…fernquest’s pre-modern burma

irrawaddy nyhao

( …along the Irrawaddy River in present day Myanmar, by Nyhao )

Often with history-telling we are faced with the facts vs. fiction, what an historical period actually was, along with its elusive fictional embellishments. The task of the historical scholar then is to filter through available sources to tease out what is of use & to reach into what has been traditionally cast off as irrelevant. Jon Fernquest has been working on such a project with the pre-modern history of Burma. He wrote a paper for the SOAS Bulletin of Burma (2008) on “The Ecology of Burman-Mon Warfare & the Pre-Modern Agrarian State (ca. 1388 – 1425). Although Fernquest steps away from the old fashioned mandala & galactic polity models of looking at Southeast Asian history, he still uses traditional Burmese texts.

Burma has centuries of peace & war stories to tell. It appears to us in the west as overshadowed by its neighbor’s to the east e.g. Vietnam, Cambodia, The Philippines, Indonesia &c. This may simply be our narrow focus without too much attention to such a unique area of Southeastern Asian scholarship. It’s surprising to our modern ears to think of warfare as having its roots in agriculture & the ecology of a place. We are reminded of the fact that Burma has been an agrarian country for centuries, this coupled with warfare, creates a special interest for someone wanting to understand how weather patterns, river flow, agriculture &c. all have had a part to play in the detailed way that Burmese history has presented itself to an attuned mind like Fernquest’s. 

A pre-modern-post-Mongol Burmese farmer had to be ready to till the land & also had to wear a soldiers helmet to kill when his kingdom called for it. Although wartime was usually held outside settlements, it still affected how the population & the local eco-systems were affected. Fernquest uses a “hypothetical ecological chain of causation” (EBMW 72) that looks like this: “environment → land → agriculture → food supply → man/animal power → warfare → state formation.” We also have a mention of Braudel’s ”longue durée” showing how short term war events are positioned & examined with long term environmental patterns in pre modern Burma. (EBMW 72) “Bayesian inference” too, has been a useful tool to help Fernquest to expand on any of the unaccounted patchwork of facts. Fernquest is simultaneously cross-cultural in that one narrative is not favored over the other. He looks to a series of conflicts around the Irrawaddy River, partially using the Rajadhirat, A Mon Epic, this is one of the classic texts Fernquest translated & is featured in a blog format. last lines of the rajahirat

( …last lines of the Rajahirat Mon Epic in Burmese, click here for the English translation by Fernquest )

Fernquest names these conflicts ‘The Ava-Pegu War’ of 1383-1425. Ava is known as Innwa, & Pegu is known as Bago, all located in Burma, today’s Myanmar. “The epic tale of the Rajahirat records a long war between Lower Burma & upper Burma…” (EBMW 72). Fernquest additionally uses colonial-era British gazetteers, along with the early 18th century text U Kala’s Burmese Chronicle of which Fernquest has translated & is featured in a blog format.

Essentially Fernquest blends all these into a contemporaneous telling of a rarely visited region of time that allows for multiple views & a specific focus.

“…the middle Irrawaddy River region is a pivotal thoroughfare providing access to the delta region, Lower Burma, & food supply located along the river. Battles over this strategically important stretch of river are a crucial point in the Ava-Pegu War. With food supply & adjustments in military logistics playing a crucial role in the course of the conflicts.” (EBMW 74)

With a range of sources that can be used in looking back in time to pre-modern agrarian wartime Burma, there are restrictions. One has to rely on inscriptions, chronicles, later documents & scant written records of the time, this exposes a surprising amount of unavailable evidence open for interpretation, shown in Fernquest’s diagram below (EBMW 109):


…with a full recognition of the arduous task of sorting through the limited evidence of a time where wet weather, farming, mud, & kingdoms were all operating in unison to create the Burma we remember now, we are indebted to a man like Fernquest who scrupulously finds the story of the land to let us feel a curious example of the seasonal wartime protocol of slowing down the fighting during the monsoons. This was a time to wait for the rains & a time to take strategic advantage of the season. We won’t forget that base starvation is (& was) a weapon too during these trying times of the year.

Dear Jon Fernquest, help us to continue to see the Burma you know with new eyes & help us with a desire to supplement what has not been noticed. Soon you will show again a history that has not yet been revealed, learning & teaching of a people so far away, long since gone, to be brought alive again in our mind, our hearts…

pyay market nyahao

( …market near the Irrawaddy river in present day Pyay (Prome), Myanmar, by Nyhao )

―Aurelio Madrid

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