It was a land where Thai theatre troupes performed the ancient Indian epic Ramayana to Burman courtiers; Ethiopian merchants jostled with Persians and Portuguese; and an emperor addressed the King of England as his equal.
Now, while civil war ravages Myanmar, a new exhibition at the British Museum is seeking to change perceptions of the Southeast Asian country previously known as Burma, and to provide hope for the future by exploring its rich, cosmopolitan past. It brings together over 130 objects, most of which are on public display for the first time.
Speaking at a preview event this week, Dr Alexandra Green, the exhibition’s curator, said: “It is important that we understand the region beyond today’s strife. When there is conflict in an area, we tend to focus on that. This is not to mitigate the disastrous situation that Myanmar finds itself in today — but to try to look at some of those histories and reflect that there’s hope for the future. There’s much more to the region than conflict.”
She added: “The show is looking to overturn the myths of isolation and poverty. We tend to think of Myanmar today as isolated and poor when actually it’s very wealthy even though its resources are extremely poorly distributed. And it was [once] very powerful and very engaged with the world around it.”
The exhibition ranges from 450AD to the present and emphasises cross-cultural interactions. Among the oldest exhibits are silver coins of the Pyu peoples who occupied the earliest urban centres in Southeast Asia, in Upper Myanmar. The Pyu had cultural links stretching from the Himalayas to today’s central Thailand. The coins feature Buddhist and Hindu imagery and are stylistically similar to those found in India and Persia.
The focus is on the 15th to 19th centuries, when rival kingdoms tussled for control of people, natural resources and trade routes linking India, China and Thailand. A notable example was Mrauk U on the Arakan littoral, which prospered on trade of local commodities such as rice, elephants, teak, lacquer and gemstones, as well as imported slaves, spices and cotton. The kingdom was an entrepôt for merchants from as far afield as Portugal, Persia and Arabia.
Exhibits from Mrauk U include a pair of early 18th-century trading permits, one in Burmese and the other in Persian, issued to an Armenian merchant living in Chennai (Madras).
Mrauk U declined rapidly after Alaungpaya, a former village headman, built up a unified Burmese empire to the east in the 1750s. Among the exhibition’s highlights is the Golden Letter letter from King Alaungpaya to Britain’s George II, engraved on a sheet of gold set with 24 rubies. In the letter, which was despatched in an ivory case, Alaungpaya permits the British to set up a trading base at his port city of Pathein. He says he is “elated at the prospect of cordial relations” and anticipates a friendship between the two dynasties lasting for generations.
The missive illustrates the broad diplomatic horizons of the Kongbaung empire, which would go on to swallow up Mrauk U and numerous other territories in the coming decades. It also points to the state’s wealth. Alaungpaya’s titles include “lord of ruby, gold, silver, copper, iron, amber and precious stone mines”.
The response of the British, who were then vying with France to expand their influence in India, is telling. Green, who is the British Museum’s Henry Ginsburg Curator for Southeast Asia, said: “King Alaungpaya definitely considered himself an equal of King George. And he was very offended when George never responded. George viewed it as a curiosity and sent it to his personal library in Hanover.” The letter is now a UNESCO memory of the world object and is usually held at the German city’s Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz Bibliothek.
Ultimately, Britain would annex Burma in three stages between the 1820s and 1880s, incorporating the territory into British India with a new capital at Rangoon (Yangon). An 1825 engraving in the exhibition shows a British officer inside a Buddhist temple at Rangoon, wearing his boots in disregard of local custom. A large seated Buddha that was looted by British soldiers at around this time is displayed above a Burmese painting depicting the exile of King Thibaw — last of the Kongbaung dynasty — to India in 1885.
King Mindon, the penultimate Kongbaung ruler, implemented modernising programmes from the 1850s, including exporting petroleum to India in a pioneering move. Myanmar’s oil industry is one of the oldest in the world, with Chinese records dating Burmese oil wells to the 13th century. One exhibit is an oil worker’s helmet from the period of the industry’s growth under colonial rule.
An influential aspect of British administration was categorising people in censuses and surveys, and fixing previously fluid political frontiers. According to the curators, these processes were based on misunderstandings of cultural practices and led to ethnic stereotyping that set the stage for enduring conflicts. Ethnically diverse Buddhists were homogenised into a generic Burman identity. And while Burmans were initially barred from joining the army, the Karen, Kachin and other groups were recruited, fuelling later antagonism.
More fault lines were drawn during the Second World War when Burmese nationalists of the Burma Independence Army supported the Japanese invasion, before later changing sides. The Karen and Kachin mostly stayed loyal to Britain. As a battleground, the country was devastated by the scorched earth policies of the opposing armies. It remained impoverished and divided at independence in 1948.
If the British sought to homogenise parts of the population, the military junta that held power from 1962 to 2011 took the process further. In addition to enforcing a unified national identity based on the Burman Buddhist majority, it persecuted groups such as the predominantly Muslim Rohingya. These policies have continued after the military took back power in February 2021 following a brief democratic interlude.
Green said that, through her curation of the exhibition, she sought to highlight the diversity that the regime attempts to suppress. “It’s very important to me that one of the things the junta is trying to do is to homogenise the country, but it’s an incredibly diverse space. In fact, it’s one of the most diverse areas on Earth. And so how do you then show all these rich cultural histories without privileging the majority?”
Hence the myriad of artefacts on display representing different sub-regions and cultures. There are also recent artworks that illustrate the current predicament of minorities. A black-and-white photograph by the young Rohingya photographer Ro Mehrooz shows one of the million Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh beside a pool of dirty water. It is titled Lost in Reflection: a Rohingya’s Gaze into Hope’s Abyss.
The Burma to Myanmar exhibition runs from November 2, 2023, to February 11, 2024, in the Joseph Hotung Great Court Gallery at the British Museum. For booking/ticket information, see the museum website. The image at the top of the article shows a detail from an early 20th-century textile hanging with scenes from the Ramayana. Photo: © The Trustees of the British Museum