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Myanmar and the Outside World
Dr. Jacques P Leider is Department Member of Ecole française d’Extrême-Orient.
Buddhism and trade have been Myanmar’s most important interfaces with the outside world, but their importance in shaping external relations has varied greatly. Traders and missionaries were instrumental during the first millennium ce in expanding the teachings of Buddhism and laying the foundation for the country’s mature civilization under the kings of Pagan, or Bagan.
Exploring Buddhism in its practice and in its art and architecture, one is inevitably drawn in two directions: to the inside toward Myanmar’s self-perception and cultural identity and to the outside toward the multiple genealogies from which the country’s religious, ritual, and intellectual traditions are derived or have been connected over the centuries. Understanding and defining the inside seems to be the easier task. Buddhism has been the dominant cultural matrix of the country, and Buddhist markers — including artistic forms, concepts, ways of thinking, and social practices — outline a cultural and religious space that has structured Myanmar’s historical trajectory throughout the geographical center of the Irrawaddy, or Ayeyarwady Valley for the last thousand years and longer.
This interest in Myanmar has therefore favored a scholarly perception of Buddhism as an intrinsic part of Myanmar’s identity rather than being, by itself, a historical agent. The conventional approach of western scholars has been to look at Myanmar and trade from the outside, in keeping with the perspective of archival sources that adopt the viewpoint of often malcontent Portuguese, Dutch, or English merchants trading Indian cloth, teak wood, rice, rubies, betel nuts, or elephants in Myanmar or Rakhine ports. In this it is too easy to forget the breadth of interests of Myanmar’s kings, elites, and traders that nurtured trade relations with the outside world.
As the people of Myanmar were neither seafaring nor were they running caravan trade through Inner Asia, historians have often argued that they did not pay much attention to foreign trade. Still, Myanmar’s regions were integral parts of both land and maritime trade networks. Nor should one overlook that in the past Myanmar was not a state with fixed borders but included, during most of its precolonial history, several political centers, conventionally known to precolonial Europeans as Rakhine, or Arakan, a coastal kingdom integrated in the Bay of Bengal maritime network; Ava, or Inwa, a place connected both to the riverine and the inland trade; and Pegu, or Bago, a long-time inland port connected to the sea ports of Martaban and later Syriam.
Nonetheless, while one could approach the topic of Myanmar and the outside worlds through themes of Indianization, colonization, or modernization, this would suggest that Myanmar people and their leaders were recipients of foreign influence rather than agents of their own historical destiny. They would confirm G. E. Harvey’s perception, as he wrote in 1925, of the Myanmar people as “living in a world of their own,” who did not “visit other lands” while “nobody from other lands came to them, except a few shipmen and some tribal immigrants.” For this colonial historian, “Myanmar knew nothing of international affairs save through bazaar rumor and through the tales, usually anti-English propaganda, of Armenian and Mahomedan merchants.”
An excellent example of how Buddhism and trade gave essence to Myanmar’s relations with the outside world is the territorial expansion under the early Konbaung kings (1782–1819) when, following a secular trend, external relations were at their peak. The second half of the eighteenth and the early nineteenth century were a crucial period in world history. It was an important time in Myanmar as well, when following seventeen years of internecine wars (1740– 57), the country moved through a phase of territorial consolidation in the middle of the century toward a period of vibrant expansion. One hallmark of the early Konbaung dynasty was its aggressive policy of conquests that enlarged the kingdom considerably beyond the Irrawaddy Valley. Following the fall of the city of Pegu in 1757, King Alaungpaya, also known as Alaungmintaya, the dynasty’s founder, reunified the northern and southern parts (the Myanmar-dominated Ava and the predominantly Mon kingdom of Hamsavati, or Pegu). The conquest of Manipur in 1758–59 gave the Myanmar king a foothold to intervene in Assam after 1805, while a well-prepared invasion of Thailand by land and sea in 1759–60 laid the ground for the conquest of Tenasserim, which would come under full Myanmar control in 1793. In 1785, a decisive campaign against Rakhine put an end to this old Buddhist kingdom on the border with Bengal that had enjoyed independence since 1430.