Burma’s Last Royals

By Susan CunninghamNovember 23, 2013

Burma’s Last Royals

The King in Exile by Sudha Shah

MYANMAR’S LAST ROYAL FAMILY, summarily ousted by British colonizers more than 125 years ago, hasn’t been a sensitive subject since independence in 1948. But less than three years ago, The King in Exile by Sudha Shah might have run afoul of censors just for noting that Taw Phaya Galae, a grandson of the last Burmese royal couple and one of her sources, served a stint in prison after participating in the squelched 1988-1990 democracy movement. It is one of many signs of change that an edition of Shah’s family biography, already available in English in Myanmar, will soon be published in Burmese.

For the past two years, Myanmar’s military government has assumed a gentler, less martial face as it bids to welcome tourists and Western investors. After nearly 20 years of house arrest, opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi won a seat in Parliament in 2012 and ventured abroad to collect her 1991 Nobel Prize and other laurels. The strides the country has taken toward greater freedom of expression in the past two years have received less attention, but are also important.

The government dropped its prepublication censorship policies in mid-2012. Dissident publications in Thailand and India have even set up offices in Yangon. Sagging stalls and sidewalk mats piled with books and magazines, new and ancient, in Burmese and English, have always been a hallmark of the streets of the former capital city of Yangon. Now they display memoirs by some of the hundreds of released political prisoners, as well as works by Burmese authors that were banned just a few years ago. Perhaps the recent mysterious bombings will slow the pace, but the government didn’t backtrack in the face of anti-Muslim riots earlier this year.

Two writers of previously taboo books, Suu Kyi herself and Pascal Khoo Thwe, author of the memoir From the Land of Green Ghosts, were among the Burmese and foreign writers at the first Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Yangon in February. More than 9,000 readers attended sessions on topics like censorship, violence, and blogging. Shah, who spoke about The King in Exile at the festival, told me that 60 seats were set up for her session, but more than 160 people squeezed in.

Shah’s is not the first account of the lives of King Thibaw and his wily, forceful queen, Supayalat. Two of them were even written by their historian grandson, Taw Phaya Galae. But Shah, an Indian writing her first book, had access to the largest trove of material. She had Burmese-language documents translated and spent seven years researching archives in Mumbai, Delhi, London, and Yangon. She also interviewed four elderly grandchildren and other descendants in India and Myanmar who shared documents and photos. Along with the stories of King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat, The King in Exile tells of the strange, twisted lives of their four daughters and seven grandchildren. As foreign visitors surge in, drawn by the idea of a new frontier, the book erodes the mythology, so pervasive in the region, of a happier, fairer era when white European men kept the natives gently in place.

Perhaps if he had been as strong and shrewd as his father, Mindon, Thibaw would have been better prepared and better armed for the final British assault in November 1885. In the devastating Anglo-Burmese wars of 1824-'25 and 1853-'54, the British had already occupied Lower Myanmar. (“Myanmar” has always been the country’s name in the Burmese language but officially in English only since 1989. The British came up with “Burma” from “Bama,” the predominant language and ethnic group. “Burma” nonetheless will be used here since it has been the term used historically in English). An independent, shrunken Ava kingdom held on in Upper Burma with its capital in Mandalay.

Thibaw, age 28, remained insulated behind the pink crenellated walls of the royal city in the opulent, glass-walled Golden Palace. He was in the thrall of astrologers, mystics, and the machinations of Supayalat, his half-sister. As it was, spears, gilt barges, and white elephants offered little resistance to Maxim machine guns as the five-mile-long British flotilla steamed up the Irrawaddy River. The war was over in two weeks. The royal family was given a single day to prepare for exile. Despite the brutality of the last dynasty and the ineptitude of Thibaw’s reign, the description of that final day is tremendously moving. As one of Supayalat’s attendants recalled the departure, “You may say she was not a good queen, he was not a good king, but they were our own. Do you think we can love a foreign master as we loved our king, who was, as it were, part of ourselves?”

Townswomen and the queen’s attendants raided the palace for jewelry and heirlooms on the last evening. The boorish British commander pocketed the 80-carat Nga Mauk ruby, which has never been seen again. The British were soon to plunder the rest, destroy hundreds of Mandalay’s teak houses, set fire to the king’s library, and turn the walled city into a military parade ground and prison. On November 29, the king, heavily pregnant Supayalat, and their two small daughters were trundled to a river steamer by bullock cart. Thibaw lived the remaining 31 aimless years of his life under virtual house arrest in Ratnagiri, a provincial town over 200 miles (326 kilometers) south of Mumbai.

Shah exhibits a fine sense of organization and restraint, allowing the abundant documents to tell much of the tale. In Ratnagiri, an English police officer wrote reports after twice-daily visits. The king’s perpetual money problems also produced a great deal of correspondence. Thibaw always outspent his allowance. Neither king nor queen recognized the value of their possessions, which they pawned in local shops and gave away as gifts. Yet the couple’s resources were also exhausted by their attempts to fulfill their responsibilities as patrons of Buddhist monasteries and schools in Mandalay and by their generosity to the Hindu poor of Ratnagiri.

After the family’s first 14 years in very cramped quarters, the British built a spacious seaside mansion that employed more than 100 staff. (Dilapidated and vacant, “Thibaw Palace” can still be visited today). The family, which now included two more daughters born in India and Supayalat’s sister-cum-junior queen, had a great sense of pride and privacy. They were able to keep most internal tensions to themselves. No one knows how Thibaw and Supayalat responded when they discovered in 1906 that their unmarried eldest daughter, Ashin Hteik Su Myat Phaya Gyi, the so-called First Princess (as she was also called in Burmese), was pregnant at age 26. The father, Gopal, was a gatekeeper and driver at the royal residence — and a married Hindu man.

After the end of World War I and Thibaw’s death, Supayalat and her two youngest daughters were allowed to return to Burma. They weren’t allowed to settle in Mandalay, however, due to British worries that the family would fuel nationalist sentiments in their always defiant home city. Instead, they were settled in burgeoning, commercial Yangon (called Rangoon by the British). Having defied her parents’ wishes by marrying Thibaw’s low-status Burmese secretary, the Second Princess spent the rest of her life in a happy marriage in the Indian Himalayas. The First Princess came along to Yangon for a few months but soon yielded to Gopal’s letters. She returned forever to Ratnagiri with her 14-year-old daughter, TuTu.

She couldn’t have anticipated that she and her daughter would end up in a bare three-room cottage in the native section of town. Ostracized by townspeople as a loose woman, she waited for brief visits from Gopal. For him, there was no dishonor in fathering a child out of wedlock. From the recollections of Ratnagiri relatives and elderly residents, Gopal appears to have used most of the princess’s allowance to add to his landholdings and to support his extended family. Shah’s heartbreaking conclusion seems fair: the First Princess’s death in 1947 culminated “a life of poverty, monotony and loneliness so achingly intense that she was finally edged into numbing insanity.” As an adult, the industrious, illiterate TuTu fared better, despite poverty and an alcoholic, low-caste husband. She embraced Hinduism, bore nine children, and was well accepted by the community. When several Burmese first cousins finally made their way to India and their grandfather’s tomb in 1993, they found that TuTu, then age 87, could no longer understand a word of Burmese.

The most intriguing sister is the clever, strong-willed Fourth Princess, the only sister to learn English. Through her life and letters, we can see the pervasive British fears of Burmese rebellion and their clumsy efforts to mold her children. Shortly before the Fourth Princess’s departure from India, a British minder noted her “brains and force of character” and warned his successors she was “likely to prove a firebrand and dangerous politically.” In Burma, at age 33, she married a former monk and quickly gave birth to six children. The warning proved true, however. Once she and her immediate family were allowed to move to Mandalay, the princess consorted with relatives, monks, and other anti-colonial suspects. The British responded by halting her allowance in 1932 until the family agreed to be exiled to the far southeastern Mon city of Moulmein (now called Mawlamyine). The children were forced to attend Christian boarding schools, receive Christian instruction, and use Christian names, even when speaking with each other.

Like Supayalat, the three younger princesses and their husbands were stalwart patriots and devout Buddhists. But the British reeducation efforts backfired especially strongly in the case of two of the Fourth Princess’s sons. Unfortunately, Shah does not explore in any detail the particulars of their political convictions and activities. Were they spared the packed prison cells because of their aristocratic status? How did the Marathi-speaking princesses regard the anti-Indian tenor of Burmese nationalism? The greatest shortcoming of The King in Exile is the scant historical context, even as nationalist movements grew rapidly and violently in the 1930s, and Burma was ravaged by five armies in the 1940s.

Shah is also wrong — and espousing the common British view — to dismiss the Burmese wartime administration as “a puppet government.” Few of the Burmese officials had deep fascist convictions. Many of them former university mates still in their 20s, they tended to lean from left to very far left. They included the Japanese-trained General Aung San (Suu Kyi’s father), future prime ministers U Nu and Ne Win, future UN Secretary-General U Thant, and the future chairman of the Communist Party of Burma, Than Tun. It’s true that the Japanese allowed them little authority. But in 1942, with the Japanese already occupying Lower Burma, leaders of several nationalist parties in Mandalay jail made a simple offer to the British: in exchange for the promise of independence, they would join in the fight against the Japanese. If rejected, “we can hinder your war effort in every way we can.” Swiftly rebuffed by Churchill, they made a strategic alliance with the Japanese. Despite the war’s immense suffering and destruction, the bargain worked. At the end of 1945, the Burmese were in a position to demand immediate independence, when the British planned to recolonize as usual.

The King in Exile shouldn’t be the first reading companion for tourists or others new to Myanmar. The River of Lost Footsteps, a skillfully crafted and well researched “personal history” by historian Thant Myint-U, U Thant’s grandson, is a very readable introduction. So is Amitav Ghosh’s formerly banned novel, The Glass Palace, which begins with Thibaw’s expulsion from Mandalay but follows characters from the lower classes and the massive Indian influx into Burma. Then there’s that staple of street stalls, Burmese Days, George Orwell’s scathing novel inspired by his own colonial posting. Together, all these books sketch diverse humiliations visited on locals by British rule. They illustrate that the casual destruction of a Buddhist monarchial social system stretching back 1,000 years has had very long-term repercussions.

There’s a chance that, as tourists surge in and the British make yet another Burma “death railway” POW movie, Myanmar just might escape the imperialist propagandizing that prevails in the rest of mainland Southeast Asia, perhaps because there is so little in the way of accurate popular histories, historical novels, or historical films. According to the misty myths peddled by the likes of Jan Morris, Simon Winchester, the publisher John Murray, and, most virulently, the tourism industry, there was once a gracious land not long ago overseen by benevolent European men clad in the sorts of khaki and linen clothing now featured in a Chinese-Malaysian store chain whose name, “British India,” plays upon nostalgia for a sanitized version of a lost empire. The natives were placid, cheap, amusing, and grateful to be ordered around. Mostly, they were barely visible, except for exotic young women eager for sex in a penalty-free playground.

Maybe, if works such as River of Lost Footsteps and The King in Exile end up as part of the tourist’s gear, instead of imagining themselves in quaint wooden houses with ceiling fans and flocks of devoted servants, visitors will think about what it was like to grow up in an occupied, apartheid society. Maybe they will ponder the meaning of an intelligentsia scattered to distant and foreign exiles; mutinies and intractable insurgencies; native-born residents “banished” to China; spies in schools; teenage political prisoners dying of cholera; Mandalay and Moulmein reduced to cinders by foreign armies; orphanages of mixed-race children; and dishonored women living out lonely lives. Even while welcoming the recent liberalizing moves of the country, they might have a better appreciation why, for much of the past 50 years, many Burmese preferred to pursue their eccentric road to socialism without interference from foreigners.


Susan Cunningham is a journalist living in Thailand.

LARB Contributor

Susan Cunningham is a journalist living in Thailand. Her work has appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, Forbes Asia, South China Morning Post, and The Wall Street Journal, among other publications.


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