Monarch’s descendants return to palace for commemoration
U Taw Phaya (left), the grandson of King Thibaw, speaks with monks at Mandalay’s Golden Palace on November 22 during an event marking the exile anniversary of his royal ancestor more than a century after British colonists expelled Burma’s royal family.
WHEN the British colonialists barrelled into Mandalay on November 28, 1885, they gave King Thibaw just one day to pack up his family and leave the country.
But on November 22 – 131 years after Myanmar’s last king entered his exile – his descendants finally had a moment of closure during a historic ceremony in Mandalay’s Royal Palace.
“The British tried to keep us away from the common people,” said Prince Taw Phaya, one of two surviving grandchildren of King Thibaw. “Bu t… Still today the common people will pay respects to royalty.”
The event marked the first time Myanmar’s royals have been allowed to publicly mark the end of their last king’s reign within the palace. After exiling King Thibaw to India, the British closed off the palace to the public in fear that the royals could threaten their rule in the future.
Most of the old palace was destroyed during World War II, and it remained shuttered after independence in 1948. When the military junta seized power in 1962, they reinvented themselves as the warrior kings of old and kept the royal family out of the national eye. Symbolically, they also redeveloped most of the palace grounds into a military base, with only a small section becoming available for tourism in the late 1990s.
Previous ceremonies, organised annually since 1995, used to be held in secret. But after then-president Thein Sein visited Thibaw’s tomb in the Indian coastal town of Ratnagiri in 2012, interest in the old monarchy reignited throughout the country. Myanmar’s remaining royals seized on the renewed interest this year, holding a ceremony in October to commemorate the death of Thibaw’s father King Mindon in the palace.
About 100 relatives attended the November 22 ceremony, donating to monks and pouring out water.
“We are aiming for the people to know that our country was once ruled by real kings,” U Kyaw Thiha, the great-great-grandchild of King Thibaw and his wife Queen Supayalat, told The Myanmar Times.
They also look to mark a century since Thibaw’s death in exile this December. U Soe Win, a great grandchild of King Thibaw, said a small contingent of around 30 people will head to Ratnagiri on December 13 for the December 16 commemoration. He added that preserving these memories are crucial to national dignity, suggesting that future ceremonies be recognised at a national level.
“In our history, the king ruled his own people,” he said. “If we neglect that historical identity, our country will feel aggrieved. This day is relevant to all Myanmar people.”
Experts say the public gathering of royals will help Myanmar rediscover a critical period in its history as it embarks on a more open future under the democratically elected government of Aung San Suu Kyi.
“Burmese self-identity congealed around a very defensive attitude to the outside world, because that period of the Burmese kingdom was also a period of extreme threat,” historian Thant Myint U told AFP.
Hla Nyunt Yi, a 48-year-old vendor from western Rakhine State who attended the ceremony, said she had mixed feelings about seeing what remained of Myanmar’s once-mighty royal line.
“I feel happy and sad at the same time seeing the king’s relatives here,” she said.
A man walks through the Royal Palace in Mandalay on November 22 during a ceremony to mark the 131st anniversary of the end of King Thibaw’s reign.
Multiple generations of royal descendants were able to host a royal event in the palace for the first time in over a century.
Prince Taw Phaya (centre), 93, grandson of King Thibaw, walks with relatives after attending the commemoration.
Relatives made donations to monks to mark the event.
Monks count their blessings after the donation ceremony.