Saya San (Hsaya San) Rebellion

   The largest rural uprising during the British colonial period, caused by economic distress, harsh taxation measures, and land foreclosures. Its leader, Saya San (Hsaya San), was a practitioner of traditional medicine, alchemy, and astrology who was also an active member of the radical faction of the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA). Before the revolt, he served as the chairman of a special GCBA committee surveying abuses of power by government officials and traveled to different parts of Lower Burma to compile a record of such abuses. This experience, and the general ineffectiveness of the GCBA's nonviolent tactics, convinced him that only an armed uprising could improve the lot of Burmese villagers. Quietly, he established a "Galon Army," and initiated a revolt on December 23, 1930, in Tharrawaddy District, north of Rangoon (Yangon) in what is now Pegu (Bago) Division. Among the rebels' first actions was the killing of local village headmen, who were widely perceived as instruments of British rule.
   Although Saya San's headquarters at Alantaung ("Flag Hill") in the Pegu Yoma was captured by colonial troops on December 31, the revolt spread to other parts of Lower Burma, including Insein, Henzada (Hinthada), Pegu (Bago), Toungoo (Taungoo), Prome (Pyay), Pyapon, and Thayetmyo, and also to the Shan States. Resorting to guerrilla tactics, the insurgents offered stubborn resistance to colonial police and military forces until mid-1932. According to British reports, rebel activity was so widespread that authority had collapsed in some districts.
   After the capture of his headquarters, Saya San fled to Upper Burma and then to the Shan States, hiding out at Nawngkio in Hsipaw. When his forces were defeated in an engagement with colonial troops, he attempted to get to his hometown of Shwebo but was betrayed and captured in August 1931. Brought before a Special Tribunal, he was sentenced to death by hanging on August 28. The sentence was carried out on November 28 at Tharrawaddy jail. Both Dr. Ba Maw and "Galon" U Saw gained national prominence by defending him.
   The revolt caught the British by surprise. They brought reinforcements from the Indian Army to Burma, where they were combined with military police, newly recruited civilian police, and Karen (Kayin) and Chin levies to create a force of more than 23,000 men. Martial law was imposed. More than 1,300 insurgents were killed, 9,000 arrested, and 126 rebels, including Saya San, executed. In some districts, the colonial police used methods similar to the "Four Cuts" policy of the Tatmadaw to deprive the guerrilla resistance of local support networks, including forced relocation.
   The revolt was poorly organized and equipped; peasant rebels had few rifles, and, to protect themselves from British bullets, resorted to magical tattoos, spells, and amulets. The official British report on the uprising attributed it to the gullibility and superstition of Burmese villagers and described Saya San as an opportunistic charlatan. Little attention was paid to peasant grievances, including rice prices so low that farmers fell deeper and deeper into debt and did not have enough income to feed their families, a situation that the colonial government did next to nothing to alleviate. Many of the districts where rebels received the most popular support were those in which farmers had lost their land to Indian moneylenders. Peasant resentment was also stimulated by the government's strict prohibitions against their using timber from forest reserves.
   The colonial authorities made much of the fact that Saya San designated himself Thupannaka Galuna Yaza (the Galon King) and constructed a "palace" at Alantaung, reflecting his desire to expel the Westerners and restore the old order. Although his thinking may have been reactionary, it reflected the widespread perception among ordinary Burmese that the colonial government was illegitimate.
   Many urban Burmese, including students at Rangoon (Yangon) University, admired Saya San and his followers. But a new generation of nationalists, including those who joined the Dobama Asiayone, recognized that a restoration of the precolonial order was impossible. When Aung San and the Thirty Comrades received military training from the Japanese on the eve of World War II, their goal was to establish a modern state, defended by a modern army. In U Maung Maung's words, "[T]he Saya San Rebellion, fundamentally the people's revolution, ended an epoch of modern Burmese history, a period of uneasy alliance of traditionalism with modern politics" (From Sangha to Laity, 1980, 105).

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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