A Mon past for a Modern Nation: Writing a Minority History into and out of Burma
The nation has hijacked history in Burma. Prasenjit Duara rescued history from the nation, and much historiography has moved in other directions. Yet the nation and nation-state continue to shape how people think about their past in Southeast Asia, not least Burma/Myanmar. The Mons are people with an early presence in Burma, instrumental to the spread of Theravāda Buddhism during the first millennium AD. Today, to the extent that they are an object of study at all, when attention does not focus on the politics of the Mons as another ethnic minority sometimes in conflict with the central government, it focuses on the ancient past.
Mon history, however, has never been confined to modern Burma, nor to the ancient past. How is it that the Mons and their history have come to be fixed under the Burmese nation-state and relegated to the distant past? Whose interests has this positioning served? What are the possibilities for moving beyond these confines to talk about Mons in the past without following the logic of a national history? Looking for “networks” in the past can allow us to find communal ties without the burdens of looking for, or finding the absence of, ethnicity, ethnic cohesion, or a state apparatus associated with that ethnic group. For the Mons, we can begin to see the spread of their networks in more recent centuries and the role these networks have played in cultural transmission and the evolution of various Mainland Southeast Asian polities.
Patrick McCormick is the local representative of the École française d’Extrême-Orient (EFEO) in Yangon, where he has pursued his interests in Burmese and Mon history and historiography. Recent publications include articles on Burmese historiography and the ethics of doing research in Burma. McCormick is also affiliated with the Department of Comparative Linguistics at the University of Zurich, where he is part of a three-year research project, funded by the Swiss National Science Foundation, on the history of areal linguistics in the “Greater Burma Zone.” He has been living and working in Rangoon for the past nine years. He is also the co-author of a book for learning the Burmese language. McCormick’s talk is based on his book project, which is the culmination of fifteen years’ work on Mon and Burmese history using Mon, Burmese, and Thai-language sources.
Picture: Rechethirat, Mon Military and Culture Hero