Saya San and the Burmese Rebellion
On the 28th of October 1930 at 11.33 pm, Saya San was crowned King of Burma. It was this spectacle, termed by Maurice Collins as “one of the most extraordinary spectacles of the 20th century” that sparked off the Burmese Rebellion of 1930 to 1931.
The British Indian authorities destroyed the kingdom of Burma in 1885; when they did this they transferred the Burmese throne to a museum in Calcutta. They did this in order to avoid any native seizing this historic symbol as it was said that as long as the throne remained the kingdom of Burma would rise once more. Instead, the new authority is made the Palace of Mandalay the British Upper Burma Club, disregarding its cosmological importance to the Burmese people.
In October 1930 has suffered a series of earthquakes. These were prophesied as omens that the throne of Burma would soon be occupied once more. When Saya San was crowned, the Coronation took place at a particular time that would be most auspicious. It took place in the traditional manner at a pagoda near Rangoon, where Saya San was proclaimed the Thupannaka Galon Raja. “On the 21st December 1930, the Galon Raja moved to his palace on Alaungtang Hill in Tharawaddy, where a royal city, known as Buddharaja Myo, or ‘Buddhist King’s Town’, was ceremonially plotted out. The new king disposed of the proper retinue of five queens, four ministers, and four regiments. From his ruby-studded banyan-wood lion throne, the Galon Raja declared war on the heathen British”.
The Burmese Rebellion took place the very next day as it was foretold that this would be the most auspicious time to commence. For the British, the rebellion was a complete surprise. It started with a series of minor occurrences, which the British thought were local. Soon enough, however, there were reports of a man leading the natives. The New York Times depicted him as “the shadowy figure of a man duplicating the tactics of Lawrence of Arabia”; another account tells that he was of a “tall, muscular blond body, tattooed head to foot”. A later Burmese writer paints a different picture – “a thin, small man of medium size. Nobody who did not know of him would have taken him for a leader; but what he lacked in size and height, he made up for in his face and eyes. He had a strong, determined face, and his eyes glowed”.
At the very beginning the authorities fail to appreciate the seriousness of the Burmese Rebellion, even going so far to say that after each time they encountered the rebellious natives that the outlaws had “made their last stand” or that the rebellion had been crushed.
When the original camp of the Burmese Rebellion was destroyed, all that was left to do was to bring Saya San to justice. On the 5th of January 1931 there were reports of a tall, fair-haired man, known as the King of Outlaws, who had been killed.
The British authorities never understood why the native person rallied round this man; an expert tattooist, Saya San’s body was a walking advertisement and for his skill and the majority of his followers were also tattooed. The tattoos were an ancient Burmese belief that would protect them against any harm; the belief in this was so strong and was something the British could never understand.
The Burmese Rebellion was a peasant Rebellion and the people rallied around him due to his traditional appeal. Whether or not he was an authentic king or a ‘quack doctor’ as the British came to call him, Saya San was a man who inspired the Burmese people and bade them to remember their traditional beliefs and values.
Solomon, Robert L. (1969) Saya San and the Burmese Rebellion, Modern Asian Studies, Cambridge University Press.