Administration and Society, Precolonial Burma

Administration and Society, Precolonial Burma
   Before the British colonial period, Burma was an absolute monarchy, the king's authority legitimized by the myth of the Maha Thamada and his possession of superior merit, accumulated over many lifetimes (thus he was often referred to as Hpaya laung, or "future Buddha"). Residing at "the center of the universe" in the royal palace, he was both ceremonial ruler and power-holder. In a pattern established by the late Toungoo Dynasty, the king was advised by the Hluttaw, or Council of State, and the Byedaik, or Privy Council. The former was responsible for the executive and judicial functions of the state and the provincial administration, while the latter took care of the management of the royal court and liaison between the monarch and central government bodies.
   On the regional level, the realm was divided into districts or myo (a word that also referred to provincial urban centers), encompassing what later was known as Upper and Lower Burma. Each myo was under the control of an appointed governor and a myosa (myoza, "district eater"), a member of the royal family or nobility whose income, as the name indicates, came from extracting resources from his or her jurisdiction rather than from a fixed salary. Local authorities known as myothugyi, whose posts were usually hereditary, acted as intermediaries between the governor and myosa on the one hand and the common people on the other, playing an important role in mitigating the most extreme royal demands on the villagers in the form of rice, silver, forced labor, and military service. In traditional Burmese political culture, the king and his officials were not-like the emperor and elite scholar-officials of Confucian China-regarded (ideally) as benevolent protectors of the people. Instead, the ruler (min) was described, along with fire, flood, personal enemies, and thieves, as being one of the "five dangerous things to be avoided." Oppressive kings like Bodawpaya drained the country of manpower and resources on expensive public works projects (including the massive pagoda at Mingun) and military campaigns against neighboring states, especially Siam, while weak monarchs like Thibaw allowed their realm to collapse into lawlessness. Rarely was a king both strong and moderate in his demands, though King Mindon approached this ideal. Palace politics was extremely unstable and at times violent, especially after a king died, and a succession struggle ensued among his many male progeny, that is, his sons by his numerous royal wives.
   The society of the valley and delta of the Irrawaddy (Ayeyarwady) River, the Burmese heartland, was divided into four general strata: the min-myo (rulers), the ponna-myo (Brahmins, or ritualists versed in the Hindu Vedas), thuhtay-myo (bankers and rich merchants), and sinyetha-myo (the "poor people," or commoners). Modeled roughly on the caste system of India (the four varna), membership in these groups was hereditary and could be changed only by the king's decree. Another important division in precolonial Burmese society was between ahmudan, "royal service subjects"-members of descent groups who supplied the royal house with goods and services, including military officers and men, craftspeople, and palace servants-and athi, general subjects who paid taxes to the king. The ahmudan lived in discrete settlements outside the regular administration and were considered more prestigious than the athi because of their close association with the palace. A final social division existed between free people and slaves (kyun), who usually were dependent on a certain individual (e.g., debt slaves) or foreign prisoners of war, but who could belong to any of the four social strata mentioned above, with the exception of the royal family. By the end of the 18th century, a large number of foreigners had been forcibly relocated to Upper Burma, including Arakanese, Siamese, and people from Manipur, contributing to ethnic heterogeneity.
   In precolonial Burma, "ethnic" consciousness in the modern sense did not exist, though antagonisms between Burmans (Bamars) and Mons intensified in Lower Burma after the mid-18th century: Burman rulers tended to view their Mon subjects as disloyal and all too eager to cooperate with archenemy Siam. But there was a strong consciousness of the differences between the cultures and lifestyles of lowlanders, such as the Burmans, Mons, and Arakanese (Rakhines), who shared a common Indo-Buddhist civilization, and upland groups, such as the Karens (Kayins) and Chins, who were animist and lived in scattered communities without organized states. The traditional rulers of the Shans (Tai), the sawbwa, had tributary relations with the Burmese king, and Shan princesses frequently married into the royal family. However, Burmese control over the Shan States was minimal and over the Chins, Kachins, and Nagas, it was practically nonexistent.
   Nationhood-the concept of a fixed land area and population having a "national" identity-emerged in Burma during the British colonial period. During the dynastic period, the power of the state "radiated" outward from the royal capital, reaching to more distant regions (the mountainous areas) when the king was strong and contracting to close around the capital when his power and authority were weak. Thus, national boundaries were an idea introduced by the Western colonialists and employed after Burma became part of the community of independent nations after 1948.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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