Title: Great Lords of the sky: Burma’s Shan Aristocracy
Author: Sao Sanda Simms
Number of pages: 476 (176 of them are photos and maps)
Everyman is my superior in some way
In that I learn from him.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
This is the second book written by Sao Sanda (a scion of the Yawnghwe Princely House) in 9 years. The first one is The Moon Princess: Memories of the Shan States (2008).
The book is written in two parts: Part One on the historical sketch up to 1962, and Part Two, the accounts of the lives and work of the Shan States’ 34 princely rulers.
I have just finished reading Part One, and all of a sudden, I have this irresistible urge to share with my readers what I have just learned. Perhaps it would fire up some of our young readers to further research and learn more.
Sao Sanda Simms
What I have learned I have presented here in the form of questions and answers.
So here we go.
Q. Why did you write this book?
A. My aim in writing this book is to explain the current state of affairs in the Shan State and acquaint readers with the Tai Shan and other ethnic peoples who share the Shan Plateau. Only with an awareness of the past, can the present complexity of the situation in the Shan State be better understood. (Page 22)
Q.Why do Burma leaders today regard Shan State as part of Burma/Myanmar?
A. It was customary for Tai Shan rulers to continue paying their dues to succeeding monarchs. Today, claims have been made that paying tribute demonstrates that Bamar monarchs had suzerainty over the ‘Shan Sawbwas’ and thus the Shan States belonged to Burma. (Page 28)
When these tax demands were not met the princes (called Saphpalong, meaning Lords of the Sky, or Sawbwa in Burmese) were given a hard time. They were called to the Mandalay Court and imprisoned, or demoted and replaced. However, the Saopha were not always docile men obeying the reigning monarch’s every command. They often rebelled against unjust Burman monarchs. Sometimes the princes managed to free themselves from this remote control, though there was always a penalty to pay for outright revolt. (Page 33)
The last rebellion carried out by a group of Shan princes, known as the Limbin Confederacy, took place just before the Third Anglo-Burmese War.
The rebels’ idea was simple. They would march on Mondalay, dethrone King Thibaw and install Prince Limbin as the new king. In return, ‘King Limbin’ would revoke the existing heavy taxes imposed on the princes and not interfere in Tai Shan affairs in the future. The saphpa, on the other hand, would swear allegiance to Limbin every three years. The Princes’ plan sounded fine but the real situation grew complex. This uprising coincided with the beginning of the British annexation of Upper Burma and the Shan States. It was also when both Hsenwi in the north and Kengtung in the east defied the king’s supremacy. The formation of the Limbin Confederacy forced many princes to take sides and fighting soon broke out between those who were for and against the confederacy. (Page 34)
However, the British swift offensive and victory thwarted their plans. The Saopha eventually ended their rebellion after the British agreed to leave them with virtually all their powers, including the collection of revenue. Only in criminal cases involving a European oar an American did the superintendent have charge of the case. In civil cases, the saopha had jurisdiction, even over British people. (Page 35)
Q. Do the Burman elite consider Shans as brethren?
A. In the days of kings and queens and even after, some Bamar viewed the Tai Shan as being different from themselves. As an example, early in his reign my paternal grant-uncle, Sir Sao Mawng the Saopha Long of Yawnghwe, offered the post of Chief Minister of Yawnhwe State to the Burman, Thakin Kodaw Hmaing (1876-1964). The thakin, with whom Sir Sao Mawng had become acquainted was caught by surprise and was adamant in his refusal to accept the post, saying he had no wish to serve under a foreign ruler. (Page 30)
Q. Were the Saopha happy with the federal system introduced by the British?
A. A main feature of the Federation was a centralized budget that covered expenditure on public works, medical care, administration, forestry, education, agriculture and, to a small extent, on police expenses. Several states contributed between twenty to thirty-five percent of their revenue, which came from forest products, minerals, and other taxes. To facilitate its governance, a British Commissioner, as the Governor’s representative, headed the Federated Shan Chiefs Council assisted by two superintendents and an assistant superintendent.
An advisory council of princes, with no legislative powers, was consulted in connection with new Acts for the Shan States, and also discussed the budget. It formed a sort of sub-province with finances distinct from those of Burma Proper, and under a separate form of administration. The six-monthly meetings with the Governor became important as they gave the princely counsellors a direct channel to express their views.
Although the British had imposed restrictions through the Federation and there was a reduction of their powers, the Saopha, for the moment, found the arrangement tolerable and accepted the new rulings. (Page 42)
The five years from 1935 to 1940, were peaceful years in the Shan States, with some semblance of prosperity. From 1935, the Federated Council of Shan Saopha began slowly consolidating and working together, with each of them sharing many of their common problems. In fact, much was achieved through the various committees in areas such as education and public works. The saopha were delighted to be taking a more active role in the administration of the Federation. (Page 50)
Q. The British have been accused by the Burman leaderships, then and now, of purging a Divide and Rule policy? What’s your answer?
A. (In 1935), unbeknown to the princes, men of the Burma Office in Britain were already determining the future of the Federated Shan States and Burma Proper arguing that “Union between the Federation and Burma proper was a goal to be reached”. (Page 45)
In March 1941, Governor Archibald Cochrane was prompted to write to the Secretary of State (M/3/252/BL) saying: “It is clear that there can be no separation of the Shan States from the rest of Burma; on the other hand, it is clear that the Shan States will never—or at least for many years to come will not—consent to share their fortunes with the Burma of the plains.” (Page 50)
In the background, Hubert Rance (1898-1974) who had taken over as Governor, assessed the situation and in January 1947 cabled the Burma Office advising that:
We should start with the premise that there is only one Burma and that the part known as Ministerial Burma and that known as the Frontier Areas are merely parts of the whole. They have been one in the past and they just remain one in the future so that our ultimate aim is always a united Burma in the shortest possible time (Smith 1999:77). (Page 65)
In March 1946 FW Pethick Lawrence of the Burma Office writing to Governor Dorman- Smith regarding the position of the Shan States, said:
The policy aims at the eventual voluntary inclusion of the Hills People with the constitutional structure of a united Burma, but as it is accepted that conditions will not be ripe for such inclusion for some considerable time yet,…until such time as the Hills Peoples signify their desire for some suitable form of organization of their territories with Burma Proper (M/4/2808 BL). The Saopha did not know that this was British policy and the die has been cast. (Page 69)
Hugh Tinker a historian and writer, observed that “The (The Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry) has often been criticized for the cavalier way in which it appeared to dispose of the future of the hill peoples, but in reality the whole issue had been prejudged under the Attlee-Aung San Agreement” (Tinker 1957:25). (Page 80)
Q. What’s your response to that?
A. People tend to forget that without the agreement of Tai Shan, Chin, and Kachin to co-operate, there would not have been an independent Union of Burma. One often pondered what might have happened had the ethnic nationalities refused to join with Burma Proper in the demand for independence.
In Toward the Third Union of Burma (1993), U Shwe Ohn, a Shan politician from Yawnghwe and one of the participants to the Panglong Conference, suggested that if the Panglong Agreement has not been signed the country might have been divided into Burma and the Frontier Areas. He further reflected, that without this Agreement, Burma might have become independent in 1948, but the Shan States would have remained under the British. (Page 80)
Q. There have been numerous reports of the Burma/Myanmar Army committing human rights violations. When did they start?
A. The Japanese advanced so rapidly that those Karen villagers and Karen forces left behind by the British to continue fighting the enemy were unable to get away in time. They became easy targets for the invading troops. The BIA soldiers, who were mainly Bamar, were on a rampage and killed, raped, and looted at random. (Page 59)
Although the military administration in the Shan States lasted only from 1950 to 1954, the Tatmadaw stayed on moving deeper into the Shan Plateau. They were in no way an exemplary army. Villagers were raped, tortured and generally treated very badly by Tatmadaw officers and soldiers alike. Although complaints were made to both Premier U Nu and the senior members of the military, no action seemed to have taken to curb such shocking behavior. (Page 91)
Q. Were there other reasons why the Saopha signed the Panglong Agreement?
A. The Burma Office (M/4/2837 BL) gave other reasons for why the saopha had signed the Panglong Agreement suggesting that it was because they were angry that their request for the re-establishment of the Federal Shan States Council, their own Shan Commissioner, and the return of the notified towns to their respective states, had been refused.) (Page 79)
Q. Why was the 1947 draft constitution, with all its flaws, approved in so short a period, even after it had discarded Aung San’s proposals?
A. Late in July, after the assassination of the Bogyoke, the Assembly reconvened and Constitutional advisers, legal experts mostly trained in England, continued the work of drafting the Constitution. There was now an urgency to complete the drafting by September when, following their summer recess, the Houses of Parliament would meet again in London. It was generally understood that it was to be an interim Constitution which could be amended later once Independence was granted by the British.
The Tai Shan representatives who participated in the Constituent Assembly meetings found themselves out of their depth which is not a surprise as at that time there were no Tai Shan lawyers highly qualified in matters of legislative procedures nor was there anyone with a complete knowledge of the different federal states that existed in the world. They had, therefore, to rely on qualified Burman lawyers. It is possible that “so-called Constitutional Advisers” may have misled the Shan representatives.) (Page 81)
Q. Why did the Shans decide to remain in the Union even after Aung San’s death?
A. Much criticism and many accusations have been levelled at the saopha for reportedly sympathizing with the rebels. People forget that without the help of the Tai Shan, the central government would certainly have fallen. At that moment, the fledging Tatmadaw could not have so swiftly overcome the rebels without help from many local princes and ethnic leaders, all of whom had been trained in the British army.
Throughout these disturbances, the princes, without exception, rallied to fight against the insurgents, However, with their ill-equipped levies they were no match for the rebels who were trained soldiers. It soon became apparent that neither the Tai Shan levies nor the union police force could contain the insurgents.
The princely rulers found themselves in a predicament. They might have felt sympathy for the Karen, knowing their antipathy towards the Burman, and the abysmal relationship between them. But the saopha would never have thought that taking up arms was the answer, since they believed explicitly in one overriding principle, which was their loyalty towards the Union of Burma. Furthermore, they had invested a great deal in achieving the Panglong Agreement that had created the Union of Burma, a fact of which they were proud. There was no way they would have wished to see the Union disintegrate.
Realizing the control the communists were gaining over the rebels, the princes did not wish to encourage the rebels. Having just thrown off the mantle of British imperialism and attained freedom within the Union, they desired stability. They felt it was imperative to save the Union by suppressing the insurgents and preventing the communists from gaining an upper hand.
There was also a personal reason, which was their respect for Premier U Nu, who had always been willing to listen and was sympathetic to their problems, although did little to alleviate them. Being a kindly figure with a ready smile, he was well liked.
Had the saopha in anyway wanted to break up the Union, they surely would not have supported the AFPFL central government nor the Tatmadaw in overpowering the rebels. In fact, many of the saopha themselves, with their police forces and enlisted men, fought alongside the Tatmadaw led by well-known Burman commanders such as Bo Tin Oo, and Major General DA Blake. In this manner, they helped U Nu’s AFPFL government from falling. Regrettably, saopha have rarely been given credit for their assistance.
Proof that the saopha did not wish to join the rebellion can be found in the orders they issued to the public during the troubles, advising villagers not to join either the KNDO or the Naw Seng groups but noting instead that these groups should be “annihilated.” (Page 91)
Q. What do you have to say about the Right of Secession, as stipulated in the 1947 constitution?
A. The more thoughtful and cautious of the Tai Shan believed as Joseph Silverstein (1958:57) put it: “The right to secession must be viewed as an unrealized and vague power which is more useful as a potential than as a reality.”
The clause was likely added to placate the various ethnic leaders who had demanded Dominion status or a protectorate, rather than independence. The British in those days, did not want to be tied down, and presumably, felt the secession clause was strong enough and that the Bamar would have honored it.
One of the anti-feudal Tai Shan leaders, U Tun Myint remembered what General Aung San had said, “The right of Secession must be given, but it is our duty to work and show (our sincerity) so that they don’t wish to leave.” So, what was the right action to take? U Tum Myint then went on to expound his theory which was simply: “To stay in the Union if it is beneficial to the Shan people as a whole, and to secede if it is not.”
He then added, “If one were to observe the real basis of the Shan Secession issue objectively, one would be surprised to discover that the main question is not secession itself, but progress and prosperity in the Shan State. It is for these basic aspirations the secessionists wish to secede. It is also for these aspirations that the unionists wish to remain the Union.” A choice had to be made, he observed, but it was Burma’s responsibility to prove its sincerity so that the States did not wish to secede. (Page 94)
Q. Would the 1961 Constitutional Amendment proposal likely to be accepted by the government, even if the coup did not take place?
A. An advisory committee was set up by the Union government under the chairmanship of Dr. Ba U, a former President of the Union of Burma to study the pros and cons of the Federal proposals. The report claimed that the proposed nature of a federal government that had been put forward by the Shan State government and its people was unacceptable, chiefly because it included aspects that could have led to the break-up of the union. (Page 108)
The Rangoon Convention was duly opened (in late February 1962) and appeared to have gone well for the first days. Unfortunately, an important speech that was to have been given by Dr. E Maung, the Justice Minister, on 2 March 1962, did not take place as it was the day of the ill-fated military coup d’etat.
It was late revealed that his address would have reflected the view of the Union Party and U Nu’s government, casting doubts on the Federal Proposals. Sai Aung Tun (2009:479-481) revealed that in the text of the speech Dr. E Maung claimed that Boyoke Aung San had at an earlier stage explained to the ethnic leaders how the Union was to be formed, that although all the states would have their own separate administration, Burma Proper would not be one of them. (Page 109)
Q.Who, in your opinion, tried to break up the Union?
A.It was neither the Tai Shan nor the other ethnic nationalities that broke up the Union. In fact, the breakup of the Union was the Tatmadaw’s own doing. The 1962 military coup revoked the 1947 Constitution and overthrew the democratically elected government of U Nu. (Page 111)
Q.Do you think the military is ready to return to the barracks in the near future?
A. In 2010, David Steinberg, a specialist writing on Burma and a historian, commented that a new class would be formed by “the sons of the military who have and will join the Tatmadaw and/or wield political and economic influence” (2010:182), leaving little room for civilians to participate. Unless the next generation changes its mind-set, the status quo is likely to continue, with the Tatmadaw retaining its influence over all matters for many years to come. (Page 112)
I’ll get back to Part Two as soon as I get back from my travels. I’m sure there’s something hitherto unknown waiting for me — and you — there.
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