Oct 082017

Today is the birthday of Narapati Sithu ( နရပတိ စည်သူ) also known Sithu II or Cansu II (1138–1211), famed king of the waning Pagan dynasty of Burma/Myanmar from 1174 to 1211. I’ll give you some highlights of his reign after I dribble on a little about ethnicity, nationalism, language and whatnot – rather ironically, the day after I left Myanmar for Cambodia. At least the particulars are still fresh in my mind. Let’s look first at words such as “Burma” and “Myanmar” in the light of what they mean politically and in the context of nationalism.

Myanmar, like most other modern nations, is riven by ethnic strife that is centuries old. Whether you call the country Burma or Myanmar you are referring to the currently dominant ethnicity in a multi-ethnic nation. The military junta that ruled Myanmar for decades referred to the nation as the UNION of Myanmar, with accompanying slogans emphasizing the need for unity amidst the ethnic diversity and division that continues to this day.  Easy words when you belong to the ruling ethnicity. All nations (and empires) deal with the complexities of ethnicity: sometimes peaceably, sometimes not. Language is quite often the defining characteristic of ethnicity. For Westerners (especially my students of old), my usual illustration is to point out that what is usually called standard Spanish or French or Italian (or English for that matter), is no more than a dialect in a spectrum of dialects that came to be called “standard” because the people who spoke it had all the power: Florentine in Italy, Castilian in Spain, Parisian in France (and London English in England). Amidst those dialects of a single language (which are sometimes barely mutually intelligible) you’ve also got groups who speak completely different languages. In the contemporary UK, for example, you still have isolated pockets of speakers of both Gaelic and Norse languages dotted around the fringes, barely holding on in an ocean of standard English that floods media, government, law, and the like.  Nowadays you won’t find any native speakers of these languages who don’t also speak English, but centuries ago it was a different matter. In the 18th century in Great Britain there were plenty of people who could not speak English, but instead grew up speaking Norn or Manx, or Cornish or what have you. The situation changed considerably over the years through forced enculturation, but you can also understand how that would lead to resentment as local cultures succumbed to pressures from the dominant culture.

Thus, whether you think of the country as Burma or Myanmar you are using the name, not of a country as such, but of the currently dominant ethnicity – called Burmans in English. Narapati Sithu was largely responsible for this state of affairs, although a lot has happened since his reign. The Kingdom of Pagan (pronounced Bagan) was the first kingdom to unify the regions that came to constitute modern-day Burma/Myanmar. Pagan’s 250-year rule over the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery laid the foundation for the ascent of Burmese language and culture, the spread of Burman ethnicity in Upper Burma, and the growth of Theravada Buddhism in Burma and in mainland Southeast Asia. The kingdom grew out of a small 9th-century settlement at Pagan (Bagan) by the Mranma (Burmans), who had recently entered the Irrawaddy valley from the Kingdom of Nanzhao centered on Dali in what is now Yunnan province in China . Over the next two hundred years, the small principality gradually grew to absorb its surrounding regions until the 1050s and 1060s when King Anawrahta founded the Pagan Kingdom, for the first time unifying under one polity the Irrawaddy valley and its periphery. By the late 12th century Anawrahta’s successors – especially Narapati Sithu, had extended their influence farther to the south into the upper Malay peninsula, to the east at least to the Salween river, in the farther north to below the current China border, and to the west, in northern Arakan and the Chin Hills. In the 12th and 13th centuries, Pagan, alongside the Khmer Empire, was one of two main empires in mainland Southeast Asia. The Burmese language and culture gradually became dominant in the upper Irrawaddy valley, eclipsing the Pyu, Mon and Pali norms by the late 12th century. Theravada Buddhism slowly began to spread to the village level although Tantric, Mahayana, Brahmanic, and animist practices remained heavily entrenched at all social strata. Pagan’s rulers built over 10,000 Buddhist temples in the Pagan capital zone of which over 2000 remain. The wealthy donated tax-free land to religious authorities, and this practice was one of the primary cause of the collapse of the Pagan dynasty because religious leaders ended up with more wealth and power than the kings.

Narapati Sithu’s reign saw many firsts in Burmese history. For the first time, the term Mranma (the Burmans) was openly used in Burmese language inscriptions. The Burmese script became the primary script of the kingdom, replacing Mon and Pyu scripts. The first Burmese customary law based on his grandfather Alaungsithu’s judgments was compiled, and used as the common system of law for the entire kingdom. He founded the Royal Palace Guards, which later evolved to become the nucleus of the Burmese army in war time. He encouraged further reforms of the Burmese Buddhism. By the efforts of his primate Shin Uttarajiva, the majority of the Burmese Buddhist monks realigned themselves with the Mahavihara school of Ceylon.

Sithu II died in 1211 and during the reign of his descendants the region fragmented into ethnic pockets. Nonetheless, the process of “Burmanization”, which continued into the 19th century and the British colonial period, and eventually blanketed the entire lowlands, was still in an early stage. The first extant Burmese language reference to “Burmans” appeared only in 1190, and the first reference to Upper Burma as “the land of the Burmans” (Myanma pyay) in 1235. The notion of ethnicity continued to be highly fluid, and closely tied to political power. While the rise of Ava kingdom (1364 to 1555) ensured the continued spread of Burman ethnicity in post-Pagan Upper Burma, the similar emergence of non-Burmese speaking kingdoms elsewhere helped develop ethnic consciousness closely tied to respective ruling classes in Lower Burma, Shan states and Arakan.  In fact, the idea of Mons, for example, as a coherent ethnicity in the region, probably emerged only in the 14th and 15th centuries following a periodic collapse of Upper Burman hegemony.

I’ve already explained the impossibility of cooking Myanmar dishes outside of Myanmar.  Here’s a video that will help you understand.  The cook is from Bago, center of Mon culture, but lives on Inle lake.