Saya San (1876-1931)

Eileen Brandenburg / Hans-Bernd Zöllner

Burmese version of this article

1 Introduction

Saya San is one of the great heroes of the Burmese independence struggle because of his role in the peasants’ uprising starting in late 1930 that is named after him albeit he acted only eight months as leader of the rebellion that continued for many more months in different parts of Burma. His short career as a rebel leader was followed by a great number of attempts to ascertain the significance of the rebellion in the anti-colonial struggle and Saya San’s role in it. The various views on the “Saya San uprising” therefore signify the many options of how to make sense of the driving forces behind Burmese history and politics until today.

2 Biographical Sketch

Saya San was born on October 24, 1876 as Yat Kyar in a village near Shwebo, the town from which King Alaungphaya, the founder of the last Burmese dynasty, originated. Ten years after his birth, the British put an end to royal rule in Burma. At that time, the boy received a traditional monastic education near his birthplace. As an adult, he moved to a village nearby producing and selling mats and baskets. He married and fathered two children, a son and a daughter. The family later moved to southern Burma near Mawlamyine (Moulmein) where he worked as a carpenter, and – more successfully – as a fortune teller and medical healer (se saya). He wrote two treatises on the subject in which he contrasted traditional Burmese and Western medicine highlighting the value of the former. Probably at this time he adopted the name Saya (“Teacher”) San. As a se saya, he was regarded as someone to have access to the special powers in the fields of astrology, alchemy and mantras.

Saya San etwa im Jahr 1927

In 1920, he joined the local branch of the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA), the nationwide nationalist organisation striving for an independent Burma. He first represented his village organisation and later the district branch of Mawlamyine. In 1924, he was elected chairman of a commission that looked into the grievances of peasants caused by the British system of tax collection. In 1929, he proposed to refuse paying capitation tax and establish defense organisations to protect villagers against abuses by the colonial government. His proposal was not adopted by the GCBA conference of 1929 whereupon Saya San formed his own organisation, the Galon Association (galon athin) named after the mythical bird Galon (Garuda) that according to popular belief was superior to the Naga (serpent/snake), representing earth and water and was associated at that time with the British.

Saya San recruited followers who took an oath of allegiance and were tattooed with the Galon emblem. On December 22, 1930, the rebellion started after its leader had adopted the title of “King of the Galons” and established his headquarters in Tharawaddy District, some 170 km north of the capital Rangoon; it erupted at the auspicious time of 11.33 pm on the day after the Acting Governor, Sir Joseph A. Aung Gyi, had categorically refused to consider a lightening of the hard-hit peasants’ tax burden. The attacks concentrated on government agents like village headmen four of whom were killed in the first 48 hours of the uprising, agencies such as police stations and symbols of British modernity like railway bridges and telegraph poles. On December 30, Saya San’s headquarters consisting of some huts located on a hill of the nearby Pegu Yoma, were taken by government troops. Saya San, at times in the disguise of a monk, traveled by train to Pyay (Prome) and in January 1931 moved – again partly by train – to the Southern Shan State where he set up another Galon force comprised of members of different ethnic groups helping the villagers to fight what was regarded unjust treatment by the authorities. Government forces broke up the rebel army and Saya San attempted to move to his native area near Shwebo but was held up by a thorn in the foot. A local guide informed the police and Saya San was arrested on August 2, 1931. He was brought back to Tharawaddy and tried by a special tribunal which sentenced him to death on August 28. An appeal was rejected and he was hanged on November 28 of the same year.

Before his death, Saya San had authorized two journalists to use the proceeds from the sale of his books on traditional medicine to buy books for a library to be set up in his memory. The first works acquired were works of Marx, Trotsky and Lenin. The rebellion Saya San had started continued  until early 1932.

3  Aims and Achievements

The aims of Saya San can be deduced from the two resolutions he proposed for the 16th conference of the GCBA in 1929:

1 To resist collection of capitation and thathameda[1] taxes by the colonial government;

2 to demand from government the right of free collection of forest products such as timber and bamboo for family use, and if government refused, the existing rules be defied by non-violent means.[2]

Both propositions were meant to alleviate the economic situation of the rural population harried by  the collapse of the international rice market after the global depression following the Wall Street crash of 1929 and at the same time extend their freedom from rules and regulations imposed by the British. The means to achieve this goal consisted in boycotting government policies in line with the policy of the wunthanu athins (our-race associations) which after 1920 had spread to all parts of central Burma as a parallel grassroots structure to the British administrative system, the latter severely restricting self-organisation of the villages as it had existed under the Burmese kings. Economic and political aims were thus inseparably linked together with elements of Buddhism and polular culture. Saya San had been a member of a wunthanu organisation which by 1925 existed in almost all villages of Burma and were connected through the GCBA from village to national level. The wunthanu athins constituted a village-based movement that effectively challenged the policies of the British administration by refusing to take part in elections and paying taxes. The success of such protests can be seen in the low percentage of votes cast in the first elections held by the British in 1922 when only 6.71 % of the electorate went to the polls. Other than this silent refusal of government procedures, the tax boycott and other forms of non-cooperation were punished by the government agencies. So as to become independent from the colonial economy, the associations set up retail shops recognisable by the wunthanu logo; Burmese working for the British administration were refused use of the shops and monks were asked – or even forced – not to dispense religious services to alleged collaborators. The British administration regarded this as “political terrorism and a negation of all independent political thought in the country”[3] and passed an Anti-Boycott Law to counter the attempts to ostracise the Burmese members of the British administration. Here, two antagonistic concepts of “independence” become visible.

Saya San was thus a member of a well organised movement that used Burmese traditions to resist British rule in a way similar to Gandhi – who visited Burma in 1929 – by establishing parallel structures of administering the country. The violent rebellion connected with his name was a consequence of the refusal of the GCBA to endorse the recommendations drawn up by Saya San after his investigation into the hardships caused by the existing tax system comprising 170 case studies. The umbrella organisation of the wunthanu athins broke up before the conference in 1929 due to factionalism both within the GCBA and the monks’ association that had supported it. Leading members of the GCBA had decided to participate in the elections and thus abandoning the previous boycott strategies. This, in return, resulted in a still stronger suppression of wunthanu activities. The galon athin founded by Saya San was a unit to defend the initiatives of grassroots boycotters against the harsh measures of the government to end the civil disobedience of the peasants and against the leaders of the Burmese organisations who had compromised their resistance in favour of participating in the British schemes to “modernise” Burma.

Saya San’s main achievement was to demonstrate that the protest of the Burmese peasants had to be taken seriously as  a mass movement. The revolt of December 1930 connected with his name was the beginning of a wildfire of revolts led by other “Saya Sans” as the many trials of rebel leaders show. Finally, his trial and execution made him a symbol of an independent Burma battling for the welfare of the peasant majority of Burma first instead of for a system of subjugating the people to serve foreign economic interests and its concomitant political system – be it defined by the colonial power or by (collaborating) fellow countrymen. The Saya San Rebellion can be regarded as an early case of protesting the consequences of globalisation in the wake of the imposition of colonialism and a capitalist economy inextricably tied to it.

4 Assessment(s)

Saya San and the rebellion that bears his name has been assessed very differently. A major interpretative scheme uses dichotomous categories like traditional vs. modern, rural vs. urban, superstitious vs. rational etc. Such classifications were employed in official reports of the British administration on the rebellion. In the eyes of the colonial administrators, the uprising was just a backward looking attempt to restore the glory of royal Burma. From this point of view, the “coronation” of Saya San and his “palace” on the hill played a central role that dominated the historiography of the events to a great extent. Here, the figure of a min-laung, a king-to-be, played a crucial role; many of the rebels who had fought the British after the removal of King Thibaw from the throne had adopted this title. The concept is based on the belief that a ruler needs to possess hpon – merit or glory.[4] Saya San in the eyes of his followers surely possessed this quality but that did not mean that his main aim was to restore the monarchy. He called himself thamada[5] (president) and held that the war against the British was necessary to protect the welfare of monks, laypeople and the Buddhist religion.

This change of the “min-laung motif” from a challenger to the throne of a current ruler to the legitimation of fighting the colonial power to protect the Burmese people is indicated by its continuing use during the Burmese independence struggle. Here, the coming of a future king to free Burma in the context of millenarian expectations helped Aung San to become regarded as the leader of a Burma free from foreign domination and – more importantly – from unjust foreign laws. Like Aung San, Saya San was a charismatic leader who saw himself forced by circumstances to resort to violent means to achieve their goals, and both represented the will and the wishes of the majority of the people. In Saya San’s case, this is illustrated by the fact that he only for very short periods of time and within very limited areas could directly lead the rebellion which spread to other parts of the country without his direct involvement soon after he had chosen to use violent means as an answer to the widespread frustration of the villagers.

The means Saya San employed to organise the movement were indeed traditional and linked to the belief in magic powers like tattooing and oath taking combined with drinking “oath water”. Both measures, however, served practical ends. They bound the rebel groups together and conveyed a feeling of security and fearlessness. Aung San Suu Kyi has taken up the latter motif in her famous slogan “Freedom from Fear” substantiated by a “modern” interpretation of Buddhist thought whereas Saya San and his followers relied on “traditional” forms of Buddhist practices in their anti-colonial struggle.

Overall, Saya San’s aims and the means to achieve them represent a hybrid mix of traditional and modern forms of resisting British rule in Burma. He can be regarded as a paradigmatic figure of Burmese/Myanmar society because, other than many leaders from colonial times to today’s politics, he was not a member of the country’s elite but deeply rooted in the world views of the peasantry which until today forms the majority of Myanmar’s population. It is remarkable that two politicians who for some time dominated Burmese politics till independence used Saya San’s popularity after his death for their own career: Dr. Ba Maw, the first chief minister of Burma under the constitution of 1935 was his main defense lawyer. U Saw who held this office some years later and ordered the assassination of Aung San in 1947, participated in the defence as well and later adopted the name ‘Galon’ for himself and his private army.

Saya San has inspired a variety of researchers investigating Burma’s political culture and historiography to understand this crucial event in Burma’s colonial history. These studies show that concentrating on the rebellion named after the popular hero appears more important than focussing on Saya San’s life because many features of the uprising resurfaced in Burma’s/Myanmar’s modern history.

5 Bibliography

From the many books and articels dealing with the Saya San Rebellion, the following have been used for this biography:

Aung Thwin, Maitrii 2011 The Return of the Galon King. History, Law, and Rebellion in Colonial Burma. Athens, Ohio University Press.

Herbert, Particia 1982 The Hsaya San Rebellion (1930-1932) Reappraised. Melbourne, Monash University, Centre of Southeast Asian Studies (Working Papers Nr. 27).

Maung Maung 1980 From Sangha to Laity. Nationalist Movements of Burma, 1920-1940. New Delhi, Manohar.

Prager, Susanne 2003 Coming of the “Future King”: Burmese Minlaung Expectations Before and During the Second World War. Journal of Burma Studies 8:  1-32.

Salomon, Robert L. 1969 Saya San and the Burmese Rebellion. Modern Asian Studies 3, 3: 209-223.

[1]    Both were household taxes with different names in Upper (capitation) and Lower (thathameda) Burma.

[2]    Quotation taken from Maung Maung 1980: .

[3]             Statement of  Mr. Lewinson in his introduction of the Anti-Boycott Bill on 21. February 1922 (Proceedings of the Legislative Council p. 948).

[4]    The Burmese word for a monk – hpon-gyi – means “great merit”.

[5]    The title refers to the maha-thamada (Great President), the first ruler in the history of mankind according to an often quoted Buddhist text, the Aggañña Sutta. This president was unanimously elected by the people to care for law and order. Aung San Suu Kyi quoted the story as one of the Buddhist roots for the Burmese understanding of democracy.

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