Asia Pacific Media Services Asia Analysed
Asian analysis

Latest Articles


Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma

By Bertil Lintner

‘Unity in Diversity’ was Aung San’s dream, but can it be achieved

Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, by Mikael Gravers (ed.). Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen, 2007. 283 pages

Prof. F.K. Lehman of the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign writes in a blurb on the back cover of this book that it is “a valuable and unique piece of work. There is nothing to compete with it, and the subject is thoroughly timely in the context of Burma’s present situation.”

That sounds promising. The only problem is that F.K. Lehman is the same person as F.K.L Chit Hlaing, one of the authors of the book.

Such self-aggrandizement may not be uncommon among academics, but it ruins the credibility of a book, the purpose of which is to examine Burma’s most pressing problem today: the acceptance of ethnic diversity versus the notion of a singular, nation state.

The “Myanmarization,” or “Myanmarfication,” of the country—or the idea that all the various national groups of today’s Burma have a common “Myanmar” identity—has been promoted by Burma’s post-1988 military governments, replacing Aung San’s more realistic policy of “unity in diversity,” in accordance with which the Union of Burma was created in 1948.

However, in spite of assurances that this volume contains “recurrent themes” such as “the dynamics of ethnicity and the formation of ethnic identity,” it is hard for the ordinary reader to detect any common approach to the question of ethnicity in Burma among this collection of papers originally presented at a Burma studies conference in Sweden in 2002. Some of the papers are interesting and informative — especially Karin Dean’s analysis of the Kachin political landscape and Ashley South’s account of the Mon national movement following a ceasefire agreement between the Mon rebels and the Rangoon government in the 1990s.

But some contributions lack substance and contain some dubious conclusions, such as Takatani Michio’s statement that the term saohpa, a traditional Shan chief, “seems to have been a title denoting subordination to a Bamar king…[or] a sign of negotiations with a Bamar king.” Most Shan saohpas had little or nothing to do with the ancient kings of Burma, and the title was common for the rulers of related princely states in northern Thailand, northwestern Laos and southwestern China, which were far from any Burmese center of power.

Takatani’s conclusion is as flawed as some writings of another academic, Michael Aung-Thwin, whose “Myth and History in the Historiography of Early Burma” (a quoted source in this book) states that the three Shan brothers who founded the 14th-16th century Ava dynasty may not have been Shan at all, because the title sawbwa was “used to refer to both Kachin and Shan chieftains and possibly those of other hill peoples as well.”

Sawbwa is just a Burmese corruption of saohpa, “lord of the sky” in Shan, and with no meaning in any other language. If the three brothers were sons of a saohpa, they were indeed Shan. Kachin chieftains are called duwa, not sawbwa or saohpa, and the chiefs of “other hill peoples”— the Shan, by the way, are not a hill people but archetypical valley dwellers—never had that title unless they had adopted Shan culture and customs, such as the Palaung saohpa of Tawngpeng State. What would have been more interesting to examine is what it meant to be Shan in the Middle Ages, centuries before the notion of the nation state was conceived.

South’s chapter about the Mon is probably the best, as it deals with the process of trying to turn ethnically diverse Burma into such a nation state. Since the early 1990s, South writes, a series of museums have been constructed throughout Burma to institutionalize “Myanmar national culture.” A particularly striking example is the reconstruction—in modern concrete—of a 16th century capital at Pegu. As Burmese historians have little idea what the original palace looked like, the new buildings are modeled on 19th century designs from Mandalay.

Dean’s account of the Kachin—whose lineage system ties them to related tribes in China and India rather than the Burmans, or the “Myanmars,” as there is no real ethnic or linguistic difference between Burma and Myanmar—is equally interesting. Other contributions are full of academic jargon such as “primordial and mobilizational theories of ethnicity and their empirical applications.”

One is also left to wonder why, as Michael Gravers writes in the preface, “this volume does not cover the drug trade, which has become an important part of Burma’s declining economy”—and, others would argue, is closely intertwined with Burma’s decades long, ethnic civil war.

Despite its shortcomings, this book is worth reading because it contains useful information about Burma’s main, non-Burman ethnic groups. But some of the academics who wrote it have to come down from their ivory towers if they want to be taken seriously.

This review first appeared in The Irrawaddy, October, 2007

Back to articles