Sai Aung Tun.

I didn’t think that Thai royalist propaganda would surface when I started reading Sai Aung Tun’s History of the Shan State: From Its Origins to 1962. I did expect a good dosage of Shan nationalism, but why Sai Aung Tun attempted to tie it together with debunked theories of Tai (Tai without the h) ancient ancestry is beyond me. I’m tempted to go right for the ad hominem, but I’ll try to stick to what he wrote.

Overall, this is simply the worst history that I’ve ever read for anything coming from our contemporary period on Myanmar (Burma). There are quite a few elements that one could criticize here, but the most annoying for me was the issue of the Kingdom of Nanzhao (南詔, also often spelt as Nan-Chao), which was located around modern-day Yunnan area of China during the 8th and 9th centuries AD. I had read different histories of Nanzhao before and had noticed that different historians like to give their own spin on the ethnic and linguistic makeup of this old kingdom. The oldest Western accounts (mostly British) tended to think of the Nanzhao as Tai. N. Elias (1876) is a good example of this.

Early 20th century histories written about Siam (Thailand) were instrumental in cementing this Nanzhao-were-ethnically-Tai “fact.” The two writers who come to mind first are W. C. Dodd (1923) and W. A. R. Wood (1933). The main culprit for propagating that Nanzhao-Tai myth for Thai history though goes to Damrong Rajanubhab (ดำรงราชานุภาพ) the so-called “father of Thai history.” His most popular works for Thais were his Royal Chronicles (1912) and Ancient History of Thailand (1925).

The main reason why segments of the Thai court (Damrong was son of King Mangut) would want to count Nanzhao as the progenitor of the “Tai race” was in order to point to a more auspicious past then they probably really had. Saying that the Tais were once even a match for the Chinese before their kingdom was bravely beaten back by Genghis Khan (and hence had to migrate south to “Thailand”) sounds a lot better than the current understanding that the Tai people probably originated in the black hill region of Northern Vietnam and Southern China (or possibly ever farther east toward Taiwan island).

The ministry of education for Thailand has been reluctant to stray far from Damrong’s propaganda. Of course, all of this “race” stuff is ridiculous if we go back time far enough when we all came from Africa, but there you go.

(Read Liang Yongjia’s (2010) “Inalienable Narration: The Nanzhao History between Thailand and China” in the ARI Working Paper Series at NUS for a brushing-up on all of this fun stuff. The journal article is free to download.)

Since the Shan, like the Thai, are both considered to be part of the Tai migration into Southeast Asia, Sai Aung Tun had the option to draw from the older, more essentialist, accounts of the Tai’s supposedly glorious past or more contemporary research that points toward a less-than-majestic carpetbagging down into the lowlands of mainland Southeast Asia. Sai Aung Tun went with the former interpretation and strangely aligned his history with Thai royal propaganda. On page 12 of his history, he does mention that there may be a “controversy among some scholars”, but he does not consider this to be worthy argument.

He cites as his source on this another member of Thailand’s royal circle, Prince Chula Chakrabongse and his (1960) Lords of Life: A History of the Kings of Thailand. Most of this work is a rehashing of Damrong’s ideation from a generation earlier. Anyone with any honest appreciation for Thai historiography must acknowledge that Damrong pretty much made up most of his history himself when it comes to the Thai’s ancient past.

Admittedly, this is only a small issue in a much larger work of over 600 pages. But, the more one reads of this history the more one encounters similarly out-of-date explanations for historical happenings. This book might be useful for some, but probably not in the way that it was intended. If you do pick this up for yourself, just make sure to keep one’s attention on the end notes. It’s actually embarrassing how little of recent scholarship Sai Aung Tun actually uses in his history. Who knows, maybe he couldn’t get access to it in Myanmar when he was doing his research?

One last thing, be ready for odd nationalistic, pro-government pinning sprinkled throughout the text. For example, in his first chapter on who the Shan are as a people he tells us:

“The Shan have been in Myanmar since time immemorial and like the other nationalities they consider the Union of Myanmar as their native home because they helped to construct it. They live in harmony with other national ethnic minorities and are always ready to help maintain this country as a sovereign nation now and in the future.”

I guess this means he’s never heard of the Shan State Army? Or of the Shan refugees who occasionally flee across the border into Thailand or China?

You are better off not buying this book. That is unless of course if you are interested in purchasing something that can be used as example of how not to do a history, then I cannot recommend Sai Aung Tun’s monogram enough.

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*This review of History of the Shan State: From Its Origins to 1962 by Sai Aung Thun was originally published in an older version of this blg by T. F. Rhoden; photo image credit for this re-post goes to Lanabyko, found at The Global Commute. Unless otherwise stated, all posts on this website are under Creative Commons licence. 

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