Sunday, March 26, 2006

A Mon Theory of limited warfare (c. 1388)

The following passage from the Burmese historical text Razadarit Ayeidawpon presents a very modern-sounding theory of limited warfare. Razadarit claimed that of his generals, Byat Za and Lagunein were experts on offensive strategy and Re Thinran an expert in defensive strategy (San Lwin, 129).
In the passage, Byat Za honors his oath and withdraws from a siege exhibiting the same strategical idea of “limited warfare” for political objectives that Clausewitz popularized in the west. As Clausewitz held: “War is a mere continuation of politics with other means,” an idea that goes all the way back to the political philosopher Machiavelli (and most likely other traditions of political philosophy in other cultures) (See Beatrice Heuser (2002) “Reading Clausewitz”, p. 37, 44).

A game-theoretical interpretation would cast Razadarit as the selfish prisoner’s dilemma player who chooses an uncooperative strategy with Byat Za choosing a cooperative strategy that seeks to maintain the sanctity and reliability of oaths as a law of war, oaths are backed up by sanctions of magic (cf Malinowski).
It's worth noting that Stanford economist and economic historian Avner Grief uses game theory in a similar way to analyze business networks of trust in early modern Mediterranean long distance trade.

Byat Za pursues Laukshein to Arakan around 1388

After the death of his father sometime during the period, 1383-85 Razadarit began to to militarily extend his control over the south [Lower Burma, Ramannadesa]. Around 1388, after several military victories, Razadarit advanced on Bassein in the lower western delta region of Lower Burma. He was welcomed at a distance before arriving at the town by members of the ruling elite who pledged loyalty to him. The ruler of Bassein, Laukshein, had already fled to Prome with as much transportable wealth as he cold collect together (“ten elephant loads of gold and silver”). A contingent was sent out under the leadership of the Razadarit’s general Byat Za to intercept Laukshein. Finding his path blocked, Laukshein fled to Sandoway in Arakan instead of Prome.

Byat Za pursued Laukshein all the way to Sandoway, but was not able to take the town on his first assault. A long siege seemed imminent, so Byat Za started negotiations with the ruler of Sandoway. After an agreement was reached, Laukshein was handed over to Byat Za along with his family and possessions. Byat Za withdrew and the siege ended (San Lwin, 72-73).

Arriving back from Arakan Byat Za was upbraided by Razadarit because he had not taken Sandoway. Byat Za lectured Razadarit on a doctrine of limited war:

“There are two aspects of war. One is to settle matters through the exercise of diplomacy and the other through the force of arms. In this affair it was settled by negotiation and the enemy was handed over only after taking an oath. If we had broken our word and attacked them, we would be denied the chance to settle things through negotiation if another occasion should arise in connection with Sandoway. Then it would have to be carried through by force of arms only at risk. One who habitually goes back on his given word will die from the potency of the asseveration made and even if he is spared, his life can never be peaceful not will he be able to serve his master for long. I would like to serve you for a long time to come and that is why I had returned” (San Lwin, summarized and paraphrased from unpublished translation of Razadarit Ayeidawpon, 73-74)

Razadarit accepts this explanation and praises him for his far-sightedness.


Of course, in the worst case, the fact that this passage is not supported by inscriptional evidence might invalidate it. Another worst case possibility is that a Burmese scholar travelled to England, read Clausewitz, and copied it into an ancient manuscript. Alas, I am powerless to check these sorts of things because no western scholar can get access to Mon and Burmese manuscripts in either the Myanmar National library or the National Library of Thailand. I put this last statement forward as a challenge for some western scholar to disprove.