Returning the king who never came home

Hopes of repatriating the remains of Thibaw, Burma's last monarch, from India have become complicated by political indecisiveness and a potential three-country wrangle over the tomb of the last Mughal emperor in Yangon

King Thibaw, the last monarch of Myanmar's Kongbuang dynasty, died in exile in India nearly a century ago.

RETURN TO SENDER: King Thibaw’s tomb, left, and the First Princess’s tomb in Ratnagiri in India’s western Maharashtra state. Top, King Thibaw.

Ever since then efforts to repatriate his remains have been stymied by a political and diplomatic wrangle that could have implications throughout the region.

King Thibaw was exiled along with his family to India after Britain colonised Myanmar in 1885. He died there in 1916. His wife, Queen Supayalat, was allowed to return to Myanmar in 1919. But her request that she be allowed to take the coffins of the king and junior queen back to the palace in Mandalay was denied by British rulers who placed her under house arrest in Yangon.

These days the queen's remains are kept in a white tomb on Shwedagon Pagoda Road in Yangon, some 4,500km away from those of her husband in India's western Maharashtra state.

After the queen's initial request was refused, the king's descendants told Spectrum that several similar appeals have been made. All have hit a political wall.

U Than Swe of Dawei, Myanmar's deputy culture minister, said that the repatriation of the king, his junior queen Supayagalae and eldest daughter Ashin Hteik Su Myat Phaya Gyi from India was proposed in a parliamentary session last year, but as of yet there is no schedule to implement it.

''Repatriation of the royal remains is not a political issue but a national issue. People haven't forgotten our king,'' he told Spectrum.

Descendants of the royal family, including the late grandson Taw Payar Kalay U Aung Zay, who was the son of the fourth daughter of King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat, stepped up their requests for the repatriation of the remains after Myanmar gained independence in 1948.

A committee for the repatriation of the royal remains was formed with the support of prime minister U Nu during his tenure from 1948-1962.

''The shocking comment of a British official at that time was 'let sleeping dogs lie','' Than Swe said.

The deputy minister was told by writer and politician Taw Payar Kalay, who died in 2006, that due to public concern over a possible return to monarchic rule following independence, no concrete actions to reclaim the royal remains were taken by any subsequent Myanmar governments.

''U Soe Win, a great grandson of King Thibaw, has also been trying to get permission from the leaders of Myanmar and India to bring back the remains,'' Than Swe said.

In December, Than Swe was among the delegates who accompanied President Thein Sein to Ratnagiri to pay homage to the king, the first such visit by a Myanmar head of state.

''The tombs were painted white. It seemed the palace had been renovated before the president's visit,'' Than Swe said.

Local news group Mizzima reported that the ''Indian government had allotted 25 million rupees [13.8 million baht] for repairs and renovations of the palace and tombs''.

Taw Payar Kalay's wife, 87-year-old Khin May, was pleased by Thein Sein's historic visit, as the royal family had been ignored by authorities for decades.

''I wanted to express my gratitude to the president,'' she said. ''Patriotic people would love to bring the remains of the king back home. Personally I really want to make that happen, as it was the desire of my husband. But it doesn't need to be an urgent issue right now. It can be done gradually.''

Than Swe said the issue was of more interest to the residents of Mandalay _ where the king reigned _ than Yangon residents.

''I've received many letters from people [in Mandalay] requesting the return of King Thibaw's remains,'' he said.

Author Sudha Shah, who has recently written a book about the exiled king and his legacy (see sidebar), has also urged the Indian government to facilitate the repatriation of the royal remains.

''It's been 65 years since independence, and it is time to end the king's exile,'' she said at a Foreign Correspondents' Club of Thailand discussion earlier this month.

Shah described a recent talk she gave in Yangon, when 21 royal descendants crammed into a small room with over 100 others during the Irrawaddy Literary Festival.

''There is a lot of interest in the royal family,'' she said, ''but little remaining relevance.''

Despite the intense curiosity people showed in the topic, she doesn't see the monarchy ever being reinstated. The royal descendants lead simple lives and have no such pretensions, she said. And because King Thibaw pawned most of the belongings he had been allowed to take with him, none of the descendants have any heirlooms of the king and queen left.

With Myanmar trying to strengthen its burgeoning democracy, many do not regard the repatriation of the royal remains as a priority.

So far Than Swe's proposal is merely on the parliamentary record. He said that some MPs have supported it, however one also told him that the remains should stay in India.

A middle-aged taxi driver in Yangon agreed that returning the remains is not a pressing issue. ''We should not renew something that already happened in the past. It is better to keep the graves in India. We have other issues that are more important right now.''

Repatriation of the Myanmar king's remains would, of course, require India's approval. However the issue is complicated by the colonial history of both countries. In a similar manner to their treatment of King Thibaw, the British banished the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, to Yangon in 1858, where he was kept as a state prisoner near Shwedagon Pagoda. The British gave the emperor a small pension and a little house. His family lived in near poverty for the rest of their lives.

Shah Zafar died in 1862 after four years of house arrest and his tomb was largely ignored until the Muslim community discovered it in the 1910s and have maintained its upkeep ever since.

He remains a revered figure in the community.

Than Lwin, 69, a member of the administrative committee of the Bahadur Shah Zafar Trust, said, ''We regard the emperor as a saint or a great poet, not as a king. He didn't hunger after power. He kept doing religious work until his last days here. His poems also show him to be a saint.

''Whenever people begin a business, they come here to the emperor and pray for success.''

Shah Zafar's tomb is often crowded not only with his regular followers but also high-ranking officials from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, who come to pay homage when they visit Myanmar. Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh visited King Shah Zafar's tomb last year.

THE EMPEROR’S REPOSE: Above, the tomb of the last Mughal emperor, Bahadur Shah Zafar, in Yangon. Right, the white tomb of Queen Supayalat stands alone on Shwedagon Pagoda Road in Yangon.

An exchange of the monarchs' tombs has been proposed as a solution, but that would create other problems.

Than Swe said Indian officials explained the problem to him during his visit to Ratnagiri. ''India today has become three countries _ India, Pakistan and Bangladesh _ so if India reclaims Shah Zafar's remains, it might create conflict with the other two countries,'' he said.

The deputy minister, however, still holds strong hopes of bringing the royal remains back to Myanmar.

''If the government can implement repatriation, the remains could be sent to the compound where Queen Supayalat's tomb lies, or be sent to Mandalay'' where the royal family had desired to be entombed, he said.

Regarding potential opposition by staunch nationalists, Mr Than Swe said, ''I don't think it will effect the country's stability and peace. I'm sure it will greatly please people such as monks, the elderly and others who still love the king.''

THEY REMEMBER AFTER ALL: Khin May, 87, the wife of Taw Payar Kalay, grandson of King Thibaw, said Thein Sein’s visit to pay homage to the former king’s remains in India showed authorities hadn’t forgotten the royals.

About the author

Writer: Mon Mon Myat