When Alex Bescoby started out to make a film about surviving family members of Myanmar’s last king, he had little idea how it might turn out.
For decades, the country’s military rulers had thrown a cloak of silence over the monarchy – a media blackout, with Thibaw’s reign barely mentioned in national history books. And yet the descendants of the last Burmese king, closely watched for years, were on the cusp of a dramatic resurgence.
Thein Sein, the former general and reformist president who stepped down two years ago, had quietly reignited the flame with a visit to King Thibaw’s tomb in Ratnagiri, just south of Mumbai, in 2011.
Three years later, Indian author Sudha Shah published ‘The King in Exile‘ about Thibaw’s life in India. After their victory in the third Anglo-Burmese war in 1885, British troops had marched to the Mandalay Palace and forced Thibaw and Queen Supayalat on to an oxcart, and then a ship to southern India.
It was a humiliating exit for the last king of the Konbaung dynasty. Surviving family members have never forgotten.
As an Englishman, Bescoby was aware of the enduring appeal of royals, and as a graduate who studied Burmese history at Cambridge, he knew the story of Thibaw.
But there were doubts. At a showing of his film in Bangkok last week, the young filmmaker admitted he had no idea how Thibaw’s descendants would receive him.
Yet, as revealed in his film ‘We Were Kings’, U Soe Win, Thibaw’s great grandson, has also been a man on a mission – to restore his ancestor’s honor. Looking back, it seems like a date with destiny.
“I met this wonderful man in 2014,” he said, smiling at Soe Win, after a showing of his film at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. “I was incredibly lucky to get funding… it took four years. And it wasn’t easy, but thankfully it came out all right.”
In the film, we see Bescoby accompany Soe Win to Ratnagiri, not once but twice. On their initial journey, the pair were told ‘What a shame you didn’t come next year (in 2016), when there is a ceremony to celebrate the 100th anniversary of the former king’s death.’
That was enough to lure them back. And for the project to draw the attention – and apparent support – from two of the country’s most powerful and influential institutions: the military and the Buddhist Sangha.
Suddenly, Bescoby said, the country’s most senior monk was coming along with an entourage of monks, and then the country’s military leader and arguably most powerful man, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, on a government plane.
The latter is seen in the documentary kneeling in civilian clothes at the tomb to honor the last king. He did not speak to Bescoby, but the filmmaker was not surprised. “The military’s history is very monarchy-related,” he said.
Soe Win, 71, served as a senior diplomat for his country in Hong Kong, Washington, Beijing and Tokyo before retiring in 2009, and later joined the Myanmar Football Association to coach the national team in their unsuccessful bid to win the World Cup in New Zealand in 2015. He speaks about his desire to bring Thibaw’s body back to his homeland. “He yearned to return but the British would never allow him to go.”
“Since 1885 we lost everything – our identity, values … but now we’re trying to get it back – the integrity of our country.
“I don’t want to restore the monarchy,” he reassures. “Our country has suffered a lot. We don’t want any more trouble. This is for the country, not for me.”
‘It’s not the right time’
Other descendants of the late King are split on when this should happen. Daw Devi Chant Cin, Thibaw’s great grand-daughter (and Soe Win’s cousin) in Yangon has held private ceremonies for years to remember her ancestors. But she says the country is still divided and not a proper democracy yet.
Aware perhaps that bringing Thibaw’s body back to his homeland would be a potentially volatile issue in a country still wracked with division, she said any such move would be premature, insinuating that it could stir a large outpouring of public emotion. “If all is completely [at] peace then his body should come along. But not in this time.”
People in Thailand or many other countries in Southeast Asia can grasp the cachet that comes from links to royalty. Indeed, the giant statues in the ‘new’ capital Naypyidaw – “the abode of kings” – are a testament to the generals’ craving for power and legitimacy.
Even the socialist regime in Laos has been erecting statues of former monarchs, despite the fact the country’s last royals met an unhappy fate in the country’s north a few years after the Vietnam and Indochina war ended.
In a question-and-answer session after the film, Bescoby said even if the descendants were all agreed on bringing the remains of Thibaw home there were other issues to sort out. Authorities in Myanmar and India may need to agree to a “swap” – the remains of Thibaw for those of Bahadur Shah Zafar, the last Mughal emperor, who the British exiled to Rangoon in the late 1850s. “It would have to be a two-way thing.”
For Bescoby his film was “not about restoring the monarchy. It’s about the right to remember. You can’t escape it. You need to understand this history, [and] these events.”