11 July 2010

The origin of Myanmar is Myanmar

Feng Yingqiu of Xinhua News brings us this strangely tautological lede from Burma. Bear with this long quote until its weird end:
Myanmar archaeological experts have been making research in cooperation with international primate experts to prove the proposal -- "The origin of Myanmar is Myanmar."

These experts have been working together yearly to find out the fossilized remains of Pontaung primates in Pontaung rock layers.

The findings of the primates on the Stone Age, the Bronze Age and the Iron Age, gained from the archaeological research in Meiktila and Yamethin districts in Mandalay division over the past decade, stood some evidences for the Bronze Age and the Iron Age as well as for the Myanmar culture and history, according to research report.

Over the weekend, Myanmar's Ministry of Culture organized a paper reading session on archaeological evidences in Nay Pyi Taw with the belief that the findings through the archaeological research add to the Myanmar history.

The research paper reading session involved resources persons from Myanmar Historical Mission, National Culture and Fine Arts Universities in Yangon and Mandalay, Archaeology, National Museum and Library Department as well as a foreign academician.

Doing archaeological research on the Myanmar history from the origin of the race to date through the prehistoric period and Pyu period, Myanmar claimed that it has been able to discover the origin of Myanmar people who were born and who migrated from one place to another in the Myanmar soil along with the Myanmar civilization.
Minor explanation: Burma was renamed Myanmar by the current military dictatorship. I'm being politically correct by continuing to call it Burma, which the pro-democracy campaigners prefer.

Myazedei Temple, Pagan (AOMAR)

Even allowing for the vagaries of English as a second language, something is peculiar here. The article claims that because there are Myanmar people in the archaeological record, therefore Myanmar people are from Myanmar. The statement is grandiose and meaningless at the same time. Of course, the archaeological record has no ethnic identity, since it's a collection of stones and bones and earth. But the habit of reading ethnicity into the record is persistent, not least since it's politically useful. This is an especially weird instance, but not alone in the Burmese context. This article from Prof. Dr. Khin Maung Nyunt, the former director-general of the Myanmar archaeology service (from government's webpage) adds yet another strange dimension to the whole thing:
Archaeological and historical evidence has proved that Myanmar's pre-history dates back 50 million years and history to the 1st century A.D. Paleontologists who in the past as well as recently made a field study in the Pondaung area of Myanmar further confirmed the archaeological date by means of the fossils of Primate they discovered in situ. Historical sites in the country abound in ancient monuments above ground and artifacts underground which indicate that civilisation of not later than the first century A.D. had flourished there.
Usually we think of pre-history as 'people doing stuff, but before writing was invented'. The notion that there was anything remotely resembling 'people' 50 million years ago is crazy, but these two articles distinctly imply that these ancient primates represent the first Burmese people. Connecting a current culture to the 1st century CE is enough of a stretch, but 50 million years takes us practically to the Cretaceous - long before beasts that looked even remotely like us evolved. (The great apes, for instance, branched off the primate tree just 18 million years ago).

Goodies from the early iron age in Burma (Halin Museum)

Many peoples in history - from ancient Greek poleis to North American First Nations - have legends that they somehow emerged from the nearby earth, or a mountain, or a river, or the sky. Us Classics nerds call it 'autochthony' (auto=self, same; chthon=earth). It's certainly true that Burma's history is long and rich - from interesting mesolithic sites documented here to the amazing temples of Pagan. (I had a nice time today scouting through a blog from the Association of Myanmar Archaeologists, which posts a lot of research excerpts that do a great job of teaching the totally ignorant [i.e. me] something about the history and archaeology of the country.) But this idea of Burmese as autochthonous is couched in weirdly scientific language that smells political to me.

Burma is has suffered under an Orwellian military dictatorship for most of the period since independence. The generals took over after the first and last free election (in 1989) didn't go their way. Opposition parties are banned and the press is totally state controlled. The military has embraced a strain of totalitarian capitalism, using slave labor to conduct rainforest clearcutting and build oil pipelines for western oil companies like Unocal. The military controls almost all of the economy directly or indirectly and is said to be deeply involved in heroin production. Then there's the repression of non-Burmese ethnic groups (about 30% of the population), which has led to an ongoing low-level civil war and several million people displaced within Burma or in refugee camps over the Thai border. (Full disclosure: I was involved with the Free Burma Campaign some years back. Go to their website and read more.)

Protests in 2007 were led by thousands of Buddhist monks. The military dictatorship met the protests with gunfire and mass arrests (Burma Campaign UK)

So even using the name 'Myanmar' makes a political statement whether you like it or not. It's associated with 20th century-style ethnic supremacism and fascist politics. Since there's no media in Burma that don't toe the official line, even a comical headline like "Myanmar makes archaeological research to prove origin of Myanmar", becomes a deadly serious exercise in political legitimation.

What exactly the foreign archaeologists named in the above article are doing working in a country with a government like this I don't know. A lot of people have this "science is apolitical" mentality but I think that's bullshit. It's always political. The hard question is what level of association with a stupid government you are willing to take. Lending international credibility to a system that combines all the worst characteristics of extreme bureaucracy, ethnic nationalism, and military dictatorship in my view is a poor moral decision, even if it's good for one's academic career. It ain't Stalin or the Khmer Rouge, but it is on the level of North Korea. Certainly more horrific in most ways than Iran, which we hear so much fuss about in the American press.

Of course, it's easy to sit here in a relatively democratic country (presently Turkey) and pass judgment about what people should or shouldn't do. Reading the blog of the AOMAR is a little poignant. Living in a stupid dictatorship doesn't mean that life stops. There's young people who are excited about their country's archaeology, and they should study it and do their best to keep the discipline going under terrible political conditions. People have to make the best lives they can with the cards they're dealt, and I by no means want to suggest that doing archaeology in Burma per se is always immoral (but I don't rule out the possibility that it can be, sometimes). And it seems from the articles on that site anyway that some good professional research is happening there - I'm fascinated by these photos of Mesolithic tool scatters! I hope I can go there someday when it's under less Orwellian conditions.

A Mesolithic tool scatter! (U Win Kyaing)

Nonetheless, I keep coming back to the bizarrely tautological title, which is an obvious ploy to confuse the reader with nonsense. In a real sense, the 'origin of Myanmar' is the current military junta, which chose the name for the country and is now trying to project its rule into the past. I'm sure the 50 million year old primates from 'Pontaung' (gratuitous chuckle) are much cuter or charismatic than a posse of elderly paranoid generals, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't see this for what it is: a horror story dressed up as an article from the Onion.

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