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Commercial Networks and Economic Structures of Theravada Buddhist Southeast Asia (Thailand and Myanmar)  

Geok Yian Goh

Theravada Buddhist polities in ancient Southeast Asia comprised kingdoms located in present-day Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand. Theravada Buddhism became influential in mainland Southeast Asia in the 11th century. Little information exists on the economy of daily life during that period; existing records from 1100 until 1600 mainly deal with administrative and religious affairs, from which some information about the economy can be extracted. These mainland Buddhist polities are typically described as practicing “redistributive economic systems,” a term that Karl Polanyi used to refer to geopolitical entities in which the primary source of subsistence is agriculture, and an administrative center, usually located in the capital, collects revenue from taxes on agricultural production, trade, and other specialized activities that are owned or controlled by the central government or other designated authorities, such as religious orders. The redistributive model is contrasted with the market economies of maritime port polities such as those in insular Southeast Asia. This binary opposition is, however, overstated, as demonstrated by diversity found in mainland Southeast Asia, where some polities relied both on agriculture and maritime trade. Polanyi’s model does not satisfactorily account for the diversity of the Theravada Buddhist polities of Myanmar and Thailand. Some scholars from Redfield and Singer to Miksic have constructed more elaborate models including the orthogenetic versus heterogenetic spectrum, on the basis of Polanyi’s thought but which attempt to utilize polythetic rather than monothetic concepts and scalar rather than stadial classifications.