Ruling the Rulers
covering burma and southeast asia
Thursday, November 15, 2018


Ruling the Rulers

By MIN LWIN MAY, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.5

(Page 2 of 2)

The old system of audiences with the king would be abolished and a cabinet-style regime would be set up. This meant that the king could only exercise his powers within the bounds of a system designed to prevent arbitrary decisions which might adversely affect the well-being of the state.

The “Rajadhammasangaha” also set out to establish a new revenue system, whereby a household tax levied in cash would be used to cover the expenses of government, including the salaries of the king and his royal functionaries. This would replace the traditional system of assigning districts for the upkeep of officials. Under the new system, even the king and queen would be required to apply to the treasury secretary for funds.

Hpo Hlaing’s vision of a modern state also included a clear role for the press. The “Rajadhammasangaha” called for the creation of newspapers to cover the affairs of both the monarchy and the nation. Newspapers, which were to be distributed throughout the land, would inform the people of matters of national importance and report on debates in the legislative assemblies.

While the influence of foreign ideas can clearly be seen in many of Hpo Hlaing’s proposals (as part of his modernizing efforts, he sent 90 scholars to Western countries, including Britain, France and Italy), he also derived many of his political views from classical Burmese and Pali sources. In the “Mahanibbana Sutta,” part of the Pali Buddhist canon, he discovered seven fundamental principles that he attempted to apply to his ideal of a Burmese-style democracy.

These principles were collective consultation; acting by consensus; behavior in accordance with the law; respect for the admonishments of superiors; no oppression of women; respecting the rites of spirit guardians; and protection of the monkhood. Proper governance of the country by the state would also require the concurrence of respected religious figures.

In the end, however, Hpo Hlaing’s proposals fell on deaf ears, as the youthful King Thibaw, under the influence of more reactionary elements within his entourage, rejected the principles set forth in the “Rajadhammasangaha” in favor of retaining absolute power for himself. Hpo Hlaing was summarily dismissed, this time for good, 50 days after he presented his treatise to the king.

Within seven years, the reign of Thibaw was over. The young king was defeated by the British in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 and forced to spend the rest of his life in exile in India.

It is debatable whether internal changes in the workings of the royal court would have saved Burma from its fate of subjugation to a foreign power, but there is no doubt that Hpo Hlaing was correct in identifying as a source of weakness the view that the king’s prerogatives were absolute and inviolable.

Although Hpo Hlaing ultimately failed to change the course of history in his own time, his vision of a country governed by a social contract between rulers and ruled is certainly pertinent today, 60 years after the end of colonial rule. For Burma is no longer a victim of outside forces, but rather of the inevitable weakness of a state that concentrates power in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. 

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