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.