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Myanmar Traditional Medicine: The making of a national heritage

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  27 May 2020

CÉLINE CODEREY*
Affiliation:
Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore Email: ariceli@nus.edu.sg

Abstract

In the aftermath of independence, obtained in 1948, the Burmese government launched a project to valorize and promote traditional medicine which comprised the institutionalization and standardization of the teaching, practice, and production of medicines. The government justified this project by asserting the importance of protecting and improving—in terms of both quality and accessibility—this precious national heritage. Having contributed to the maintenance of people's health for centuries, it was nevertheless under threat of vanishing because of the dominance of biomedicine and because traditionally it had been passed down through a plurality of lineages using an esoteric language. Although recognizing the official motivation behind this project, this article suggests that it was also motivated by the need to unify and ‘Burmanize’ the country in the name of nation-building. Indeed, constructing a medicine that could compete with biomedicine, if not overtake it, would help in marking the country's distance and autonomy vis-a-vis the West. Spreading a standardized medicine, largely based on the Burman tradition, across the country would help eliminate inter-ethnic differences as well as the esoteric elements inherent in traditional medicine that were perceived as a potential threat to the state's authority. While claiming to protect a national heritage, the state was in fact crafting a new heritage that complied with a specific image of the nation—a unified modern Buddhist nation—in order to help it attain its political goals. The article also discusses to what extent this project has been successful by examining the limits of its implementations and the response of healers and manufacturers.

Type
Research Article
Copyright
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2020

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Footnotes

I would like to thank Jeremy Fernando for helping me think through the article and for helping me to edit it, and the anonymous reviewers of MAS for their very insightful comments.

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