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Chapter 1 INTRODUCTION With Christmas celebrations nearly upon them, Rangoon officials were hardly prepared for the storm that was brewing in the Burmese countryside in late December 1930. 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 him to postpone the collection of taxes, his refusal to do so did not appear to have any significant effect on the collection of village elders, notables, officials and headmen that were in attendance. Despite the recent economic downturn that was directly affecting the massive riceeconomy in Irrawaddy delta region, British Burma was considered a success in the eyes of its administrators in Delhi and London. Yet the acting governor had no idea that a local headman, U Tun Hla, had recently warned the deputy commissioner and local superintendent of police that villagers throughout the district were preparing for a revolt in the area. One day later, on December 22, 1931, a police patrol that was sent to the village of Phashwegyaw would encounter and briefly engage two hundred men, mostly with dahs (knives) and a few guns.2 District officers advised Rangoon that the outbreak was most likely local in nature and would settle almost as quickly as it began.3 When the same police force returned to investigate, it was completely overwhelmed by nearly six hundred armed men, who killed the deputysuperintendant in charge. As events began to unfold, local officials 2 Chapter 1 would soon realize that they were witnessing something more than a random occurrence of rural unrest. For what would emerge between the years 1930 and 1932 would be regarded by scholars as one of the largest anticolonial movements of Southeast Asia, spreading throughout the Lower Burma delta and into hills of the Shan States; involving numerous communities, thousands of villagers, and several thousand counter-insurgency troops. Officials would soon associate the name Saya San with the uprising in reference to the mysterious peasant leader who reportedly revived the ancient symbols of Burmese kingship in order to trigger the impressionable peasantry into action. Operating through a network of village cells that he and his lieutenants had established, Saya San promised supporters that as their new king, he would restore the authority of the Burmese monarchy, revitalize the Buddhist religion, and expel the British, who had completed the annexation of the kingdom as a province of British India in late 1885. Building his new “palace” on the hills east of Tharrawaddy, Saya San reportedly conducted a coronation ceremony, adorned himself with royal symbols of the Mandalay court, and assured his oath-bound followers that they would be protected by his magical amulets, incantations, and tattoos, which made one invulnerable to bullets. Rural cultivators, already frustrated by a severe drop in paddy prices, the privatization of communal forestry lands, high rental rates, the increasing burden of state taxes, and deepening credit-debt were quick to respond to Saya San’s recruitment campaign that connected criticism of foreigners, taxes, and the hardships of the economic crisis to the erosion of tradional values and institutions. By resurrecting the monarchy, peasants were assured that the spirituality, predictability, and familiarity of precolonial, Buddhist Burma would be restored. In the coming weeks, individuals and institutions that represented the colonial state were attacked, resulting in the deaths of thirty-eight village headmen, a Forestry officer, and over a hundred cases of attack and injury.4 According to the official narrative,5 Saya San would eventually adopt the title “Galon King” for signing his “royal” proclamations and encourage his followers to tattoo the Galon—the winged, man-raptor Introduction 3 of Hindu mythology—on their bodies to display their commitment to him and to the rebellion. For while the Galon was known to be the celestial being who carries Lord Vishnu on his back, he is also known in Hindu-Buddhist Asia for his legendary battles with and imminent victory over the Naga (dragon/snake).6 By adorning themselves with a tattoo depicting this scene, peasant rebels were associating their own struggle with the Galon’s and ensuring his preordained victory with their own. Colonial administrators interpreted the behavior of Saya San and his followers as simply another manifestation of the minlaung or “pretender-king” phenomenon of the nineteenth century that was based on a...


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