After 130 years of obscurity, Myanmar's forgotten royals make a comeback

The descendants of exiled King Thibaw sense a revival and hope to bring his body home a century after he died in India

Soe Win has never lived in a palace or held court, and his previous job was managing Myanmar’s under-19s football team.

“Sometimes we forget that we are royal family members,” said the great-grandson to the country’s last king, Thibaw, who has spent his life as the heir to the millennium-old Burmese monarchy.

In a democratic Myanmar, the royal family – nearly lost after Thibaw was dethroned in the 19th century – think it might finally be time for a revival.

The election of Aung San Suu Kyi a year ago ended more than a century of autocratic rule, by British imperialists and then Burmese army generals who saw royal descendants as a threat.

“From when the British took over, we lost our identity,” Soe Win said. “Nowadays, the country is changing, we have some space. Our royal family members would like to be part of developing the country.”

He is not considering a royal takeover. Soe Win has more modest goals: to see the country’s regal history acknowledged and discussed; the holding of royal ceremonies; and perhaps the restoration of the Golden Palace in Mandalay, destroyed by the British during the second world war and now mostly serving as a dusty barracks.

His most immediate aim is to bring home King Thibaw’s body from the tiny port city of Ratnagiri in India, where the most powerful man in Burma was banished by the British in 1885.

This month, Soe Win made a trip to the tomb with the head of the Myanmar armed forces, Min Aung Hlaing, who laid wreaths at the humble grave.

“This tomb not only belongs to the royal family, it belongs to the country. The country lost the king and queen, the heads of state,” said Soe Win.

The official visit to India was the latest of various governmental nods of approval towards royal activities starting in 2012 when Thein Sein, the last army-linked president, visited Ratnagiri.

And in November, 131 years after Thibaw entered exile, about 100 royal descendants were allowed into Mandalay palace to commemorate the end of the king’s reign. Previous ceremonies were held in secret.

The man who would be...

For first time in history Burma's royal family remember Last King's exile - inside Mandalay palace. #lostroyals

— Alex Bescoby (@AlexBescoby) November 26, 2016

Only now, Myanmar’s people are learning about their royal past.

“Thibaw’s government was one of the best educated the country ever had, with many scholars returned from studies in Europe, fluent in the Burmese classics as well as English and French,” said the historian Thant Myint-U.

Yet the British wanted complete control. They were shocked at the king’s proclamations for independence and had tired of his requests that they remove their shoes during royal visits.

A day after taking Mandalay, the British escorted the king and his wife away on a bullock cart.

To crush any residual affinity for the monarchy, British propaganda against Thibaw “went into high gear”, said Thant Mtint-U, painting the monarch as an ogre, despot and drunkard.

“Unfortunately, a lot of these myths about the king – that he was a uniquely weak individual, that he was someone who was not up to the task of government – are things that have seeped into the popular imagination in this country.”

Soe Win’s family were allowed to return after Thibaw’s death in 1916 but were stripped of their titles and lived under house arrest as well as “the watchful eyes of the [British] district commissioners”.

His grandmother, the youngest of Thibaw’s four daughters, made claims to the kingdom in 1930 and was branded by the British as a “rebel princess”. She was forced to live in a small town in the country’s deep south.

Soe Win’s father, also an heir as the eldest grandson and nicknamed “Prince George” at school, was shot dead under mysterious circumstances in 1948, the same year the country, then called Burma, gained its independence.

“The British came and ended our history,” Soe Win said.

After the military seized power in 1962, they hid members of the family from public view, worried that nostalgia for the royals might threaten the army’s tight hold on the country.

British film-maker Alex Bescoby, who has been making the documentary Burma’s Lost Royals, said the military took on the symbols of royalty while also trying to sideline the family.

“They wanted to have royalism without the royals,” Bescoby said. Naypyidaw, the grand but empty capital Myanmar’s generals built for themselves, means “abode of kings”, a hint at their aspirations.

The tomb of the last queen of Burma, Supayalat, in Yangon, Myanmar
The tomb of the last queen of Burma, Supayalat, in Yangon, Myanmar Photograph: Alex Bescoby/Grammar Productions

The country’s first dictator, General Ne Win, even went so far as to marry a member of the royal family in an attempt to exploit domestic affection for the monarchy. But she left him after five months.

For the past few decades, the family, dispersed across Myanmar and the world, have lived muted lives. Soe Win’s uncle, Taw Phaya, a 93-year-old potential heir, and aunt, Hteik Su Phaya Gyi, 94, are the only surviving grandchildren.

But it was through working with Bescoby on the film, Soe Win says, that he started to believe he might be able to reignite a passion for the country’s royal history.

“We realised that we have to get back our identity, not just for the royal family but the whole country,” he said.

After running out of money this year, Bescoby won a £80,000 award from the Whicker’s World Foundation in June, enough to help organise the trip to India this month.

“Soe Win has had a massive personal renaissance,” said Bescoby, a former Burmese history student who now lives between the UK and Myanmar.

“He is adamant that before he dies, he wants to revive interest in the family, to get Thibaw’s reputation revised.”


Oliver Holmes South-east Asia correspondent

The GuardianTramp

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