Sunday, July 30, 2006

What exactly is migration in early modern Burma?

One of the stock interpretations in the history of Burma that you read over and over again, copied almost verbatim from the original colonial texts, Harvey or Phayre, no doubt runs like this:

The Shans attacked and all the inhabitants of Ava migrated to Toungoo.

(This happens in the early 1400s with Thihathu and the Onpaung sawbwa as well as 1524-27.)

What does "migrate" actually mean? One envisions a long trail of war refugees marching from Ava. What the chronicle actually says, at least in the case of Min-gyi-nyo in 1524-27, is that leaders (patrons) of small groups of peasants in a given locality near Ava (clients) met with the leader of Toungoo and pledged their loyalty, i.e. migration was actually a realignment of political loyalties among the ruling elite. The traditional demographic pressures behind migration, the ravages of warfare, lack of food supply, heavy tax burdens, may have the motivating factor behind these elite political realignments, but the important point here is that they were mediated by socio-political relationships among the ruling elite.

Marc Bloch in his "Feudal Society" has a very poignant description of the medieval European feudal relationship, but I really doubt if it can be carried over in its entirety without adjustment to radically different cultural contexts.

Is it even possible to isolate, let's say, the essence of early modern inter-elite political relationships? A feudal bond?

Brad DeLong's blog this morning discussing feudalism led to a comment on Marc Bloch which led to thinking about migration which led to this migration research objective page at the French Marc Bloch Center in Berlin that called to mind the way that the word "migration" is used in the writing of Burmese history:

Working Group on Migration, State and Society

Research on migration offers a context for studying encounters with both the internal makeup and self-understanding of a range of receiving societies. It facilitates an analysis and critique of institutions tied to state and society. We thus find an expanded, historically oriented form of research on migration being recently defined as the path to a "history of power" (G. Noiriel). An implicit question at work in much recent discussion in the social sciences is whether migration and its "consequences”—integration, segregation, reconstruction of society—understood on a level of social interaction, is capable of illuminating the factors and conditions informing a society’s composition. But the question has rarely been posed in more than fragmentary form—the sort of comprehensive theoretical analysis moving beyond suggestions for solving specific problems has been widely missing. Since 2001 a working group has focused on such themes at the Centre Marc Bloch. The group and its activities are open to all interested researchers; the discussion are oriented around the following questions:

1. What cognitive concepts and discourses about migration exist, and what impact do they have on migrants, on the one hand, and on the societies in which they live, on the other hand? (This is the working group’s main focus in 2005 and 2006.)

2. How do administrative measures for the control of immigration evolve? To what degree do these serve as models for general instruments of political steering? What strategies do migrants develop in face of such measures?

French scholars always seem to pose the question better than scholars from the Anglo-Saxon-American tradition.

The benefits of Wikipedia

My take on Wikipedia. [Posted at Little Professor who points out some definite shortcomings]

Wikipedia seems to be about no ego and collaboration without authorship per se which is the way that every good computer programmer is taught to work and that's who founded and runs Wikipedia. For example, the recent methdology/philosophy of extreme programming stresses frequent testing and refactoring (rewriting) of the computer code you write as well as peer feedback, an extreme case being where one programmer programs (writes code) while another programmer is staring over his/her shoulder, sort of like a back-seat driver. The programming notion of refactoring has been reapplied by Wikipedia to writing. The ideas of egoless programming and code review by peers goes back to the early days of programming.

Everyone is free to set up a Wikipedia User page, but it has to specifically be about the work that the user is doing on Wikipedia. I set one up:

Despite the no original research rule, anything that would be covered in a review of the literature on a topic is fair game and that can drill pretty deep, like I'd be willing to wager a posting on the author of Signal & Noise, covered in Little Professor's last posting would be legitimate. It seems that the presence of some reasonable constraints does keep Wikipedia focused and productive.

I think that the beauty of Wikipedia is that the no ego/no author rule encourages people to contribute and share information.

Pretty soon it should be better for a cursory view of a subject than any other reference work out there, particularly in areas of the world that are not so well-endowed with books.

Thursday, July 27, 2006

Bayinnaung's enshrinement of relics at Pegu (1570s)

Towards the end of his life, in the 1570s, king Bayinnaung (r. 1551-1581, Pegu) began making religious offerings. In the year 1576-77 [938 BE] he built a stupa at the place where his elephant Uposatha's tooth broke during the battle to retake Pegu in 1552. Particular attention was given to the construction of the floor: "The ground was first leveled and this surface covered with a layer of sand to act as a bed for the bricks and laterite blocks and for the stone slabs of the relic chamber." The piece of elephant tusk was then transferred from the great hall of Kambojasati palace where it had been stored and placed in a pavilion especially constructed for it.

In 1577-78 [939 BE] a tooth relic from the Buddha carried in a golden casket from Sri Lanka arrived in Pegu after a delay of three years. The relic was received in a great ceremony at the gates of Pegu by all the inhabitants of the city including Shans, Mons, and Burmans who all paid their respects to it. The tooth relic was removed from the golden casket and placed high up on the roof of the palace for all to view for a whole week and at the end of each day a festival was held. King Bayinnaung built special structures to house the tooth relic:
"When all had had an opportunity to see it, the King had a pavilion of silver constructed in front of the palace hall, the Vedayanta pavilion, and within it a smaller pavilion of gold like the moon-chariot, for the reception of the relic; inside this the golden relic-casket seemed like an attendant comet. Around the casket were laid gems of great price, the adornments of ancient kings; fascinating pearls and emeralds; rubies like torches in daylight; diamonds, the tribute of the Yawyins from the Shan country; Samphrani emeralds from the king of Pruttikat. A image fashioned from Uposatha's broken tusk [Bayinnaung's elephant] was set beside the relic. The whole beggared description. When the silver pavilion was finished, the gold shrine was installed inside it, and the casket in which the relic reposed deposited inside that. Whenever the king entered or left the palace, he paid homage to the relic" (Shorto, n.d., Nidana Ramadhipati Katha, p. 158).
One thing that is certainly noteworthy in these details is that there are two kinds of relics being enshrined: 1. the Buddha’s tooth, and 2. the tusk of Bayinnaung's war elephant. This mixture of the sacred and what is usually considered profane, warfare, might be of interest to scholars of comparative religion and warfare.

There is another noteworthy instance of this mixture of warfare and the Buddhist religion during the Rajadhirat era around 1356 when his father Binnya U of Martaban repulses a Chiangmai invasion. For the details of this invasion and the role played by a white elephant see Fernquest(2006, p. 4). Guillon notes:
"Binnya U repulsed the invasion in 1356. At any rate it was in that year that he sent a mission from Martaban to Kandy in Sri Lanka, which according to the chronicles was to request some relics that he could enshrine in a stupa erected over the spot of his victory (certainly an odd conception of Buddhism!)" (Guillon, The Mons, 1999, p. 161; my italics).

Life outside the bug jar

What to do, if you're a mature academic who honestly loves what he/she does, but realizes he/she has overstudied the wriggling bug in the jar, to death, studied maybe, real exotic bugs, malcontent writer revolutionaries, amino acids, history changing Napoleons, or whatever keeps the creative synapses firing, and no longer is he/she a bug in the jar him/herself blogging, painting, writing, creating, has in fact lost the will to wriggle, realizing that there is no Faustian bargains a non-wriggler can strike, to turn back the wriggling clock, to wriggle once more, perhaps it is time to donne the Hawaiian shirt and retire to the beach, or write a First Person confessional in the manner of Sartre's Nausea for the Chronicle of Higher Education, it only takes a few seconds with Little Professor's handy little multiple choice cheatsheet, that makes essay writing as easy as painting by numbers: "How to Write a CoHE "First Person" Essay: A Handy Multiple-Choice Guide"

[P.S. this dissection of lab life is interesting also]

Primary sources geographically organized

The Edwin C. Bolles Collection: A Digital Archive on the history and Topography of London at Tufts University describes places in an urban environment using literary texts and images.

Recent Web Mash-up technology allows maps to be used as precise geographical indexes.

Burma - Yunnan - Bay of Bengal (c. 1350-1600) begs to be indexed in this fashion.

The greatest obstacle is mapping old place names in texts to modern maps.

(Cited in cited in The Little Professor which was cited in Brad DeLong's Semi Daily Journal)

Tuesday, July 25, 2006

Public Intellectual Blogging Experts:
Blogs and niche scholarship

A blogger used to be defined as an amateur expressing his opinion rather loudly on an issue.

This definition made blogging an extension of participatory democracy.

Nowadays, arguably, the most truly useful blogs are written by truly informed experts like Juan Cole or Brad DeLong, making blogging an extension of elite educational institutions such as UC Berkeley or University of Michigan .

Apparently, not elite enough though, because Juan Cole was turned down for an academic job at prestigious Yale despite having achieved near household name status throught his blogging.

This week the Chronicle of Higher Education in the US addressed the blogging phenomenon with a series of articles. Brad DeLong quotes twice from them [1,2] in his blog.

The general message of the articles is that blogging is dangerous for your health (the health of your career). If you already have a job in academia or wish to advance into the higher echelons of America's research universities, beware, according to Daniel Drezner.

Maybe blogging needs to be treated like a serious academic subject, a public intellectual breadth requirement, if you will.

As a writing teacher for non-native English speakers, I know that one of the most difficult problems is to get the students to visualize the audience they are writing for and also to provide feedback as a student audience of peers. Blogging software is a step in the right direction towards helping students visualize this audience and seeing a way to get this feedback through comments.

Blogs can be used as a public intellectual tool to disseminate ideas and educate society at large, especially in developing countries far away from ours. This includes debates on controversial topics with western professors, scholars, and graduate students providing expert knowledge.

In the future, hopefully, there will be a public intellectual component necessary to qualify for the PhD degree with blogging being the pillar of this requirement.

Drezner reveals some facts about writing and scholarship in present-day universities:

1. The secret to academic success is: One bad article equals five great ones.

[What about a bad article or book that people respect only because there are no other experts or the experts that exist are too afraid to critically reveal its shortcomings? Blogs can and should critique books that are essentially a waste of paper and rewrite them line-by-line.]

2. The worst thing a scholar can do is to publish too much, as opposed to too little.

[This seems more than a little tragic, not exactly treating the still developing majority of the world to a feast of knowledge. Maybe experts have to be more careful and refine their ideas among their colleagues in restricted peer review blogs first, before going completely public with them. Many niche areas of scholarship, like early modern Burmese history don't even have enough critical mass of activity to really get going, others like Shakespeare, Dickens, or World War II are points of obsessive focus. Blogs can at least help to get ideas moving in the more intellectually stagnant waters.]

3. Any substandard publication creates a black mark that is difficult to erase.

[Again, restricted peer review blogs for experts on training wheels. The real experts, the Napoleon's of the blogosphere, like Brad DeLong or Juan Cole, can strike out on forced march critiques without them, but for us mere mortals they are essential.

What's truly horrible is the substandard scholarship that has been prematurely committed to paper in some fields, scholarship that could have gained from a thorough online blog vetting. When academics commit their ideas to paper and made them indelible and these ideas are simply wrong as they are sometimes in Burmese history, line item criticisms of the paper book can at least be made indelibly ubiquitous online.]

4. Blogs and prestigious university appointments do not mix terribly well. That is because top departments are profoundly risk-averse when it comes to senior hires.

[Maybe Yale will end up studying Juan Cole then, as history, rather than actually becoming part of history by hiring him.]

5. Blogs provoke easy doubts. Blogs are an outlet for unexpurgated, unreviewed, and occasionally unprofessional musings. What makes them worth reading can also make them prone to error.

[Actually published books that haven't been thoroughly vetted by blogs are such an unreviewed outlet in some specialized niches of scholarship. Michael Aung-Thwin's new book The Mists of Ramanna raises questions with almost every sentence and has quite unprofessional musings, claiming that the Mons, a subject people for hundreds of years, were never actually "oppressed" by their overlords, "oppress" being a word easily redefinable to match one's rhetorical purposes]

[Blog entries can be refactored into more refined and polished writing.]

6. Any honest scholar-blogger — myself included — could acknowledge a post or two that they would like to have back. At a place like Yale, one bad blog post can erase a lot of good will very quickly.

[Blogs seem ideally suited to court jester types, Diogenes the Cynic types, hermit scholar types shouting the truth prophetically from mountain tops in the blogosphere.

Blogs allow many to overcome their innate shyness, like the Wizard of Oz projecting his voice through a loudspeaker from behind a curtain. Even if you're an extreme extrovert, a secret hermetic blogging life under a pseudonym might allow one greater independence in certain well-straight-jacketed intellectual spheres. Aren't so many so-called pure ideas really only artifacts of social relationships, obligations, rent-seeking relations of hegemony? When bloggers expose them as such, don't they become the literal embodiment of the late Bourdieu's notion of habitus?]

7. In some ways, this problem is merely the latest manifestation of what happens when professors try to become public intellectuals. Blogging creates new pathways to public recognition beyond the control of traditional academic gatekeepers or even op-ed editors. Any usurpation of scholarly authority is bound to upset those who benefit the most from the status quo.

[Live like a revolutionary. Die like a revolutionary (figuratively speaking, I mean) Like not getting a promotion. What is a martyr anyway? Or a hero? Don't we have them anymore?]

Blogs are the only way to do any worthy scholarship in many niche areas of scholarship, like early modern mainland Southeast Asian history (c 1350-1600), because:

1. To do scholarship in this area you should know how to read and write a foreign language that many consider obscure and useless like Burmese, Mon, Shan, or classical Chinese.

2. When you live in these foreign places, you will not have any money, comparatively speaking.

3. Without money, you will not be able to pay the tuition bills for places like Yale, Stanford, Harvard, or even the cheaper public schools, which would probably consume a lifetime of earnings in the obscure foreign country whose history you've specialized in.

4. Research on the history of the poorer areas of the world moves at a snail's pace.

5. Since there are no resources or funding...

6. Students get distracted and detour into unrelated areas that do have funding and money, like Dickens or Shakespeare, or becoming a lawyer, or some other tiny but heavily valorized plot of land in intellectual space.

7. It is very difficult to maintain research focus or keep your eye on the prize.

8. Which in the final analysis is to: Contribute Knowledge.

9. Which requires: 1. specialized knowledge, related to: 2. the generalist knowledge, that every educated individual has inherited in the west.

10. Blogs are (and increasingly will be) essential to make this contribution to knowledge in niche fields.

Saturday, July 22, 2006

Iraq: State formation and collapse, Historical patterns

The topic of state formation and collapse in Iraq is being addressed at Brad de Long's Semi-Daily Journal blog. Couldn't resist the tempatation of adding a comment:
"But our country had a strong state with secular traditions. That needed to be preserved at all costs. Instead the Americans smashed that state. What did they expect Iraqis would do? It sent people scurrying back to the basic building blocks of our society, which are the clans and tribes."
Historians and hegemonic states have a systematic bias, habitually assuming that states are stronger and more unified than they actually are. In fact, at root, states are just opportunistic alliances of families, clans, lineages, and political organizations.

Ming dynasty Yunnan (c. 1369-1398) is a good example. The Ming emperor picks out one of many Tai chiefs and treats him like a centralized leader. Sub-chiefs assert their independence and he has to flee to the Ming capital in Beijing. They manage to restore him to power, but he's out again in a few years. (

My only point here is that the song remains the same. There are a lot of patterns that have been repeated for a very long time in history. Of course, buying a bomb instead of funding more research is easier.

There's a whole literature devoted to state formation and collapse in political anthropology that really provides more insight into the process than Hobbes, into what takes over when a state disintegrates. This is one good review of the literature:

Johnson, Allen W. and Timothy Earle. (2000) The Evolution of Human Societies: From Foraging Group to Agrarian State. Second Edition.Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press.

Friday, July 21, 2006

Tai Lue revival in Sipsongpanna (and Thailand)

Tai Lue folk music is truly a wonderful thing.

A new book about Tai Lue music Song and Silence published by Silkworm Books in Chiang Mai is just out. Chinese informal folk songs, similar to these Tai Lue songs, is also the topic of discussion over at Frog In the Well blog.

This music brightens my home in Chiang Rai because my family is Tai Lue, our next-door neighbors are too, as well as our whole neighborhood in Maesai). Tai Lues seem to be found everywhere from Chiang Rai to Chiang Kham, where there is an annual Tai Lue festival, all the way to Chiang Mai.

Sadly there doesn't appear to be much information about the Tai Lues or their history online yet. There is a wikipedia entry on Tai Lue language, but not Tai Lue culture or history it seems, except for this a summary article on the Dai people. The historians Volker Grabowsky and Liew Foon Ming have written extensively on Tai Lue history and have a special research project devoted to Tai Lue history. Liew Foon Ming has published a wonderful bibliographical guide to historical resources in Tai and Chinese in the French journal Aséanie published in Thailand.

Here is the announcement for a talk about the new book in Chiang Mai recently:

Northern Group - Chiang Mai
275th meeting - Thursday, July 6th 2006

Song and Silence : Ethnic Revival on China's Southwest Borders
A talk by Sara L. M. Davis

"An exemplary study of cross-border culture. Davis's original and deeply probing account of state-sponsored musical culture and of the musical practices that both transcend and subvert it deserves, like the music it depicts, to travel widely."
James C. Scott, Sterling Professor of Political Science and Anthropology, Yale University

"Song and Silence is a fascinating glimpse at a very interesting part of China that has increasingly become the focus of environmental and minority issues in the ever-evolving multi-ethnic state that is the PRC. Davis presents a well-researched and lucidly written examination of the complex inter-play between Han Chinese and Beijing and the increasingly vulnerable minority communities in the Himalayan foothills of Southern Yunnan whose historic isolation is now being irremediably breached by tourism, commerce and the media." Orville Schell, University of California, Berkeley

In the sunny, subtropical Sipsongpanna region, Tai Lues perform flirtatious, exoticized dances for an increasingly growing tourist trade.

Endorsed by Chinese officials, who view the Tai Lues as a model minority, these staged performances are part of a carefully sanctioned ethnic policy. However, behind the scenes and away from the eyes and ears of tourists and the Chinese government, a different kind of cultural resurgence is taking place.

In this vivid and beautifully told ethnography, Sara L. M. Davis reveals how Tai Lues are reviving and reinventing their culture in ways that contest the official state version. Carefully avoiding government repression, Tai Lues have rebuilt Buddhist temples and made them into vital centers for the Tai community to gather, discuss their future, and express discontent. Davis also describes the resurgence of the Tai language evident in a renewed interest in epic storytelling and traditional songs as well as the popularity of Tai pop music and computer publishing projects.

Throughout her work, Davis weaves together the voices of monks, singers, and activists to examine issues of cultural authenticity, the status of ethnic minorities in China, and the growing cross-border contacts among Tai Lues in China, Thailand, Burma, and Laos.

Sara L.M. Davis earned her Ph.D. at University of Pennsylvania. She was the China researcher at Human Rights Watch for three years. Davis has taught and held postdoctoral fellowships at Yale University and UCLA. She has written for several publications including The Wall Street Journal, International Herald Tribune, and Modern China. She currently lives in New York.

AT THE ALLIANCE FRANCAISE : 138 Charoen Prathet Road - CHIANG MAI - 19:30
Please note: Silkworm Books, the publisher of Song and Silence, will offer snack box and sell the book.

Burma Studies in the United States:
A petty game of academic politics?

Has Catherine Raymond, the current head of the Center for Burma Studies in the United States at Northern Illinois University, achieved anything during her tenure?

Or has this Center of Burma Studies for the whole United States finally reached the status of irrelevance that locating it in the middle of a corn field in DeKalb, Illinois would seem inevitably to consign it to?

For too long, academics in Burma Studies have exploited the obscurity of Burma as a subject and acted as veritable wizards (or wizardesses) of Oz with respect to their subject matter.

Why can they get away with this?

Why can they get away with not having critical scrutiny directed at them?

The limited resources of the field mean:

1. They stick uncritically together in small cliques to protect their resources.

2. Their work is not subject to critical scrutiny because those scholars that do exist in their areas of specialty and who know of serious flaws in their scholarship, are too afraid of speaking out, and instead direct their comments through third party scholars. The real critical scrutiny is never made public. What is the result?

A pitiful simulcrum of scholarship.

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

Leo Strauss, Carl Schmitt, and Michael Aung-Thwin

From Wikipedia's article on the neo-conservative political theorist Leo Strauss:
"Strauss noted that thinkers of the first rank, going back to Plato, had raised the problem of whether good and effective politicians could be completely truthful and still achieve the necessary ends of their society. By implication, Strauss asks his readers to consider whether "noble lies" have any role at all to play in uniting and guiding the polis. Are "myths" needed to give people meaning and purpose and to ensure a stable society? Or can men and women dedicated to relentlessly examining, in Nietzsche's language, those "deadly truths", flourish freely? Thus, is there a limit to the political, and what can be known absolutely?"
Why do I bring up Leo Strauss in a blog devoted to Burma? Leo Strauss's notion of political myth helps to make sense of the convoluted and hard to follow arguments made by Michael Aung-Thwin and highlight their inconsistencies.

On the one hand, you have Michael Aung-Thwin in his recent book The Mists of Ramanna pretending that myths for political legitimation are somehow exceptional behaviour, that the Mon king Dhammazedi was doing something unique and exceptional by mapping Buddhist history to the history of his Mon kingdom where in fact this is a universal of politics in all ages. You can even see it in Livy's received history of early Rome.

On the other hand, you have Michael Aung-Thwin defending the current state of Myanmar which habitually uses legitimizing myths. Renaming every road and town in the country and the very name of the country, insisting that everyone outside the country retroactively rename and refer to everything with these names, when the actual people in the country itself often can't or don't want to keep all these name changes straight. In Korea, the English language "Korea" is also different from "Hanguk" the designator for the country in the Korean language, but Koreans don't bizarrely and retroactively insist that everyone change their language and put on an authoritarian linguistic straight-jacket.

Using them when you are writing history would condemn you to an inability to communicate, to be understood by anyone at all, effectively preventing you from talking about the subject, forcing you to talk about it only in their newly created terms, according to their own "interpretive community" (the hegemonic straight-jacket terminology of their own shoosing), as if there was no objective notion of objective historical truth, a very convenient notion for want-to-be dictators.

Then there is the mythology fo all mythologies. Moving the capital to the jungle 26 miles outside of Pyinmana in some mysterious simulcrum of king Thalun's relocation of the capital from Pegu to Ava circa 1630 and then having Pagan Aung-Thwin interpret and explain it to use, how it is natural given their 1630?

That Aung-Thwin sees Dhammazedi's legitimizing myths as exceptional and is blind to the truly exceptional legitimizing myths of Burma's junta is a major inconsistency in his thought.

Leo Strauss in the blogosphere

Leo Strauss as a conservative political theorist in his work provided the arguments that could be used to support military regimes like Burma's junta (See also Balkinization Blog).

Carl Schmitt, one of Strausses associates before he left Germany, is a little scarier, being a precursor of fascism and essentially an advocate of war for war's sake (See Crooked Timber 1 and Crooked Timber 2 and Brad de Long). His political philosophy seems to be a throwback to a much earlier era when war supported by the surplus of subsistence agriculture was economic reality, or opposition to humanism "in favor of an emphasis on the role of power in modern society" (Alan Wolfe). War is the reality that dominates the Burmese chronicle tradition, religion taking a definite secondary role. This historical tradition might be one of the principal factors motivating political decisions by Burma's generals such as the Pyinmana move or name changes.

The political thought of Michael Aung-Thwin seems to steer perilously close to that of the pre-WWII German conservative Carl Schmitt:
Schmitt criticized the institutional practices of liberal politics, arguing that they are justified by a faith in rational discussion and openness that is at odds with actual parliamentary party politics, in which outcomes are hammered out in smoke-filled rooms by party leaders" .
Immediately reminded me of Aung-Thwin's:
"Realise that in Myanmar, anarchy is feared far more than tyranny. Singapore’s system is probably one of the best models: strong, unified leadership without selfish bickering and politicised social issues. In the 50s and 60s, most South-east Asian countries were in the same boat. Singapore and Malaysia are now generations ahead of Myanmar. One of the reasons is leadership — and it was not democratic."(Source)
Singapore and Malaysia were also the last Southeast Asian states to jettison their colonial connections. They never seized and nationalized businesses, schools, and hospitals run by westerners, for instance. Aung-Thwin has spent his whole career criticising colonial era institutions and now he is holding success based on their very persistence up as a model for Burma. It's a little late, isn't it? Why does he pick out the tiny Chinese city state of Singapore as a model for Burma? Thailand is much more similar to Burma than Singapore is and they have clearly rejected the Singapore model. Similar confusing, contradictory, and not very well thought out statements by Aung-Thwin can be found elsewhere: magazine interview, Democracy Jihad, and Singapore Interview. Ultimately, like Carl Schmitt, despite his desire to be the lynchpin of the junta political thought, the ruling junta doesn't really need someone like him.

Some people might object that bringing larger debates from western politics into Burmese politics and political history is either: 1. external interference (Michael Aung-Thwin), or 2. not relevant due to Burma's unique cultural differences.

At the extremes of political argumentation over the current political situation in Burma/Myanmar you rarely see very well reasoned arguments and rarely, if at all, do they have any historical or comparative breadth or perspective.

In fact, by even supposing that there could be a debate, by not presupposing that one side is absolutely right, the left side would already consign you to the status of pro-government apologist. For some, political discourse on contemporary Burma-Myanmar politics is total war. Either choose a side or get shot by both sides. On the right side, the Michael Aung-Thwin side, you also get the belief that debate is bad, there is no need for democratic debate, because it is external interference in Burma's affairs and democracy is not really an institution suited to the Burmese anyway, according to him.

Isolationism in Burma and Burma Studies

Why is there so little solid scholarship on Burma and its history? Isolationism seems to be the core reason. Burma started separating itself from the rest of the world in the 1950s with Burmese state policies of non-alignment (even from the non-aligned movement itself) and western focus on French Indochina. With the virtual closing of the country's doors in 1962, scholars stopped studying the country. Then in 1988 political discourse started becoming more polarized and intense to the point at which there wasn't even a shred of debate left. Eventually, anyone expressing a wish to be objective was ipso facto accused of having some ulterior motive.

Then there is the isolationism of Burma studies itself in the United States. The Burma Studies center for the United States is moved to Northern Illinois University, a second rate university in the middle of a corn field, that attendance at will almost certainly guarantee that you will never be recognized as a scholar of any note or rank. No slight intended to Hsaya U Saw Tun, the best Burmese language teacher in the United States and one of the foremost experts on Burmese language and literature.

Almost none of the professors of Burma Studies themselves give papers at the conferences they hold or publish papers in the journals they publish. There is no peer review, collaboration, or use of the internet. Quite frankly, they need to be subject to a thorough review and audit. After this, their funding will be cut for sure. Someone needs to do some good investigative journalism and uncover the full sorry extent of nepotism, cliqueishness, and incompetence and make it public.

In a shallow contest for prestige, publishing in their own journals seems to be below them. Prestige is more important than the advancement of knowledge, despite the fact that 1. the number of published journal papers is truly deplorable and 2. publishing high quality papers in a timely fashion is the only way that the field of Burmese history will advance.

Guaranteed, if anyone shows individual initiative, tries hard, works hard, works independently, without the sanction of this American Burma Studies group and their minions, there will be academic vultures swarming over him or her.

I'm sure I will also eventually be attacked, because I work hard and publish regularly in the SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research published at the School of Oriental and African Studies at University of London which has a long tradition of scholarly excellence in Burmese history including the greatest of all Burmese historians U Than Tun who throughout his long and productive life staunchly refused to act as an apologist for a authoritarian Burmese state, the perfect role model at a time when we have very few indeed.

The world of business, any world of business, is more productive and attractive than the nepotistic, cliqueish, and tightly controlled world of Burma Studies in the United States. A couple of people hold on to control of the main organizations, journals, and funding, use it to serve their own self-serving ends in a rather pitiful simulcrum of modern day "Myanmar" itself.

Their minions even threaten to sue people, if they act independently and show initiative. No wonder there is no progress in this field. Graduate students have no choice but to fall in line with them, uncritically tow their pitiful party line, and become pitiful automata. The field goes nowhere. The best recipe to do meaningful work is to remain aloof from ths charade.

Given that research funding and academic publishing in the area of Burma Studies in the United States has long been controlled by a small clique which prevents critical and objective history from being written, the best choice is clearly Europe, Australia, Thailand, or Japan.

Well, back to work. In my Mon Paradigm Fallacy Blog I am picking apart piece by piece Michael Aung Thwin's sorry excuse for historical scholarship, surreptitiously presentist promotion of Burmese nationalism, and naked affront to those of Mon ethnicity, his new book: The Mists of Ramanna.

Monday, July 17, 2006

Naresuan: Thai epic historical film

The Thai movie The legend of King Naresuan is scheduled to be released in December. For an interview with the director see this English reading lesson for last week's Bangkok Post.

The film is sort of a sequel to the film Suriyothai which was more about court intrigue than this film which will be more about warfare. The director talks about how he has tried to avoid Thai nationalism in making the film, but how certain parts of the film like how Naresuan recruits the Mons to be on his side may be controversial to the Burmese government.

Saturday, July 15, 2006

Focused literature review for Thai-Burma warfare (c. 1548-1599)

Sunait Chutintaranond (ed.). Phama an thai: wa duai prawattisat lae sinlapa nai thatsana phama [The Burmese "read" the Thai: On Thai history and art from a Burmese point of view]. Bangkok: Matichon. 4th edition. 2001 (1999).

The period of Thai-Burma warfare (c. 1548-1599) really needs a good literature review.

I've been focusing so much on the more obscure and overlooked periods of history such as Mingyinyo (r. 1486-1531) and Rajadhirat (r. 1383-1421) that I've missed some important sourceslike the book above.

Pamaree Surakiat's recent working paper on Thai-Burmese warfare has an extensive review of the literature and she'll problem have an even more focused review for the period of Thai-Burmese warfare (c. 1548-1599) in her PhD dissertation when it comes out.

The book above, reviewed recently in the SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research, has an important source that is a master's thesis done in Burma:
"The first article is the abridged version of a Master Thesis on Thai-Burmese relations prior to the mid-16th century submitted to the University of Mandalay by the historian and archaeologist U San Nyein."

"Until the reign of King Tabinshwehti (1531–1551) relations between Ayutthaya and the Burmese kingdoms were relatively peaceful, reflecting the common idea of regarding the other side as outside one’s own sphere of influence."
[Comment: Rajadhirat Ayeidawpon records invasions in the Martaban-Tenasserim area by Kamphaengphet and Chiang Mai which I cannot find verified in Tai language sources from Chiang Mai and Ayutthaya, so I don't really know what to make of these references yet. The more peaceful religous exchanges between the Sangha of Chiang Mai and Martaban-Pegu should be verifiable from both the Burmese and Tai side though, so this is probably a better way to begin.]
"U San Nyein convincingly demonstrates that between 1548 and 1569 the Burmese modified their military strategy and tactics after each attack on Ayutthaya, the Siamese capital which was well protected by its geographic location. While not denying the expansionist nature of the military campaigns of Tabinshweti and his successor Bayinnaung (r. 1551–1581), U San Nyein claims that they were motivated by self-defence as it was the Siamese who set in motion the military confrontation by occupying a Burmese township at the Gulf of Martaban (p. 68) which, however, was claimed by Ayutthaya as her own vassal müang.
[Comment: Once some initial incidents trigger an escalaton, a cycle of tit-for-tat long distance warfare like during the Rajadhirat era (c. 1383-1421) determining who is to blame doesn't seem like the right question to ask. Wouldn't it be more useful to unravel the process of escalation. Some periods are peaceful. Some periods suffer from endemic warfare. What gets those periods of endemic warfare going and what stops them? Cross-cultural research using other histories outside the region would be useful here also. The Maori Musket Wars of the early 19th century driven by plentiful supplies of muskets are a good example. James Belich's Making Peoples: A History of the New Zealanders: From Polynesian Settlement to the End of the Nineteenth Century (1996) (at Chulalongkorn Library in Bangkok) gives a good overview.]

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Computational historiography?

Historians breathe life into histories with the narratives and stories they weave.

The glue of historical interpretation, provided by historians, is often necessary to bridge the gaps in historical records where evidence is lacking.

Despite the need for historians to be creative in their interpretations, is there a way to make the writing of history more rigorous and accurate, a way to at least get the basic facts straight before lauching off into a personal interpretation?

WikiTextRose of Wikipedia is doing some interesting work on computational historiography and the citation of historical sources (includes diagram):
"The wiki will support evidentiary citations within historiographical texts at a level usable by the professional historian. That is, in addition to recording citations between secondary sources of interest to the general reader, the wiki can record dependencies on ultimate/primary sources (including unpublished ones such as manuscripts, archival materials, pottery sherds, etc.) and thus provide a catalog of all the ultimate source "texts" within a particular historiographical discipline."
What is WikiTextRose?
"WikiTextrose (a portmanteau of "text" and "(compass) rose") is a text relationship database for mapping the various interactions between interpretable artifacts (i.e. "texts"). Though the project is inspired by long-established theories in the field of citation analysis, it expands upon these by considering all the ways in which one text may interact with another."
Sounds like we might actually get working rigorous working models of computer-based historiography from Wikipedia developers soon.

Burmese language web typewriter

Finally! A web typewriter for the Burmese language.

You have to download and install the Myanmar 1 font first.

After you type your text, just cut and paste into Microsoft Word or better Open Office.

Burmese and Mon inscriptions, Online open content project

There are certainly very few Burmese or Mon inscriptions or translations of inscriptions online.

This is an opportunity for an open content project.

There are some excellent Burmese language volumes with inscriptions (Pagan to Ava periods). There is also a well-known list of inscriptions with locations and dates as well as some translations into English by Than Tun and associates. This all could be integrated and put online in an open content project.

Wikipedia as a platform also has a benefit that experts in Burma or Myanmar could easily access them, add to the content, edit, and correct them (even anonymously if they wanted to). Wikipedia also allows you to roll back to previous versions if a vandal who does not really want to cooperate and contribute is bent on destroying your hard work.

One thing for sure is that no one is currently using Wikipedia as a medium for open content history.

If a westerner whose expertise does not match that of a native Burmese scholar, contributes, this might motivate native Burmese scholars to participate and correct them and we can learn. Collaboration and peer review are universal goods.

There is a small repository of Mon inscriptions online at the Euro-Mon Community. The Shwe Dagon Mon inscription is a good model of how inscriptions could be presented online, although a little bit more background information plus a translation into English would also be nice.

Wikibooks is: 1. the most accessible place to start such a project, and 2. requires almost no overhead.
Burmese Wikipedia already has Burmese unicode fonts up and working, though I personally have yet to get it working for me. Will have to work on this.

Tuesday, July 11, 2006

SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research 4.1 just released online

The latest edition of the SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research (SBBR), the online journal of research on Burma or Myanmar at the School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS) at the University of London, has just been put online.

There are a lot good book reviews and articles on the history of smallpox vaccinations in colonial era Burma by Atsuko Naono, some colonial era microhistory about some of the rather strange low low level colonial functionaries who inhabited colonial era Burma by Gerry Abbott.

An article on the history of the Mon king Rajadhirat (r. 1383-1421) based on the recent translation of a Burmese classic by U San Lwin, written by me, Jon Fernquest, is also included.

There are also many good book reviews including Shelby Tucker's Burma, The Curse of Independence (2001), Burma at the Turn of the Twenty-First Century (2005) edited by Monique Skidmore (this book review is by the Political Scientist Robert Taylor and has some very important observations about historical accuracy in current Burma research and scholarship), Lord of the Celestial Elephant (1999) by Elaine Halton, and the collection of papers Perspectives on the Yi of Southwest China edited by Stevan Harrell (tis collection of papers is a conceptually interesting collaboration between western and Chinese scholars that finds a compromise in the use of language and approach to subject matter). DIssertation announcements are also included.

Two older texts of historical importance have been published in their entirety including Standford’s Compendium of Geography and Travel: Asia by Augustus H. Keane and An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava by Michael Symes.

The Symes work is quite a fascinating read with a detailed description of the southern campaigns during the 1750's of Alaungphaya, the founding king of the Konbaung dynasty of Burma. We're really lucky to have this important historical source for the early Konbaung era available online virtually everywhere.

Sunday, July 09, 2006

Wikipedia references are easy

Operation successful! Posted my first Wikipedia entry on Tabinshwehti.

References are easy. Just enclose every Harvard style reference in a "ref" tag and then at the bottom include a section with a single "references" tag (no matching end tag). The software goes through and inserts note numbers in the text and makes endnotes with the Harvard style citations.

I probably made some little mistakes that I'llhave to correct, but the important thing it is asy to make references and citations which is important becaue that means it's easy for experts to add information when they have a few spare seconds.

Tabinshwehti (Burmese King) - Wikipedia article

Below is my initial efforts on a Wikipedia article on the Burmese king Tabinshwehti (r. 1531-1550).

[Ruminations and confession for writing a Wikipedia article on Burmese or Myanmar history]

Tabinshwehti (Burmese King)

After the fall of Ava to Tai invasions in 1527 the king of Toungoo Tabinshwehti (r. 1531-1550) rebuilt an ethnic Burmese state at Toungoo (1531-38) and then Pegu (1538-1550) and engaged in long series of military campaigns that ended only with his assassination in 1550:

Pegu (1535-38)

Between 1535 and 1538 Tabinshwehti marched south from Toungoo in a series of four military expeditions against the Mon kingdom of Pegu. A succession of Mon kings had ruled over a united Lower Burma at least since the time of king Rajadhirat (r. 1385-1421). In 1538 after first taking the western delta region around Bassein and augmenting his forces with military manpower and arms, Tabinshwehti overcame the defences of Pegu and occupied the town.

Several factors explain why Toungoo started attacking Pegu shortly after Tabinshwehti became king of Toungoo in 1531. Trade wealth and maritime markets favored coastal Pegu as a military target (Harvey, 1925, 153; Lieberman, 1980, 209; Surakiat, 2006, 17; 2005, 87). Toungoo relied on Pegu for important commodities such as cloth and salt (Lieberman 1984, 209, citing UK III, p. 111). This trade contact brought knowledge of Pegu's wealth.

Another factor was the threat posed by the Tai confederation that ruled over Ava to the north (c. 1527-1555) which conquered Prome to the west of Toungoo in 1532, the year after Tabinshwehti became king of Toungoo. This left Toungoo, the only remaining ethnic Burmese stronghold, as the next logical target for Tai controlled Ava to attack and subjugate. Conquering Pegu first would also augment Toungoo's supply of military man and animal power and weapons, strengthening Toungoo to better face the Tai threat from the north (Fernquest, 2005, 106).

Prome (1540)

Tabinshwehti sent his top general and brother-in-law the future king Bayinnaung north to Prome in pursuit of Takayutpi the Mon king of Pegu (r. 1526-1538) who had fled north to seek refuge at Prome.

In the famous Battle of Naung Yo, Bayinnaung faced a superior force on the other side of a river. After crossing the river on a Pontoon bridge (rafts in another version) Bayinnaung ordered the bridge to be destroyed. This action was taken to spur his troops forward in battle and provide a clear signal that there would be no retreat. Before the battle began Bayinnaung also disregarded a message from king Tabinshwehti ordering him to wait for the main body of troops to arrive. Bayinnaung replied that he had already met the enemy and defeated them. To those who criticized this action, Bayinnaung replied that if they lost, they would all be dead anyway and it wouldn't matter whether they were alive or not (Harvey, 1925, 154-155; U Kala II p. 173, ch. 168).

Tabinshwehti could not take Prome because it was well-defended with strong walls and supported militarily by Tai Ava. When Takayupti died, many of his loyal followers came over to Tabinshwehti's side. Tabinshwehti increased his military strength by employing mercenaries of many nationalities including Portuguese and Muslim. The number of Portuguese in his employ is said to have numbered as many as 700 men (Lieberman, 1980, 209-210).

Martaban (1541-42)

The thriving port of Martaban proved difficult to subdue because it was supported by Portuguese soldiers and arms. On the land side of the town strong fortifications backed by earthwork and on the water side seven Portuguese ships commanded by Paulo Seixas provided a strong defense. When supplies ran out, Martaban tried to negotiate a surrender, but Tabinshwehti would only accept a complete surrender. Martaban tried to draw the Portuguese mercenary Joano Cayeyro who was helping Tabinshwehti away, but these efforts failed. Finally, Tabinshwehti used fire rafts to burn and drive away the ships guarding the water side of the fortifications. A high fortress raft armed with guns and cannons was maneuvered to a position in front of the river side fortifications. The walls were cleared of defenders and a final assault was made on the town (Harvey, 1925, 155-157; Lieberman, 1980, 212-213). The Portuguese writer Pinto records in great detail the pillaging and executions that supposedly took place in the wake of the defeat after seven months of siege (Pinto, 1989, 314-325)

Prome and Upper Burma (1542-45)

After a coronation ceremony and religious donations at the Shwedagon pagoda in 1541 Tabinshweihti led an expedition to the north to subjugate Prome. The first assaults against the walls of Prome failed (UKII:177-178). Prome requested aid from Tai Ava and Arakan. Tai forces arrived first, but Bayinnaung met them in advance before they could arrive to Prome and defeated them.

The siege of Prome dragged on and when the rainy season arrived Tabinshwehti ordered his troops to plant rice and gather manpower and provisions from Lower Burma (UKII:179) The overland contingent of forces sent by Arakan was ambushed by Bayinnaung. This defeat caused both the land and river forces of Arakan to return to Arakan. After five months of siege starvation led to defections and weakened defences which were easily overcome. The sack of Prome and the punishments that were supposedly meted out to the inhabitants are described in great detail by Pinto (1989, 328-333). In 1544 Tai forces led a counterattack but were again defeated by Tabinshwehti's forces. In 1545 Tabinshwehti marched north and took Pagan and Salin, leaving a garrison in Salin (Harvey, 1925, 157-158; Shorto, n.d., 46; UKII:179- 181).Instead of driving northwards and reestablishing an ethnic Burmese state at Ava, Tabinshwehti turned his attention to the coastal polities to his west and east, Arakan and Ayutthaya.

Arakan (1546-7)

The ruler of Sandoway in south Arakan had pledged loyalty to Tabinshwehti in exchange for the throne of Arakan. The fortifications at Mrauk-U the capital of Arakan had been built with the assistance of the Portuguese, so the normal strategies of frontal assault or siege were ineffective against these fortifications. Arakan with the intercession of monks finally convinced Tabinshwehti to give up the siege and return to Pegu (Harvey, 1925, 158; Lieberman, 1980, 213; Charney, 1998, 15; Leider, 1998, 144-159).

Ayutthya (1548)

While Tabinshwehti was campaigning in Arakan, Ayutthaya had sent raiding parties against Tavoy in Tenasserim. Tabinshwehti ordered the lord of Martaban to regain Tenasserim and in 1548 Tabinshwehti himself led a large invasionary force westwards over the Three Pagodas Route to attack Ayutthaya.

Facing strong fortifications and Portuguese mercenaries at Ayutthaya Tabinshwehti decided to move north and attack the weaker towns to the north, Kamphaengphet, Sukhothai, and Phitsanulok (Surakiat, 2005, 79-80; Harvey, 1925, 158-160; Lieberman, 1980, 213).

While Tabinshwehti had been campaigning in the east, a Mon revival had been gathering momentum in Lower Burma. Upon his return Tabinshwehti was assasinated by Mon members of his own court in 1450. A short period of Mon rule ensued while Bayinnnaung fought to restore the kingdom that Tabinshwehti had built (Shorto, 50-60; Pinto, U Kala, Harvey, 1925, 160-162).

Tabinshweihti Nat

The Tabinshwehti Nat is one of the 37 Nat spirits or gods worshipped in Myanmar.

Historical Fiction

One of the first modern novels published in the Burmese language in the early 20th century was a fictional recreation of Tabinshweihti's reign.

Modern Military Operations

The campaign against communist insurgents in 1962 was named Operation Tabinshwehti.


Charney, Michael Walter (1998). "Rise of a Mainland
Trading State: Rahkaing Under the Early Mrauk-U Kings, c. 1430-1603." Journal of Burma Studies 3: 1-34.

Fernquest, Jon (2005b) "Min-gyi-nyo, the Shan Invasions of Ava(1524-27), and the Beginnings of Expansionary Warfare in Toungoo Burma: 1486-1539." SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research 3.2 Autumn.

Harvey, G.E. (1925) History of Burma from the Earliest Times to 10 March 1824, The Beginning of the English Conquest, London: Longmans, Green and Co.

Kala, U. 1959-1961. Mahayazawinkyi [The great chronicles]. 3 vols. Burma Research Society,Burmese text series no. 5. vol. 1 (1959) and vol. 2 (1960), edited by Saya Pwa, vol. 3 (1961), edited by Saya U Khine Soe. Rangoon: Hanthawaddy Press. (Kala I, 1959; Kala II, 1960; Kala III, 1961)

Leider, Jacques Pierre. (1998) "Le Royaume D'Arakan (Birmanie): Son Histoire Politique Entre le Debut du XV et la Fin du XVII Siecle," PhD dissertation, Institut
National des Langues et Civilisations Orientales, Paris.

Lieberman, Victor B. (1980) "Europeans, Trade, and the Unification of Burma, c. 1540-1620," Oriens Extremus 27 (1980):203-226.

Pinto, Fernão Mendes. 1989. The travels of Mendes Pinto. Translated and edited by Rebecca. D. Catz. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Shorto (tr.) (no date) Unpublished typescript translation of pp. 34-44, 61-264 of Phra Candakanto (ed.) Nidana Ramadhipati-katha (or as on binding Rajawamsa Dhammaceti Mahapitakadhara), authorship attributed to Bannyadala (c. 1518-1572), Pak Lat, Siam, 1912.

Surakiat, Pamaree (2005) "Thai-Burmese Warfare during the Sixteenth Century and the Growth of the First Toungoo Empire." Journal of the Siam Society 93: 69-

Surakiat, Pamaree (2006) "The Changing Nature of Conflict between Burma and Siam as seen from the growth and development of Burmese states from the 16th to the 19th centuries." ARI Working Paper, No. 64, March 2006,

John Strong on the legendary Asoka

In the external links section of the Asoka Wikipedia entry there is a wonderful set of articles on Asoka including an article by John Strong entitled "Images of Asoka: Some Indian and Sri Lankan legends" (p. 141) I'm interested in this, because I want to trace back the more legendary parts of the Burmese chronicle to their original sources.

Ruminations and confession for writing a Wikipedia article on Burmese or Myanmar history

Perhaps because I converted to Catholicism when I was 24, I have a tendency toward guilt, apology, and confession. So here is my guilty confession for writing Burmese history:

Some people might say that I shouldn't write this Wikipedia entry because: 1. I wrote an article that it cites (Fernquest, 2005) in which I make a new point that some might not agree with, so there might be a conflict of interest of me pushing a new point that hasn't been adequately subjected to batteries of peer review yet. 2. I'm not Burmese, although his doesn't seem to be an issue with other histories such as Greek or Byzantine, it does seem to be an issue with the history of Burma. Anyway, I'm planning on specializing in the "history of non-Western and pre-modern warfare" part of world or comparative history and comparing Burma with other times and places. Anyway, I'll give this Wikipedia entry my best shot. I may have to make it more summary.

Writing a Wikipedia article is a good opportunity to summarize and extract, to hone in on the essential, what is important. The process of writing is backwards from where you normally go when you write a long article. Long articles try to draw out causal connections and develop rich contexts and interpretations based on the many factors at play at any historical time and place.

I think using "Tai" is better than "Shan" because it highlights the cross-regional nature of this group which stretched from Yunnan down into what is now Burma and along to Chiang Mai and Lan Chang (Laos). Thank you to Pamaree Suakiat for the perfectly well thought out bibliographical entries.

Friday, July 07, 2006

History of Burma - Living in the past and peer review

Aye Chan, U. (2006) "Burma: Shan Domination in the Ava Period (c. AD 1310-1555)," Journal of the Siam Society, 2006, Vol. 94

The first sentence of this paper published in the most recent issue of the Journal of the Siam Society reads:
"Whether or not there was a 'Shan Age' in Burma's history has become a matter of debate among the historians of Burma..." (Aye Chan 2006, 27; my italics).
Now look at the distribution of publishing dates in the bibliography:

1876-1950 - 6
1950's - 6
1960's - 10
1970's - 3
1980's - 3
1990's - 1
2000's - 2

If there is a debate, where are the citations to the papers in this debate?

Aye Chan continues with how this debate about a Shan era supposedly arose. It arose...
"...after Michael Aung Thwin in his book, Myth and History in the Historiography of Burma (1998), argued that the notion of there having been three Shan brothers who founded a new dynasty following the fall of the Pagan dynasty in the closing decades of the thirteenth century was only a myth created by the European scholars Arthur Phayre, Edward Huber, G.E. Harvey and G.H. Luce"
Most of the papers cited are from four decades before Aung-thwin's paper was published. Does the Journal of the Siam Society have Peer Review? Should it? Should I be the one pointing this out?

If Aye Chan used Geoff Wade's online English translation of the Ming Shi Lu, as he surely did since I participated in the online forum where he asked me for citations to this work, the work should be cited as such. If Aung-thwin used Shorto's English translation of the Mon Nidana Ramadipati Katha, it should be cited as such. Should I be the one reminding a full professor of Burmese history to do this?

Translations actually take more time and are more valuable than artificial debates such as Aung-thwin's "Three Shan Brothers" debate that focuses on one obscure and complex period of great cultural interaction between Burmese and Tais, a period that lacks evidence, and where Aung-thwin, as usual, attempts to find a colonial era conspiracy whereby three members of the ruling elite are referred to as Shans by the colonial era historians. How convoluted and useless.

I am obviously an interested party here. I published a paper last year on this very topic, where I discussed the very point quoted in the first sentence of Aye Chan's paper above: "Whether or not there was a 'Shan Age' in Burma's history". I used Chinese, Burmese and Tai sources. "Tai" is the way most contemporary scholars refer to "Shans". This usage I discovered from peer review. Despite the certainty that Aye Chan professes on the second Shan period (c. 1527-1555) he bases his certainty on one historical tradition, the Burmese chronicle. The nature of Tai hegemony over Upper Burma during this period is far from clear if you look at all the sources: Burmese, Tai, and Chinese. This is very clear in Sun Lai-chen's dissertation (2000), the most important recent source not cited.

I will cite Aye Chan's paper in the future papers that I write, because that is the standard of scholarship I was taught to observe as a graduate student in Engineering at Stanford, but it will probably be as if I was talking to myself.

In fact, if there are to be no citations, no academic exchange, technically one should work in secluded privacy, not citing anyone who has published recently, pretending that no one else has thought about the issues, engaging in a few pro-forma meaningless skirmishes in the bogus Aung-thwin colonial conspiracy debates and then just publish a book as if no one else existed. This is obviously wrong.

The right way to proceed is probably to publish online a couple of times and then sollow this up with a more summary paper-based journal article that cites the evidence of the more detailed and longer online papers. This is probably the right combination or formula because longer online papers will allow more of the untranslated primary sources for Burmese history like the Burmese chronicle to be prarphrased and made accessible to a historical community that is still all too reliant on colonial era interpretations.

Peer review is essential. Online publishing is also essential so that students in Southeast Asia can actually read your paper about their history without having to rummage around in a remote and inaccessible university library somewhere.


Sun, Laichen. (2000) Ming-Southeast Asian overland
interactions, c. 1368-1644
. Unpublished PhD Dissertation,
University of Michigan.

Thursday, July 06, 2006

War making and state making as organized crime (Charles Tilly)

It was a joy to find this oft cited paper on state formation by sociologist Charles Tilly online. One online copy is at a regular university archive.

This Tilly paper is widely quoted in the state formation literature and is probably applicable to both pre-modern/ancient as well as nonwestern state formation. It caught my attention in Herman Schwartz's States versus Markets which has very nice summary descriptions of state formation processes. Since he doesn't link them back to the original historical events with citations though, it's difficult to see their full justification. A lot like Reid's magisterial Bruadel-like works for Southeast Asia that I often where the missing sources come from.

Michael Mann's "The Sources of Social Power I: From the Beginning to AD 1760" (Cambridge 1986) is a little bit more widely cited. For instance, being used in Scheidel's class on Ancient State Formation at Stanford.

Tuesday, July 04, 2006

Spinoza and Buddhism

Philosophy professor and author of a recent biography of Spinoza, Rebecca Goldstein, explains how Spinoza's philopsophy is similar to and different from Buddhism in a recent interview for the California Literary Review:

Interviewer: "Spinoza's philosophy has strong similarities to Buddhism - most notably the concept that any notion of a separate and distinct self is an illusion. Buddhism's method for understanding that truth is to turn off the mind, while Spinoza's is to rigorously engage the mind.

Goldstein: "The final viewpoint that Spinoza comes to has a great deal in common with Buddhism. (A friend to whom I was once explaining Spinoza quipped, "Oh, you're telling me that Baruch was the first Bu-Jew.") But of course Spinoza's methodology is entirely different, as you point out, placing all its trust in the deductive processes of logic. Since the world itself is woven of logic--really IS logic--then that's the one and only faculty of our minds that can penetrate beyond the appearances into true being. "For the eyes of the mind, whereby it sees and observes things, is none other than proofs." Spinoza's entire system in fact unfolds from what I call his basic Presumption of Reason, the belief that the world is entirely intelligible, that every fact that truly is a fact has an explanation. From this intuition of his (which he seems to regard as itself true by logic) he deduces the full sweep of his system. His system is supposed to be as inextricably woven of pure logic as reality itself."

The author's site has links to online book reviews but I have yet to find this book in Bangkok.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Wikipedia Hypercritique

Wikipedia is the future of collaborative writing...

...but here's an article that challenges the idea of Wikipedia.

It does suffer from a lot of hand-waving, a lack of examples, and some contradictions (e.g. Wikipedia has heavy editors versus Wikipedia is anarchy).

It shouldn't be a surprise that there are strong-handed editors in some more popular heavy traffic subjects. There probably should be.

Wikipedia's been used for personal vendettas. Juan Cole is a good example. The Juan Cole biographical entry has been refactored leaving the more controversial part in the Views_and_controversies_concerning_Juan_Cole entry.

Wikipedia style seems to always win in the end. It is not that difficult to smell extremism and bias in writing. Right now wikipedia excels at the more superficial: definitions, outlines, timelines, and external links.

In the future there will be more specialized encyclopedias. People are already starting to cite their sources more. In the days before Wikipedia, little spontaneous Wiki documentation systems sprouted up with every new piece of software. This will happen again with specialists forming specialized encyclopedias controlling the information and well they should to some extent.

Good governance is only one third participation. It is also legality (people follow rules to create order) and transparency (people see people following the rules so they have an idea of the bounds within which they can improvise).

Some articles are extremely high quality like Web Crawler or Nicolas Bourbaki or Collaboration or Peer Review. Other articles are the proverbial bathroom wall:

"[H]owever closely a Wikipedia article may at some point in its life attain to reliability, it is forever open to the uninformed or semiliterate meddler… The user who visits Wikipedia to learn about some subject, to confirm some matter of fact, is rather in the position of a visitor to a public restroom. It may be obviously dirty, so that he knows to exercise great care, or it may seem fairly clean, so that he may be lulled into a false sense of security. What he certainly does not know is who has used the facilities before him." (Source: Wikipedia:Wikipedia#Reliability)

The idea of the bathroom wall was created by a former Britannica editor whose livelihood has obviously been threatened. I did have to search forever to find the entry on the what is supposed to be the cornerstone of Wikipedia writing Neutral Point of View (NPOV) based on journalistic objectivity.

Organizing personal libraries of historical sources

Looking for organizing personal libraries of historical sources stored on one's computer, a presentation by Associate Professor Marti Hearst at U.C. Berkeley's School of Information as part of a course on search engine technology is useful.

Hierarchical faceted metadata represents knowledge so that it "can be understood well by many people when browsing rich collections of information."

Facets are sets of categories each of which describes different aspects of the objects in a collection. Facets can be hierarchical. Facets can also be mutually exclusive and exhaustive so that everything is guaranteed a unique description.

Examples in these Powerpoint lecture slides include organizing an art collection, a biographical site for Nobel Prize winners, and photos in photo collections such as Flickr.

Myanmar bans Google

YANGON: The Myanmar government has blocked the Google search engine and its mail service Gmail, say Internet users.

Users in the country have not been able to access the Google site for more than a week, reported the Mizzima News.

Those attempting to view either Google or Gmail are confronted with a message saying "Access Denied".

An official from Bagan Cybertech, the country's only Internet service provider, confirmed that both Google and gmail were inaccessible but declined to comment further.

In an effort to control the flow of information in and out of the country, the military government has banned several websites, including Yahoo and Hotmail.

Open Source Software and Open Standards for Archaeology (

Found references to Open Source archaeology site at tonight.

One of the links led to an interesting site:

"IOSA stands for Internet and Open Source in Archaeology. It is a research group of young archaeologists within grupporicerche. The aim of the web site and of IOSA research team is to promote the use of open source software and open stardards in archaeological computing. Any help is welcome and users are encouraged to register and contribute through discussion forums. is open to all who are interested in archaeology and free software (free as in freedom)."

I don't do archaeology, but being a specialist in ancient texts I'm interested in historical geography and maps, a shared interest with archaeologists. The links section of the site has a GIS and cartography, open access, and epigraphy sections.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

Historical chronologies : Web technology for visualizing parallel events (Ajax)

Check out Timeline which allows you to visualize historical events occurring in parallel in your web browser using Ajax technology (Ajax can effectively turn your web browser into something as quick a desktop computer application but using data from web databases). Ajax is used by most new Google desktop Apps.

The particular events used in the example are the Kennedy assassination, and it really seems effective in historical situations where there is a lot of action going on in parallel, so the chronicle history that I specialize in which is pretty linear may not be able to exploit it. Also you need extensive dating of events, although I guess if you know the sequence you could space events out logically along the chronology too.

The future lies in search engines that know linguistics

An article on Wikipedia 3.0: The end of Google? has leaped to popularity overnight. I think they miss the point that Google and the Semantic Web will not ultimately be two different things. They will converge to the same thing as we learn to parse the meaning out of the language we write in. People are lazy and this is the laziest alternative. It can even be donw while they write.

Ontologies should be built from the bottom up with linguistic raw material as new search engine capabilities.

Realistically people don't have enough time to organize their ideas by constructing folksonomies and Wikipedia's folksonomy is only going to capture how a fraction of the world sees a given topic.

The semantic web will eventually be built from the bottom up by semantically decoding the ideas tht people are expressing in their writing.

Making their writing clearer is where people should put their efforts, not social bookmarking .

Sure they should link to sites, but link to them in a way that is accessible to search engines and which clearly labels and identifies what the link is about Google Bomb