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.