Asia Pacific Media Services Asia Analysed
Asian analysis
Latest Articles


History of the Shan State: From its Origins to 1962

By Bertil Lintner

There are two good reasons why this book should be read by anyone interested in Southeast Asian history and politics. First, it is the only detailed history of Burma’s largest ethnic minority that is written by someone who himself is a Shan. Second, this excellent study reflects the constraints that scholars are forced to work under in undemocratic Burma. The writer, Sai Aung Tun, has a degree in international relations from the University of Denver, but is also a member of the official Myanmar Historical Commission, which critics say has been vested with the task of writing a version of Burma’s history that suits the country’s current military junta.

“Shan” is actually the way the Burmese pronounce “Siam,” and the Shan group is more closely related to the Thais and the Lao than the majority Burmans. The Shans call themselves Tai, and they live in an area stretching from northeastern India across northern Burma to southern Yunnan in China, and even in pockets of northern Vietnam. For centuries, they had their own hereditary rulers called saohpa, “Lords of the Sky,” which, in Burmese, was corrupted to sawbwa. The area consisted of a multitude of principalities, some of which paid tribute to the Burmese kings in Mandalay and others that had closer ties with the rulers of Chiang Mai in northern Thailand, or Sipsongpanna in southern Yunnan.

But for the sake of the present rulers of Burma, and the new concept of “Myanmar,” which they have introduced, Sai Aung Tun very clearly overemphasizes the supposedly friendly relations between the Shan saohpas and the Burmese kings in ancient times: “Bamar [Burma] and Shan became united whenever they encountered foreign invasions or wars.” Others would argue that there was little such cooperation, and that the tribute some of the saophas paid to the court in Mandalay was meant more as a bribe to be left alone than a sign of subservience to the Burmese kings or a recognition of their sovereignty over Shan-inhabited areas.

The author also avoids the controversial issue of the fight against nationalist Chinese Kuomintang troops that had retreated into the Shan area following their defeat in the Chinese civil war. Sai Aung Tun gives the impression that the problem was solved when some of them were evacuated to Taiwan—through Thailand—in 1953. In reality, thousands of them remained in northern Burma well into the early 1970s. It was when the Burmese army was sent into the Shan area to repel the unwelcome intruders that the Shan rose in rebellion; they felt they were being squeezed between two forces, both of which were considered foreign. The Kuomintang conducted a reign of terror in the northeastern border mountains, while the Burmese government’s troops often lived off the land. For many Shan peasants, it was the first time that they had come in direct contact with any Burmans, and their encounters were, in most instances, frightening or deadly.

In 1959, some young Shans took to the hills to fight for independence from Burma. That struggle has been raging for half a century. Sadly, Sai Aung Tun does not address this issue at all, and his account of Shan history predictably ends in 1962—the year the military seized power in Burma. But he does give a very comprehensive account of proposals by Shan leaders before the coup to achieve greater autonomy within the then federal Union of Burma. That, and accounts of the early history of the Shan, are the strongest parts of this book. An entire chapter is dedicated to the “federal principle,” which could be interpreted as an attempt by the author to have his audience read between the lines and understand that he believes that federalism, not central rule, is the solution to Burma’s decades-long ethnic conflicts.

It is also understandable that Sai Aung Tun feels compelled to use the name “Myanmar” for the country, and not “Burma.” When the country was under British rule before 1948, it was called Burma in English and “bama” or “myanma” in Burmese. So when the Burmese independence movement was established in the 1930s, there was a debate among the young nationalists as to what name should be used for the country: “bama” or “myanma.” The nationalists decided to call their movement the Doh-bama Asiayone (“Our Burma Association”) instead of the Doh-myanma Asiayone because they believed the word myanma signifies only the myanmars whereas bama embraces all indigenous nationalities. But, in 1989, the present government decided that the opposite was true. The ruling military asserted that “Burma” was a colonial term that applied only to the areas where the majority of Burmans live, while Myanmar includes all indigenous nationalities.

The fact of the matter is that both theories are incorrect, as there is no term in any language which encompasses all the nationalities that live inside Burma’s present boundaries because no such entity existed before the arrival of the British. Burma, as we know it today, is a colonial creation full of internal strife and contradictions, manifested in seemingly insoluble ethnic conflicts.

Reading this book will help outsiders understand the depth and magnitude of those problems, even if they have to read between the lines. It is worth noting that Sai Aung Tun, while sticking to the name Myanmar, uses the Shan names of many local places, which were also given new names in 1989. These changes were merely a part of what Dutch Burma scholar Gustaaf Houtman calls “the Myanmafication of Burma”—an attempt to introduce the concept of a unified nation-state. Aung San, the leader of Burma’s independence movement in the 1930s and 1940s, spoke of “unity in diversity” and promised the country’s ethnic minorities autonomy; the present military government has chosen an entirely different path toward achieving national unity in a very ethnically diverse country.

Sai Aung Tun’s book is a testimony to that diversity. It covers, from a Shan perspective, everything from shifting cultivation, drum making and garden crops to the history of the Shan saohpas and the process that led to independence for the whole of Burma. The book’s 655 pages contain everything you would want to know about the Shan—except what the government would have disapproved of. One hopes that in the future Sai Aung Tun will be able to write the complete history of the Shans, without constraints.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, May 2009

Back to articles