Saya San

Saya San or Galon Saya San (born 24 October 1876 executed 16 November 1931) was a noted monk, a Burmese medicine man or shaman and the leader of the Burmese peasant revolt of 1930-1931 and pretender to the Burmese throne.[1] He led the first concerted effort to forcefully resist British domination.[2]

Image of Saya San on a Myanmar 90 Kyat banknote
Image of Saya San on a Myanmar 90 Kyat banknote


In 1924 the General Council of Burmese Associations appointed the 45-year old Saya San to head a committee surveying the living conditions of the Burmese peasantry. In the course of the 1927 survey, Saya San changed the focus of his work and began inspiring the peasants to resist British forces. This was an attempt to rebel against the British Administration and its tax policies in particular.

In 1929 the British proposed new taxes on the Burmese people as well as a forestry bill that would forbid the cutting of trees (Burma’s prime asset) without British consent. Saya San organized a local revolt against the payment of the capitation tax (poll tax) which quickly grew beyond his control and turned into an uncoordinated national revolt.

The resulting uprising required more than two years and 10,000 British troops to quell, ending with Saya San’s execution by hanging. Recent scholarship has raised many questions about Saya San's role in the revolt. It is thought by some now that the British falsified and overstated Saya San's role in the revolt so as to make his execution seem more meaningful than it actually was.[3] Several details of the trial, including a diary produced by the police which outlines Saya San's plan, are not considered to be trustworthy.

While Burmese Buddhists considered the uprising a failure, it did mark a turning point in Burmese politics. The uprising led to the formation of a new generation of political leaders such as Ba Maw and U Saw who participated in the trial for the defense. Additionally, it helped demonstrate the sangha’s ability to mobilize the local people to resist the colonization movement.