Review of History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times

Myanmar Since Ancient Times

Michael Aung-Thwin and Maitrii Aung-Thwin, A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times: Traditions and Transformations

London: Reaktion Books, 2012. Pp. 328; timeline, illustrations, notes, bibliography, index.

Reviewed by Patrick McCormick.


A few months ago, I found myself sitting in a restaurant in Bangkok, eating with a colleague and mentor. I mentioned to him that I had been given a copy of A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times to review. He looked grim and shook his head. “I’ve read it. He’s wrong as usual. I hope you’ll say something.” This reaction is typical of much scholarly reaction to Michael Aung-Thwin’s work, resulting from his tendency to propose new interpretations and criticisms, not all of which everyone wants to hear.

Throughout his scholarship of the past decades, Michael Aung-Thwin has been one of the few historians of Burma to revisit features of the Burmese historical landscape, and in so doing he has questioned the soundness of its foundations. In The Mists of Rāmañña (1), for example, he destabilized Mon—and, following the logic of the Burmese historical narrative, therefore Burmese—history. His work has drawn the attention not only of the international or outside scholarly community, but also of historians inside Burma, who see themselves as the living inheritors of Burmese history, with stakes in maintaining its topography as it stands.

Being of direct interest to audiences both inside and outside sets Aung-Thwin apart from most other historians of Burma writing in English in recent decades. Aung-Thwin has been explicit in re-evaluating evidence and interpretations that have shaped Burmese history for the past 100 to 150 years.(2) He has argued that much of our understanding of Burmese history comes from the hands of a few colonial-era scholars, such as G. H. Luce. Working in good faith with the skills and understandings that they had, these scholars wrote the best histories that they could, but their interpretations inevitably reflected contemporaneous ideas. Some of these scholars were involved in the subjugation of the Burmese empire or connected with the colonial regime, and so had an interest in portraying aspects of Burmese history and its participants in a particular light.

To place Aung-Thwin and his work into a larger context, he hardly stands alone in revisiting the “classical” or standard work in the field, a process which has been going on in the historiography of neighboring countries. Historians of Thailand, Cambodia, and Indonesia have revisited the classical scholarship of the colonial era and questioned, if not overturned, much of the received wisdom. In Thailand, scholars have questioned many of the interpretations of the royalist-nationalist school of Thai history, while recent generations of Indonesia scholars have evaluated and criticized the role of the Dutch in defining the terms of history in the Indies. This situation elsewhere stands in contrast to what still largely obtains in Burmese history, inside and outside the country. Whereas scholars of Thailand are now in their third or later generation of scholarship, in Burma much of the groundwork of sorting and annotating primary sources, or conducting archaeological work, especially outside of Upper Burma, has yet to be undertaken. The English-language scholarship of the colonial-era scholars continues to be central to how Burmese scholars and intellectuals understand their own history.


A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times very much continues the style of argument and the projects that Michael Aung-Thwin has been developing for the past several decades. With apologies to Maitrii, his son and co-author, it is in the line of his father’s work that the scholarship here follows. The Introduction is crucial to understanding the positions of the authors: whose story they want to tell, but also which tendencies in writing about Burma they wish to counteract or counterbalance. They take the state as the focus of the study, which covers the mid-ninth century AD to March 2011, and also the Burmese speakers. To shift the focus from the Burmese speakers, they argue, would be to ignore the vast majority of verifiable historical sources, the most pivotal figures, events, places, and historical patterns.

The authors are writing against what they see as the distorting effects of scholarship that presents balance for balance’s sake, that focuses, that is, on the histories, societies, and cultures of other groups inside the country. This approach could take the form of giving equal time to all the so-called ethnic minorities, or, to follow James Scott’s work, of spending as much time talking about the political and social space outside of the state, and even discarding the state altogether. In contrast, the authors of A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times see the minorities as relevant, as a kind of supporting cast, but as people whose role is often exaggerated. Balance for the sake of fairness is ultimately a moral stance which the authors eschew. For them, any attempt to tell the history of the country without acknowledging the central role of the Burmese would be intellectually dishonest and empirically impossible. This concern with empirically verifiable evidence is found in all of Michael’s work, his argument being that written, archaeological and inscriptional evidence exists in the greatest amounts for the Burmans, with far fewer numbers of sources for the Mons, Shans, and Rakhaings.

The other chapters of the book are arranged to set up examples of ancient precedents and patterns, tracing their manifestations through the centuries. These patterns have to do with the state, patterns of state expansion, and the Burmese love of order over chaos and disorder. Many of the twelve following chapters are re-workings of themes and arguments on which the authors, particularly Michael, have written in detail elsewhere, brought together here in a concise form.

Chapter One details the basic conditions in Burma – the land and landscape, natural resources, the peoples and ethnic groups, the socio-economic life of the country, and administration, particularly the administrative divisions that have existed for centuries. It argues, as Michael has argued elsewhere—in The Mists of Rāmañña, for example—that the land has determined the kind of agriculture practiced in Upper Burma, and therefore shaped the nature of the state. Whereas the land of Upper Burma supports a large agriculturally-based state which, through taxation, can support the building of huge religious edifices, such as in Pagan(3), Lower Burma could not support agriculture on that scale until the nineteenth century, precluding the development of a similarly-sized state there. Rather, states in Lower Burma were based on trade and tended to be more ephemeral. In this ground-laying chapter, the reader may also be surprised to learn that Burma has the second lowest rate of deforestation in Southeast Asia, and that today nearly everyone speaks Burmese.(4)

Chapters Two and Three consider the prehistory of the country up through the development of urban settlements before the rise of Pagan. A crucial point the authors make early in Chapter Two is that very little archaeological work has been done to provide the kind of information available in other parts of the world, such as Meso-America or the Middle East. In this area, Southeast Asia in general lags far behind Japan or China, and within Southeast Asia, Burma is nearly dead last. This state of affairs, the authors argue, reflects a lack of funding and expertise, a desire to spend money on development, and concerns over security and stability – the latter perhaps an allusion to a fear among authorities that new archaeological findings may destabilize the historical, and potentially political, landscape.

In Chapter Three, the authors reassess the Pyu and their position in Burmese history. Building on arguments that Michael developed in The Mists of Rāmañña, the authors here take issue with the assumptions behind the connections drawn between the available archaeological and linguistic evidence on the one hand and the idea that all of the urban sites in the country before Pagan are necessarily Pyu. In other words, while there are cultural patterns apparent in the archaeological evidence, to assign an ethno-linguistic identity to all this evidence is misleading. The term Pyu itself appears in Burmese inscriptions only in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, long after the period of their civilization from 200 BC to the ninth century. The authors reiterate useful concerns: the problem of assigning from the outside a reified, solid sense “ethnicity,” a concept which arose out of nineteenth-century European thought, as opposed to identities that groups and individuals attribute to themselves, whether based on location, occupation, language, religious practices, or gender. Rather than discussing the era in ethnic terms, they focus instead on the development of urbanism before Pagan, calling the pre-Pagan era “urban” with no inherent ethnic label.

Chapter Four is a condensation of Michael’s earlier work on Pagan. In the arrival of the Burmese speakers from the area of Nan Zhao into Upper Burma in the ninth century the authors find some of the earliest evidence of a tendency of later centuries to bring about ever greater integration to the territory under the control of the Burmese speakers. They note that in theeleventh century, when king Aniruddha expanded his control into Lower Burma, that there were no polities evident in the area. This is a reference to the usual understanding of Burmese history in which the Mons had been present in Lower Burma since the first millennium. Rather, the authors of A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times state that the first sources making reference to Mon kingdoms, to King Manuha, and to the city of Thaton appear only in the late thirteenth century. Given that this is a critical reassessment of one of the central tenets of Burmese history, the academic reader would appreciate greater references on this point, although the authors explicitly state early on that they have kept such references to a minimum to keep the book accessible to a wider audience.

Much of Chapters Five through Eight are reiterations of arguments that Michael has developed elsewhere. In Chapter Five, the authors discuss the upstream-downstream, Upper Burma-Lower Burma, dynamic in a period of “geo-political” dualism from the late fourteenth to early sixteenth century. The salience of this chapter is that the Aung-Thwins try to shift the understanding of the presence of two poles in the country away from one associated with ethnicity – Burman Upper Burma (Ava) in contrast to Mon Lower Burma (Pegu), towards seeing Ava and Pegu as typical examples of a wider phenomenon in the history of Southeast Asia, upstream agriculture-based societies and downstream trade-based polities. They thus argue that the lens of ethnic rivalry, which ignores this larger context, has distorted our understanding of the period and has had political consequences, such as feeding aspirations for an independent (Mon) Lower Burma in the form of Rāmaññadesa. Whereas Ava represented the latest incarnation of the agriculture-based state on the model of Pagan, Pegu represented the downstream trade-based, entrepôt state found not only in other parts of the Mainland but in Island Southeast Asia too. The authors see the ultimate absorption of Pegu into the Burmese state based in Upper Burma not as an ethnic conquest, but as a natural outgrowth of the symbiotic relationship between the upstream-downstream polities.

Chapter Six is an outline of the period in the sixteenth century when Pegu, in the Second Pegu-Taungngu Dynasty, was briefly the seat of power for the entire country. Chapter Seven traces the return of power to Upper Burma, which the authors describe as a more congenial home to power in Burma than Pegu, while Chapter Eight covers the last Burmese dynasty before the intrusion of the British.

With the last chapters of the book, the authors take the reader through the fall of the Burmese monarchy, British colonialism, independence in 1948, and the legacy of developments since then, especially the rise and prominence of the military. The authors see the military as providing the order that Burmese prefer over chaos and disorder, with all its associations of lawlessness and violent crime. In these chapters, especially Chapter Ten, we hear more clearly from Maitrii, who discusses social and religious developments that worked to reunify society, whose fabric the British had rent with their conquest. In some sense the last chapter is a culmination of everything that has gone before. Having taken the reader through the past 1200 years, the authors have given us their take on the central features of the Burmese socio-cultural, geo-political, economic and religious landscapes. On top of that topography, given the preferences and tendencies of the Burmese people, they build an interpretive framework in which to make sense of the process of change that has recently begun in the country. Whatever the aspirations of the middle-class aspirants of Rangoon, Burma will not look like Singapore any time soon, but more likely follow a path similar to Cambodia, with a continued concern with security, stability, and order.


In line with Michael Aung-Thwin’s earlier work, the authors of A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times continue with what could be called a deconstruction of the fundamental themes and narratives in Burmese history. Although the term “deconstruction,” with its attendant intellectual baggage, is perhaps not a term that the authors themselves would embrace, it useful for thinking about what they do and do not do in this work.

For the Aung-Thwins, putting the Burmans at the center of this book reflects an empirical reality. Having an ethnic majority in the center would not be out of place, after all, when discussing other countries of Southeast Asia. Could a history of Vietnam be written without putting the ethnic-majority Kinh in a central role? Or a history of Thailand written without recognizing the salience of the Tai speakers? It is useful to be reminded that there is in fact a numerical and ethnic majority in Burma, which is not a county like Indonesia or India where there may be pluralities, but no ethnic cores.

As welcome and necessary as Michael Aung-Thwin’s revisiting of the received wisdom of Burmese history is, the authors could also turn their deconstructive lens usefully on to some of their own counter-propositions. The picture painted here of Burmese history is rather monolithic, with a powerful, central state and an apparently stable ethnic core at the center, neither of which appears to change over time. Has the state, a central frame of the entire work, been as stable throughout the more than 1000 years covered, as implied? Similarly, have the Burmese as an ethno-linguistic group in fact been stable over the same period of time? Although Burmese-language materials make up the majority of verifiable, empirical evidence, nevertheless, to relegate other ethno-linguistic groups to the position of supporting cast gives a false sense of solidity and continuity between the past and the present.

This is a history in which the authors offer few queries of possibilities or speculations, nor is there much place for contingency. There is a seeming inevitability to the narrative, drawing a straight, direct line from ancient Pagan to Nepyidaw in 2011. Within the historiography of Southeast Asia, there has long been a tension between work that takes the modern nation-state as the unit of analysis and that which addresses itself to larger areas or to the region as a whole, as in the work of Anthony Reid, Leonard Andaya, and some of the recent work of Victor Lieberman.(5) A criticism of the nation-state-based histories—as popular as they may be with readers and publishers—is that they have a teleology leading inevitably to the circumstances of the present. The modern boundaries of a state like Burma naturalize, even render inevitable, something which may owe just as much to accident. Burma stands apart in mainland Southeast Asia in having attached to its core a variety of other ethno-linguistic groups, people who inhabit a vast area of the Burmese “border.”

Here the hand of contingency is at work. Over time, Burmese empires tried to assert control—with varying levels of success—over areas of what are now central and northern Thailand, Assam, and Manipur. Some areas have never been under the direct control of Burmese courts, but were rather in various forms of political, religious, or cultural association. Shan-speaking areas of southwestern China are a case in point. Today, these areas are not included inside the modern political boundaries of Burma, in part because of the boundaries that the British drew up and agreed to with their neighbors at the time. Such developments fall away from the narrative of A History of Myanmar Since Ancient Times, but the armed conflict and political developments of the past several decades are not so much the manifestation of ancient patterns in a central Burmese state. Rather, they are the result of the British empire’s imposition of a concept of hard, impermeable borders over a system that used to allow for much greater fluidity and varying levels of autonomy.

Whatever the specific points of interpretational disagreement that the reader may have with the Aung-Thwins’ work, these should not blind us to all that Michael Aung-Thwin has done over the past several decades. He has shaken up the complacent certainties of the Burmese historiographical landscape, forcing us to reconsider our own positions and understandings by reexamining the available evidence. He has alerted to us that the ground under our feet may not be nearly as solid as we take it to be.

Patrick McCormick works as a consultant in education and research in Rangoon, and begins working for the École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) there in September 2013.

1. Michael Aung-Thwin, The Mists of Ramanna: The Legend that was Lower Burma (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2005).

2. In chronological order, these works include “The ‘classical’ in Southeast Asia: The present in the past,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies XXVI, 1 (1995): 75-91; Myth & History in the Historiography of Early Burma: Paradigms, Primary Sources, and Prejudices (Athens, Ohio: Ohio University Center for International Studies, 1998); “The myth of the ‘Three Shan Brothers’ and the Ava period in Burmese history,” Journal of Asian Studies XLV (1996): 881-901; and “Mranmā Praññ: When context encounters notion,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies XXIX, 2 (2008): 193-217. Aung-Thwin has been publishing since long before the mid-1990s.

3. Michael Aung-Thwin, Pagan: The Origins of Modern Burma (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1985).

4. This last point came as a particular surprise to me. A team of Burmese researchers I have worked with, who have conducted interviews in Shan, Tai Kheun, Pa-O and Danu villages in Shan State, in Chin State, and even in Rakhaing State (where people speak “only” a dialect of Burmese), told me that they had to use translators because so few people spoke Burmese. They also heard many young pople say that they wanted to learn Burmese in order to get better jobs.

5. These include Anthony Reid,  Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680, Volume One: The Lands Below the Winds (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1988) and Southeast Asia in the Age of Commerce, 1450-1680, Volume Two: Expansion and Crisis (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1993); Leonard Andaya,  Leaves of the Same Tree: Trade and Ethnicity in the Straits of Melaka (Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 2008); and Victor Lieberman, Strange Parallels: Southeast Asia in Global Context, C. 800-1830, Volume 1: Integration on the Mainland (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003).

About Patrick McCormick, NM-TLC Reviewer