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Myanmar Traditional Medicine

The Making of a National Heritage


May 23, 2018 | News

Dr. Céline Coderey, a Research Fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore and a Teaching Fellow at Tembusu College, presented the paper “Myanmar Traditional Medicine: The Making of a National Heritage”. Dr. Coderey’s research investigates the motivations and results of the Burmese government’s post-independence project of valorising and institutionalising traditional medicine in the name of national heritage.

The Myanmar government used the language of conservation to assert that traditional medicine was an important national heritage that needed to be protected and conserved not only for its role in maintaining the health of the people for centuries, but because it was now threatened by the rise of scientific biomedicine. Dr. Coderey suggests however, that this approach doubled as a means to challenge Western biomedical standards while affirming the government’s aspiration to present Myanmar as a unified modern Buddhist nation.

Dr. Coderey claims that the Myanmar Traditional Medicine heritage project was promoted in a country of great ethnic and religious diversity by a dictatorial government distrusted by its people. The Burmese government only considered the Buddhist medical tradition and neglected alternative traditions. This approach has created the impression that the government sought to elevate the interests of one ethnic group over the interests of others.

The institutionalisation of traditional Burmese medicine occured in three distinct stages. First, teaching practices were regulated and standardised. Teaching institutes were opened in Mandalay and Yangon before being consolidated into a new university in Mandalay which is now the only place where practitioners can be trained. Mandalay was the last Burmese capital before the arrival of the British and consequently associates traditional medical practice with national identity. The university curriculum was designed by a council who developed a hybrid of traditional and modern practices; for instance, the council removed supernatural disorders and faith healing from the curriculum.

The second stage brought about the regulation and standardisation of practice; practitioners now require a license granted by the university. The focus was primarily on herbal medicine and massage. By contrast, the practices of astrology and alchemy as services were prohibited. Subsequently, hospitals and clinics have spread around the country and museums and gardens have been established in order to maintain the natural resources used by practitioners.

Finally, medical regulations were established for the production and distribution of medicine. Standardisation removed regional disparities and led to the adoption of some biomedical standards. For instance, drugs produced in the country now have to be registered and abide by the Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) guidelines established by the World Health Organization (WHO). Traditional Burmese medical practitioners also began to host and participate in international conferences.

In gauging the success of the Myanmar Traditional Medicine project, Dr. Corderey notes that initially, traditional medicine was heterogenous. Standardisation consolidated traditional medical practice and brought it in line with international standards and practices. However, she suggests that the decision to only foreground one type of traditional medicine excludes a rich and diverse range of traditional medical practices. She also notes that there was limited financial support for the project and the new regulatory system could not prevent the public from practising astrology, which is considered by many to be integral to healing. The lack of health literacy and public health campaigns means that many citizens continue to be treated by unregulated practitioners outside of the official health system.

Dr. Corderey sought to demystify the production of Myanmar Traditional Medicine and to situate the project in relation to political and national interests. For instance, there are strong parallels between the promotion of one particular medical tradition and the political goal of creating a modern Buddhist nation. Consequently, the story of peripheral healthcare practices in Myanmar needs to respectfully preserved to aid the understanding of future generations.