MANDALAY — “Imagine how angry you would be if you knew you were in a history’s whisker of being the king of a country,” said 30-year-old British filmmaker and Myanmar history enthusiast Alex Bescoby.
He was speaking at the Myanmar premiere of his new film, completed earlier this year with an old school friend, about the living descendants of the country’s last royal family. Before the British conquered what they called Upper Burma in 1885, young King Thibaw had ruled over a proud Buddhist kingdom. His palace walls stood a mere 10-minute walk from the grounds of the venue in northern Mandalay where Bescoby had screened his film at the fourth Irawaddy Literary Festival in early November.
The star of “We Were Kings” — and a man who might have ruled over Myanmar — is Soe Win, a 70-year-old retired civil servant. His grandmother, Hteik Su Myat Phaya Galae, was the fourth-born princess in the deposed court of the Konbaung dynasty, making Thibaw his great-grandfather. As Soe Win rose through Myanmar’s foreign service between 1972 and 2007 — taking postings in Washington, Hong Kong, Beijing, and Tokyo — he kept quiet about his family. “During those days, no one was interested,” he told the Nikkei Asian Review.
Soe Win’s aunt Hteik Su Phaya Gyi, known as Aunty Su, also attended the film’s in-country premiere. 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 south-eastern 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 1930 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 1948, 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 1962 military takeover, Prime Minister U Nu had toyed with 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. “They didn’t want any monarchism,” recalled Aunty Su. “We were just ignored.”
Soe Win’s keen sense of historical injury was no doubt heightened by recent events across the border in Thailand. In October, the Thai government lavished 3 billion baht ($92 million) on a cremation ceremony for the late King Bhumibol Adulyadej. The capital, Bangkok, ground to a virtual halt as devoted Thais and foreign dignitaries paid their last respects. Last year, Forbes Magazine estimated the crown’s wealth surpassed $30 billion. A new constitution, promulgated in August, confirms the Thai monarchy’s privileges: above politics, and protected from all criticism on pain of imprisonment.