Nationalist movements often “have looked back to the classical era as a golden age” in order to claim legitimacy and rally support for their cause. Burmese nationalists looked to pre-colonial times as such an age. This nostalgia can be seen in the Burmese Saya San Rebellion of 1930-1932. The rebellion was named after Saya San, who is regarded by many Burmese nationalists as a hero. He built his legitimacy upon the promise of the restoration of the Burmese monarchy, with himself as the “Galon King”and the revitalization of the Buddhist clergy, which had become fragmented and politically impotent under British rule. Although his only connection to royalty was that he was born “in Shwebo District, the same region in Upper Burma where King Alaungpaya founded the Konbaung Dynasty” during the mid-eighteenth century, his followers rose up in the thousands, resulting in the biggest rebellion in colonial Burma. The secret behind his success was the popular myth of the arch-nemesis, the Galon and the Naga. The Naga, or the snake, was recognized in Burma as the symbol for the oppressive British Colonial government, while the Galon was a mythical bird depicted as being on the verge of defeating the Naga.
The British mode of governance contributed heavily to the emergence of Burmese nationalism, which is what this essay will examine. The pillars of Burmese identity were the monarchy and the Buddhist clergy. The British abolished the monarchy and over time, drastically reduced the influence of Buddhism on governance, thus erasing core components of Burmese identity. The real failure of British government was their inability to nurture a new Burmese identity that the population could accept. Saya San recognized the Burmese longing for pre-colonial form of governance and as such, crowned himself King of Burma and restored Buddhism’s role in Burmese politics. He rallied support, in part, by promising magical tattoos he claimed would protect his followers not only from snakebites but what they symbolized, the British . The way his followers flocked to his side even after many failed attempts to restore the “Buddhist King” demonstrates just how hungry the Burmese were for an alternative form of governance. This reflects the continued failure of the British colonial government to adapt its legal and religious policies to suit the Burmese.
This essay will give a short historical context of pre-colonial Burmese rule, the monarch-Buddhist clergy relationship, and how sophisticated its legal system was. Subsequently, the essay will discuss the governance system the British implemented, British views of the Burmese, British colonial law and its application (the latter two will be examined through the context of the Saya San Rebellion) and how this colonial system contributed to Burmese nationalism.
Pre-colonial Burma had a system where the monarchy and the Buddhist clergy were very closely intertwined, an almost symbiotic system which was established in ancient times. Burmese Kings have always had to be highly conscious of religious affairs if their dynasty was to survive. This essay will use King Bayinnaung from the 16th century to demonstrate the relationship between the Buddhist religion and the Burmese Monarchy. King Bayinnaung, like many Burmese kings, strove to be a Buddhist king. He built pagodas (temples) wherever he went, distributed scripture and sent offerings to the Tooth of the Buddha (a holy relic) in Ceylon and craftsmen to beautify its shrine. He gave generously to the monks but this did not translate into influence over the Buddhist clergy, in fact it was quite the opposite.
For example, King Bayinnaung’s grandest ambition was to subjugate states in what is modern day Thailand, the T’ai states. In his wars, he caught rebels whom he had defeated and showed them mercy by sparing their lives. However, this mercy was betrayed by the prisoners who joined an uprising, in which Bayinnaung’s city of Pegu and his palace were razed. Bayinnaung wanted to have a show of strength and teach the prisoners a lesson by “burning several thousands of them in huge bamboo cages” . The only thing that saved the rebels from the wrath of the angry King was the interventions of the Buddhist clergy, which dissuaded the King on religious grounds. King Bayinnaung also promoted the collection and study of the Dhammathats, the Buddhist law and natural law, which outranked the Rajathat, or king’s law . He effectively cultivated and promoted a code of law that he himself had to submit to, and whose authority not only outranked his, but, he could not control.
It could be argued that in Burma, the Buddhist monks were the King’s equal, based on their symbiotic relationship. The kings’ patronage of the Buddhist faith was fundamental to the royalty’s legitimacy. In return for the patronage, the monks kept watch over the morals of the villages, not as the King’s spies and officials, but as practitioners of the faith, and admonished the people to obey the law and to pay taxes . Although the kings could “honor a dozen or so monks by installing them in monasteries around the capital city…the most prominent of these received a title that can be translated as chief monk” , he could not interfere in religious affairs. The most he could do is charge a monk for heteropraxy, which is close to our understanding of heresy. Simarly, the king could not exercise arbitrary powers over his subjects. This was ensured by not only the Burmese themselves but through the Burmese legal system.
Pre-colonial Burma had one of the most sophisticated legal systems in Southeast Asia. East India Company’s ambassador to Burma claimed that Mandalay contained the most books of any capital in Southeast Asia. It was his opinion that the Kings of Burma ruled not through arbitrary power, but through the law courts staffed by ministers, generals and courtiers. “The process of law in Burman courts of justice is conducted with as much formality as in any country on earth” . Following the pacification campaigns that suppressed the Burmese Rebellion from 1885-1890, the indigenous Burmese system of governance was changed beyond recognition. The Monarchy was replaced with the Colonial government, the Buddhists were marginalized, and Burmese laws were replaced with Colonial law.
Britain put itself at a disadvantage through the installation of the headman system following the end of the Burmese Rebellions. It erased “practically all vestiges of the traditional Burmese class system of local government” . The new way of administrating Burma disconnected the headmen from their constituents by not allowing them to be elected, thus preventing them from representing the wishes of the people, while having them answerable only to the British. This pitted the British sharply against the previous form of indigenous governance. Because the British practiced Christianity, and were actively attempting to convert the Burmese, the two could not identify with one another the way the Burmese kings could, as kings were as answerable to the Dhammathats not only as fellow Burmese, but as fellow Buddhists. Not only did the British colonial government fail to see the danger in the headmen system but they also claimed that “both in Upper and in Lower Burma we inherited the traditions of a feeble Oriental Government, and it was impossible that evil practices should not abound.” To the detriment of the British, this attitude rejected the idea that any Burmese input in ruling would be beneficial not only to the people of Burma but contribute to the British colonial regime’s survival there.
This flawed governance system and mindset was reinforced by the widespread subscription in the Minlaung model. The Minlaung, or the incipient king model, was created by the British as “a theory that explained peasant uprisings through the image of a pretender-king who would periodically attract followers that believed that he would restore the monarchy and the religion” . The popularity and the sheer amount of subscribers to this theory among British officials collectively amounted to what was the failure of the objectivity in the application of the law. The Minlaung allowed the British to rhetorically attack indigenous Burmese law, as well as maintaining British imperial and moral authority; it boxed the Burmese into an image of near lawlessness and barbarity. It allowed the British to criticize the Burmese-staffed lower courts, from which it distanced itself , while they ignored the fact “that it was only through the application of colonial law that subordinate officials’ malfeasant acts were possible” . Finally, perhaps the most important aspect of the Minlaung model for this essay was that it helped to construct a whole new image of what constitutes a Burmese in the eyes of the British; the colonial government created a new national identity for the Burmese that was recognized only by the British colonial officials. The British criminalized the very culture they were creating for Burma, which by extension criminalized all Burmese. This colonial ethnological project became an integral component of the counter-insurgency policies, in other words, if an uprising occurred, all Burmese were equally guilty simply because, according to the Minlaung model, they were superstitious and backwards. During the Saya san rebellion, the government attempted to understand the source of frustration but was confined by the limited perspective of the Minlaung model.
From the time of pacification, the British implemented a governance style that was not only alien and unpopular but also gutted Buddhism’s role. During its rule, the British government was maintained through the often corrupt implementation of colonial law. British officials saw law as the rock and legitimate foundation on which their political acceptance would derive. The colonial government claimed that the law was the check against arbitrary power like those exercised by the Burmese kings. However, the government would often use colonial law to avoid the very checks the laws were designed to counter. The reality for the ordinary Burmese, unfortunately was, “getting access to justice was left to luck” . In fact, in the Burmese delta, the population seemed to avoid using the courts to resolve civil matters if at all possible”.
It was this growing discontent with colonialism that fuelled the Saya San Rebellions. With the Minlaung model, the British politicized what may very well have been a rebellion that had been economic in its inception. After the Saya san rebellion, the nationalists exploited this narrative .
If there were ever any Burmese doubt as to whether the colonial law served to benefit the Burmese or the colonial government that answer came after the capture of Saya San. Herbert Thirkell White, lieutenant-governor of British Burma between 1905-1910 once claimed “to all men were given the protection of equal laws and the assurance of even handed justice. The grasping avarice of officials was restrained and corrupt practices were discountenanced” . However, British actions spoke of the contrary. To try Saya San and the rebels of the Rebellion, the British colonial government in Rangoon created a whole new tribunal system that had been under proposal before the rebellion. These came in the forms of the Emergency Powers Ordinance, the Rebellion Trials and Criminal Law Amendment Ordinances. The new form of trial, with all the powers that it equiped the government with, effectively removed all accountability and the rights of Burmese to a fair trial . Worse yet, it arguably removed the Burmese from the legal process as a whole. Before the enactment of the special tribunal, which was only justified because the British claimed that it was produced as a tool for state’s self defense in a time of war, the Burmese had already been marginalized in the legal proceedings. Criminal cases were often “manipulated in order to achieve a particular outcome” . However, Saya San’s trial was a whole new level of legal manipulation.
“British officials were the first to associate the name Saya San with the uprising” , thus stringing together all the uprisings that happened between the period from 1930-1932 and promoting him to being the conspirator behind and leader of all the rebellions that happened. This whole argument rested on the testimony of a single witness and a document that was deemed penned in Saya San’s writing by a man who spoke no Burmese . The counter-insurgency legislation conflated the series of outbreaks into a single rebellion, giving it a single narrative, which was later used by nationalists to promote a single cause while allowing the court to pin the fault on Saya San. The British special tribunal then gave the cause of the uprising as “superstition, plain and simple” , while characterizing the rebellion as being traditional (Minlaung) in character. The superstition claims rested on the transcripts of an alleged rebel oath that traced back to one single oath translated by either a senior official or military officer, with the original copy never having been examined .
This questionable piece of evidence debunks the religious aspects of the British prosecution’s argument against Saya San and the rebels. However, this did not stop the government from trying the Galon Association or attacking the ancient tradition of having tattoos by claiming all who were tattooed were automatically guilty. One of the Burmese defense attorneys for Saya San put this discrimination into scope by telling the judge that “you may think we are childish in our belief, but we all believe, especially the villagers, that these tattoo marks render us immune to snake bite” . With the Burmese population being mainly peasants, the tattoo discrimination further alienated the British. British prosecution rested their legal connection between the Galon Association and the Rebellion on an anthropological interpretation of tattooing as a practice and the Galon as a symbol of revolt . To connect defendants in court, the British prosecution would often only rely on whether one bore a tattoo, if they used amulets, or if they had partook in “spirit worshipping”. In effect, Britain attacked both the Burmese kingship and religious beliefs. Rather than prosecuting individuals and limited organizations, the British seemed to be putting Burmese culture on trial.
This provided a sharp contrast to the Buddhist kings who were thought to rule with, perhaps romanticized sense of, religious justice. The Burmese believed the kings were granted their royal powers through merits accumulated in previous lifetimes. However, the role of merit accumulation by kings played in the Burmese’s source of allegiance was paled in comparison to the single most fundamental source of allegiance to the royalty which was derived from the king’s role as defender and supporter of the Buddhist faith . The king’s patronage of the Buddhist faith was fundamental to the royalty’s legitimacy. After all, they were expected to swear to respect the laws of Buddha. These added together to make the Burmese believe that the peace and prosperity of the kingdom depended upon the moral behavior of the king.
Although the Burmese monarchy never returned nor did the Buddhist clergy regain its pre-colonial position (although it did eventually become influential), the British insistence on insulting the two pillars of Burmese national identity resulted in the surge in popularity for the nationalist movement. The rebellion that Saya San led was effectively over by the time he was captured, as his forces were broken, and his palace captured. However, the British insensitivity because of their subscriptions to the likes of the Minlaung Model and Britain’s ignorance to the events like the earthquakes at Pegu and Pyu, which the Burmese took as signs of the impending return of the pre-colonial order, ultimately blinded the British to the brewing rebellion. British reporting officers gave the government all the warnings necessary for them to take action to promote British sensitivity toward the Burmese and their beliefs but whether because “GCSS [General Council of Sangha Sammeggi, a monk organization] trained and appointed groups of political monks to act as advisers in village-based, nationalist organizations” or because of stubbornness, religious tolerance never materialized.
Fragmentation in Burmese ranks was unified by the British trials . Buddhism, the ancient unifying factor in Burma renewed its role and became a “symbol of self-assertion against the colonial regime” . As much as the British insulted Buddhism, their focus throughout the trial and the Rebellion was focused elsewhere. It is debateable how large a part religion played in the Saya San Rebellion, but much like the rebellion itself, the role of religion in it was a construct of the British. British understanding of the rebellion, like the way it ruled Burma pushed Buddhism to the periphery. The British never understood the link between Buddhism and legitimacy of rule in Burma.
The British failed to realize the Burmese psyche and their nostalgia for the role the monarchy and Buddhism played in their lives. This nostalgia rendered the peasants unable to comprehend and to participate in the colonial system; thus, the two sides never could open up an avenue for reconciliation and dialogue to allow for the survival of the colonial system in Burma. The alternative to the colonial system that emerged was the Nationalists. Burmese nationalists rode the wave of dissatisfaction with colonial rule, rule of law and religious ignorance and rallied the country. It was not the brilliance of the nationalist leaders or the policies they proposed, rather, it was the ignorance and inflexibility of British policies that contributed to the rise of nationalism in Burma.
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