Dr Irengbam Mohendra Singh

The proper name in Burmese for Ava is Ratnapura (Sanskrit) – the Cit of Gems, built in the 14th century CE that lasted for nearly 400 years, apart from a few brief periods. All that remains of the city are a leaning hundred-foot-tall watch tower, and a renovated teak monastery built in 1818, still in use as a private school for orphaned children.

While continuing with the Burmese anthology, I was recommended a modern Burmese history book by a Burmese tour guide in Mandalay – The River of Lost Footsteps, written by  Thant Myint’U. I understood that the book was banned in Burma. I bought one when I returned to Britain.

Thant was educated at Harvard (USA) and Cambridge (UK). A few months after graduating from university in 1988, he spent some time by joining thousands of university students, from Rangoon and elsewhere, who trekked over the mountains to the jungles after their abortive revolution of August-September (1988) against the Burma’s military dictatorship. He also served on United Nations peacekeeping operations in Cambodia and former Yugoslavia and was more recently the head of policy planning in the UN’s Department of Political affairs.

Thant and I are in the same wave-length. Conventional wisdom has been that Thant Myint-U shows similar views about the Burmese and their language, as I have about the Meiteis and Meitei language.

Shobhana Chelliah, since her Ph D dissertation in Manipuri (1992) at St Stephen’s College in Delhi, still uses the archaic “Meithei” instead of Meiteilon. She is interested in endangered languages while the Meitei language, far from being endangered, is spoken by 1.2 million people with an advanced literature with which one can do Ph D degree at most Indian universities. She is now studying such an endangered language called Lamkan in Manipur.

Philologically speaking, Meiteilon is no more Meithei, which in the first place, was not typically Tibetoburman. It lacks pronominal marking of the verb, which is considered an original Tibetoburman trait (Bauman 1975, De Lancy 1889b) and it also lacks numerical classifiers.

Thant Myint’U writes: by the early twentieth century past images of Burma, of a corrupt and brutal, bound up in ageless custom, had given way to a lighter, childlike and happy people, not particularly hardworking or well-disciplined but with many attractive qualities and a welcome sense of individuality and independence.

To some extent the British looked backward for the sort of Burman they liked, someone like Mange Hlwa – King Thibaw’s governor of Ava, an official of the good old Upper-Burma type. Not overeducated, without delicate scruples, of proven courage, with boundless personal influence – someone they could work with and who wouldn’t make much of a fuss. But these kinds of men, they thought, were now few to be found.

All these interpretations of the Burmese character are important because they’ve proved long-lasting and have deeply influenced Burmese self-perceptions. For the British it meant that Burma was not a very important place. A benign neglect was not a bad thing. More than half a century after they were made, General De Win and his Revolutionary Council used the same characterisations that Burmese were not suited for democratic government and for all the good things about them, they needed to learn discipline and teamwork.

The British, more or less, incorporated all of the old kingdoms into the new province of British Burma. But British Burma also included other areas that had never been part of royal administration. They were mainly the highlands that surrounded the Irrawady Valley, one of  the most linguistically diverse places in the world, home to hundreds of languages and mutually unintelligible dialects and to an array of often proudly independent cultures, each nestled in its own little mountain niche.. Not surprisingly, it’s these very areas that have been the primary site of the country’s armed conflict for the past forty years.

The various parts of the country were administered separately, less of divide-and-rule policy and more of a cheap and easy policy. After Thibaw’s overthrow the men on the spot found that the low country (the Burmese areas) was traditionally ruled by hereditary chiefs, but the authority of these chiefs had weakened in recent times.

In the highlands, though, and in particular in the Shan hills in the east, there were hereditary chiefs of a different nature, who were much less directly ruled from the Court of Ava and were still very much in charge of their own domains. The cheap and easy thing to do was to keep them in place, organise them properly, and simply let them carry on as before, provided they accepted British suzerainty and the occasional guidance of the superintendent of the Shan States, based at a little hill station nearby.

Different still were the various peoples of the mountain regions. The Kachins, for example, were a medley of people who lived in the far north, just below the Himalayan range. They were never part of the Burmese government system and in the late nineteenth century, accepted British overlordship, and American missionaries converted nearly all to one form of Christianity or another.

It was also the British who began to think carefully about where the Burmese “came from”.  The late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were the heyday of race theory. Ethnology was born as a colonial enterprise, and there were energetic attempts to categorise the peoples of the empire and understand how ancient migrations and more recent history might have led to their current conditions and characteristics.

Though there were general attempts at science, much was also a way to show how the English were on top. Some ideas did not seem to have much supportive evidence at all. In the 1901 Census, for example, am essay by one Dr McNamara, entitled “Origins and Character of the Burmese People,” proposed a common ethnic origin of the Irish and the Burmese, through Cornish tin miners who had sailed east.

By the turn of the century the idea of language families had become well-known and well-accepted. The eighteenth century Calcutta judge Sir William Jones had proposed an Indo-European language family, one that connected many living Indian and European languages with Sanskrit, Latin, and Greek, and traced them to a common, and now dead, source.

Now all the languages of the world were being clumped together into families, with the idea that they derived from a single proto-language that had become fractured and dispersed through ancient and modern migrations. Burmese and Arakanese were placed within the Tibeto-Burman family, whereas Mon, the language of Pegu was considered entirety separate and related to Cambodian, Shan and its near relatives Thai and Lao were set apart, and this way the notion developed that all the various peoples of Burma were of different origins and came to the country at different times. Language and ethnicity became closely linked.

British also liked the idea of chaotic and sweeping migrations, in the manner of the barbarian hordes of the Dark Ages, having peopled Burma in eons past. According to Sir James Scot, in his authoritative – Burma: A Handbook of Practical Information, “there poured swarm after swarm of Indo-Chinese invasions, crowding down from Northeastern China, from Tibet, the Pamirs, and from Mongolia, following the course of the great rivers that have their origin in the Tibetan plateau. The first invading horde was that of Hkmer (sic) sub-family. These were followed by the Tibeto-Burmans who drove their predecessors before them – many up into the hills. Under the British rule bands are still poured from the teeming loins of the frozen north, but they are marshalled like the orderly queue entering a public meeting”.

These are ideas now firmly rooted in people’s imaginations. The Mon National Liberation Army feels that the Mons were a “Mon-Khmer” people, entirely different from the Burmese. For the Burmese [the majority group] it tended their sense of difference from other groups in the country and perhaps makes harder the emergence of a single national identity.

[However], soon a powerful ethnic nationalism, based narrowly on the idea of a Buddhist and Burmese-speaking peoples, took root. At the centre of this nationalism would be a desire for a new martial spirit.”

The historicity of Burma and Manipur are almost identical. There are attitudinal similarity and rational history between them, while the hypothetical European ‘migration/invasion theory’ of population dispersal and language diffusion in Burma and Manipur is in dispute.

Like Many linguistic findings their results are always controversial. They are only hypotheses. A scholar in the history of languages once said in ‘Nature News’: “Linguists have always been good at coming up with bold hypotheses, but they haven’t been terribly good at testing them.”

I do not believe that the ancestors of Meitei with Meiteilon (until otherwise proved in the foreseeable future) came from somewhere in the east. I do believe, in the near future, Manipuri nationalism, based on Manipuri-speaking peoples and ancient cultural and territorial integrity will emerge as a single national identity.

The writer is based in the UK
Email: imsingh@onetel.com
Website: www.drimsingh@uk.co


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