Sunday, April 23, 2006

Local power, elite circulation, and warfare: Burma-Yunnan-Tai Realm (c. 1350-1600)

The revised intro to my paper in-progress. Any comments welcome:

Political control was fragmented and localized in central and western mainland Southeast Asia during the early modern period. Patron-client relations at the local level were most important. Hegemony over whole ethnic regions such as Burman Upper Burma, Mon Lower Burma, and the Tai Realm emerged only gradually:

“…by 18th- or 19th- century standards, ethnicity in the basin remained highly fragmented…within both the Burmese and Mon ecumenes, sub-ethnic loyalties and polyethnic clientage vitiated overarching identities far more substantially than in later periods…the Burman world, like its Shan and Mon counterparts, was fragmented into rival centers, with distinctive historical traditions and perhaps dialects. This then was an obvious difference between the pre-1550 and post-1600 eras: only in the later period did Toungoo centralization begin to fuse Burman ethnicity with a single political loyalty…at each local center the universalism of Buddhist appeals and the fluid, personalized bases of loyalty enabled individuals of quite diverse ethnicities to secure royal favor and cooperate, we therefore find: a) significant minority ethnicities in all armies and courts; b) frequent cross-ethnic defections, which bore no particular stigma; c) shifting alliances between predominantly Shan, Burman, and Mon principalities… (Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in a Global Context, 134-135).

The term "Tai Realm" will be used instead of Lieberman’s "Shan realm" to emphasize the interconnectedness of Tai "muang" from the different Tai sub-ethnic groups stretching across both the western and central mainland regions. The Tai Realm will be taken to include the region of Tai settlements stretching from the Ahom area in modern-day northern Assam, the Kachin and Shan states of Burma, the western frontier of Yunnan down to the Sipsongpanna, the Lan Na region (Chiang Rai and Chiang Mai), Lan Chang, and Ayutthaya.

The basic entity of Tai political organization, the muang, although rigidly organized at the commoner level for agricultural production and discipline in warfare was quite porous and fluid at the elite level allowing for elite circulation between Muang in the form of marriage alliances and changing loyalties as well as alliances and confederations between Muang ruling elite for the purpose of raiding and military action. Another form of elite circulation was mass migration to other geographical positions when inhabiting a certain location became untenable. For instance, Luchuan-Pingmian became untenable as a political center after the Ming Luchuan-Pingmian Campaigns (c. 1436-1449) and Meng Yang became a new center.

Several hypotheses similar to the ones that Lieberman has formulated for fluid ethnic boundaries in the Mon-Burman realm can be formulated for Muang boundaries in the Tai Realm:

1. The Tai Realm was fragmented into rival centers with distinctive historical traditions and dialects.

2. Within the Tai Realm changing loyalties and patron-client relations, that took place in the context of, but often superceded family ties, "vitiated overarching identities."

3. Frequently changing muang identities have complicated the narratives of Tai historical chronicles and made them difficult to correlate with sources from both inside and outside the various Tai historical traditions.

4. At each local center "fluid, personalized bases of loyalty" facilitated cooperation between the elite from different Muang, which led to:

a) Elite from different muang in the army and court of any given muang.
b) Frequent cross-muang defections.
c) Shifting alliances between Muang