Monday, February 27, 2012

"I encountered an impressive contemporary example of detailed oral history in a PaO village two days' walk east of Kalaw in the Burmese Shan states. At the end of the evening meal, a few villagers asked an elderly man to chant the story of U Aung Tha, perhaps the most famous PaO politician after World War II. U Aung Tha was murdered near Taunggyi in 1948 by unknown assailants. The recitation, which I tape-recorded, lasted more than two hours. Far from being the heroic, swashbuckling epic that I had anticipated, it proved, on translation, to be a far more mundane and exceptionally detailed account of the last days of U Aung Tha. It resembled nothing so much as a meticulous police report detailing when Aung Tha arrived in the village, his companions and what they were wearing, the color of his jeep,  whom he spoke to, when he bathed, when several men arrived to ask where they could find him, how they were dressed, the jeep they drove, what they said to Aung Tha's wife, where Aung Tha's body was found, what he was wearing, the identifying ring on his finger, the autopsy findings, and so on. At the end of the recitation, the singer admonished his listeners 'to take the  example of this true story in order to prevent loss or defect in everything.' It was as if every effort had been made, by scrupulously careful oral transmission over half a century, to preserve all the evidence and material facts intact  in case a serious police investigation ever took place! I was also surprised to learn that this singer and others throughout PaO areas were paid to chant this story of U Aung Tha's murder at weddings and feasts. Despite being short on histrionics and long on factual detail, it was a popular and revered story."

from The Art of Not Being Governed: An Anarchist History of Upland Southeast Asia by James C Scott

No comments: