Friday, March 17, 2006

Razadarit Ayeidawpon and
the western "Just War" tradition

Razadarit Ayeidawpon is the epic biography of Razadarit (r. 1485-1421) king of Lower and the Mons and his long war with Ava the Burmese kingdom of Upper Burma.

A Buddhist sermon leads to peace between Ava and Pegu (1394)

Razadarit planned to exploit the weakness that Ava’s succession struggle brought on and use this weakness to take Upper Burma. Razadarit built a great fleet of river vessels and set out for Ava in 1394, transporting elephants and horses by river craft also. When Razadarit reached Ava, the king of Ava declined to meet him in a pitched river battle, believing his forces were inadequate. Razadarit sent forces up the river as far as Tagaung (San Lwin, n.d., unpublished translation of Razadarit Ayeidawpon, p. 79).

A monk pledged to help extricate Minhkaung and Ava from this predicament. The monk first presented many gifts on behalf of Minkhaung and then presented a homily on just war to Razadarit (San Lwin, 79-80). The monk told the story of the Buddha’s hair relic that was enshrined at the Shwedagon pagoda and how a Pagan king had traveled downriver to obtain it, but had returned when he learned that it was “not preordained for him to obtain it.” The monk then asked Razadarit why he had made a such difficult trip to Ava at such a great human expenditure of labor. Razadarit replied that there were four reasons:

1. “I want the enemy king to suffer.”
2. “I want to take over his realm.”
3. “[and]…to increase my manpower and might”
4. “I had heard that Pagan and Ava are rich in the numbers of pagodas enshrined with Buddha’s sacred relics.”

The monk smiled, Razadarit asked why he smiled, and the monk launched into a long detailed explanation couched in religious allegory culminating in a negative judgment on Razadarit’s behavior:

“…sentient beings are full of greed. They take another’s territory for their own. They take another’s wife for their own. They take what property another man has for their own. That is known as greed. Your majesty has given me four reasons for coming here out of which there is only one that Buddha will commend because it is based on good reason and he will not pleased with the remaining three. Only your objective of coming here to worship at the pagodas will be accepted by any Buddha...ancient kings used to send envoys to befriend them and to establish peaceful relations among their nations, to promote trade and commerce, that the rich, the monks and Brahmins may be prosperous and live well so that it will be fruitful in their present existence as well in the coming ones.” (San Lwin, 80-81).

After hearing this sermon Razadarit is said to have agreed to return to the south as soon as the contingent that he had sent northwards along the Irrawaddy river to Tagaung returned. While the monk was meeting with Razadarit, some Of Razadarit’s soldiers returned from an attack against the settlement around Shwekyetyet pagoda with 30 to 40 war captives and the heads of others. Those killed and captured had been "slaves" dedicated to Shwekyetkyet pagoda. The monk instructed Razadarit that he was being ungrateful to his benefactor. When Razadarit asked the monk to elaborate, the monk explained that he meant that Razadarit owed his present position as king to meritorious offerings made to the Buddha and that now by killing these "slaves" the had been dedicated to religious institutions, he had exhibited ungratefulness towards his benefactor, the Buddha. The slaves that were taken captive were allowed to leave (San Lwin, 81-82) and Razadarit returned to the south (San Lwin 82-84).


The western tradition of "just war" political theory is concerned with "the question of whether justice is or is not served by a particular war or methods of war."(From a thread on Just Warat H-War, see Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy and Wikipedia,
for more information)

This incident from Razadarit Ayeidawpon raises similar issues as the "just war" tradition does, but the ideas are expressed in Burmese Buddhist terms. It takes the form of a homily by a Buddhist monk working on behalf of the Burmese king of Ava, aiming to stop the offensive that Razadarit is waging against Upper Burma. Although the monk uses religious parables and arguments, the text almost immediately seems to contradict itself by implying an element of cunning in this strategy of employing a monk to get rid of your enemy. Although on the surface this appears to be a contradiction, the theme of cunning strategy in warfare pervades the entire narrative of Razadarit, so it is really separable from the message of the monk's homily. Unitary authorship for this text, supposedly first written in Mon and then translated into Burmese, cannot be assumed. With numerous copyist scribes over the years, texts like Razadarit are likely to have several layers of accumulated meaning.

The final incident before Razadarit retreats pertains to limits on how combatants can act (jus bello). Although no general pronouncements on killing or the taking of war captives are made, the slaves who have been dedicated to supporting Buddhist religious institutions are definitely declared off-limits. Scorched earth tactics are common in Razadarit Ayeidawpon:

"A Scorched Earth policy is a military tactic which involves destroying anything that might be useful to the enemy while advancing through or withdrawing from an area. The term refers to the practice of burning crops to deny the enemy food sources, although it is by no means limited to food stocks, and can include shelter, transportation, communications and industrial resources" (From Wikipedia)