“You may say she was not a good queen, he was not a good king, but they were our own.”
– Maid of Honor to Burma’s Queen Supayalat and King Thibaw
“A family with the wrong members in control – that is perhaps as near as one can come to describing England in a phrase.”
– George Orwell
(Book review) – The immediate fate of Burma’s royal family is well known. A long, escalating feud between British interests and Burma’s monarchial government led to the British invading upper Burma. Dispensing with ease the outdated defenses of the Burmese government, on December 10, 1885, King Thibaw and his royal family were unceremoniously evicted from Mandalay Palace and sent into exile on the western shore of India.
However, less is known of the life the ousted family led in the village of Ratnagiri in the Indian state of Maharashtra, or of the fate of the princesses and their descendants. This is the story author Sudha Shah focuses on in The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma (HarperCollins 2012).
The approach adopted by Shah is to convey a human story, taking care to document each of the individual lives. Interestingly, the book is dedicated to the first princess, for whom it is not difficult to make an argument of being the most tragic of the king and queen’s four daughters.
Yet, even in the first princesses’ ignominious death in Ratnagiri, shunned as she was by family and society in Burma (as well as India), a glimpse of the beneficence of Burma’s estranged royal court filters through in both her reaching out to the local children and in the form of her daughter, Tu Tu. Though herself burdened with poverty, Shah refers to Tu Tu as the “Mother Theresa of Ratnagiri” in her readiness to reach out to those in need.
As is often the case, alongside the personal sagas of the human story are stark political and historical observations. And several of those conveyed in The King in Exile continue to speak to contemporary Burma. One such connection between Burma’s ill-fated Konbaung dynasty and the present is the challenge of confronting modernity.
Thibaw ascended the lion throne at a critical time, just when his country most needed informed, worldly leadership. However, though the king was by all accounts well versed in Buddhist tracts, the royal couple’s world existed firmly within the grandeur and tradition to be found safely inside the palace walls.
When given one last chance, a British ultimatum, to potentially save his rule and Burma’s independence, Thibaw, supported by Supayalat, ignored the advice of his hluttaw (council) and, according to Shah, rejected the missive as an affront to honor.
Years later, as related by Shah, a visitor to the queen, then frail and residing in Rangoon, commented: “Many noticed that the queen lived firmly in the past, both in terms of what she dwelt on, and the customs she followed. This anachronistic existence of the last queen of Burma drew curious visitors who came to witness living history.”
It was not, however, only the king and queen who found it difficult, if not impossible, to dispel with the romance of a bygone era. The then Burmese ambassador to Delhi, as per The King in Exile, on visiting the second princess in the Himalayan hill station of Kalimpong, remarked the apparent time warp in which she and her husband seemed to live. Meanwhile, those familiar with the third princess, who returned to live in central Burma, are said to have noted that in her isolation and lack of education she came across as out of touch with reality.
Certainly the princesses cannot be entirely faulted, as the British, as well as their parents, never pushed for a formal education for any of them. An investment in the education of the princesses would likely have benefited them and their subsequent families, but could it also have resulted in the reemergence of a royal Burmese government?
It is recounted in The King in Exile how Aung San is known to have visited the third princess and her husband, Prince Hteik Tin Kodaw Gyi, at their home in Maymyo (now Pyin Oo Lwin). And on the verge of independence Aung San, in his interactions with possible heirs to the throne, spoke of the Burmese public still expecting a king.
But, the truth, as assessed by Shah at the close of her volume, is likely less nostalgic. Whether it was to be the British or the ever-encroaching demands of modernity, in all likelihood the clock on the pomp and pageantry of royalty was never to turn back in full.
So where is Burma today? Having myself visited the country for over 15 years, I can attest to at least part of its allure, to the outsider, being a chance to witness someplace trapped in another era, someplace immediately different from the incessant monotony that increasingly grips and links the world’s economic hubs. But, today in Rangoon, for better or worse, that previous allure is rapidly losing its luster. Trappings of modernity are steadily gaining ground.
As such, having discounted the impact of engaging international economic and political trends (not to mention education and other domestic needs) for so long, and with the often less than altruistic interests of foreign governments and companies surveying possibilities in Burma, the country finds itself at another critical junction when enlightened leadership and a unified population are at a premium; at a time when the demands of modernity respective of Burmese interests and culture must be delicately balanced.
Certainly, a similar sentiment to that of Princess Hteik Su Phaya Gyi, granddaughter of Thibaw and Supayalat, cannot be allowed to become a dominant discourse. As told by Shah, the princess eventually arrived at the conclusion that the British actually looked after her family quite well; the real betrayal came from the Burmese government following independence. As Burma cautiously embraces its “second independence,” how will it proceed to be judged with respect to the first?
In 1956, the second princess embarked on a trip home, to Burma. She had not set foot in her country since the age of two. Sadly, she contracted an illness while en route and passed away before she ever left India. Her ashes would not arrive in Burma for another 52 years, such has been the fractured and circuitous fate of the country throughout its modern existence; not to mention many of the lives of Konbaung descent as told in The King in Exile.
Following President Thein Sein’s offer to Burmese exiles to return home, a steady trickle of those previously forced from their country have returned, many of whom, like the fourth princess upon her return, are full of optimism. Yet, many others remain wary of proceedings, and there are without question multiple roadblocks ahead. Nonetheless, it would be but the latest of national setbacks in the face of modern demands if the fate of the country is yet again determined by insular thinking and/or a refusal to embrace the future.
However, it would be equally unfortunate if the current environment of hope and optimism, of embracing the modern, results in a neglect of culture and an even harder, less free life for so many of the Burmese population. That is the enormous task confronting the country and its leadership today, no less a daunting situation than that which confronted the ill-fated Konbaung dynasty.