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The Chinese in Colonial Myanmar  

Yi Li

Exchanges of people and goods between Myanmar (formerly Burma) and China have a long history spanning over a millennium. However, it was during the British colonial era in Burma (1824–1948) that substantial and consistent migration of ethnic Chinese occurred, laying the foundations of Sino-Burmese communities in present-day Myanmar. Two distinct migration routes were initially taken by Chinese immigrants: the overland route between northern Burma and Yunnan, predominantly used by southwestern Chinese since precolonial days; and the overseas route connecting the southern coast of China with port cities in Southeast Asia, including Rangoon. The latter forms part of the Nanyang Chinese network and was primarily used by immigrants from Fujian and Guangdong provinces. Over time, regional differences between different Chinese immigrant groups blurred, and Chinatowns or Chinese quarters in Rangoon, Mandalay, and other major towns across the colony emerged with distinctive Chinese characters. In colonial Burma, migrants from China constituted a smaller population, were less influential commercially and socially, and were generally less visible than their Indian counterparts. Nonetheless, they were recognized as a distinct ethnic group in the colonial state. Given colonial Burma’s geographic and administrative position, Chinese immigrants, while maintaining strong connections with other Southeast Asian Chinese communities, experienced a unique trajectory under colonial rule, navigating through internal tensions and World War II, and, alongside their multiethnic fellow residents, in British Burma, declared the independence at the beginning of 1948.

Article

Language Policy and Planning in Mainland Southeast Asia  

David Bradley

In five mainland Southeast Asian nations—Burma, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, and Vietnam—there are national languages and language policies. There is a distinction between language policy (decisions about language by governments and official bodies) and language planning (the implementation of this policy), which emerged from their history and development. Each modern nation has a dominant standard-majority language with a long literary tradition and various regional sub-varieties. Each nation also has various ethnic-minority groups, including some who live in several of these nations and also in China. Official recognition of and policy for minority languages differs, but in general there is little provision for them in education or elsewhere. Two of these minority languages, Mon and Cham, were the languages of former kingdoms in the area. Four countries give explicit constitutional recognition to the national language; in Thailand this is simply assumed. In each country, there have been centralized efforts to standardize and develop the national language and to expand its use. In three, Burma, Thailand, and Cambodia, these efforts are now under the guidance of a separate official-language-policy body; Laos had such a body up to 1975. In Vietnam, language policy is among the responsibilities of the Ministry of Education. In each country, the ministry of education and other parts of government play a key role in language planning.

Article

The Temporalities of Southeast Asian Historiography  

Wayan Jarrah Sastrawan

Temporalities are ways to organize time. Historiography, which can be defined as the manner in which people approach, understand, narrate, and give meaning to the past, is intimately connected to temporality. Temporal devices like calendars and genealogies produce specific patterns of time that structure historical knowledge. The traditional historiography of Southeast Asia exhibits a great diversity of temporalities. In contrast to modern historical temporality, in which the unitary timeline is overwhelmingly dominant, Southeast Asian temporalities can just as easily be organized in terms of lineages, cycles, or prophecies. These methods for organizing time can be traced to the region’s Austronesian and Austroasiatic heritage, as well as to the influence of other parts of the world, such as India, the Middle East, and China. Ultimately, these global systems were adapted to local situations and concerns. Southeast Asian historiography can be analyzed in terms of the different temporalities that it uses. Such an approach can make better sense of why Southeast Asians chose to write history in the form of annalistic chronicles, dynastic genealogies, saintly biographies, messianic prophecies, and many other genres. Importantly, understanding the temporalities of Southeast Asian historiography allows one to appraise it on its own terms rather than to prejudge it through the norms of modern professional history.

Article

Legal Pluralism in Myanmar  

Helene Maria Kyed

Myanmar (Burma) is characterized by a strong degree of legal pluralism, understood as the existence of more than one set of binding rules and normative orders for regulating society. Disputes and crimes are resolved by a plurality of actors and justice systems, and state law is but one among many other sets of rules and norms for defining wrongdoing and remedies. The plural legal landscape in Myanmar derives only partly from the diversity of ethnicities and customs dating back to pre-colonial times. More importantly, colonial reification of ethnic divisions and postcolonial armed conflicts and military state authoritarianism have shaped and consolidated justice systems that operate in parallel to and often in competition with the state-legal system. Empirical research and surveys conducted since the political opening in 2015 amply demonstrate that ordinary Myanmar citizens and denizens prefer to resolve disputes and crimes at the lowest level possible, predominantly within their own ethnic group and without the involvement of the state-legal system. This preference is caused by a mixture of political-historical, socioeconomic, and cultural-religious factors. Mistrust in the state’s willingness to serve the justice needs of ordinary people and discomfort with the formalistic procedures and punitive justice applied in state courts draw people toward using local justice system that apply reconciliatory and compensational justice. These local systems are also more in line with cultural and religiously informed perceptions of wrongdoing and justice. Despite the strong role of local justice systems, these are not recognized by state law. The decades of armed conflict between the military state and ethnic armed organizations have also given way to the development of more state-like, hierarchically ordered ethnic justice systems and laws, which are applied by the ethnic armed organizations in the areas they nominally control.

Article

History of the Banda Sea  

Hans Hägerdal

The Banda Sea is a watery landscape in eastern maritime Southeast Asia, encompassing much of the present Maluku Province of Indonesia. Historically, its hundreds of islands include the economically vital Banda Islands and Ambon, as well as the outlying islands of Wetar and Kisar, and the Kei and Tanimbar archipelagos. In spite of its relative remoteness in relation to the historical centers of Indonesia, the sea evolved as a vibrant economic crossroads from about the 14th century, mostly because of the trade in cloves and nutmeg that attracted visitors and settlers from various parts of Asia. The islands also delivered sea and forest products of some consequence. The potential commercial profits made the Banda Sea an early priority for colonial encroachment after the arrival of Europeans in Asian ports. The Portuguese established a presence after 1512, followed by the Dutch and English in 1599. European powers strove to impose monopolies in the spice trade. The contest for the islands was eventually won by the Dutch East India Company, whose dispositions turned the sea into a colonial backwater. This it remained during the Dutch Colonial State of the 19th and 20th centuries. The Indonesian Revolution in 1945–1949 was followed by an unsuccessful attempt to establish an independent South Malukan state in 1950. The relative neglect and the transmigration policies of the successive Indonesia governments led to local civil war in 1999–2002.

Article

Kachin Communities in Myanmar  

Mandy Sadan

The term “Kachin” is an exonym that references several subcommunities, all of which have traditionally resided in the northernmost region of Burma (modern Myanmar). The name “Kachin State” for this region evidences this historical connection. Kachin communities are identified as comprising six main subgroups, but the boundaries of these are often contested. Identity politics in Myanmar is complex and highly sensitive, given the ongoing conflicts in which many communities, including those identified as Kachin, have been involved for many decades; it is also ongoing. Kachin communities also have strong cross-border relations with cognate groups of people residing in northeast India, Yunnan, and Thailand, as well as a globally dispersed diaspora, which is particularly large in the United States, Japan, and Thailand. Kachin communities were impacted directly by the experience of British colonial rule from its beginnings in Burma in 1824, even though they were not brought under any administrative system until after full British control over the Burmese kingdom was established after 1885. However, neither British nor Burmese (later, Myanmar) administrations have been able to bring the Kachin region fully under their control. At independence from British rule in 1948, many Kachin elites hoped that there would be a federal system, but as hopes for this diminished with the emergence of a military dictatorship, the movement for resistance gained ground. As many other parts of the country fell into civil war, so too did the new Kachin State. The Kachin Independence Army was founded in the early 1960s and by 1963 had declared open conflict with the Burmese military regime. A ceasefire was signed in 1994 and provided some respite, but as the situation again deteriorated through exploitative resource extraction, environmental degradation, and the social harms caused by the widespread availability of narcotics and opiates, considerable popular support for a return to war was felt. The ceasefire collapsed in 2011 leading to more active conflict. This social and political upheaval over many decades has resulted in dramatic changes to Kachin communities and has impacted their tangible and intangible heritage irreparably. There is a great deal still to learn about the histories of Kachin communities in Myanmar, but to do so will require creativity and long-term support for and engagement with local scholars and researchers.

Article

Charismatic Megafauna in Southeast Asia  

Faizah Binte Zakaria

“Charismatic megafauna” refers to species of large mammals which engender widespread affection and serve as a focal point to mobilize conservation action. Most commonly associated with elephants, tigers, and orangutans, these animals play critical roles in the cultural, economic, political, and social histories of human communities. In the royal courts, they were harnessed to uphold premodern political authority and maintain military might, helping a ruler to exert control over his subjects. Among settled agriculturalists, they regularly came into conflict over destruction of crops and competition for ranging space but were concurrently part of everyday religious life. Animal charisma in this region emerged from shared experiences living in liminal spaces between wilderness and civilization, where relationships of codependence might emerge amid feelings of fear and awe. The hardening of nature–culture boundaries and intensified resource extraction during the modern period unraveled some of these relationships, placing wildlife in a vulnerable position. This troubled history suggests that conservation efforts need to take into account why particular species inspired a certain affect, not only to galvanize human energy to save them from extinction but also to reimagine spatial arrangements so as to accommodate cohabitation between humans and nonhumans.

Article

Commerce and Economy in Southeast Asia within the Sinosphere (Laos and Vietnam)  

James A. Anderson

Before the 16th century, Southeast Asian trade within the Sinosphere (Laos and Vietnam) took place in a maritime trade network that drew together the Indian Ocean and the South China Sea (Eastern Sea). Land-based and maritime trade routes were interlinked across this region. Behind the maritime trade was the upland supply of forest products that included many of the items most desired by distant markets in China and Southeast Asian destinations. The upland access to trade items was as important as was control of the coastal ports. Westerners arrived in the early modern period, as others had, as traders, and were accommodated into established trading patterns. The general current of anti-imperialism was still to come in the 20th century.

Article

Living Standards in Southeast Asia  

Anne Booth

The article surveys the evidence on changing living standards across Southeast Asia, a region that in 2020 included a diverse range of countries from Myanmar to the Indonesian and Philippine archipelagos. The region has been described as open and pluralistic, a crossroads of goods, people, and ideas that has never been shut off from the outside world. The years from the mid-15th to the mid-17th centuries have been described by one historian as an age of commerce, where trade and commerce flourished and people from a number of countries in Asia and Europe mingled in port cities. But gradually over the 18th and 19th centuries European powers began to assert their control over much of the region, and by the end of the 19th century the British controlled Burma and Malaya, the French Indochina and the Dutch the huge Indonesian archipelago. In the early 20th century the Americans displaced the Spanish in the Philippines. Population growth in Southeast Asia appears to have been slow between 1600 and 1800, but accelerated over the 19th and 20th centuries compared with other parts of Asia. In the early 19th century population was estimated to be around 10 to 12 percent of that in China, and in 2020 it was almost 48 percent. Evidence of living standards in the early 19th century is examined, as well as how the policies of various colonial powers active in the region in the 19th and early 20th centuries both facilitated population growth and tackled the consequences . Colonial policies tried to increase both food-crop production for domestic consumption and also encouraged export-oriented agriculture, responding to growing global demand for tropical products. These policies often came into conflict as populations increased. By the early 20th century several colonial powers were worried about evidence that living standards were not improving and in some regions were declining. They adopted policies designed to address the problem. After the defeat of Japan, between 1946 and 1965, ten independent countries emerged across Southeast Asia. Governments in all these countries had ambitious plans for improving living standards for their populations, but the extent to which they succeeded in the last half of the 20th century varied considerably. The article examines the evidence, and suggests reasons why some countries have been more successful in improving living standards compared with others.

Article

The Spice Trade in Southeast Asia  

Bryan Averbuch

The history of the “Spice Trade,” much like that of its overland counterpart, the “Silk Road,” has long been imbued with an aura of romance. It has evoked fantasies of dhows, junks, and East Indiamen plying monsoon seas, tropical islands with swaying palms and coastal forts, swaggering pirates, and ports brimming with fragrant exotica—the maritime versions of camel caravans crossing deserts, menacing bandits, distant cities graced with minarets and pagodas, and merchants haggling for silks in bazaars. In the case of the spice trade, these exotic images are haunted at times by less agreeable visions of unbridled princely and corporate greed, ruthless exploitation, and emerging colonial empires. Beyond fantasy, these visions of the spice trade have their roots in very real and complex historical phenomena, whose importance to Southeast Asia’s economic, political, and cultural history, and indeed to global history, are difficult to overstate. Until their gradual early modern diffusion to other regions of the planet, the trees which produced Southeast Asia’s most coveted spices and aromatics, especially the cloves, nutmeg, mace, and white sandalwood of eastern Indonesia, were largely confined to the unique tropical ecoregions in which they had evolved, and were effectively unavailable anywhere else. This fact, combined with their unique and powerful aromas and flavors, ensured that Southeast Asia would remain a nexus of the spice trade for the better part of two millennia. Following their discovery and cultivation by Indigenous peoples, Southeast Asian spices and aromatics began to circulate in the trade networks of the Indo-Malay archipelago in pre- and protohistoric times. By the 4th and 5th centuries ce, seafaring merchants were regularly carrying them to emporia across the Indian Ocean and western Pacific Rim, and they became coveted luxuries in India, China, West Asia, the Mediterranean, and northern Europe. By the 14th century, peoples across much of the Eastern Hemisphere had become regular and avid consumers of Southeast Asian spices and aromatics. Their popularity in India, West Asia, and China was a major factor in the development of permanent commercial ties between the three regions, which in turn helped to facilitate the diffusion of Hinduism, Buddhism, and subsequently Islam to Southeast Asia. Conversely, the relatively peripheral position of Europe in the lucrative Southeast Asian spice trade was a major factor in prompting the Iberian maritime voyages of exploration beginning in the 15th century. Between the 16th and 18th centuries, a range of European and Indigenous polities engaged in a complex and often violent series of struggles for control of the spice trade. Portuguese, Spanish, Dutch, and English armed trading expeditions lay the groundwork for their respective colonial empires in Southeast Asia, while regional peoples and polities adopted and adapted elements of European technology, culture, and in some regions, Catholic and Protestant Christianity. Over time, changing tastes in Europe and the transplantation of nutmeg, cloves, and white sandalwood to the Caribbean, East Africa, and India, respectively, diminished the relative importance of the traditional Southeast Asian spice trade, while new aromatic crops introduced from elsewhere, such as black pepper and later coffee, became increasingly important to the region.