Though 95 years old and confined to a wheelchair, she retains a mischievous wit and speaks mission-school English in ringing tones.
She spent much of her childhood in the coastal backwater of Mawlamyine, in southeastern Myanmar. The British had moved her mother, known as the "Fourth Princess," to the town with her children after she had the audacity to petition in for the old Mandalay palace and its treasures to be restored to her family.
The Fourth Princess herself grew up mostly in exile, alongside Thibaw, in the Indian port town of Ratnagiri. Myanmar's history since its independence from Britain in , blighted by decades of military rule, saw the royal family sink into further obscurity. Mumbai-based historian Sudha Shah, who has written about Thibaw's twilight years of Indian exile, told the Nikkei Asian Review that before the country's military takeover, Prime Minister U Nu had toyed with the idea of enlisting Thibaw's grandchildren in his Buddhist-centric nation-building project, at a time when communism was spreading through the countryside via armed insurgency.
But when the military saw the adoration the royal descendants received in public, they felt threatened. Bangkok ground to a virtual halt as devoted Thais and foreign dignitaries paid their last respects. A new constitution, promulgated in April, confirms the Thai monarchy's privileges: above politics and protected from all criticism on pain of imprisonment.
Editorial Reviews. About the Author. Sudha Shah was schooled in Mumbai and thereafter got her degree in economics from Smith College, USA. Married and. In , as the king of Burma lay dying, one of his queens schemed for his forty- first Start reading The King In Exile: The Fall Of The Royal Family Of Burma on .
In stinging contrast to the dizzying wealth and towering authority enjoyed by Thailand's Chakri dynasty, the remnants of Myanmar's Konbaungs were made dependent on the charity of the British administration and its post-colonial successor. One of Britain's more insidious legacies is the tattered reputation of King Thibaw himself. British imperialists often ran smear campaigns against rulers before snatching their realms. The last nawab of northern India's Awadh, for instance, was painted as "excessively debauched. The aim was both to undermine confidence in Thibaw's capacity to rule and to cast him as a "bad Buddhist" in the eyes of his subjects.
In the decades since Myanmar's liberation from British rule, there has been no public reappraisal of the country's last king.
Though few in Myanmar would actively denigrate Thibaw, he is still widely viewed as a "useless ruler," according to Aunty Su, for failing to do more to protect the country's sovereignty. Few streets or monuments bear his name, in contrast to prior kings.
Historian Sudha Shah insists that Thibaw "wasn't as bad an administrator and king as he was made out to be, and there is enough proof that he never drank. Bescoby, who first visited Myanmar on a research grant in , said he wanted to make a film that helped explain today's Myanmar "by going back to ," the year that Britain snuffed out Myanmar's independence in a woefully one-sided war.
During the international premiere of "We Were Kings" in September in London, audience members expressed deep shame over Britain's past cruelty.
Yet, Bescoby said, what he really wanted was for people to come away with a stronger empathy for Myanmar and a willingness to engage with the country. Soe Win resents much of the British legacy in Myanmar and blames colonial policies of "divide and rule" for the last half-century of conflict between the Myanmar military and ethnic minorities seeking autonomy. Nonetheless, he professed, like Bescoby, a desire for greater "friendship" between the people of Britain and Myanmar that transcends their bitter history.
In November , the royal descendants were permitted to gather with Buddhist monks on the grounds of the old palace in Mandalay to commemorate their fallen dynasty, in a ceremony that drew unprecedented media attention to Soe Win and Aunty Su, along with her brother Taw Phaya, the titular head of the House of Konbaung, and Devi Thant Cin, Aunty Su's niece and a prominent environmentalist.
The spotlight intensified when, the next month, the film crew accompanied Soe Win on a trip to India to mark the centenary of King Thibaw's death at his burial site in Ratnagiri. Soe Win had made an earlier trip in , but Myanmar's military junta required that it be kept quiet. This time, however, Myanmar's powerful military chief, Senior Gen.
In the summer of , a white man showed up in the coastal town of Ratnagiri to explore the former residence of a political personage. To the old lady within, her visitor presented a bottle of lemon drops, and she reciprocated, as was appropriate, with an offering of her own.
And so it was that this stranger from overseas received from the exiled princess of Burma a right royal present of two Ratnagiri mangoes.
But then Thibaw himself had little inkling of what awaited him. He came to power through palace intrigue and lost it a few years later after a hopeless war against the British.
His father, King Mindon, was an icon, and had other plans for the succession—Thibaw, his 41st son, was not the most appealing of heirs. Of course, to prevent the cries of the royal victims from offending his ears, loud dramas were staged, drowning out the sound of death. In , soon after the First Anglo-Burmese War, several provinces had been ceded to the ascendant British, besides the port of Rangoon.
The Second Anglo-Burmese War in the s led to the loss of more territory, so that Lower Burma became a British colony, the royal family controlling the rest from their capital in Mandalay. Even without murder, they had other reasons to depose the king—he flirted with the French, for instance, and could thwart what the British imagined were their rightful commercial prerogatives. In , the British issued an ultimatum, acceptance of which would have meant foreign rule in all but name. After all, even if defeat was certain, at least there was honour in losing a war.
The result was the rout of royal forces, and, by November , British troops were in the capital. Thibaw and Supayalat received them in state, trying to maintain the one thing they had left: a stoic dignity. Even as his servants and townspeople ransacked his palaces, the king was informed he would be shipped abroad. And, just as decades earlier the British had parcelled the Mughal emperor from Delhi to Burma, the last king of Ava was put on a bullock cart and packed off to India. It presents yet another case of a ruler divested of power and fighting for shreds of respect against a largely obdurate colonial establishment.
Thibaw hated the place but there was no question of going back—while periodic raises were granted, the British saw him as a potential icon for nationalists at home.