Time to end Myanmar king’s exile in India

The remains of the last king of Myanmar, exiled to India during British rule, still lie in Ratnagiri. We can win the hearts of our neighbour by returning these royal remains.

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King Thibaw, the last king of Burma, belonged to the Konbaung dynasty, a line of rulers known as 'Kings who rule the Universe' and treated as demi-gods by their subjects. In November 1885, after his defeat in a war against Britain, King Thibaw, along with the heavily pregnant Queen Supayalat, their very young daughters, and the king's junior wife, Queen Supayagalae, were exiled to India. Here, in the remote town of Ratnagiri, they lived for over 30 years.

The family had been permitted to carry some of their jewellery and for several years was able to supplement their government pension by the furtive sale of these items. But as they ran out of their valuable possessions, the once proud and uncompromising king wrote endless letters to the British government requesting a larger allowance, better accommodation, and most poignantly, for the right to be addressed as His Majesty instead of His Highness.

In addition to being stripped of his power and wealth, and being transplanted from the land he once ruled to a culturally alien corner of the world, the king, and the rest of the family, were kept under virtual imprisonment.

The princesses, too, were not allowed to interact freely with the residents of Ratnagiri. So they lived, attended to by an army of servants and assistants, until all of the princesses were in their thirties. By this time, two of them had fallen in love with 'highly unsuitable' men.

The king died, broken-hearted, in December 1916. His junior queen, Queen Supayagalae, had died a few years before him. In 1919, Queen Supayalat and her daughters were permitted to return to Rangoon. The queen wished to carry back with her the coffins of the king and the junior queen for entombment in Mandalay, and she made many desperate representations for this. But the British government was very nervous of the repercussions of permitting her to do so.

Until the time of her departure, the coffins had lain in a temporary structure within the 27-acre family compound. The government now constructed a tomb in Ratnagiri, not far from the compound, and insisted that both coffins be transferred to it. It also pressured the queen to sign a declaration to the effect that she had understood that this was a permanent entombment, and that the government would entertain no further discussion on the subject.

The royal family returned to Burma in 1919. The king's eldest daughter, Ashin Hteik Su Myat Phaya Gyi (rechristened the First Princess by the British), came back a year later to Ratnagiri with her daughter, Tu Tu, because Ratnagiri was where her companion and Tu Tu's father lived.

When the First Princess died in June 1947, she was cremated and the ashes were stored in a wooden box in the Ratnagiri Treasury, pending a decision as to whether they should be entombed in India or Myanmar. Both countries were on the cusp of their independence at the time of her death, and the governments exchanged numerous memos on whether all three royal remains should be shifted to and entombed in Burma. 

However, it appears the matter just slipped through the cracks of the system -- both governments had much more pressing issues on hand. The royal remains remained where they were including, unfortunately, the First Princess's, which had never even been deposited in her tomb in Ratnagiri, built right next to that of her father's. (A small square aperture -- made for the insertion of her ashes at a later date -- is to this day unsealed.)

When they were growing up, the Fourth Princess had repeatedly told her children that the mortal remains of King Thibaw and Queen Supayagalae had been forcibly entombed without the necessary tharanagaon ceremony accorded to Burmese Buddhists after their death.

A sense of deep indignation and regret was shared by all King Thibaw's descendants and by many others in Burma who were aware of this omission. King Thibaw, after all, had been regarded as a demi-god during his reign. And monarchy, as an institution, had been a cherished one, valued to the extent that, according to the noted Burmese historian, Thant Myint-U, a sense of dislocation and aimlessness permeated Burmese society for several decades after King Thibaw's deposition, because a British-occupied Burma with no king was an incomprehensible break from the past.

Even today, particularly in rural areas, stories of the royal family and a sentiment for the monarchy continue to resonate with the people.

Over the years, King Thibaw's grandchildren made several attempts to visit Ratnagiri, but it was only in December 1993 that they were able to make a trip, and were finally able to perform the tharanagaon ceremony.

Although they and many in Myanmar (as Burma was called from 1989) felt that the remains of the royal family of Myanmar belong in Myanmar, there was nothing any of them could do about it at the time. Using the opportunity of Prime Minister Manmohan Singh's recent visit to Myanmar, King Thibaw's great grandson, U Soe Win, has sent him a letter requesting, on behalf of King Thibaw's descendants, permission to carry all the three royal remains to Myanmar. He has approached his own government for similar permission.

Better connectivity between India and Myanmar has been stressed during the Prime Minister's recent visit. This, it has been said, is not only to facilitate trade between the two countries, but also to enable easier people-to-people interaction. Aung San Suu Kyi, who the Prime Minister also met, has been quoted as saying “true friendship between the countries can be based only on friendship between our peoples”.

Although many issues of great importance to both countries have been discussed and MoUs have been signed, perhaps another issue, neither pressing nor economically important, could be looked at to win the hearts of the people of Myanmar: our government should seriously consider granting its permission for the return of the royal remains.

Sudha Shah, is the author of The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma, which is to be published by HarperCollins India in mid-June 2012.

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