The Tradition of Democracy in the Shan State


The present boundaries of the Shan State (a landlocked Switzerland nestled in the heart of the Southeast Asian peninsula) encompass some 63,000 square miles (one-third the size of Texas). The population is thought to be between 5 and 6 million; the last reliable census, in 1931, reported 2 million. The inhabitants call themselves Tai and speak local dialects of the Thai language. The Tai people were traditionally called Shan or Siam by their Burmese and Mon neighbors. When the British arrived in Southeast Asia by sea, they asked the coastal Mons and Burmese who those highland people were; they were told the highlanders were "Shan or Siam," who spoke the same language as the people living in what is now known as Thailand. Thereafter the Tai people in the mountains became known to the West as Shans, and their kin, the Thai in the Mekong River basin, were called Siamese.

The Shans joined neighboring Burma in 1948 to form an independent federal republic called the Union of Burma (present population: 38 million), which enjoyed parliamentary democracy until 1962 when the elected government was overthrown by the general of the Burmese Army, Ne Win, who has exercised absolute control over the country with the help of the army ever since.

The Shans' Democratic Roots

But democracy was always part of Shan traditional life; it was inherent in the village communal culture, where work was a task shared by all. For instance, no family ever built its own bamboo-and-thatch hut (usually on stilts) without the help of neighbors, and each village as a whole owned communal fields that were worked by all the villagers, each of whom enjoyed a share of the harvest. From birth to death, no individual was ever left alone-indeed, the very concept of individual privacy was alien to the Shans. All rites of passage were community affairs, to be celebrated by the extended family.

The most popular man in the village was most often the one the villagers listened to, and as such, he was considered the village headman. In Shan culture, in which age is revered, senior citizens were viewed as village elders. In this role they acted as the village council and advised the headman, whose task it was to sound out his fellow villagers on issues affecting the community. A headman who frequently ignored the consensus of the villagers, however informally they arrived at a community decision (i.e., by discussion at the marketplace or at a village funeral), would soon cease to have influence.

The village abbot, the monk presiding over the monastery, was also considered a source of wisdom. The fact that a Shan Buddhist monastery was supported entirely by the villagers' labor and offerings of food and money only enhanced the intimate, communal fabric of Shan grassroots democracy.

The Shan principalities, originally nine in number, were able to span a couple of thousand years in longevity because of the sensitivity of the ruling houses to the egalitarian, communal basis of Shan political, religious, and cultural life.

The ruling princes (called Sao-Pha - literally, "Owner of the Sky") had to give serious consideration to the mandate of the village communities over which they presided. Hence, as part of their administrative duties, the rulers made it a point to embark on frequent tours of even remote corners of their states in order to keep themselves informed of the opinions and prejudices of the villagers. In some of the older Shan principalities, any man could walk into the courtyard of the ruler's abode, strike the brass gong customarily kept there to summon the ruler, and air his grievance or lament. This was the ancient custom, for instance, in Hsen-wi ("Land of the Thousand Fans"), the principality of my mother's father, Hkun Sang Tone Hoong (the Lord Novice from the village of Tone Hoong).

Like the Siamese king in The Kin and I, Hkun Sang had worn the saffron robe as a lad (in the tradition of Theravada Buddhist males). He later became a legend in his own lifetime as the formidable warrior-king, the Sao-Pha of Hsen-wi State in the northern part of the Shan country. Memory harks back to a comment made by one of my father's cousins, already an old lady by the time I was born; she had been a very young woman when the Lord Novice of Tone Hoong was still alive. "There was such majesty about him, we women dared not lift our faces to gaze on him directly," she said.

Yet this same bold, exalted prince was careful to marry commoner wives, the daughters of village headmen or the myosa (literally "eater," meaning administrator) of his important towns. In this way, he maintained his popularity, and along with it the mandate of his people. By custom, the ruler was allowed four wives in order to ensure bountiful progeny-a necessity since infant mortality was high, and royal blood was required for legitimate succession.

There was never any great disparity in the lifestyles of the ruler and the ruled. The ruler tended to live in the same kind of house (wood or bamboo) in which his subjects lived, and he held very informal court as befitting the father of his people. The ruler's tradition was not to accumulate wealth, but to give it away-to the community and the needy, or toward building pagodas, monastery schools, hospitals, and the like-in order to gain Buddhistic merit. The greater the man, the greater his charity. The Shan rulers were Buddhist princes, "Defenders of the Faith," and by custom were regarded as the spiritual descendants of that other Buddhist prince in ancient, far-off India, Lord Siddhartha, who had blossomed into the Lord Gautama the Buddha.

In the traditional culture of the Shan State, the consent of the ruled was essential. Any ruler who wished to gain and then keep power needed the support of the popular assemblies where village elders, headmen, traders, and merchants informally arrived at consensus on an issue of public weal. We have an account of one such assembly on 3 March 1888 in the book The Pacification of Burma, published in 1912, in which Sir Charles Crosthwaite, chief commissioner of Burma from 1887 to 1890, says,

In fact, it was an assemblage of all the estates of the realm in the Shan country-the Lords Temporal, the Lords Spiritual and the Commons...It was not a mere show; the people had not assembled to register a foregone decision...The machinery was rude. But it was quite as likely to succeed in its object [an honest attempt to ascertain the wishes of all the classes] as the elaborate devices of advanced democracies which give free play to the arts of false-tongued demagogues and afford them every opportunity of bamboozling electors, most of whom are more ignorant of the issues than the Shans who assembled at Mong-yai.

A ruler who did not heed the popular consensus could face challenge from a source that could make the claim of popular support, the mandate not of Heaven, as in China, but of the people of the Shan earth.

In a way, this underlying principle of Shan democratic culture-the required consent of the governed-did not make for easy or peaceful governance. On the contrary-it bred rebellion. A successful rebellion was the mechanism by which the old establishment was deposed to make way for a new ruler (usually of the same blood line-a sibling or cousin, for instance) and his supporters.

The Introduction of British Rule

The arrival of the British in 1887 in the mountainous Shan country and the subsequent acceptance of British rule by the popular assemblies led to a golden age of prosperity in the Shan hills and valleys, as the British made it clear they would not countenance upheaval. The rulers continued to administer their principalities according to customary law, as long as it did not conflict with the laws of British India.

In effect, the introduction of British law was remarkably similar to the introduction of Buddhist law 900 years earlier; both had the effect of taming a high-spirited, rebellion-minded people, who nonetheless exhibited their traditional peasant common sense by recognizing the inherent justice of British law in the same way their ancestors had recognized the civilizing moderation of Buddhist commandments many centuries ago.

The rulers who met the British forces as they rode up the Shan hills were men of the nineteenth century who had had no Western schooling; few of them had actually even laid eyes on whites. But the Shans had a long tradition of caravan trade with the Chinese, Thai, Lao, Cambodians, Mons, Karen, and Burmese, and they had heard from their coastal neighbors in the south of the extraordinary firepower of the white breed who came from the sea.

Both my grandfathers, Hkun Sang Tone Hoong, prince of Hsen-wi in the north, and Sao Maung, prince of Yawnghwe in the southern Shan State, learned quickly from the 1885 British conquest of the neighboring Burmese kingdom centered at Mandalay. They were astute enough to sit down and negotiate with the new power the Shans called the "White Indians" (Kala Kao). To the Shans, the British looked like people from India except that for some unfathomable reason their complexion was different (kao means "fair") from that of the Kala ("Indians"). The British, for their part, found the Shans reasonable, even charming; they treated the principalities as protectorate states, with the occasional British administrator coming round to state capitals to provide guidance.

The rulers who met the British forces as they rode up the Shan hills were men of the nineteenth century who had had no Western schooling; few of them had actually even laid eyes on whites. But the Shans had a long tradition of caravan trade with the Chinese, Thai, Lao, Cambodians, Mons, Karen, and Burmese, and they had heard from their coastal neighbors in the south of the extraordinary firepower of the white breed who came from the sea. who had received British educations, spoke English (in fact, the ruler of Mong-mit, Sao Hkun Hkio, attended Cambridge University when he was heir apparent). It was natural for these men, as modern rulers in the 1920s, to plan in their vision of the world a Western-style, contemporary curriculum.

As early as 1922, the principalities evolved rather effortlessly into the Federated Shan States, with a national capital at Taunggyi (located in Yawnghwe State, it sits high on the blue hills overlooking the expanse of the Yawnghwe valley and legendary Inle Lake). The hereditary rulers, without fuss or fanfare, voluntarily surrendered to a common Federated Council their individual state jurisdiction over health, education, public works, and transportation. The rulers not only gave up much of their administrative power, but also agreed to contribute to a common, national budget, as well as to the beginnings of a central Shan administration to take care of these nationwide services.

Their vision was that of a united country, with an educated populace able to vote and democratically decide on its own future without reference to traditional leaders. My father and his contemporaries were self-assured men, confident that the strength of their ancient democratic heritage was the proper foundation on which to build a modern democratic house, to ensure the freedom and prosperity of the Shan country for as long as the world endures.

However, sadly, the Japanese army's invasion and conquest of the Shan State in 1942 created intense deprivation and horror, abruptly abrogating the hitherto steady development of the Shan nation; by the end of World War II in 1945, the entire country was in shambles, with numerous towns destroyed by both US and Japanese bombs. Things were almost back to the Stone Age. Nonetheless, with a free market and with leaders encouraging private enterprise and restoring traditional cottage industries such as weaving, the economy rebounded in a remarkably short time, surprising the British who returned briefly only to inform the Shans that Britain was so drained by the war it could no longer afford to keep the Empire intact.

The Union of Burma

The Shans then invited the Burmese general, Aung San, who represented the Burmese government, to talks at Panglong in the Shan State in 1946 and again in 1947, which led to the creation of a federal union with Burma in 1948. The Shan State retained its political identity, with its own administration and legislators elected every four years as a modern evolution of its ancient democracy by consensus.

But the takeover of the country in 1962 by the Burmese Army led, predictably, to rebellion in the Shan State. The lesson of centuries past is that without the consent of the governed, no ruler of the Shans can hope for peace from the people of the Shan earth.

Article copyright Cultural Survival, Inc.

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