Tuesday, April 23, 2024

Learning to share: Book Review #1

Must read


Every man is my superior in some way

In that I learn from him.

– Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)



Title                            – Unraveling the History of Tai Yai: A Sub-group of the Proto-Tai

Cove page of Sao Noan Oo’s previous book
Cover page of Sao Noan Oo’s previous book (Nel Adams is her English name)
Photo: bookdepository.com

Author                        – Sao Noan Oo (Nel Adams)

Publication Date:       1 January 2017

Number of pages      – 212

Price                           -.£12.99 / -.B 1,000


There are at least 3 reasons to read this book, written by a scion of the one of the 34 noble houses of the former Federated Shan States, Lawksawk.


Reason #1 is the suggestion that the cradle of all the Tai groups, which include Shans of Burma, Dai and Zhong of China, Tai of Vietnam, Lao of Laos, Thai of Thailand and Ahoms of India, “could be” the province of Qinghai, where the headwaters of Yangtze, Salween (Nu) and Mekong (Lanchang) are located (Page 37):


The Tai being an inland group of people, their ancient ancestors would have crossed over the land mass of Eurasia, and settled in the far north of Central Asia (as Phylologist Max Miller believed). Here they adopted a nomadic way of life using the Yak as their draught animals, to move from place to place while they hunted and gathered food.


When population increased and food became scarce, or the climatic conditions were too harsh for survival, many groups, including the Proto-TAI migrated south, crossing over many mountain ranges, such as the Altai or Tien Shan or


the Kun-lon Shan (American Max Millar, a Phylologist believed it was the Altai.) where they could find passes.


After crossing over the mountains they arrived  at a large basin of fertile land, in the present day Qinghai Province in North-western China. It is a typical plateau, located in the fountain head of the Hawngho(Huanghe), Yangtse Jiang, Lanchang and Nujiang, the four important international rivers. They were not early pioneers or people at the beginning of civilization as such, they came down the mountain and just happened to arrive at this basin during their migration and were perhaps stranded here.



The three rivers run parallel and not a great distance from each other. Could this watershed be the first settlement of the Parental Tai after they  migrated from Mongolia, all of whom spoke the same language and call themselves TAI? Could this be the cradle of TAI before they moved south along the different routes, the Salween, Mekong and the Yangtse and dispersed into different parts of China and S.E Asia and then diverged into sub-groups: Tai Yai, Tai Lue, Thai, Tai Lao, Tai Dam,Tai Khamti,Tai Assam etc.



She also argues that claims by Chinese academics that Nanchao Kingdom (known by Shans as Lan Zao, Land of a Million Lords) which flourished between 737-1253, was not Tai are not final (Page 44-45):

  • Sir George Scott mentioned that although the names of the kings of Nanchao seemed alien to Tai, the population of Nanchao was definitely Tai
  • The argument that the lord of Nanchao followed patronage linking system in choosing their names, the last syllable of his father’s name: Piloge, Geluofeng etc are identifiable as Lolo and intractable as Tai can be explained:

By influence or choice the Tai could have adopted names that were alien to them. e.g in Thailand, the Thai population has dropped the traditional Tai and adopted Sanskrt (Pali) names for the individuals. Some Tai Yai of the Shan States by Burmese influence or by choice have individually adopted Burmese names, but some use Nang or Sai as a prefix to show that they are Tai.

By transliteration of Tai names into Chinese pronunciation, the Tai names could have become obliterated, as in Sipsawngpanna which means County of Twelve Paddy fields has become Xishuangbanna. The Tai word has been obliterated and the meaning lost.

By deliberately changing Tai name into Chinese by the ruling authority e.g originally ‘Dai Kong’ an area which means the people of Kong River has been changed into Dehong Prefecture. All the five states or mongs (Mengs) of Dai Kong have also lost their Tai names e.g:

Mong Kon has become ‘Mang city’; Mong Mao ‘Ruili City’; Mong Ti’Lianghe County’; Mong La ‘Yinjiang County’; and Mong One ‘Long Chuan County’.

It is surprising some cities and Counties in Sipsawngbanna have retained their Tai names although spellings using Roman alphabets are variable. In time, future generations of Tai will not recognize that these towns and countries were once the homes of their ancestors as pronunciation has become corrupted and history altered or distorted.

Nanchao is significant to the Tai people as it blocked Chinese influence from the north for many centuries. If Nanchao had not existed most of the non-Han Chinese people south of the Yangtse, might have been completely assimilated into the Chinese cultural sphere. Nanchao stimulated Tai migrations and expansion. Over several centuries bands of Tai from Yunnan moved steadily into S.E Asia. By the 13th. Century they had reached as far as Assam in India. Once settled they became identified as Tai Yai or Shan in N.E of Burma, Tai Khamti in Northern most region of Burma, Tai Leang in the Sagaing region, Tai Khuen, Tai Lu and Tai Loi in Kengtung, Tai Yuan in Northern Thailand, Tai Lao in Laos, Tai Dam, Tai Deng, Tai Khao in Northern and Central Vietnam as well as several Tai clans in Assam.

Reason #2 is her answer to the question raised by lay readers such as myself as to how the Federated Shan States (1922-1947) was run (Page 68-69):

By 1935 the FSS had its own Commissioner who maintained his office in Taunggyi, the capital of the Federated Shan States. The federation had brought all the Sao Hpas together, making regulation and assessment of revenue easier; it had centralized the Federal budget, covering expenditure on public works, medical administration, forestry, education, agriculture and police.

Out of the revenue collected in each state, 35 percent of it was contributed to the Federal Budget; the Sao Hpa received a fixed salary of 10 percent, and the rest of the revenue was used for internal expenditure including salaries of ministers and other officers. Out of the salary the Sao Hpas received they had to fulfill personal, social and ceremonial obligations out of their own pockets.

In order to promote education and progress the first government school, “The Shan Chiefs’ School” was built in Taunggyi, for the families of the Sao Phas and their ministers. This was followed by a government school, a medical centre and a small post Office in the capital town of each state.

Since  P.C Fogarty became the Commissioner of the Shan States in 1938, the earlier hostility of the Sao Hpas towards the Federation had been replaced by a new spirit of co-operation owing to greater imput by the Sao Hpas on matters concerning the Shan States. The Sao Hpas were allowed to take an active part in administration and business of the Federation.

Cochrane, one of the Superintendent of Shan States, believed that during 1922-1942, the Federation was successful in accomplishing the goals that the British set out for it. They believed that the Shan Chiefs as a class realized their responsibility for the good administration for their states and the advancement of their subjects.

The views of the British and the Sao Hpas had converged on the need to maintain the Federation as a separate political unit from Burma Proper. But the chiefs resented the loss of status, privileges, and power that came with the Federation. To safeguard their position and states from the legislation of Rangoon and to regain lost status and greater independence, the chiefs made a number of representation to the British.


As can be seen the Sao Hpas saw themselves as nationalists who should be given greater political responsibility as the Federated Shan States moved towards self-government. The tone of the 1941 documents presented in London by the Sao Hpas, of Mong Nai, Yawnghwe, Hsipaw and Kengtung was milder than that of the earlier period, when it was presented by Sao Ohn Kya in 1925 and 1929. The 1941 documents presented in London by the above 4 Sao Hpas were included in such things as:

  • The Federated Shan States would remain a political unit distinct from Burma Proper.
  • The Federated Shan States should form a separate self-governing entity under the British crown.


Recognizing that the interests of the Federated Shan States were closely bound up with those of Burma in certain respects, the Shan States would be willing to negotiate on equal terms to enter into treaty or agreement with Burma Proper, on matters which are of common interest and concern.

As regards to the internal administration of the Federation, the powers should devolve on the representatives of the Sao Hpas on much the same line as the Cabinet in self-governing Dominion.

In view of the promised review of the present constitution of Burma after the war, the Shan representatives should be consulted if there should be any change that might affect the interests of the Federated Shan States.

For the British, their priority was to keep the frontier stable and peaceful and their own position paramount. However, they were not deaf to the pleas of the Sao Hpas and did grant them a number of concessions in a modified Federation. More importantly for the Sao Hpas and the British government, the Federation would continue as a political unit distinct from Burma Proper. Many of the other demands e.g contributions to the Federation from the states were eventually lowered. That the Standing Sao Hpas Committee and the Shan States Commissioner would meet the Governor twice a year had been approved. A portion of mining and forestry royalties were to be distributed in equal shared between the Sao Hpas and the Federal fund, while school hospitals dispensaries, buildings and minor roads were transferred from federal to state control. The Shan States were no longer designed “backward tracts”, but placed in the ‘excluded or scheduled areas’.

During the British rule, the Shan States enjoyed relative peace and tranquility with an absence of state directed violence against the local population. The British introduced law an order into the Shan States and the Sao Hpas ruled by their conscience.

Just as the Shan States were slowly but gradually moving forward, and the Sao Hpas and the British were working well together, World War II arrived in the Shan States, and the British retreated to India and to be replaced by the Japanese Occupation.


Note: the British proclaimed before they entered into the Shan States, that they would bring peace and prosperity with them and that they would

DGE Hall
DGE Hall
Photo: en.wikipedia.org

not interfere in the internal affairs of the States. The majority of Tai/Shan were largely left alone in their old ways, habits and customs. But with the British, also came other people who were technically wiser than the Shans. Being better educated and more sophisticated, these people were soon controlling the main commerce and trade. Although the Shans were noted for being good traders they could not compete with the efficiency of new comers, who were more experienced in dealing with other traders of the wider world. Even the final disposal of the native produce, like tea was not in the hands of the natives any longer. Produce from the hills and jungles had to go through brokers in the towns and villagers, who over-cut the profit, leaving very little for the real producer.

The Sao Hpas did not possess absolute power as the Shan States were under the supervision of the British political agents. Accounts and files were kept and inspected regularly by the Assistant Superintendent. The Sao Hpas’ personal prerogatives were left very much to themselves as long as they did not affect justice and good government. The Shan Sao Hpas were seldom deposed, but when deposed it was because they committed such crimes as disloyalty, encouraging rebellion, or rebelled against the government, murder and serious misappropriation of state or government money.


Contrary to Burmese nationalists opinions that the British favored the non-Burmese especially the Shan, and encouraged separatism, in fact the British goal was the ultimate amalgamation of all excluded areas with Burma, and the bestowing of a dominion to this new and unified entity.


Reason #3 is the warning to the Shans and other non-Burmans living along the Sino-Burman border.


Though Mong Mao and other Tai principalities were practically independent, the shadow of China hung over them.

The Chinese undertook several military campaign against the Mao kings. The Ming Emperor was interested in the trade route from Yunnan to Upper Burma and India, and found the Mao Kingdom to be obstacle, so he decided that the Mao Kingdom should be wiped out. There was a long struggle between the Chinese and the Mao people under King Sao Hso Ngan Hpa. Internal disturbances with Yunnan gave the opportunity  for Chinese Imperial Court to exert its military might and the Mao kingdom was overthrown.


Here’s an excerpt from D.G.E. Hall’s A History of Southeast Asia which may further illuminates the tight spot Shans were in (Page 176):

With the passing of Kublai Khan’s dynasty in 1368, China lost control over the route across Asia to the West. In their search for new outlets for trade the Mings, with their eyes upon the Irrawaddy, decided that the Maw (Mao) Shans must be subdued. The result was a long struggle lasting from 1438 to 1465. There was added reason for the Chinese move in view of the fact that an ambitious Maw Shan chieftain, Thonganbwa (‘Ssu-jen-fa’), was attempting to revive the old Nanchao empire. In 1441 Wang Chi, the President of the Board of War, was appointed to lead a strong army, which drove the Shans out of Luch’uan. Some of them fled to Hsenwi, but the majority, under Thonganbwa, acrossed the Irrawaddy and took refuge in Mohnyin. The story of Wang Chi’s campaigns is told in the Ming Shih, which states that the emperor offered  ‘Ssu-jen-fa’s’ land to whoever should succeed in arresting him. An inscription at the Tupayon Pagoda, erected by Narapati at Sagaing, relates how Thonganbwa, fleeing before Wang Chi to Mohnyin and Kale, was captured by the Burmese and presented to their king on his coronation day.


Wang Chi’s forces in due course conquered Mohnyin, and he demanded the surrender of the fugitive. When Narapati refused his demand the Chinese proceeded to invade Burmese territory. A battle was fought near Tagaung in which, according to Hmannan Yazawin, the The Chinses general was killed and his army badly mauled (1445). In the following year the Chinese invaded in greater strength and appeared before the walls of Ava. Narapati thereupon agreed to their demand. Thonganbwa, however, committed suicide, and only his dead body could be surrended. Narapati also formally accepted Chinese overlordship. In return the Yunnan forces assisted him to subdue the rebellious Chief of Yamethin. In 1451 he received from China a gold seal of appointment as ‘Comforter of Ava’, and three years later a slice of Mohnyin territory.


Note: Thonganbwa is the Burmese corruption of Hso Ngan Hpa.


And now today we are facing the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative that was hatched in Beijing.


The questions that come to mind:

  • Could the Shans and other non-Burmans achieve their cherished rights without being in the way of OBOR?
  • On the contrary, if they consider OBOR as a hindrance to their rights, and rise up in arms against it, who’s going to come to their rescue?


It seems the situation calls for a leadership—either single or collective—that can successfully defy all the odds  to reach a win-win solution.


We therefore have to thank Sao Noan Oo for sounding a timely alert.

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