Structuring Revolt: Communities of Interpretation in the Historiography of the Saya San Rebellion

By Aung-Thwin, Maitrii | Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, June 2008 | Go to article overview

Structuring Revolt: Communities of Interpretation in the Historiography of the Saya San Rebellion


Aung-Thwin, Maitrii, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies


In recent decades, the intersection of religion and resistance in colonial Southeast Asia has received considerable attention by scholars and has subsequently endured as a dominant paradigm in the study of anti-colonial protest movements.' Such research has produced important insight into the nature of rebellion and protest, often focusing on how religion provided the language and vocabulary through which nationalism, colonialism and resistance were articulated. (2) Many of these studies were written in response to the findings of colonial scholar-officials whose analyses of resistance movements relegated these examples of popular expression to 'superstition', 'tradition' and 'irrationality'--disconnecting them from the modernising trends and initiatives of the colonial state. (3) At the same time, scholarship under the rubric of 'nationalist' was also deemed unsatisfactory, as such work tended to shift only the 'moral perspective' of these resistance movements and choose to highlight the way in which such protest was connected to the development of the nation-state. (4) As a category of analysis, 'religion' has had its place secured in the earliest colonial surveys, gazetteers, and reports as representing and indeed prescribing the behavioural and conceptual world of Southeast Asians. Hoping to highlight the complexity of these religious traditions and in turn giving agency to Southeast Asians, scholars began to investigate the mentalities supporting anti-colonial rebellions as a means of decoding the region's rich culture. Thus, in the historiography of Southeast Asian resistance, religion has served as a central category in the study of popular movements and rebellions.

While resistance and religion has an established place in Southeast Asian cultural research, peasant studies, and in anti-colonial movements, a growing amount of literature has considered these movements with a particular focus on criminality and the production of colonial knowledge. (5) Scholars of this genre have sought to pursue proposals by Michel Foucault by investigating how Southeast Asians have been defined, ordered, codified and represented through policing and incarceration that criminalised elements of culture, history, and geography in order to define and distance colonised communities. (6) This study hopes to continue along this line of scholarship by focusing our attention on the history and historiography of the Saya San rebellion, British Burma's most violent and widespread resistance movement (1930-32). By examining the arguments, sources and approaches underlying the history of the rebellion as we know it, this paper seeks to explore how our understanding of the rebellion has been considered, debated and come to be understood by communities of scholars. It will expose shared interpretative strategies that reveal how observers made sense of the rebellion by defining, characterising, and shaping it in particular ways. Finally, the following analysis hopes to consider how the Saya San rebellion contributed to the current discourse on the relationship between religion and resistance in Southeast Asia. By reconstructing the epistemological settings for this scholarship, this paper draws attention to the ways in which the Saya San rebellion has been conceptualised since the early 1930s and its attending influence on the understanding of resistance as a defining category of Burmese culture. (7)

The narrative

The series of uprisings that have been called the 'Saya San rebellion' has been regarded as one of Southeast Asia's quintessential anti-colonial movements, spreading throughout the Lower Burma delta and into hills of the Shan States; involving numerous communities, thousands of villagers and several thousand counterinsurgency troops. British officials were the first to 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. …

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