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Chapter 7 SANCTIFYING REBELLION Colonial Discourses and Southeast Asian Resistance 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 theoretical priorities, and in doing so provided new viewpoints from which “the historical narrative” was engaged. Alongside these worthwhile ventures, particular narrative features remained embedded within this scholarship and the sequence of events and caricatures that have come to be associated with Saya San continued to make a substantial mark on how we conceptualized the shape of modern Burmese history and Southeast Asian culture in general. In particular, Southeast Asian mentalities began to be explored from the point of view of religious resistance, drawing from similar trends and interests in European peasant history.1 The characteristics that were once treated as ethnologies of superstition and limited to the context of colonial Burma were now being regarded as important emblems of a panSoutheast Asian cultural matrix. Within this epistemological context, “rebellion” became a prescriptive category through which religious worldviews of Southeast Asians (and Burmese in particular) were located and understood. The melding of religion (and especially millennial Buddhism) with revolt ushered in a fresh perspective through 192 Chapter 7 which Southeast Asia could be delineated as a field of analysis, while it also entrenched the Rebellion Ethnology and its colonial heritage more firmly within the scholarship of the Saya San Rebellion. This epistemological heritage stretched beyond the dichotomous structures found in the Rebellion’s official rendering, as scholars returned to the original Rebellion Ethnology in hopes of reading against the grain of colonial documents in order to distill the essence of a (single) Southeast Asian worldview. Just as ethnographers, officials, and lawyers attempted to produce a coherent understanding of the outbreaks in Burma, so too would scholars seek a similar coherency in the study of regional anticolonial rebellions, albeit with an emphasis on Southeast Asian agency and distinctiveness. Reacting to colonial accounts of rebellion that reduced descriptions of symbols, agendas, and ritual to “superstition,” as well as to post-Independence historians who were eager to celebrate these movements as early expressions of secular nationalist sentiment, area-studies commentators attempted to infuse religion “back” into the Rebellion Ethnology, suspecting that previous commentators had intentionally excluded or mistakenly omitted religion from the official record. Armed with a new theoretical framework developed by John Smail and a reinvigorated focus on peasants (borrowed from European studies), Southeast Asian specialists began to look at the Saya San Rebellion within the longer context of religion in order to view the events within a fresh sociocultural context . Smail’s seminal article called for the writing and conceptualization of “an autonomous history” of modern Southeast Asia that placed emphasis on utilizing internal criteria—categories, periods, narratives , and contexts—for the writing of the region’s history. For nearly thirty years, scholars had struggled with the problem of “modernity” and its association with colonialism, which had dominated the way in which events, categories, and processes had been studied and considered by regional specialists.2 Rebellions were often written as “interruptions ” in the progressive narratives of the colonial state, whereas the categories of analysis reflected the political-economic priorities of colonial officials, a perspective that nationalist historians (in Smail’s view) failed to address adequately.3 If Southeast Asians were revolting Sanctifying Rebellion 193 against the colonial state and its policies, it was suggested that in doing so they were articulating these concerns through “autonomous” cultural expressions that were independent of the meanings prescribed to them by colonial officials. Rebellions, by their very nature, were potential subjects revealing the essence of what it was to be “Southeast Asian.” Smail’s intervention urged scholars to consider events such as the Saya San Rebellion from a point of view outside the framework and narratives of British colonial history and administrative categories . The delineation of Southeast Asian mentalities through religion and revolt answered this call and influenced the way in which Saya San would be regarded. Although religion (and particularly Buddhism) had long been established as a set of complex belief-systems that enabled administrators to know indigenous communities in India and in Burma,4 these ideas were often associated by colonizer and colonized alike with Southeast Asia’s traditional past, the antithesis to the trajectories of modernity offered in the colonial project. Area-studies-trained scholars retuned their gaze upon...


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