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Asian History


Review Essays of Academic, Professional & Technical Books in the Humanities & Sciences




Brave Men of the Hills: Resistance and Rebellion in Burma, 1825-1932 by Parimal Ghosh (University of Hawaii Press) Chapter 1 covers the period from the beginning of colonial rule in Lower Burma after the First War, till up to the period after the Second War. We begin with a brief discussion of the structure of the pre-British Burmese state in order to understand the dynamics of the resistance as it unfolded. The state formation in pre-British Burma was broadly of a decentralised nature, with a substantial degree of political power located in the spheres of such local level officials as the Myothugyis and the Tbugyis. Under the over-arching authority of the royal court the locality was, in the main, politically autonomous and economically self-sufficient. The decentralised formation was rendered more complete through a similar structure in the Buddhist Sangha. The central control of the thathanabaing or the head of the Sangha came into view only in matters of serious dispute, and individual monasteries generally took care of routine affairs, besides looking after the spiritual needs of the local people. With every boy expected to spend some time in the monastery, there was a universal respect for the Sangha. In pre-colonial times, and also during resistance to British rule, this respect and moral authority often came to develop political overtones. After the defeat of the royal army, especially in the Second and Third Angle-Burmese Wars, these men, firmly rooted in the locality, began a prolonged phase of resistance that continued almost unabated into the late 1880s.

In Tenasserim after the First War, on the other hand, given the frontier nature of the region, events unfolded in a different way. The early signs of resistance were often hesitant and ambiguous, and there was an overlapping of categories when crime and resistance merged into each other, so that they became undistinguishable, and indeed, inseparable. Though this has also been reported from other theatres of colonial rule, the peculiar historical experience of Tenasserim before it passed under British rule goes a long way to explain it. In brief, the Mon country had come under Burman rule only a short while before the British annexed it. The long war had decimated the population, and Burman rule had led to a fairly harsh arrangement in which the surplus rice of the area was used to balance the shortfall in the North. In their turn the British, in their own interest, abrogated the old rules and instituted a market economy, which encouraged production and export. As agriculture expanded and commerce picked up, there started a flow of immigrants from the North, i.e. from areas within the Burmese state, as also from the eastern seaboard of India, and from other neighbouring countries.

My contention is that this created a new milieu with frontier characteristics. People came here to make money and they were happy to make it in any way they pleased. This was the context of a restless, almost feverish, way of life, that threw up an ethic which accepted crime as simply one of the many ways of making money easily.

Besides, there were several elements of more direct resistance. Mainly fomented by officials on the Burmese side of the border, there', were incidents of violent crime committed by local people, who then found shelter on the Burmese side. It was often difficult to know where crime ceased to be the act of a private individual, and became part of a larger operation aimed at creating insecurity in held areas.

In Arakan the situation was different. As in Tenasserim, Burmese rule had been only recently established; but unlike there, the population in Arakan appears to have been more settled at the time of the British take over. There also seems to have been a functioning structure of administration, on which the colonial authorities would superimpose their domination. Besides, Arakanee refugees, who hack fled from Burmese rule and had taken shelter in Chittagong, were at least at the beginning ready to help the British. So, when in orcler to provide for quick revenue, the government decided to auction the office of Taik-Tbugyis in Arakan, it was the returning refugees who invariably grabbed the offices. Understandably, however, the system of auctioning put tremendous pressure on the people, and the newly appointed Thugyis also generally defaulted. Taken altogether, the discontent of the subject population produced a more localised and concentrated form of resistance than seen in Tenasserim.

This pattern of localised resistance became more definitive when the British moved northwards. After the Second War, the British seized Pegu and Martaban, areas which historically were more Burnianised and settled. Resistance emanating from a more perceptible and identifiable pre-British structure was led by local level popular leaders, who invariably had been state officials in the locality in the pre-colonial period. And since the Burmese state, from this view, was more a conglomeration of localities-a `heptarchy' (a term used by a British official who was engaged in combating the rebels) than what we understand by a modem state with unified sovereign power, I believe the suppression of the scattered host was the real act of conquest. What was at stake was really a conflict between two types of authorities, each with its distinctive political ethics, which was articulated, in a way, in the two different, conflicting methods of surplus extraction.

Chapter 2 is a continuation of Chapter 1 in as much as it recounts within the same format the story of the resistance in Upper Burma, following the Third War and the final annexation of the country. It should be noted that Ni Ni Myint's book provides a fuller narrative of the campaigns and counter-campaigns; my aim here is to provide a framework within which the struggle may be studied. To start with, thus, we consider the crisis in Upper Bufma following the loss of the rich tracts of Lower Burma, whose surplus had so far enabled the Jdecentralised rule of the pre-British state to function. The resultant resource crunch appears to have forced the Burmese Court to tighten its grip on the localities, to try and squeeze out what it had so far neglected to claim for itself. This led to an outbreak of lawlessness and even rebellions by leaders in the locality who had so far been left alone, and who now resented this sudden assertion of statist authority. It should be stressed that this was no ordinary spate of infighting within a mediaeval state, but in fact, a consequence of the advent of colonialism. After the British moved in this outbreak of anarchy quickly turned into anti-colonial resistance.

Chapter 3 deals with what happened after the nineteenth-century resistance, gradually but surely, subsided. The changes which followed, specifically the introduction of commercial agriculture, created a situation in which large sections of the peasantry in Lower Burma suffered indebtedness and land-loss, snore almost as conditions of life than as exceptional occurrences. Instability in personal and social life created an ambience in which respect for orderly life gave way to an admiration for the outlaw, and then for the rebellious. Besides, there was a growing militancy ifs GCBA politics, which saw a rapid proliferation of village associations, serving as the nodal points of a new type of rural politics. Unlike that of the resistance fighters in the nineteenth century, the new politics espoused an all-Burma outlook. It was still based on the cohesion of the locality and derived strength from it, but alongside, colonial centralization of public life determined that its alternative should also go beyond the traditional limits of the locality. Gradually a political authority that questioned, and in places, supplanted that of the British state emerged. The unfolding of the process;-from destitution as an all pervading condition of life, to crime as a response, and then a kind of general restlessness leading to the formulation of a political challenge,-is critical for our understanding of the rebellion of Saya San. For, there had appeared in Burma before Saya San many a peasant leader with similar pretensions, without producing any eruption on a comparable scale. That it turned out as it did in Saya San's rebellion, went to show, that more than the personality of the leader, what mattered was a powerful conjunction of circumstances, both economic and political.

Finally in Chapter 4 we deal with Saya San's revolt. It should be evident from the sequence of the presentation that I believe the revolt to have been substantially due to the conditions existing in agriculture in Lower Burma. Alongside, we have put considerable stress on the gradual build up of peasant militancy. It was against this background that Saya San set about the task of building an organisational network. For some reason or other, this aspect of his activities has not drawn the kind of attention from historians that it should have had. Whatever may have been Saya San's personal views on the various 'pre-modern' practices he and his followers are known to have taken part in, there is no question that the rebels also took ample care, in most secular ways, to try and ensure their success. Related to this was the other aspect of Saya San's activities, and that was, in keeping with the new politics under colonial rule, his appeal had an all-Burma scope.

The rebels fighting the colonial state had to take into account the transition from the days of the autonomous, selfsufficient locality to those of the pan-Burmese centralised formation. In that sense, Saya Sari's was certainly a modern revolt.

However, there is no attempt to wish away the `pre-modern' aspects either. As I see it, these were as important to Saya San and his followers as was the emerging sense of pan-Burmese politics. The latter had also been felt by GCBA's politicians, but the formation of an alternative to the colonial state straightway was beyond them. By falling back to an extent on the traditional, Saya San was able to do just that.


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