Interview with Professor Michael Aung-Thwin

This post is part of New Mandala’s series of interviews with academics, activists and writers who contribute to major debates in mainland Southeast Asian Studies.  These interviews are designed to probe the experiences, arguments and ideas that have helped shape the field. The ninth in New Mandala’s series of discussions with prominent personalities is with Professor Michael Aung-Thwin, Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii.  

Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Aung-Thwin, thank you for taking the time to be part of New Mandala’s interview series. As many of our readers will know, you have now been a professional historian for many years. I was hoping that you could tell us about how you first decided that Southeast Asian history was your calling? What other careers did you consider?

Professor Aung-Thwin: Thank you for asking me. Actually, when I was an undergraduate at Doane College, in Crete, Nebraska, I was just a plain historian with a European background. Yaroslav the Wise, Henry the VIII, Herodotus, Edward Gibbon, and of course, Vico. When I entered graduate school, at the University of Illinois, Champaign, I wanted to do South Indian history, as I grew up in South India in an American missionary school. Tamil is a difficult language and I had forgotten what little I knew of it, and I had forgotten most of my Burmese by then too. So, when I bumped into F.K. Lehman who was teaching Burmese there, I switched to SEA, thinking I would rather do my country’s history, although at the time, my first love was still India. But Illinois had no history of Southeast Asia at the time and I was enrolled in the History department. So, I took a Masters in East Asian History with Lloyd Eastman and John Pearson as well as Crawfurd and others in South Asia. From there, I transferred to the University of Michigan for my Ph.D to study South Asia with Tom Trautman and Southeast Asia with John Whitmore. SOAS had accepted me but with no scholarship, while the CSEAS at Michigan gave me a TA. I really didn’t consider any other careers.

Nicholas Farrelly: Before I get to my questions about your historical work I thought I should ask about your somewhat controversial reputation. In 2006, a document was circulated in Rangoon and online that listed hundreds of “Enemies of the Burmese Revolution”. You were described, at number 457, as, “Prof. Michael Aung Thwin, Asian Studies at the University of Hawaii, historian, wrote a contentious article in 2002 to argue against the Western imposition of democratic values on Burma, contending they were inimical to Burmese ease with military rule, in 2005 he endorsed the move of the capital to Pyinmana”. Do you consider yourself an “enemy of the Burmese revolution”? Or is this a preposterous claim?

Professor Aung-Thwin: You can’t take every written piece of paper as important (unless you want it to be). I saw that document as well and thought I was in good company with Bob Taylor, David Steinberg and others. But the title of the document itself reveals the calibre of its writers–their side and the wrong side–so to even comment on it any further would acknowledge their intelligence and importance.

Nicholas Farrelly: According to another criticism that circulated online back in 1995, you were “recognized as one of the opportunistic apologists of Ne Win’s rule by the earlier bunch of Burma activists” and were “an apologist of Ne Win’s despotic rule”. The term “apologist” is one that is often used to tar opponents in Burma studies. How do you reaction to these sorts of accusations?

Professor Aung-Thwin: They need to expand their vocabulary and move from “A” to other letters. Perhaps to the letter “O” which they also used for me but it really describes them. The easiest thing I could have done, and the most popular thing I could have done at the time, was to go with the current. So who’s the opportunist? Also, people usually use these ad hominem attacks when they run out of evidence and/or arguments. Calling someone names tells me that their case is weak. In fact, I could have made their case for them without calling anyone an apologist. And what’s the difference between calling someone an “apologist” and calling him a jerk or worse? It doesn’t require any intelligence and tells the reader nothing.

Nicholas Farrelly: Some of the most virulent and personal condemnations of your work came after your essay “Parochial Universalism, Democracy Jihad and the Orientalist Image of Burma: The New Evangelism” was published in Pacific Affairs in 2001. Those condemnations do not, from my point-of-view, really give us any opportunity to better understand the situation in Burma. In that essay you argued that, “Perhaps the most destructive aspect of democratization is that it invariably means decentralization, which, in most non-western contexts today, encourages social and political anarchy. In countries such as Burma, anarchy is feared far more than tyranny, so that if there exists a genuine desire to promote freedom from that fear, issues important to Burmese society should be addressed, not assumptions concerning the universalism of western values”.

You then went on to use the notion of “democracy jihad” to ask some penetrating questions of the push for democracy in Burma. You continued with this theme in an article in October 2007 where you wrote that “In the case of Burma, ‘good’ is labeled ‘democracy,’ and ‘evil’ is everything else, including the ruling generals”. Given your regular and critical comments on “democracy”, what do you propose is a better system for governing Burma? Is the status quo worth defending?

Professor Aung-Thwin: First, some people who wanted to, missed the point about the democracy Jihad article, and I figured, if they’re that hysterical, nothing I said further was going to change their minds. I was not about to spoon feed them either. I must have touched a nerve though, suggesting I was probably mainly right. Second, the article was less about Burma than about US foreign policy. Third, the issue is not about democracy per se, but its use and its abuse, as we see today just about everywhere. People can get away with virtually anything by invoking democracy as their stated goal: the ends justify the means as long as the end is democracy. Fourth, when you pit a situation as good and evil only, and are given one choice, which choice will most people take? Yet, human society is much more complicated and although these extremes are “true”, they are extremes, not the larger whole between those extremes where most people live and think.

To answer your question about a better system: I never said I was offering a better one, just that the way democracy was and is being used (to suit one’s political agenda) is just not going to do it. And why must its opposite be posited as the only alternative? Because I may not want American style democracy imposed on Burma doesn’t meant I must necessarily want the status quo.

Whatever is adopted for governing Burma, it can’t be done: 1) on the streets in highly emotional situations where the West is cheering on the rioters and the security forces are shooting them. 2) in the West Wing of the White House where Burma is very low priority and scarcely understood, Mrs. Bush notwithstanding. 3) between just the NLD and the Junta without including the reps of the ethnic groups who participated in the writing of the new constitution (from which the NLD walked out, but now is in a position to be left out, so have been more accommodating). 4) without including the orthodox mainstream Sangha who abides by the Vinaya (I’m not referring to the bogus monks in whose monasteries were found arms, ammunition, and pornography. I don’t care what monks or non-monks do in the privacy of their rooms. It’s not a statement about their “morality”; but about their commitment to their vows). 5) and without some other organizations which are not in the Western press’ limelight but are important in Burmese society (such as farmers organizations, teachers organizations and the like).

All these things do not necessarily imply a democratic government of the American kind. Whatever form it takes, it cannot ignore Burma’s history, culture, institutions, society. Perhaps it will turn out to be a hybrid of sorts but it’s something that Burma has to work out, not Mrs. Bush, Mr. Bush, China, India, Mr. Gambari, or any of the exile groups that have adopted an “all or nothing” stance.

You know what the real agenda of these exile groups is, don’t you? It’s not national reconciliation but regime change. For, if there’s national reconciliation, then the external dissident groups, including the NLD in exile, will be left out, along with their economic support from USAID, State, and the National Endowment for Democracy. The latter alone allocated nearly 3 million dollars in 2006 to undermine the Government, including $15,000 for “educating monks in monasteries” about democracy. (It does this with other countries too. You can see their budget, how much, where it goes, by googling their web site.) Anyway, if this happens, i.e. national reconciliation rather than regime change, Suu Kyi will be regarded as a traitor by her own people for “caving in”. There are too many crazies for me to even contemplate the repercussions. I’m sure that’s part of the reason for keeping her under house arrest.

Nicholas Farrelly: In Justin Wintle’s 2007 biography of Aung San Suu Kyi he describes you as “a traditionally minded Burman”. In a section about Burma’s democracy icon when she was still a graduate student, Wintle notes “Michael Aung Thwin could be less circumspect…She [Aung San Suu Kyi] was, in his opinion, a divisive figure, forever harping on about her dad”. What have been your dealings with Suu Kyi? Is this a fair appraisal of your attitude towards Asia’s most famous political prisoner? Do you still consider her a “divisive figure”?

Professor Aung-Thwin: “Traditionally minded Burman”? When Suu and I were once invited to Yoneo Ishii’s house for dinner, Suu said, “Ko Michael, don’t you miss Burma when you hear this [Burmese] music?” (Ishii had put it on for us) I said, “to be honest, I prefer the Beatles” (since I grew up their music). She was put out by that remark. I admit it wasn’t very polite. I’m far from being a “traditionally minded Burman.” Besides, that’s irrelevant and is another form of name-calling. Either way, maybe Wintle should have contacted me first before rushing to judgment. (Has he even met her?)

Suu and I were colleagues at Kyoto University when both of us were invited by its Center for Southeast Asian Studies in 1985-86. We had offices next to each other (hers is now a shrine, mine is probably used for storage), saw each other every day, and her younger son (Kim) played with our kids and the Andaya kids who were there at the same time. My wife would often take Kim to International School where our kids were enrolled (whereas Kim was enrolled in a Japanese school, none of whose students spoke English) just so that he could meet some kids his own age who spoke English. The point I’m making is that I knew Suu very well, for a year, in all kinds of different situations—at CSEAS seminars, at the office, eating lunch at Kyoto U cafeteria, having her and her family over for dinner (when Michael and Alexander visited for Christmas). I saw her virtually on a daily basis, and under circumstances where we could speak freely with no political pressures or public scrutiny, and before she became famous and had to worry about image. We argued about Burma almost every day and had honest disagreements. So, when I said she was divisive, that’s because she was. It’s no secret. Everyone knew it, we, as well as her Japanese hosts. But what’s the big deal? Unless you’re making her into a Joan of Arc who can do no wrong and walks on water. I took it as quite normal as I have many aunts and cousins in Burma who’s always doing that sort of stuff. And she was, indeed, always harping about her father. I would too if my father were as famous as hers. She even tried to convince my daughter how famous her father was by showing her a Burmese coin with his face on it. (My daughter was hardly 7 and couldn’t give a damn.) So, my comments about her were based on my relationship with her then; nothing more or less. This was before she became, as you say, “Asia’s most famous political prisoner”. But she wasn’t when I knew her. Are you suggesting that I should revise my story to fit the current context? I’m a historian, not a political scientist. Ha! Ha!

Nicholas Farrelly: We should now turn more directly to some of your copious historical writings. In a 1979 article published in the Journal of Asian Studies, you wrote “…the same pattern of institutional and ideological factors is present in three Theravāda Buddhist societies in South and Southeast Asia (Ceylon, Burma, and Thailand): the frequent rise and decline of dynasties, the recurrence of sasana reform, and the persistence of merit-path-to-salvation as an important feature of its belief system. The important variable may be the degree to which monastic landlordism affected the state, and thereby the dynastic cycles. To determine this, we would need to know the approximate amount of land the sangha held between the rise and decline of a dynasty, relative to the (calculable) available land”. This is an interesting historical insight. But I am wondering whether you see this kind of “monastic landlordism” have any enduring importance in the present-day? Does that “same pattern of institutional and ideological factors” hold true today? Or it is, well, too early to say?

Professor Aung-Thwin: In some ways yes, in some, no. I’ve continued the research into the Ava period (1364-1527), and it holds true there as well. But since then, land was no longer the only and/or primary basis of the economy. So maybe by the 16th-18th centuries, when trade and other economic components began to be a larger part of the economy, land’s impact became less important and less of a factor. Monastic Landlordism is still pretty strong but not as much as it used to be when the produce of land was the “GNP” of the country. The Sangha still holds considerable wealth even if, I’m told, donations have declined in recent years, part of the reason for the recent protests. (The monks’ involvement had little or nothing to do with ideology but economics.) And since Sangha land is tax exempt in perpetuity, it is still legally theirs; what has changed is its value relative to other forms of wealth of the state.

The ideological factors are also still important regardless of their wealth. I’m doing an article on the modern Sangha and don’t want to scoop myself but generally speaking, the power of the Sangha (in terms of influence and control over people’s behaviour) is still pretty strong, even if undeserved in the case of bogus and rogue monks. There’s also a difference between the Sangha during U Nu’s time and subsequent military rule: the latter had slowly turned the Sangha into what is more like Thailand’s situation (i.e. part of Government). In the Burma case, it is “under” the Ministry of Religion. The monks were far more unruly and criminal during U Nu’s regime. Just check the papers between 1949 and 1959, you won’t believe what they were arrested for, nearly every day. How their role will play out in the new constitution is too early to tell; if they are even included.

Nicholas Farrelly: In a review by Bénédicte Brac De La Perriére of your 1998 book, Myth and History in the Historiography of Early Burma: Paradigms, Primary Sources, and Prejudices, she argues that, “By deconstructing historical events as creations of myths where there were none, Aung-Thwin is actually unveiling his own bias that Burmese history demonstrated an enduring continuity. This may be a defensible argument from the perspective of cultural history, but it is not so acceptable when dealing with factual history”. Do you see an enduring continuity in Burmese history? If so, what are the key components of it?

Professor Aung-Thwin: First, I don’t quite understand what her point is since that’s not what the book was about. (She may have been thinking about the Pagan book published in 1985) Her statement is also a non-sequitur and shows she either hasn’t read the book well or has not understood it. Cultural continuity and exposing what we thought (for nearly 100 years) were historical events on which much of the interpretation of early Burma was based, are two different things. The book was about the latter, not the former.

Second, and with regard to your question, yes I do. More specifically, there is continuity of: a) the conceptual system, particularly Burmese Theravada Buddhism and Nat worship, and in general, of religious values; b) political ideas, such as conceptions of leadership, authority, and legitimacy; c) the basic social structure of society that reflects the bulk of the agrarian population; d) administrative principles found in patron-client values; e) the underlying principles of civil and criminal law; f) language and its literature; and g) the nature of the agrarian economy. This may be the “cultural history” she is talking about. But it isn’t in this book except for some remarks made in the introduction and conclusion. Maybe that’s all she read. Also, it’s not an “all or nothing” proposition, for there are changes too, particularly in terms of the (market) economy brought in by Indian, Chinese, Portuguese, and later colonial forces.

In terms of the substance of the book, there is no doubt that the events we once considered history are really myths. I showed that with original evidence in five, very detailed chapters. A review is useless if the only thing it does is make an argument about the reviewer’s own views. Even then, her argument doesn’t make any sense. You should refer the reader to more competent and established scholars in the field who reviewed Myth: Martin Stewart Fox in CSSH, Pat Pranke in Asian Perspectives, and the late Paul Wheatley’s in the AHR.

Nicholas Farrelly: Jon Fernquest, who just happens to be a regular commentator on New Mandala, has taken to criticising your research in various online forums. According to Fernquest, “Even if you have painstakingly collected all the relevant texts that Michael Aung-thwin refers to in his recent Mists of Ramanna, wading through the tortuously convoluted logical arguments is a human rights violation in-and-of-itself. If you engage in a debate with Michael Aung-Thwin using all the inaccessible texts that he cites, only you, him, and a handful of other people are going to be able to follow it, or even care”. Do you think this is a fair criticism? Is there anyway to make the many texts that found your historical analysis available to a wider audience?

Professor Aung-Thwin: It requires no credentials to put your opinions on-line, especially on your own web-site. Especially if you don’t have to go through peer review, a problem I think we as scholars should take much more seriously. The first ever contact I had with Jon was via an email which came out of the blue. He had written to ask me about graduate studies at Hawaii. So I encouraged him, especially since he was interested in Burma and appeared to be serious and I thought maybe I’ll have another graduate student working on Burma. He also sent me a valuable translation by a friend of his and I reciprocated with an mss that is also rare that he wanted. I still haven’t met him, although people have told me about his web site. I don’t read blogs as a matter of principle. But from what I hear, his invectives seem to be largely of an ad hominem nature where he seems to be “talking” directly to me. But since I don’t read blogs, he’s talking to himself really. I don’t know why he’s like that since I’ve never done him any wrong.

But your questions regarding these three “critics” raise another issue, particularly with regard to their selection for assessing my (or anyone’s) work; they are hardly representative of the best and most competent the field has to do that job. They also obviously haven’t read my works with any reflection, intellectual integrity, or knowledge of the evidence. Their criticisms also reveal a poverty of both a solid theoretical background and a broader historical knowledge in which my works should have been placed. So, I wonder if the field needs to reassess its editorial process of assigning reviewers for their journals (except for those who can assign themselves), so that the most competent and best referees are asked to do reviews. As you know, genuine academic books are not your run-of-the-mill Hollywood biographies; we work very hard on them. Mists took six years from inception of idea to completion. They deserve better and more competent evaluators.

Nicholas Farrelly: In a November 2005 Bangkok Post article you wrote: “This recent shift of the [Burmese] capital to Pyinmana on the southern edge of the Dry Zone is not surprising at all. Indeed, back in 1993, I said as much in an article (‘I will not be surprised if the capital of Burma eventually returns to the dry zone’). The reasons for moving the capital to the interior, the Dry Zone of Upper Burma are historical, cultural and strategic…The Dry Zone is also much closer to all the most important mineral deposits and other natural resources whose future development will be increasing, not decreasing. In short, it is mainly for cultural and historical reasons, but also for more current strategic ones, that the colonial capital of Rangoon is being dumped. It has nothing to do with soothsayers, paranoia, or fear of US attack. It’s not about the US or the ‘international community’! Believe it or not, most nations in the world make internal decisions that have absolutely nothing to do with us, uncomfortable as that may be to our sensitive narcissism”. For these reasons, do you think the Naypyidaw experiment will outlast the current government? Or is it destined to be scrapped as soon as any future political reforms are put in place?

Professor Aung-Thwin: I don’t think it’s “an experiment” and will probably outlast the current government. It’s not a new, whimsical wish but an old desire to return to the “heartland”, to one’s roots, something they’ve always wanted to do (and did earlier when the Pegu/Toungoo Dynasty collapsed). Only, the British reversed this trend when they appeared and resurrected the coasts as “center” when they made Yangon capital. We have long assumed that Yangon and the coasts is the “front door” of Burma; it is really the “back door”. (China and the North is the “front door”.) For most of its 2000 year history, with the exception of about 250 years, Burma has looked north to China, not south to the ocean. It is the West which assumed that where they entered must have been the “front door” since they never enter by anyone’s “back door,” right? (By the way, do you ever wonder why so much fuss was made of this move? No one criticized the Indians for moving to New Delhi from their colonial capital of Calcutta, or the Germans who went back to Berlin recently, or the Americans who moved their capital from Philadelphia to Washington, amongst many others.)

What needs further comment though is the treatment of Naypyidaw in the press, especially the AP. It is not “carved out of the jungle” or “remote.” It’s right on the main rail line between Rangoon and Mandalay. It was a major fief town during Pagan and subsequent periods, and has been an important urban area for about 800 years if not longer. It’s like calling Chicago “remote” when it lies on I-94 (?) between New York and LA. These images are actually meant to demonize and barbarianize the Government; exactly what the British did with the monarchy (and the US did with Iraq) before they were both conquered. Although I don’t think that’s the US’s intention, one never really knows for sure with the kind of personnel currently in the White House.

Nicholas Farrelly: In the paper you presented at the 2006 AAS Conference you argued that “The image of Burma’s history as one of irreconcilable, perpetual ethnic conflict is a nineteenth century colonial construct, in part created by its officials to be commensurate with its desired political consequences: namely, divide and rule. Since scholarship, like trade, also followed the flag, colonial scholars, who were more often than not its officials as well, reconstructed Burma’s early, pre-colonial, and post-colonial history to fit that image”. What do you think has been the major implication of this historical perspective? Would Burma have enjoyed an easier ride if the history it inherited from the colonial historians was different? Is that the implication of your argument?

Professor Aung-Thwin: The major implication is that we who inherited that colonial legacy have had to dissect just about everything. And it’s not so much an issue of “what if” we had inherited something else. We deal with the legacy handed down to us. At the same time, we would have had less to dissect if the colonial scholars hadn’t done what they did. In that sense, yes, perhaps it would have been “an easier ride”. However, had there not been this colonial perspective, not only on history but on ethnicity and a whole lot of other stuff being critiqued profusely today, we would not be addressing many interesting, post-modern kinds of issues either. I think their legacy has actually made doing Burma history more fun! I was not complaining, just explaining.

Nicholas Farrelly: Professor Aung-Thwin, before we finish, it would be good to find out some more about current projects. What do you have planned for 2008?

Professor Aung-Thwin: I’m doing a book entitled: A Tale of Two Kingdoms: Ava and Pegu in the15th century (to fill that gap still unfilled). It’s the “in-between” story between Pagan and Toungoo. Few seem to know what went on then. And since I posed the need for looking at Ava and Pegu at the same time rather than each one individually in Mists, I have to take on the burden of my own suggestion, I guess, as I see no one else doing it. I’ve also submitted a couple of articles. One, mentioned above, on the modern Burma Sangha from Annexation to 2007, in light of what happened recently, and another called “Where Notion Meets Context” about the notion of “Burma” and/or “Mranma Pran” and how it is defined and redefined in the historical and political contexts in which it appears.

Nicholas Farrelly: Thank you, Professor Aung-Thwin, for taking the time to be involved in the New Mandala interview series. It has been great to have you involved.