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The Burmese Polity, 1752-1819: Politics, Administration, and Social Organization in the Early Kon-baung Period.

When the British annexed Burma in 1885-86, it eliminated the last, Konbaung, dynasty of Burma. This book is a study of the early part of that dynasty, focusing on the first six reigns (out of eleven), beginning with Alaungpaya's in 1752 and ending with King Bodawpaya's death in 1819. It has seven chapters, a conclusion, three appendices, a short glossary, notes, bibliography, and index. There are also several illustrations which are mainly statistical tables, a map, and a list of (pertinent) kings.

The first chapter describes the early Konbaung polity and its antecedents. Chapter 2 deals with early Konbaung society, followed by kingship and political thought in chapter 3. Administrative structure and its process occupies chapter 4, while chapter 5 discusses officials of the state. Chapter 6 analyzes royal succession, and chapter 7, the passage of power. A short conclusion ends the main body of text, followed by some of the technical components noted above.

Other than the two dissertations on the same dynasty submitted by Myo Myint and Toe Hla to Cornell and Northern Illinois University, respectively, there have been approximately only two others that have been written in English in the past thirty years focused on the early part of this dynasty. In that sense, publishing Koenig's dissertation is useful to the field. However, as a book its contribution is marginal, and illustrates well, why, as a general rule, dissertations should not be published without revision. Indeed, most of its problems stem from that fact.

First, the book is outdated, both in terms of historical data and bibliographic information, therefore largely ineffectual. Second, its studied indifference to a whole decade of research on Burmese history insults the professionals in the field, sullying its intellectual camaraderie. Third, its artificial acknowledgement and casual assessment of Burmese sources, and its self-serving definition of Burmese terms make the work unreliable. Finally, its dependence on another work published earlier is simply too obvious to be ignored, raising questions of redundancy.

Publishing his dissertation, virtually without revision twelve years after it was submitted, the author clearly has not conducted even a cursory survey of the pertinent literature in what is really a very small field. He failed to consult critical primary works in the period under study, as well as theoretical works that are important to conceptual and methodological issues in Burma studies that he himself raised. Most of these were available before, during, and after the writing of his dissertation, and certainly before the publication of this book.

With five exceptions, nothing specifically published on Burma or Burmese history after 1978 was used or listed. Of these, one was the author's own, while one was already familiar to him in its unpublished form (Victor Lieberman's Burmese Administrative Cycles: Anarchy and Conquest, c. 1580-1760). The other three were articles published in 1979 and 1980, very shortly after his dissertation was completed. None of the three was used with any real understanding of, or appreciation for, its content or significance to the field, except as it supported or failed to support his own conclusions. In effect, then, Koenig has consulted virtually nothing published on Burma since his dissertation was completed.

Indeed, misunderstanding of important historiographic issues stems from ignoring other scholarship on Burmese history. Thus, a standard literary device found in Burmese chronicles--what WordPerfect calls a "macro"--that is used to set the stage for a karmic explanation of royal decline, he takes at face value. There is also no hint of his being aware of important conceptual works in the larger field of Southeast Asian studies--works of Geertz, Anderson, Wolters, Smail, Benda, Tambiah, Scott, Reid--one only (Benda) is perfunctorily cited at the proper place. Indeed, I see little or no theoretical foundation of either a historical or interdisciplinary nature in the book, and as a result, it suffers. This poverty of serious analytical insight is demonstrated by the following gem in his preface: "My argument is that, important as administrative changes and resource control were, they were not the only factors operative in the dynastic pattern." This kind of vapid statement not only begins, but also ends his book: "Thus, the various cycles of the dynastic period in Burma do have causes and processes in common, but the relative importance of these varied in accord with the specific circumstances of any given period ...".

Nonchalant dismissal of previous research also explains such exaggerated claims: "... the main trend in the historiography of the monarchical period in Burma has been the production of surveys of dynastic events.... Little or no account is taken of internal and external circumstances, the nature of socio-political institutions, or changes in the structure of power and resource control". There have been at least four dissertations, a number of books, and dozens of articles on monarchical Burma in the United States alone (and several others in Japan, Europe and Australia), some published or produced in English several years before, and some during the twelve years after, his dissertation was completed, that raised and addressed these very issues. None is a survey of events, virtually all of them are institutional studies to a large degree, and all substantially address internal factors, socio-political institutions, and changes in structure. None of them even remotely resembles the "strawman" Koenig sets up and then proceeds to "demolish."

This slipshod attitude toward a decade of productive scholarship on Burmese history--which, by the way, has no theoretical or methodological equivalent yet--seduces him frequently to cite outdated works to display his "command" of the literature in the field. A 1970 article on Burmese kingship is called the "most systematic treatment of Pagan Kingship," when it was based on translated Mon inscriptions in Epigraphia Birmanica (which means it could deal only with the reign of King Kalancasca) when other more thorough and comprehensive works, using original Old Burmese sources, were ignored.

The author would typically rely on one work he considered seminal to a major issue without himself investigating that issue. Thus, attempting to justify his own study as one of innovation that would remedy a "monarchy-centered focus ... an orientation consistently held by other writers in Burmese ...", he cites one Burmese author who did a very brief survey of modern historical writing in 1961, as if it were the definitive word on the issue, not only in 1961 (which was not true even then), but also in 1990. Rather than scrutinizing the literature personally, Koenig offers another's nearly 30 year-old article as "proof" that he was breaking new ground.

In some cases, the author footnoted works as "documentation" without knowing what was really in them. Thus, he cites Luce's Old Burma-Early Pagan to "support" the section he labeled "The Rise and Fall of Pagan," in which topics dealing with conceptions of kingship, social organization, administrative structure, and "fundamental social and political organizations of the Burmans" are discussed briefly. He then cites another article, published while the author was still a graduate student, that supposedly offered "another interpretation" to that of Luce. Yet, Luce's work contained no "interpretation" about either the rise or fall of Pagan, or its social and political organization. Indeed, Luce likened his work to a "torso," without a "head" (rise) or "feet" (fall), while the article with the "other interpretation" was actually the one that addressed precisely those subjects. Hence, not only was the insinuation of intellectual or scholarly incompatibility between these two works false and misleading, but their content was distorted. Because he cites English-language works without finding out what was really in them, it makes me wonder about the Burmese sources that are far more difficult to deal with that he was supposed to have used. The whole approach and scheme is beyond carelessness and indifference; it borders on intellectual dishonesty.

The author's exclusion of certain Burmese-language sources that are crucial to his period of study is also inexcusable. The Yezagyo Hkonedaw Hpyathton, a collection of legal decisions made by a judge during the reign of King Bodawpaya, a major figure in this period, and the Maniyadanabon, a text indispensable for reconstructing perceptions of Burmese kingship, written by a renowned monk during King Singu's reign in 1781 in the middle of Koenig's period of study, and readily available, inexpensive, and translated, were not even listed.

In other cases, his information about Burmese sources is unreliable. For example, he stated that "The printed version of |Shwenanthon~ ... appeared on the eve of the Japanese invasion of Burma in World War II and, with the exception of a handful of copies, was destroyed. A very limited mimeograph edition was issued in the late 1940s". In fact, this work was republished in 1975, three years before Koenig's thesis was submitted, is well known to most of us and is readily available at Cornell, Northern Illinois University, private collections, and probably at SOAS itself (where Koenig studied).

He also failed to use one of the best collections of 18th- and 19th-century primary Burmese sources. During 1973-74, Kagoshima University's Burma project copied onto microfilm hundreds of palmleaf and parabaik (black paper) manuscripts held in various public and private archives in Burma that included a large number of King Bodawpaya's census records. By 1976 at latest, these were obtainable in 114 reels from the Toyo Bunko in Tokyo, and soon thereafter also available in the United States. It is true some items overlap with those that Koenig used but the latter can hardly be considered complete. He also did not use Than Tun's translations of the Royal Orders of Burma, three of whose ten volumes are directly related to his period of study, and were available prior to this publication. All this is curious, since Koenig was presumably in touch with Victor Lieberman, who sponsored the book, and the latter either had access to or knew of most of these works. One wonders why some sources so crucial to Koenig's period were not even listed, if not used or cited.

Not surprisingly, most of Koenig's book depends on English-language sources. Of approximately 542 notes, only 20 cite independent Burmese sources. Even then, some of that data is obtainable in English language sources such as the Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States. In other words, the book could have been written using only English-language sources. If one were studying the British period in Burma, that could have been justified. However, if one purports to reconstruct "internal circumstances" and "socio-political structures" during the pre-British period, indigenous sources must contribute to a major portion of that research. As a result, the work glosses over Burmese terms and their use, revealing a glaring misunderstanding of Burmese society and culture, made worse by a tendency to use European terms excessively--"gentry," "viceroy," "vassalage," "demesne"--without offering Burmese equivalents, or more important, without evidence that they in fact are relevant to Burmese society; the reader is left with the feeling that it was medieval Europe being discussed.

Finally, in approach and certain important conclusions, the book relies heavily on Victor Lieberman's, ranging from identical definitions of Burmese terms to a similar concept of history. For example, common understanding of terms such as bayin (king) is discarded by both authors in favor of extremely involved and convoluted analyses, so that the word is translated as "viceroy," or some such equivalent. This helps to maintain their thesis of "progressive ministerial dominance and provincial autonomy," which, when "curbed" by the state subsequently, results in, and is "evidence" for a "linear trend toward political centralization". In other words, their exclusive definition of bayin is directly related to their thesis (and concept of history as linear)--that the Konbaung dynasty was the culmination of a trend toward "centralization" largely accomplished by "curb|ing~ the provincial autonomy" of bayins. If bayin were translated as "king" instead (as everyone else does), then there would be no regional power to curb. There is no evidence in pre-colonial Burmese history of an independently wealthy, militarily powerful, and/or politically autonomous regional nobility, similar to the daimyo of Japan or landed gentry in England, that could have effectively challenged the monarchy. Moreover, while accepting a linear concept of history, both authors stress the importance of cycles in Burmese history. Yet, neither explains the (analytical) contradiction between cyclicity and linear development.

Likewise, Koenig's definition of nagan |nakhan~ (p. 133 and glossary) echoes Lieberman's interpretation of an office translated as "spies" of the crown, supposedly a new institution created during the preceding dynasty that made central government more effective in the next. Here too, the definition is forced to fit the thesis. Nakhan simply refers to someone who received orders from a higher authority (na meaning "ear" and khan "to sustain" or "to receive"), thus a messenger of an authority being served. In a court of law, the nakhan would be similar to a bailiff who "receives" and carries out the orders of the judge. Translated this way, its presence would have nothing to do with enhancing state centralization.

Another area where the two books are virtually identical concerns the sangha (the Buddhist church). Both regard it as "another crown service group", i.e., an appendage of the state, which further "supports" their argument that the Konbaung state succeeded in centralization by also reducing the church to a dependent institution like the bayins, which, in my opinion, is hardly supported by the evidence.

The extent to, and manner in which, these sentiments are so closely shared, raises some questions. Since both authors attended SOAS roughly during the same time while working on their dissertations, a certain level of intellectual exchange is expected, indeed should be encouraged, particularly since the group of Burma historians is so small. However, because Koenig frequently does not cite Lieberman, I often cannot tell whose opinion is being expressed, particularly since many of the conclusions and interpretations are important to both authors. Lieberman, it should be added, completed his dissertation two years before Koenig and has not ignored the works of others, nor has he been cavalier about previous scholarship even when in disagreement with it. His work also excels in terms of scholarship, attention given to detail, analytical skill, thoroughness, conscientiousness, and general significance to the field. Still, the connection is clear.

My final query ultimately derives from the issues and questions raised above: why would a reputable Center for Southeast Asian Studies such as Michigan's publish this work, knowing that it was essentially an unrevised dissertation?
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Author:Aung-Thwin, Michael
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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