Continuity in Burma

The survival of historic forces

About two years ago, Marshal Tito of Yugoslavia, hoping to weld the neutralist nations into a dynamic third force in international politics, made state visits to India and Burma. His reception here was enthusiastic, but, he found that in spite of coincidental similarities the situation in our country and his was fundamentally quite different The strongest impression that Marshal Tito is reported to have taken home was of the all pervading continuity of historical attitudes and behavior in Burma.

As a successful Marxist revolutionary, Tito seems to have been puzzled and not a little disappointed by the Burmese. Our brand of socialism struck him as too gentle and too tame. Socialists such as Tito have rather standardized attitudes about history. They expect us to believe, for example, that the medieval despotism of pre-colonial Asia is as dead as the dodo, having left no trace of itself on the modern world. As for the colonial period which followed, it is anathema, and any vestigial remnant from it is a slur on the efficiency and good name of the modern socialist. The cleaner the slate is wiped of the past the better.

Burma, however, has not behaved according to these rules. In fact, she has been stubbornly independent, following a middle course between the “lines” of both great power blocs, and managing, in the process, fully to satisfy neither. I suspect that what irritated Marshal Tito most in Burma must have been the seeming inefficiency with which a marvelous opportunity for a really drastic and thorough socialist revolution had been let slip. I am sure he felt that our revolutionaries had not gone nearly far enough in cleaning house of the past. He probably did not realize to what extent the freely elected leaders of the new Burma have been conditioned by our history—and that surprise should only have been felt if they had behaved differently than they have done.

A considerable measure of ruthlessness was an essential requisite for a socialist revolution such as the one in Yugoslavia. And in the context of Burmese history a similar ruthlessness might well have been expected in the character of our leaders. Quite to the contrary, their political behavior has been benign. To understand this paradox we must go back for a look at Burmese history.

From the very beginning its trend was toward autocracy. Our earliest forebears were a people who had wandered away from the region now known as Kansu in western China. Probably they started on their long trek in order to escape absorption into the Sinic world. The rigors and dangers of their migration must have created pressures toward the appearance and acceptance of a leadership pattern. Over twelve hundred years ago, when they were on the threshold of what is now Burma, they were caught for a while in the clashing ambitions of Tibet and Tang China. Both sides impressed these early Burmans into service as auxiliaries in their wars.

We do not know what the Tibetans called our ancestors, but the Chinese knew them as “the Meng people.” The Chinese often named a people by the title of their ruler, and in the Chinese "Meng" some scholars see our Burmese “Min,” which still denotes the wielder of power. Thus “Ingaleik Min” was our equivalent for the expression “British Raj” in India. It seems probable, then, if this philological evidence is accepted, that by the beginning of the Burmese historical period authority had become centralized.

After the entry into Burma, the pressures toward centralized authority were maintained, perhaps even increased. The region settled earliest by the Burmese was that around Kyaukse, just south of the present Mandalay. Here a number of perennial streams were developed into an elaborate system of irrigation which has remained important through the centuries. We know from the examples of ancient Egypt, the fertile crescent in Mesopotamia, and ancient China that the construction and maintenance of large irrigation projects have always demanded centralized authority. Society usually responded by giving arbitrary powers to a king. Inevitably, individual kings used these powers to acquire more. Burma followed this normal pattern.

Later, with the spread of the Burman settlements from Kvaukse over the more fertile adjacent regions, where irrigation was not needed, a tendency toward decentralization might have developed and perhaps in little led to the overthrow of the authoritarian principle. But this did not happen; such a development was inhibited by the introduction of a totally new factor: Theravada Buddhism, which was adopted by King Anawrahta of Pagan as the state religion in the eleventh century.

Now essentially, the teachings of the Buddha stress the importance of the individual—his salvation from the sorrows of the mind through dependence on his individual efforts. No external authority can affect the progress of a man's soul toward perfection in the slightest. This recognition in Buddhism of the importance of the individual has affinities with the basic concepts of Western democracy, and the fervor with which the new faith was embraced by the Burmans might logically have resulted in a rapid transformation of their political ideology. That it did not can be explained by reference to certain other cultural elements that came into Burmese life along with Buddhism.

Buddhism was first introduced by the Indian colonists who were sailing all over the seas of Southeast Asia. These Indians brought with them not only their religions—Buddhism and Hinduism—but also the art of writing, mathematics, architectural skills, the science of astrology, international commerce, and the concept of the divine monarch. In Burma it was the king and his family who first took up the new religion. By his patronage and protection of the Buddhist faith, the king became the benefactor of all his people and thereby further strengthened his hold on them. His authority was justified as necessary to defend the purity of the precious faith and insure its survival. Moreover, he had the power and the means to make strikingly manifest the degree of his faith as no other Burman had. The architectural wonders of the city of Pagan bore witness to the king's position as the first lay Buddhist of the land. Indeed, the fact that he could be such a magnificent patron was accepted as proof that he had the most virtuous accumulation of meritorious deeds from previous incarnations to his credit and was therefore deserving of his superior powers. It was this religious sanction for the royal prestige which outweighed the tendencies toward decentralization of power that lay in the territorial expansion and the concept of personal freedom inherent in the teaching of the Buddha.

There was only one other social factor that might perhaps have affected the king's claim to complete supremacy. This was the Sangha, the Order of the Buddhist monks. Monkhood is the ultimate expression of Buddhist self-purification, and the Burmese have always accorded their phongyis an intense veneration. But the true monk, held in reverence by virtue of his very renunciation of the world, could not interest himself in struggles for power. Those who did so fell at once to the level of mere worldly plotters and could be disposed of without public outcry.

Presented by

U Kyaw Thet

Dr. KYAW THET is Professor of Oriental history at the University of Rangoon. Of Burman-Mon-Chinese ancestry, he was born in 1921 in Rangoon, took his doctorate of London University, and later taught for two years in the Graduate School of Yale.

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