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The Return of the Galon King

History, Law, and Rebellion in Colonial Burma

Maitrii Aung-Thwin

Publication Year: 2010

In late 1930, on a secluded mountain overlooking the rural paddy fields of British Burma, a peasant leader named Saya San crowned himself King and inaugurated a series of uprisings that would later erupt into one of the largest anti-colonial rebellions in Southeast Asian history. Considered an imposter by the British, a hero by nationalists, and a prophet-king by area-studies specialists, Saya San came to embody traditional Southeast Asia’s encounter with European colonialism in his attempt to resurrect the lost throne of Burma.

The Return of the Galon King analyzes the legal origins of the Saya San story and reconsiders the facts upon which the basic narrative and interpretations of the rebellion are based. Aung-Thwin reveals how counter-insurgency law produced and criminalized Burmese culture, contributing to the way peasant resistance was recorded in the archives and understood by Southeast Asian scholars.

This interdisciplinary study reveals how colonial anthropologists, lawyers, and scholar-administrators produced interpretations of Burmese culture that influenced contemporary notions of Southeast Asian resistance and protest. It provides a fascinating case study of how history is treated by the law, how history emerges in legal decisions, and how the authority of the past is used to validate legal findings.

Published by: Ohio University Press

Title Page

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Maps and Illustrations

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pp. xi-xiii

The galon, more popularly known as the garuda, is a well-recognized figure in the iconography and literature of Hindu-Buddhist Southeast Asia. Sometimes described as half-man and half-raptor, the galon is best known as the celestial vehicle of Vishnu, one of the three great deities of the Brahmanic universe. Embedded in the region’s temple...

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pp. xv-xx

At its core, this book is interested in how histories are made and how circumstances affect the way pasts are remembered. Thinking about history from this perspective is the result of many intellectual and personal experiences that began in the heartland of the United States and has taken me—inevitably it now seems—back to the Southeast Asia...

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ONE. Introduction

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pp. 1-46

By all accounts, there was little reason to worry. The acting governor, Joseph Maung Gyi, was touring several rural districts and had even conducted a successful durbar (meeting) in Tharrawaddy—one of the more notoriously violent districts in recent years—without incident.1 Although local village leaders and notables had petitioned...

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TWO. Textualizing Rebellion: Remembering Kings and an Ethnology of Revolt

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pp. 47-75

As the first reports began to filter in from Tharrawaddy, a district three hours from Rangoon, it became clear that officials had underestimated the scope and breadth of the violence that had erupted just north of the capital.1 Telegrams to Rangoon hastily stated that while the violence in Tharrawaddy District, “where outbreaks are not...

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THREE. Legislating Rebellion: Ethnology and the Formation of Counter-Insurgency Law

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pp. 76-105

If one were to focus exclusively on the series of telegrams, letters, and reports that have been associated with the earliest accounts of the Rebellion, it would appear that notions of Burmese kingship were informing the character of the uprising in Tharrawaddy, reconfirming the template established earlier by administrative gazetteers and...

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FOUR. Adjudicating Rebellion: The Trial of Saya San

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pp. 106-138

Armed with new legislative and judicial powers, Rangoon officials began to apply their newly secured administrative capabilities toward framing and implementing counter-insurgency policy and strategy. The appointment of a Special Rebellion Tribunal, among several other initiatives, followed closely the blueprint outlined in the...

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FIVE. Codifying Rebellion: Origins of a Resistance Narrative

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pp. 139-159

The sentencing and execution of Saya San in November 1931 did not mark the end of the Rebellion for the colonial administration as new outbreaks continued to emerge in districts throughout Upper Burma and the Shan States. As a result, legislative powers were extended and subsequent Special Tribunals would oversee the trials of hundreds of...

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SIX. Interpreting Rebellion: Binary Structures and Colonial Remains

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pp. 160-190

The publishing of The Origins and Causes of the Burma Rebellion (1930–1932) and its eventual distribution to relevant government libraries and offices marked for all intents and purposes the administrative end of the Rebellion.1 To Rangoon officials, the process of compiling the report satisfied requests from Parliament to account...

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SEVEN. Sanctifying Rebellion: Colonial Discourses and Southeast Asian Resistance

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pp. 191-215

The lingering presence of the official narrative and its prescriptive structures within scholarship highlights the intimate relationship between colonial documentation projects and postcolonial research. Scholars broadened the manner in which we thought about the Saya San Rebellion by reinterpreting past assessments, shifting our...

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EIGHT. Remembering Rebellion: Museums, Monks, and the Military

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pp. 216-226

The transformation of what early colonial administrators described as a local disturbance into what later scholars would deem a religious experience highlights the many ways in which the Saya San Rebellion was shaped by a variety of historical contexts and intellectual perspectives. Whether local in nature or representative of a wider...


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pp. 227-241


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pp. 243-247

E-ISBN-13: 9780896804708
Print-ISBN-13: 9780896802766

Page Count: 247
Publication Year: 2010

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Burma -- History -- Peasant Uprising, 1930.
  • San, Hsaya -- Trials, litigation, etc.
  • Burma -- Trials, litigation, etc. -- History -- 20th century.
  • Anti-imperialist movements -- Burma -- History -- 20th century.
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