A Sweeping Survey of the Shan
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Monday, July 15, 2024


A Sweeping Survey of the Shan



The story of Burma’s largest ethnic minority group is finally told—in voluminous detail

History of the Shan State: From its Origins to 1962, by Sai Aung Tun, Silkworm Press, 2009. P 684

IF ever there was a tiger in the room that hardly anyone was talking about, it would have to be the Shan. Burma’s second largest ethnic group—after the majority Burmans—has not had the same domestic or international attention given to their complex history as many smaller ethnic groups. Apart from a handful of Shan, Burmese and Western scholars, Shan State has rarely been studied since the great J.G. Scott wrote his encyclopedic Gazetteer of Upper Burma and the Shan States some 100 years ago.

The Tai people (“Shan” is the Burmese word for the group, derived from “Siam”) stretch from northeastern India, across northern Burma to southern China and throughout northern Thailand, Laos and Vietnam. But it is in northeastern Burma that the Shan have their greatest concentration, after waves of migration from China and the rise and fall of former Shan empires, the Nang-Chao and the Mao, more than 1,000 years ago.

The pre-independence Shan states were, for a few hundred years, a collection of principalities big and small, powerful and obscure, ruled by chaopha (“Lords of the Sky,” or sawbwa in Burmese) who had maintained uneasy relations with their neighbors before their conglomeration into one “state” in 1959, and slow descent into war thereafter.

The book is multi-disciplinary, blending historiography with political analysis, anthropology and naturalist notes on flora and fauna. It has maps, fascinating ephemera of memos, Shan script, letters and photographs, and lengthy extracts of quotes from a wide range of sources. 

There are sections describing the Salween River, the use of elephants, drum making, cotton, snakes, dress and handicrafts, bamboo lunchboxes and food (Shan cuisine is one of the world’s best kept secrets). The scale of the book, which the author admits was circumscribed due to limited funding (meaning it could have been even longer), reads like a late-19th-century British Geographical Society study; and I mean that with all due respect.

Sai Aung Tun’s approach is not without its faults. The strictures of writing inside Burma, especially as a member of the pro-military government Myanmar Historical Society, mean that some of the balance necessary for historical debates is not always there. Oddly strained quotes extolling inter-ethnic harmony—“Bamar [Burma] and Shan became united whenever they encountered foreign invasions or wars”—are not dominant perspectives.

They seem more like a harmless nod to the powers above than serious analysis, but these clunky passages are rare.

Another shortcoming is the book’s haphazard use of academic historiography methods. There are some odd omissions of key debates in the history of Burma and Shan State, especially in the section on the Shan governance hegemony in the post-Pagan era (12th—15th centuries), which Sai Aung Tun accepts, but which has been seriously challenged by author-historian Michael Aung Thwin. There is also no mention of Bertil Lintner or Martin Smith, two prominent scholars of the past 20 years of Burma’s vexed ethnic minority politics. The chapter on the Kuomintang invasion of Burma in the 1950s manages to omit all mention of the CIA while still pointing the blame at the US government. Otherwise, this is still an extremely informative overview.

The best chapters are those which detail the debates and proposals by Shan elites to revise the constitution and achieve greater federalism in Burma from 1960 to 1961. The Shan elites strived to amend many of the provisions of the 1947 constitution that were causes of conflict during the 1950s. These extremely well researched and well written 100 pages show that free and fair debates over federalism, budgetary equality, division of resources and basic human freedoms were far more sophisticated in Burma 50 years ago than now. It is especially stark as Burma enters the end run of the present military government’s farcical, brutal reform process.

This is old-school history, and readers, unless they are postmodern theorists, will certainly enjoy it. Finally the Shan have a book that does them justice, and I urge people to read this history along with Sao Sanda’s recent autobiography, The Moon Princess.

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