The Power of Hpoun
covering burma and southeast asia
Sunday, February 17, 2019


The Power of Hpoun

By Min Zin DECEMBER, 2001 - VOLUME 9 NO.9

The excitement surrounding the discovery of a white elephant has served to illustrate the continuing importance of pre-modern notions of power in Burmese society. Culture is not an immediate obstacle to the political transition that Burma urgently needs to undergo. However, Burmese culture—or, more particularly, notions of power rooted in Burmese culture—may provide a distorted map that could very well prolong the country’s journey towards its goal of achieving a modern, democratic state. Burmese tend to paint a rosy picture of their culture, even as they acknowledge that in terms of political evolution, their country has lagged far behind much of the rest of the world. The Burmese people (and the Burmese military, at least ostensibly) seek to establish democratic rule, but they fail to critically examine aspects of their culture that may be incompatible with this goal. One such aspect would be the Burmese concept of hpoun, which originally meant the cumulative result of past meritorious deeds, but later came to be synonymous with power. Many observers, including both foreign scholars and members of the opposition, tend to regard power as a centralized force that wields total control over Burmese society. While this is true within the political arena, it does not take into account the nature of power as it is distributed through the whole of society. Hpoun is not confined to the realm of politics, but is actually woven into the very fiber of society like capillaries connecting veins and arteries—that is, the powerless and the powerful. Burmese, particularly members of the elite, like to believe that they live in a land governed by the Buddhist virtues of dana (generosity), karuna (compassion) and mudita (sympathetic joy). This idyllic view of Burmese society has induced a dangerous complacency with regard to the underlying significance of many common social practices. In particular, the exercise of power within the Burmese cultural context is deeply affected by the notion that the possessors of power acquired it through past acts of merit, implying that they are deserving of their status. This underlying assumption serves as the basis of all unequal relationships—between, for instance, men and women, haves and have-nots, rulers and the ruled, and dominant ethnic groups and marginalized minorities. The discourse of hpoun is so deeply embedded in Burmese culture that few even think to question it. Since hpoun is theoretically a "prize" earned through past good deeds, it is self-legitimating: Simply by virtue of possessing power, one has demonstrated that one has acquired considerable merit in past lives. Thus the question of moral legitimacy does not arise. As long as one remains in the ascendancy (whether socially, politically, or economically), one is presumed to possess merit. The concept of hpoun permeates Burmese society, and its influence may be empirically observed at all levels, from the basic family unit to the state. The use of the expression ein oo nat ("guardian spirit of the home") to refer to the husband signifies his preeminent role in the home, as does the familiar saying, "The son is the master; the husband is god." The superior status of male family members is often justified in terms of their hpoun; no further explanation is considered necessary. In the political realm, this reliance upon the notion of hpoun is even more pronounced. No matter how morally unfit a ruler may appear to be, as long as he is able to cling to power, he can claim that his hpoun is still flourishing. Thus Ne Win, the former dictator who remains a potent force behind the current military regime, has been dubbed "the king who never dies"—an epithet that aptly describes his image in the eyes of most Burmese, who have been conditioned to perceive him as the possessor of unconquerable hpoun. Interestingly, hpoun in its secular sense is frequently associated with the term let yone (literally, "the upper arm"), which signifies military prowess, or more generally, might. This indicates that the relationship between hpoun and brute force is mutually constitutive, particularly in the political arena. In the past, when Burmese kings extended their let yone in all possible directions, the expansions were seen as a manifestation of the superior hpoun of the dominant race. The idea of an undefeatable "King of the Universe" (Cakravartin) was later introduced to give such conquests a cosmological dimension, and this was used to condition subject peoples to acquiesce to their subordinate status. Since attempts to put Burma’s political evolution on a more progressive course have been effectively nipped in the bud by successive authoritarian regimes, the hpoun discourse has retained its hegemonic influence.

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