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Ethnic Politics in Eighteenth-Century Burma

  • Victor B. Lieberman (a1)


We commonly find in the literature on pre-colonial mainland Southeast Asia a tendency to treat the principal ethnic groups—Burmese, Mons, Siamese, Cambodians, Vietnamese—as discrete political categories. This tendency is particularly marked in the historiography of the Irrawaddy valley, where the recurrent north—south conflicts of the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries have usually been interpreted as ‘national’ or ‘racial’ struggles between the Burmese people of the north and the Mon, or Talaing, people of the south. In writing of the last major ‘Mon—Burmese’ war, that of 1740—57, historians have characterized the 1740 uprising at the southern city of Pegu as an expression of ‘Mon nationalism’. The ensuing conflict reportedly became a struggle between Mons and Burmese each ‘fighting for the existence of their race’; and Alaùng-hpayà, said to be a champion of ‘Burmese nationalism’, allegedly made vigorous efforts to destroy the Mon culture and people once he had triumphed.



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I wish to thank Professor C. D. Cowan, Professor Hugh Tinker, Professor H. L. Shorto, Professor Hla Pe, Mr William Koenig, and especially Mr John Okell for their assistance. Responsibility for the content of the article remains my own.

1 For explanations of the revolt in terms of ‘Mon nationalism’, the ‘Talaing national movement’, the ‘Talaing … nation’, etc., see Hall, D. G. E., Early English Intercourse with Burma, 1587–1743, second edn (London, 1968), pp. 12, 236;Pearn, B. R., A History of Rangoon (Rangoon, 1939; repr., Westmead, England, 1971), p. 41;Cady, John F., Southeast Asia: Its Historical Development (New York, 1964), pp. 285, 288–9;SirPhayre, Arthur, History of Burma (London, 1883; repr., New York, 1969), pp. 142–3.

2 See Harvey, G. E., History of Burma (London, 1925; new impression, London, 1967), pp. 216, 220, 234–6;Phayre, , History of Burma, pp. 150–1; Cady, Southeast Asia, pp. 288–9;Hall, D. G. E., A History of South-East Asia, 2nd edn (New York, 1966), pp. 365, 381–6;id., Europe and Burma (London, 1945), p. 60;British Burma Gazetteer, 2 vols (Rangoon, 18791880), Vol. 2, pp. 168, 481;Bode, Mabel Haynes, The Pali Literature of Burma (London, 1909; repr. London, 1966), pp. 68–9, 83.Aung, Htin, A History of Burma (New York, 1967), pp. 153–70, 313, is a partial exception to this school of thought in that Htin Aung recognizes the poly-ethnic character of the initial uprising at Pegu. By 1747, however, he claims that the Mons had begun to massacre Burmese in the south. He characterizes the ensuing wars as a ‘racial conflict’ (p. 313) and freely uses the terms ‘nationalism’ and ‘patriot’ in describing Alaùng-hpayà's movement.Brailey, Nigel, ‘A Re-Investigation of the Gwe of Eighteenth Century Burma’, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Vol. I, No. 2 (September 1970), pp. 3347, has escaped the traditional Mon-Burmese dichotomy by focusing with considerable insight on ‘Karen’ involvement at Pegu. Yet he, too, has tended to think in terms of discrete politico-ethnic categories, e.g. ‘Karens’ vs. ‘the Mon party’, See infra.

3 Kunstadter, Peter, ‘Population and Linguistic Affiliation of Ethnic Groups of Burma’, in Kunstadter, (ed.), Southeast Asian Tribes, Minorities, and Nations, 2 vols (Princeton, 1967), Vol. I, pp. 7891.

4 See Halliday, R., The Talaings (Rangoon, 1917).

5 Dalrymple, A. (comp.), Oriental Repertory, 2 vols (London, 1808; repr., Rangoon, 1926) [Dal], Vol. I, p. 99.Cf. Halliday, , The Talaings, pp. 1920; and Maha-si-thu, Twìn-thìn-taik-wun, ‘Alaùng-mìn-tayà-gyì ayei-daw-bon’ (Biography of King Alaùng-hpayà) [AA-T], in Alaùng-hpayà ayei-daw-bon hnasaung-dwè (Two Biographies of King Alaùng-hapayà),Tin, Ù Hlá, ed (Rangoon, 1961), pp. 161, 186.

6 Kòn-baung-zet maha-ya-zawin-daw-gyi (Great Royal Chronicle of the Kòn-baung Dynasty) [KBZ], 3 vols (Rangoon, 1967), Vol. I, p. 114.

7 Lehman, F. K., ‘Ethnic Categories in Burma and the Theory of Social Systems’, in Kunstadter, Southeast Asian Tribes, pp. 93–124;Leach, E. R., Political Systems of Highland Burma (London, 1964);Moerman, Michael, ‘Ethnic Identification in a Complex Civilization: Who Are the Lue?’, American Anthropologist, Vol. 67 (1965), pp. 1215–30.

8 Kalà, Ù, Maha-ya-zawin-gyi (The Great Chronicle), Vol. 2, Pwà, Hsaya (ed.) (Rangoon, n.d.), pp. 214–16;Shorto, H. L., ‘A Mon Genealogy of Kings: Observations on “the Nidāna Ārambhakathā”’, in Hall, D. G. E. (ed.), Historians of South East Asia (London, 1961), p. 68.

9 Tambiah, S. J., World Conqueror and World Renouncer (Cambridge, 1976), Ch. 7.

10 See Adas, Michael, The Burma Delta (Madison, Wisc., 1974), pp. 1719, 57.Similarly, Moerman, , ‘Ethnic Identification in a Complex Civilization’, p. 1222, has stated that within lowland northern Thailand, all changes among minority Thai communities have been ‘toward the language, culture, and identification of the politically dominant people which, for the last 50 to 100 years, has been the Siamese.’ Note, however, that people can adopt another group's language and culture without adopting that group's ethnic self-identification; indeed, this is often the case in Lower Burma. See Lehman, ‘Ethnic Categories in Burma’, p. 116.

11 Cf. Moerman, , ‘Ethnic Identification in a Complex Civilization’, p. 1219.

12 The period is subdivided into the First Taung-ngu-Dynasty, c. 1539–99, with the capital at Pegu; and the Restored Taung-ngu Dynasty, c. 1597–1752, when the capital was usually at Ava.

13 Page 82 of a typescript MS which is a translation by Shorto, H. L. of the Mon Nidāna Rāmādhipatī-kathā, Candakanto, Phra, ed. (Pak Lat, Siam, 1912), p. 152. At Ayut'ia during the seventeenth century Japanese, Mons and even a Greek adventurer achieved high office; while in Arakan Portuguese, Japanese, Afghans and Indians served in the royal forces.

14 Tabin-shwei-htì ‘became a Mon’ only towards the end of his reign, and none of his successors followed suit.

15 See, inter alia, Lieberman, V. B., ‘The Burmese Dynastic Pattern, c. 1590–1760’ (Univ. of London Ph.D. Thesis, 1976), Ch. 2;Thwin, M. Aung, ‘The Nature of State and Society in Pagan’ (Univ. of Michigan Ph.D. Thesis, 1976), Chs 2, 4; Shorto, ‘Genealogy’, p. 68. See, too, Reynolds, Craig J., ‘Buddhist Cosmography in Thai History, with Special Reference to Nineteenth-Century Culture Change’, Journal of Asian Studies, Vol. 35, No. 2 (February 1976), p. 210, for a discussion of Buddhist literature as an instrument of poly-ethnic political integration in Siam.

16 Shorto, , ‘Genealogy’, pp. 6372.

17 See Lieberman, , ‘The Burmese Dynastic Pattern’, Chs 1, 4.

18 We might note that the patterns we are about to describe were by no means peculiar to the Irrawaddy valley, but in varying degrees must have characterized a great many pre-national societies in which quasi-feudal modes of political organization, a universalist Great Tradition, and strong particularist tendencies were note-worthy features. For example, in medieval Britain ‘Welsh’ and ‘English’ constituted. distinct ethnic categories, each with its own language, culture, and political traditions. English and Welsh authors composed scathing attacks on the moral qualities of their opposite numbers, while a ruler of Snowdonia in the thirteenth century sought to unify the Welsh on the basis of anti-English sentiment. Yet if we examine the course of the so-called Welsh Wars of the thirteenth century, we find that local rivalries, and family and personal jealousies were always more potent than any ‘national sense’, and that the English infantry on occasion consisted principally of Welshmen. So, too, the ‘Mon’ army, on occasion, consisted chiefly of Burmese. See Morris, John E., The Welsh wars of Edward I (Oxford, 1901);Poole, Austin Lane, From Domesday Book to Magna Carta, 1087–1216, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1955);SirPowicke, Maurice, The Thirteenth Century, 1216–1307, 2nd edn (Oxford, 1962).

19 For contemporary and nearly-contemporary accounts of these events, see the Burmese translation of the Mon history of the monk of Athwa, British Library, London, Oriental MS no. 3464 [BL OR 3464], pp. 139–41; an abridged version of the same work on unpaginated palmleaves in the Henry Burney Papers of the Royal Commonwealth Society, London, Talaing ya-zawin (Talaìng History) [RCS-TY] Thi-rí-ú-zana, , Làw-ká-byu-ha kyàn (Treatise on Customary Usages) [LBHK], Lat, Ù Hpò (ed.) (Rangoon, 1968), p. 4 India Office Library, London,Letters to Fort St. George, Vol. 26 (1741) (Madras, 1916), pp. 89, 35–7. For somewhat later accounts, see Hman-nàn-ya-zawin-daw-gyi (Great Glass Palace Royal Chronicle) [HNY], 3 vols (Mandalay, 1909), Vol. 3, pp. 380–4; and the summaries in Yi, Yi, Myan-ma-naing-ngan achei-anei, 1714–1752 (Burma's Condition, 1714–1752) (Rangoon, 1973), pp. 67ff.

20 BL OR 3464, pp. 139–40.

21 Letters to Fort St. George, Vol. 26 (1741), p. 9.

22 India Office Records, London, Abstract of Letters Received from ‘Coast’ and ‘Bay’ 1734–44, in Correspondence with India (Examiner's Office), E/4/4, p. 332. See, too, Yi Yi, Myan-ma-naing-ngan achei-anei, pp. 165, 179 for evidence that the Burmese identified their Peguan foes as ‘Talaings’.

23 HNY, Vol. 3, pp. 383, 390–1.

24 Ibid., pp. 387–8; Yi Yi, Myan-ma-naing-ngan achei-anei, pp. 164–6; See too, Ibid., p. 178.

25 H. L. Shorto, personal communication, 1974. A 1759 report in Dal, Vol. I, p. 99 said, ‘Even in Pegu their Numbers [i.e. Burmese to Mons] are 100 to 1’. For other evidence of a significant Burmese population south of Prome during the seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, see Dal, Vol. I, pp. 133–42 passim; Zam-bú-di-pá ok-hsaùng kyàn (Treatise of the Crown of Jambudipa Island), Furnivall, J. S. and Tin, Pe Maung (eds) (Rangoon, 1960), pp. 46, 58; KBZ, Vol. I, p. 105.

26 We do not know whether their ethnic distinctiveness within southern society was due to separate ahmu-dan roles, to a specialized economic function, to continual infusions of northern migrants, or to some other factor(s). On the determination of Chin communities within Lower Burma to maintain their separate identity, see Lehman, ‘Ethnic Categories in Burma’, pp. 112–13.

27 It is probable that a number of bi-lingual ‘Burmese’ at this time found it desirable to pass as ‘Mons’. Unfortunately, we have no firm evidence of such conversions prior to 1752.

28 1766 Martaban Land Roll MS in the possession of H. L. Shorto.

29 KBZ, Vol. I, p. 55; AA-T, p. 199. This is apparently the same individual identified as Nan-dá-balá-kyaw-thu in KBZ, Vol. I, pp. 170, 235; and in Let-wè-naw-yahta, ‘Alaùng-min-tayà-gyì ayeì-daw-bon’ (Biography of King Alaùng-hpayà) [AA-L], Alaùng-hpayà ayei-daw-bon hnasaung-dwè, p. 93.

30 Tin, U, Myan-ma-min ok-chok-pon sa-dàn (Record of Administration under the Burmese Kings), 5 vols (Rangoon, 19311933), Vol. 2, pp. 242–3;HNY, Vol. 3, pp. 391–2. This is probably the same man as Let-ya-bo-chok Min-nge-kyaw, BL OR 3464, p. 141.

31 Yi Yi, , Myan-ma-naing-ngan achei-anei, pp. 76, 81.

32 The Testimony of an Inhabitant of the City of Ava’, Salarak, Phra Phraison (trans.), Journal of the Siam Society, Vol. 45, Pt 2 (October 1957), p. 32. See, too, HNY, Vol. 3, p. 405.

33 Yi Yi, , Myan-ma-naing-ngan achei-anei, pp. 74–5.

34 Mon leaders who remained loyal to Ava between 1744 and 1752 included Banyà-ú-pá-ya-za, Banyà-kyàn-dàw, Banyà-damá-ya-za, Ya-za-di-ya-zá, and probably Banyà-sú, Banyà-byat-tá, and Banyà-thi-há.

35 Cf. HNY, Vol. 3, p. 384, and the 1766 Martaban Land Roll.

36 AA-L, p. 17.

37 Brailey, , ‘Re-investigation of the Gwe’, pp. 3347.

38 HNY, Vol. 3, p. 383;Pyin-nya, Ù, Kayin ya-zawin (History of the Karens) (Rangoon, 1929), pp. 145ff.

39 HNY, Vol. 3, pp. 382–3; Zam-bú-di-pá ok-hsaùng kyán, pp. 83, 98;Kalà, Ù, Maha-ya-zawin-gyi, Vol. 3, , Hsaya Ù Hkin (ed.). (Rangoon, 1961), pp. 332–40 passim;Wilkie, R. S. (comp.), Burma Gazetteer—The Yamethin District, Vol. A (Rangoon, 1934), pp. 2633, 45 passim;Luce, G. H., ‘Introduction to the Comparative Study of Karen Languages’, Journal of the Burma Research Society, Vol. 42, Pt I (June 1959), pp. 118.

40 Yi Yi, , Myan-ma-naing-ngan achei-anei, p. 85 reports that in 1744 an attack by ‘Karens’ forced Smin Dhaw temporarily to abandon Pegu (cf. Brailey, ‘Re-investigation of the Gwe’, p. 34). See, too, HNY, Vol. 3, p. 383.

41 Damrong, Prince, ‘Our Wars with the Burmese’, U Aung hein (trans.), Journal of the Burma Research Society, Vol. 40, Pt 2(a) (May 1958), pp. 285–6; BL OR 3464, p. 141.

42 BL OR 3464, pp. 140–1.

43 Brailey, , ‘Re-investigation of the Gwe’, pp. 35–6. On Banyà-dalà and the coup of 1747 (some sources date it to 1746), see, too, Yi Yi, Myan-ma-naing-ngan achei anei, pp. 89–95, 99; HNY, Vol. 3; pp. 383, 389–93; LBHK, p. 5; RCS-TY; AA-T, p. 209; Hall, English Intercourse, p. 305.

44 For Htin Aung's views, see his History, pp. 154–5; for Brailey's, see ‘Re-investigation of the Gwe’, pp. 35–6, 44–5.

45 Same as note 30.

46 Alaùng-min-tayà ameín-daw-myà (Edicts of King Alaùng-hpayà) [AAm], Sein, Hkin Hkin (comp. and ed.) (Rangoon, 1964), pp. 56–7, 83–4.Cf. Yi, Yi, Myan-ma-naing-ngan achei-anei, pp. 99100, 177, 178.

47 BL OR 3464, p. 141.

48 These were the uprisings at Madaya and Ok-hpo which Harvey, Hall, Cady, and Brailey have erroneously dated to 1740 rather than 1747.

49 See BL OR 3464, p. 142, and KBZ, Vol. I, p. 105.

50 LBHK, p. 6. As we shall see, these same sentiments of personal loyalty prevented some Ava officials from swearing allegiance to Alaùng-hpayà.

51 AA-L, p. 28.

52 Letter quoted in Yi Yi, Myan-ma-naing-ngan achei-anei, p. 179.

53 AA-L, p. 29. Cf. AA-T, p. 162.

54 AA-L, p. 28; KBZ, Vol. I, p. 44.

55 AA-T, pp. 170–71.

56 AA-T, p. 186; KBZ, Vol. I, p. 122.

57 AA-T, pp. 183–4; KBZ, Vol. I, pp. 104–5.

58 Thus, for example, he disseminated a chain letter quoting a prophecy which said that the Talaings were not destined to found a kingdom because the Burmese were ‘the principal group’ (AAm, p. 28). See, too, AAm, pp. 34, 910, 28, 129; and KBZ, Vol. I, p. 184.

59 AA-L, p. 29.

60 See AAm, pp. 910, 1213, 2830, 212–13.

61 KBZ, Vol. I, p. 237. Cf. AAm, p. 28.

62 Mon adherents included Banyà-ú-pá-ya-za and Ya-za-dí-ya-zá.

63 KBZ, Vol. I, pp. 187–9, 191, 257. Dàw-zwe-yá-set's successor at Martaban was also a Mon. Moreover, Symes, Michael, An Account of an Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava (London, 1800; repr., Westmead, England, 1969), pp. 38–9, says that Alaünghpayà gave a ‘distinguished station’ to the Martaban Mon leader, Talaban. An edict (AAm, pp. 910) which Alaüng-hpayà issued at the start of his southern campaign, although addressed to ‘my Burmese subjects…’, specifically invited Talaings to do homage on equal terms.

64 This follows BL OR 3464, p. 144. AA-L, pp. 25–6 and KBZ, Vol. I, p. 38 also refer to the incident of the carts, but identify the Mon hero as Ngá-thaik-sat. KBZ, Vol. I, p. 29 lists Ngá-htaw-aing as myin-yei-tet No. 14.

65 Dal, , Vol. I, p. 204;Some Historical Documents’, Furnivall, J. S. (ed. and trans.), Journal of the Burma Research Society, Vol. 6, Pt 3 (1916), pp. 213–23; Vol. 8, Pt I (1918), pp. 4052; Vol. 9, Pt I (1919), pp. 3352passim.

66 Halliday, R., ‘Immigration of the Mons into Siam’, Journal of the Siam Society, Vol. 10, Pt 3 (September 1913), pp. 67.

67 AA-T, pp. 194–5. There is no evidence to suggest that Yè-gaung-san-kyaw changed his hairstyle to mark these changes in political allegiance.

68 AA-L, p. 29. Cf. AA-T, p. 162.

69 Bá-thaùng, , Sa-hso-daw-myà at-htok-pat-tí (Biographies of Royal Authors) (Rangoon, 1971), pp. 241–52.

70 AAm, p. 149.

71 Symes, , An Embassy to the Kingdom of Ava, pp. 4950.

72 They garrisoned Hson-gùn fort–see AA-L, p. 112. For additional references to Burmese defenders, see AA-L, p. 116; AA-T, p. 202; KBZ, Vol. I, pp. 128, 141, 159, 184; Dal, Vol. I, p. 166; and supra, note 32. The total Peguan army by 1757 probably did not exceed twenty-five thousand, so Burmese represented a significant element indeed.

73 KBZ, Vol. I, p. 55.

74 Phayre, , History of Burma, p. 165.

75 I am particularly indebted to F. K. Lehman for the perspectives offered in his article ‘Ethnic Categories in Burma’. Other sources on which I have relied for the post-colonial period include: four publications by the Ministry of Information of the Union of Burma entitled A Brief Review of Disturbances in Burma (1949?), KNDO Insurrection (1949), Events Relating to the Karen Rising (1949), and Burma and the Insurrections (1949);Tinker, Hugh, The Union of Burma, 4th edn (London, 1967);Cady, John F., A History of Modern Burma (Ithaca, 1958; 4th print. with supp., 1969);Trager, Frank N., Burma: From Kingdom to Republic (London, 1966);Guyot, Dorothy, ‘Communal Warfare Between Burmans and Karens in 1942’ (Paper Presented to the 29th Congress of Orientalists, Paris, July, 1973);Silverstein, Josef, ‘Part Two—Burma’, in Kahin, George M. (ed.), Governments and Politics of Southeast Asia, 2nd edn (Ithaca, 1964);various editions of The Nation newspaper, Rangoon, 1952–1958; The Washington Post, April 11, 1976.

76 Lehman, , ‘Ethnic Categories in Burma’, p. 103.

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