Historian of Burma Michael Aung-Thwin, despite claims that his work demythologizes the work of previous historians such as Gordon Luce, actually even further mythologizes this history.
Given the semi-fictional nature of pre-modern Burmese historical sources, historians may never be able to state precisely "what actually happened," only approximately what "might have happened
." Furthermore, they should be intellectually honest about the limitations of their sources and ability to infer what "actually happened."
Writing history in a tone that accuses previous historians such as Gordon Luce of creating myths, as Aung-Thwin does, hides the incomplete and ambiguous nature of the historical record. Later in his career Luce tried to weave the bare facts he had uncovered earlier, in extensive translation of inscriptions and chonicles, into a richer narrative story of "what might of happened" in order to make sense of it, producing such works as Luce (1966, 1970), works that project modern political categories such as "democratic" and "nationalist" back into pre-modern history, projections that dated these works rather quickly. Aung-Thwin hones in on these dated interpretations and by exagerrating they effectively come to summarize the sum total of the work of Luce as interpreted by Aung-Thwin. In short, in being over zealous in finding orientalism everywhere, Aung-Thwin comes close to approximating an orientalist oneself.
Here is a brief sketch of the so-called problem of the Three Shan Brothers that Aung-Thwin "discovered" in two publications (Aung-Thwin, 1996, 1998) and a translation of the key text that everything hinges on, that Aung-Thwin never provides.
"Three Shan brothers" refers to three brothers who held power in Upper Burma after the decline of Pagan in the wake of the Chinese Mongol invasions around 1300.
"Shan" is the Burmese term for the Tai ethnic group and language, so the more general term "Tai" will be used here.
Tais played an important role for hundreds of years in the history of Upper Burma after the decline of Pagan, roughly the period 1287-1555 (Bennett, 1971; Fernquest, 2005).
There were frequent Tai invasions into Upper Burma (Bennett, 1971).
There are also references to Tai chieftains at various locations in Upper and Lower Burma during this period, indicating widespread Tai settlement and intermingling with both the Burmese and the Mon (Fernquest, 2006).
Indigenous historical sources do not refer to the three powerful brothers of post-Pagan Upper Burma as the "Three Shan Brothers."
The term was created by colonial era historians.
Colonial era historians also sometimes referred to the whole period 1287-1531 as the "Shan Dominion" period (Harvey, 1925, 72-73).
Now, there are really two separate questions.
a. Is there any truth to the name "Three Shan Brothers" ?
b. Is this really the best term to refer to them with ?
The answer to the first question is "yes" there is some truth to this name, but it is not 100% certain either way.
The answer to the second question can only be "no" if one wishes to be precise and mirror historical sources in the best way possible.
Now to look in further depth at the first question.
Burmese Chronicle Evidence
To answer the question whether there is any truth to the name
"Shan Brothers" one has to take a close look at the chronicle
passage used to justify this name:
"Once upon a time, a great Tai chieftain (sawbwa) who ruled over the Beinnaka Myo (town, major settlement) had two sons. When the great Tai chieftain no longer existed, the older son became the ruler of Beinnaka. Since his relations with the younger brother Theinkhabo were not clear, he imprisoned the younger brother and, as the younger brother Theinkhabo was going to be killed, he left Beinnaka together with the people who worked for him (his followers or clients), and having fled from place to place he arrived in Myinsaing where the Pyo people lived in the kingdom of Myan-ma and there in the Myinsaing area, he married the daughter of a wealthy Athi. The daughter of the wealthy man gave birth to three sons named Athinkhaya, Yazathingyan, and Thihathu" (UK I, page 309, section 374, see vocabulary notes at end)."
Given the accusatory nature of Aung-Thwin’s historical arguments, this is the very passage he should have gone back to and used as the basis of his argument. Instead, he weaves layer after layer of speculation to the already existing multiple layers of speculation, hardly clarifying matters.
There are two questions:
a. Does "Sawbwa" mean "Tai chieftain" in this text as it normally does?
b. Does "Beinnaka" refer to a group of Tais in this text?
There is absolutely no reason to believe that the word "Sawbwa" does not refer to a Tai chieftain. All the other references to Sawbwa in the Burmese chronicle during this time period mean "Tai chieftain." "Sawbwa" is just the Burmese loan word for the Tai word "Chao Fa" meaning "prince" or "chieftain." Chinese has a similar loan word used in the Ming Shi-lu, the Annals of the Ming dynasty, to refer to Tai chieftains (Wade, 2005). Perhaps more is not made of their Shan-ness or Tai-ness because there is only a passing reference to their origins in the first line before they leave for Myinsaing.
Under the chronicle usage of the term "Beinnaka" is synonymous with "Shan" or "Tai." Beinnaka refers to Tai chieftainships in the ancient Tagaung chronicle later incorporated into the Hmannan chronicle:
"[The fall of Tagaung.] In the time of the last of these kings, Bhinnakaraja, the kingdom of Tagaung, called Sangassarattha, perished under the oppression of the Tarops [Chinese] and Tareks from the Sein country in the kingdom of Gandhala. And Bhinnaka, mustering what followers he might, entered the Mali stream and abode there. When he died his followers split into three divisions. One division founded the nineteen Shan States of the East and were known thenceforth as the descendants of Bhinnakaraja. Another division moved down the Irrawaddy and entered the Western Country, where dwelt Muducitta and other Sakiyan princes among the Pyus, Kanyans, and Theks. The third division abode in Mali with the chief queen Nagahsein." (Glass Palace Chronicle, Pe Maung Tin and Luce, 1923, Oxford University Press, 1923)
Reference is also made to "Bhinnaka" as a Tai ethnonym in U Tin's Myanma Ok-chok-pon Sadan (Tin and Bagshawe, 2001):
"The nineteen Shan districts of the Bhinnaka taing - this province had its origin, according to the Arakanese chronicle, when King Kan-ya-za-gyi planted 57 villages to the east and to the west of the Salween river, as a Shan area, to form a barrier against the Tartars and the Chinese. According to the Burmese chronicles, Bhinnakaraja was the last of the 33 kings of the first Tagaùng dynasty, and in his time the country was divided into three parts. One part, to the east, became the nineteen Shan districts and was called after the king's family name. In this connection, it is said in the Ei-gyin for the Sin-gù Prince:
Bhinnaka taing - chief seat of government! Bhinnaka pyi - famous controlling power! King Bhinnaka pure fount of your race! Two noble sons of the Sakya line!" (Tin and Bagshawe, 2001, 171)
Aung-Thwin says the answer is "no" to both questions. No, "sawbwa" does not mean Tai chieftain. No, "Beinnaka" is the name of a modern village which is also a Pyu archaeological site, so Beinnaka must be "Pyu."
He does not use the chronicles themselves as evidence. He claims that "Sawbwa" can refer to chieftains of tribal peoples such as the Kachin. He cites a secondary source of a non-historian, namely anthropologist Edmund Leach (1954, reprint 1970) who refers to events during the much later nineteenth century. Aung-Thwin claims that the modern village and Pyu archaeological site of Binnaka South of Kyaukse was the original home of the three brothers. He doesn’t provide any evidence and in fact rather oddly places a question mark after his own assertion:
"As it turns out, Binnakha is actually an old Pyu (?) city that lies right in the heartland of Burma, just south of the irrigated Kyaukse valley, and not a Shan state outside of Burma. It dates to sometime in the first millennium B.C. and was unexcavated until archaeological work uncovered it in the 198os.4 Thus, although Phayre is certainly not expected to have known of its Pyu origins from archaeological excavations conducted in the twentieth century, his mistake was in assuming that it was Shan." (Aung-Thwin, Myths, 123)
Aung-Thwin clearly is not even aware that "Binnaka" is an ethnonym in the Burmese chronicle tradition that can refer in a broad sense to Shans or Tais. As archaeologist Hudson observes: "the modern village of Binnaka, possibly named for this king
(Win Maung, 2001a) sits in the shadow of the Shan hills at the southern end of the Samon Valley [near Kyaukse]" (Bob Hudson, PhD dissertation, 24, citing: Win Maung, "Tanpawady" 2001b Binnaka Yaza (King Binnaka and his family, A paper read in Mandalay to commemorate the 85th birthday of Sayagyi U Maung Maung Tin. Mandalay, Privately circulated). According to the chronicle tradition the Shans were known as descendants of the Bhinnaka king.
Given that it is an ethnonym for Shans and Tais, Binnaka could refer to several different settlements, not only this village, or even a whole domain. Even if it does refer to this one little village, the Pyu archaeological work is for a period hundreds of years before the time of the Three Brothers.
Aung-Thwin, Michael (1996) "The Myth of the "Three Shan Brothers" and the Ava Period in Burmese History," The Journal of Asian Studies
Aung-Thwin, Michael (1998) Myth and History in the Historiography of Early Burma
, Ohio University Center of International Studies.
Aye Chan, U (2006) "Burma: Shan domination in the Ava period (c. AD 1310-1555)," Journal of the Siam Society
, Vol. 94.
Bennett, Paul J (1971). "The 'Fall of Pagan': Continuity and Change in 14th Century Burma," in Paul J. Bennett (1971) Conference Under the Tamarind Tree: Three Essays in Burmese History
, Yale University Southeast Asian Studies Monograph Series no. 15. New Haven, pp. 3-53.
Harvey, G.E (1925) History of Burma from the Earliest Times to 10 March 1824, The Beginning of the English Conquest
, London: Longmans, Green, and Co.
Hudson, Bob (2004) "The Origins of Pagan: The Archaeological Landscape of Upper Burma to AD 1300," PhD Dissertation, University of Sydney.
Fernquest, Jon (2005) "Min-gyi-nyo, the Shan Invasions of Ava (1524-27), and the Beginnings of Expansionary Warfare in Toungoo Burma: 1486-1539," SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research
, Vol. 3, No. 2, Autumn 2005
Fernquest, Jon (2006) "Crucible of War: Burma and the Ming in the Tai Frontier Zone (1382-1454)," SOAS Bulletin of Burma Research
4.2 (Autumn 2006).
[UK] Kala, U (1961). Maha-ya-za-win-gyi
, Three volumes, edited by Pe Maung Tin, Saya Pwa, and Saya U Khin Soe, Rangoon: Hanthawaddy Press.
Leach, E.R. (1954) Political Systems of Highland Burma
, The London School of Economics and Political Science, G. Bell and Sons, London.
Leach, Edmund (1970) Political Systems of Highland Burma
, Boston: Beacon Press.
Luce, G.H. (1966) "The Career of Htilaing Min (Kyanzittha ), the Uniter of Burma, Fl. A.D. 1084-1113," Journal of the Royal Asiatic Society
, New series. vol. 1 - 2 (Apr. 1966), pp. 53 - 68.
Luce, G.H. (1970) "Aspects of Pagan History - Late period," In Tej Bunnag and Michael Smithies, eds. In Memorian Phya Anuman Rajadhon
," Bangkok, Siam Society, pp. 135-137.
Pe Maung Tin & G.H. Luce (1923) The Glass Palace Chronicle of the Kings of Burma
, Rangoon University Press.
U, Tin and Bagshawe, L.E. (tr.) (2001) The Royal Administration of Burma
, Bangkok : AVA Publishing House, 2001.
[MSL] Wade, Geoff. tr (2005) Southeast Asia in the Ming Shi-lu: an open access resource
, Singapore: Asia Research Institute and the Singapore E-Press, National University of Singapore, [http://epress.nus.edu.sg/msl]
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