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Myanmar's lost royals

One of the King’s Indian great-great-great grandsons looks on at the memorial ceremony
Image caption One of King Thibaw’s great-great-great grandsons

More than a century after Burma's king was banished, his descendants are stepping into the spotlight again - and raising the question whether his remains should be taken from their resting place in a foreign country and reburied at home, says Alex Bescoby.

In the grey dark before dawn in Ratnagiri, a sleepy seaside town on the remote west coast of India, I stand in what's usually a quiet and forgotten corner of this already unremarkable place.

Today, however, is different.

Secret service agents from India and Myanmar, also known as Burma, criss-cross each other whispering into sleeves, wearing the obligatory dark glasses, even though the sun has yet to rise.

Burmese in formal dress argue in hushed tones over where and how to seat Myanmar's five most senior holy men, its vice president and its highest-ranking soldier, whose arrival by naval helicopter is imminent.

I almost trip over an Indian policeman's hand-held minesweeper, then pirouette around his trailing sniffer dog.

A rising murmur causes me to turn around - a line of white ghosts is advancing up the dirt road towards me.

The spectres start to wave and smile as they draw closer.

For a long time, these people have been almost invisible. This is Myanmar's royal family, dressed in white, the traditional Burmese colour of mourning.

Image caption Members of the royal family with Alex Bescoby (left)

Few in Myanmar even know they exist. No member of this family has sat on Burma's Lion Throne since 1885, when a millennium of monarchy was brought to a swift end by an invading British Army under orders from Lord Randolph Churchill - father of Sir Winston - who was keen to open up lucrative new markets.

On New Year's Day 1886, the once-proud kingdom would be reduced to a mere province of British India, and would remain part of the British Empire until gaining independence in 1948.

As rivals to Burma's new rulers, the royal family were scattered and a campaign began to erase them from history.

Thibaw, the defeated king, was immediately sent into exile with his heavily pregnant wife, his junior queen and two small daughters. At just 26, the king had no idea he would live out the remaining 31 years of his life here in Ratnagiri, a prisoner of the British Crown.

Image caption U Soe Win, King Thibaw's great-grandson

Ratnagiri's remoteness was the exact reason it was chosen. Some 3,000 miles from Thibaw's royal seat of Mandalay, accessible only by sea for parts of the year and far from any of Britain's meddling European rivals, it was the perfect place to make a man disappear.

So successful was this move that schoolchildren in Myanmar today are told his story in a single sentence in the government history curriculum, and few know that the royal family returned to Burma after his death, and lived quietly among the people they used to rule over.

Back in their former kingdom the family would be watched over suspiciously, even after independence. Myanmar's paranoid military rulers also feared the potential affection the royals could muster, and some would face jail or even assassination because of their royal blood.

But now, exactly 100 years after King Thibaw's death, the royals are stepping back into the spotlight.

A squat square structure inside a walled compound, surrounded by crumbling apartment blocks is the final resting place of King Thibaw.

Today the king's descendants have for the first time been given permission to travel to India and publicly remember their forefather, in a bid to end a century of anonymity. It's one of the lesser-known consequences of Myanmar's opening up to the world, and a move towards greater democracy.

In preparation for the special day, the tomb has been hurriedly cleaned and repainted a startling white by the local authorities, and draped with curtains of orange and white flowers.

U Soe Win, Thibaw's great-grandson and head of the family, wraps my hand in both of his and a warm smile beams from under his neat black moustache.

"The day has finally come!" he exclaims.

Image caption U Soe Win flanked by his nephew (left) and eldest son

Had history been different, the man before me would have been the King of Burma. His father had almost been returned to the throne in the 1940s, but his killing in suspicious circumstances in 1948 snuffed out hopes of a royal restoration.

Until recently, the heir to Myanmar's throne was a behind-the-scenes man reluctant to discuss his past, directing protocol for the ministry of foreign affairs, and indulging his passion for football as manager of Myanmar's under-19 national team.

Now, Soe Win is leading his family back into the history books. He's flanked by his close relatives - among them undertakers, printers, tea growers, and ice-cream makers. For one day only their everyday lives are forgotten - they are royals again.

Image caption Min Oo, U Soe Win's eldest son and next in line

As they've drawn closer to the tomb, the little party in white has suddenly quadrupled in number, swelled with Indians - women dressed in multicoloured saris and glittering jewellery, men in smart white shirts and heavy gold chains.

They are Soe Win's cousins, and royals too. They are descendants of Thibaw's eldest daughter, whose secret affair with the King's Indian gatekeeper would result both in her rejection by her family but also in a daughter, Tu Tu.

The first princess would die here in Ratnagiri, an outcast. Tu Tu, whose Burmese heritage would make her virtually un-marriageable in Ratnagiri's caste system, was forced to hide her own past until her death. As a result, her many descendants gathered here today know very little about their royal past.

But now they stand together in celebration of that history, and they bow on all fours before the tomb of their shared ancestor.

Sandi, Soe Win's youngest daughter, is fighting back tears. I catch her eye across the crowd. She flashes an embarrassed smile and ducks behind the tomb out of sight of the cameras.

Image caption Sandi, U Soe Win's youngest daughter, kneels with Malti, the daughter of King Thibaw's eldest granddaughter, Tu Tu

"I hadn't expected to be so overwhelmed," she tells me later. "Seeing my great-great-grandfather buried so far from home, and meeting my Indian family for the first time - they've had such a hard life. It's a lot to take in."

Emotions are running high across the board, and there are more tears, hugs and group photos before the family moves to join the main ceremony.

The royals look on as Burma's most venerable monks, flanked by Vice President U Myint Swe and Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing - both members of Myanmar's former military government, and still very powerful - lead a ceremony in Burmese that feels very alien in this corner of a foreign land.

That alien quality begs a question that hangs over the whole event - is it time for the king's exile to end, for his body to return home?

Image caption Senior Gen Min Aung Hlaing circles the King's tomb with the Sitagu Sayadaw, the second most senior monk in Myanmar

Soe Win certainly thinks so.

"He doesn't belong here. Every day he spent in India he prayed to be allowed home. As his descendant it is my duty to make that happen. It will not be easy and we must do things in the proper order, but it is my duty both as a royal and a citizen of Myanmar."

The support shown today certainly seems to show many powerful players in Myanmar and India agree.

However, Soe Win's Indian cousin Chandu, who pays visits to his great-grandfather's tomb when his failing health allows, disagrees. "If the body is taken back to Burma, our connection to the king is lost. We will have nothing."

In Burma, Soe Win's cousin and fellow royal, Daw Devi Thant Cin - the country's leading environmental activist - also raises concerns. "It's not the right time. Our country has so many problems, we must focus on fixing those to become prosperous, sustainable and peaceful. Only then should the king come home," she says.

There are certainly valid questions about what effect bringing this powerful symbol of Myanmar's royal Buddhist past at a time when the country is struggling to bring together its many different ethnicities and religions. Would the king serve to unite or divide?

There are questions too as to why Myanmar's military men, long suspicious of the royal family, have chosen to be here today. Is this more than a personal pilgrimage?

But right now, the mood is one of celebration for Burma's lost royals. While the last king may for now remain buried here very far from home, he and his family are now very firmly back on the map.

Alex Bescoby's debut feature film Burma's Lost Royals - funded by the Whicker's World Foundation - is due for release in June 2017.

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