The Shan of Burma: memoirs of a Shan exile
CHAO TZANG YAWNGHWE
The Shan of Burma: memoirs of a Shan exile
Singapore: Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, 2010. 2nd reprint
277 pp. ISBN: 978-981-230-396-7; pb S$49.90/US$39.90
Reviewed by Robert H. Taylor
City University of Hong Kong
The reissue of Chao Tzang Yawnghwe’s 1987 book The Shan of Burma: memoirs of a Shan exile in 2010 is timely as it provides an opportunity to look at the issues it originally raised in the altered circumstances of Myanmar following the political upheaval of 1988. Like my own volume on the history of the state in Burma published in the same year as The Shan in Burma, neither he nor I foretold or perhaps even expected the momentous events which would bring down the socialist regime in Yangon against which he had rebelled in the 1960s and 1970s. This reissue is unchanged from the earlier edition other than for the addition of a brief Foreword by the authority on the ethnic insurgency in Myanmar, Martin Smith, and a note in memoriam of his late brother by the Shan nationalist exiled politician Harn Yawnghwe. Both underscore what a delight Chao Tzang was and how he is deeply missed following his untimely death in 2004.
The book is essentially divided into three parts, covering a biography of the author from his birth in 1939 as the son of the Sawbwa of Yawnghwe, a version of the history of the Shan States in their relation with the monarchical, colonial and independent regimes which have governed most of what we now consider to be Myanmar for several centuries, followed by a lengthy 'who was whom' in Myanmar and Shan politics and administration during the past two hundred years. Three brief appendices on pre-independence agreements, proposals on terminating the opium trade in the Shan State, and information on the film the Opium Warlords are also attached.
From 1963 until 1976, when he went into exile in Thailand and eventually Canada, Chao Tzang, also known as Eugene amongst other names, was a leader of the Shan military rebellion against the central government, ruled by the Revolutionary Council and then the Burma Socialist Programme Party, both the inspiration of General Ne Win. Chao Tzang’s political interests obviously commenced before then but the 1962 coup, which led to the death of his younger brother by gun fire, and his father subsequently in prison, doubtless convinced him that normal politics would provide no answer to the interests of those who spoke for Shan nationalism and their desire for the Shan state to be essentially autonomous within a very loosely federated state. His personal account of the factionalism, mercenary behaviour, and international intrigues which dogged not only the Shan rebellion against Yangon, but also those of other ethnic minorities, is the richest and most valuable part of the volume. Its use as an historical document is therefore assured.
The author often criticises foreign scholars (not yet this author whose work was still in an adumbral phase when he wrote) for not seeing the history of Burmese-Shan relations though the lenses of a Shan nationalist. They in turn, could criticise him for misinterpreting or distorting the nature of that relationship, as well as the relationship between the colonial government and the Shan sawbwas and other indigenous political leadership who the British found willing instruments through which to govern. For example, he asserts repeatedly that the essence, indeed, almost the totality of the relationship between the Shan sawbwas and the Burmese kings, was one of military conflict. This flies in the face of the complex relationships to which other historians have drawn attention. While conflict occurred, it was far from the leitmotiv of the relationship.
Historians would take issue with Chao Tzang’s use of the term ‘treaty’ to describe the legal relationship between the sawbwas and the British administration. The agreements which the British reached when they confirmed the rule of the cooperating sawbwas was a sanad, not a treaty. A sanad has no status in international law and was an artefact of British rule in India, from where the term was borrowed for use in British Burma. The last minute efforts by the sawbwas in the 1930s to have their status recognised as parallel to the sultans of Malaya and thus an assured role in the constitutional evolution of British Burma was repeatedly rebuffed by the lawyers of the India, and then the Burma, Office in London.
The nationalist intent of the author, and his inability to appreciate why the central government of General Ne Win or anyone else could never accept the plans of Shan nationalists, republican or pro-sawbwa, to implement their federal schemes is underscored by his statement that national army would be “subordinate to the state governments”. No federal state in the world has such a scheme and a country with the political history of Myanmar would never, regardless who governed, accept such an arrangement. Nearly a quarter century after The Shan of Burma was first published, Myanmar has a new, army sponsored, constitution which provides for an elected legislature in the Shan State with very limited powers. Furthermore, the Shan State has been sub-divided with autonomous zones created for the Wa, Kokang, Danu, Palaung, and Pa-O and the former sawbwas’ state subsumed. The factionalism that he so thoroughly describes has now become part of the official structure of the state, and the ambitions of Shan nationalists doubly frustrated. This book should be read as a reminder of how things were lost.