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Chapter 8 REMEMBERING REBELLION Museums, Monks, and the Military 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 pan-Southeast Asian worldview, the Rebellion narrative took different forms that often reflected ways in which particular institutions, individuals, and intellectual concerns produced notions of Burmese peasants, resistance, and other cultural forms we tend to associate with the region. Rebellion was constituted in ethnographic terms, linking anthropological projects to colonial counter-insurgency policies , but also revealing the connections between understandings of Burmese-ness with forms of peasant protest. Within this genealogy of rebellion, Burmese culture was identified as intrinsically responsible for the series of revolts associated with Saya San. Through counterinsurgency legal processes this ethnology was affirmed and authorized for documenting and preservation in the archive. Following Nicholas B. Dirks, Burmese culture enabled, and was enabled by, colonialism, affecting not only how resistance was melded to notions of “the Burmese peasant,” but ultimately delineating key terms through which Southeast Asian culture would be understood. Rebellion had evolved Remembering Rebellion 217 from “superstition, plain and simple” to a sophisticated example of religious life in peasant Southeast Asia. The image of Saya San also changed according to these various interpretations of peasant revolt. His role in the rebellion steadily developed from a simple manifestation of the iconic pretender-king to the central protagonist of the movement. Just as the rebellion might be seen as reflecting different aspects of Burmese or Southeast Asian cultural traits, so too can Saya San be seen in corresponding epistemological forms—as a minlaung, a medicine man/ex-pongyi, the protonationalist, and as a Buddhist prophet/savior. For some he represents an unchanging, precolonial Burma, whereas for others he represents a new breed of political activist that was attuned to peasant concerns and thinking, but equally engaged with the strategies and techniques of urban political elites. Accompanying his shifting identity were certain basic elements of the Rebellion narrative that remained embedded with Saya San’s story, most crucially his identity as a returning king and an embodiment of unchanging Burmese values . Yet from a third point of view, the figure of Saya San might also be seen as representing different stages of ethnohistorical knowledge production: (a) his “anthropological” profile as one of many faceless pretenders to the throne, (b) the “textual” phase within the context of counter-insurgency law, (c) his “historical” co-optation into national Ne Win and Galon veterans, 1960s 218 Chapter 8 narratives and sites of memory, and (d) his eventual emancipation in the hands of sympathetic areas-specialists who ironically return him to an archetypal form representing regional worldviews and interdisciplinary sensibilities. Just as the narrative of the Rebellion developed, so too did it affect the contours of Saya San’s persona and connection to rural politics. These multiple images of the main protagonist of the Rebellion also casts some light on the multiple narrators that were at work to inscribe him: the colonial ethnographer, the lawyer, and the scholar. The ensuing caricatures are as much connected to each other as they appear to be separated, each having been erected from the same evidential foundation (and often written against one another) in an attempt to embody particular political or intellectual perspectives deemed important to the writer. The career of the Saya San Rebellion reflects as much about its community of interpreters as it may reveal something about the worldview of Southeast Asian rural communities in the 1930s. While scholars abroad have assured Saya San’s place in Southeast Asian history as a messianic figure or as the paradigmatic rural activist , the shaping and anchoring of his contribution to the Burmese national narrative continues in a variety of ways in contemporary Myanmar. For many of these “home scholars,” Saya San continues to hold an important, but somewhat uncertain place in the national story as depictions of his role in the anticolonial struggle continues to be the predominant paradigm. Although the range of interpretations that have characterized external scholarship are less frequently addressed within Burmese-language treatments of the Rebellion, local textbooks and official histories present Saya San sympathetically as a misguided, but ultimately compassionate and motivated peasant leader that sought to improve the livelihood of ordinary cultivators by appealing to their nostalgia for the monarchy...


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