U. Soe Win admitted that the British took away everything from his forefathers, when they sent them into exile.
It was at the Bangkok-premiere of the new film We Were Kings, where one got some much-needed information about the royals of Myanmar.
They were deposed by the British as far back as 1885, and deported to India. It was here, in the small town of Ratnagiri, near Mumbai, that they lived in a bungalow allotted to them for several years, until their last king, King Thibaw died in 1916.
In fact, he is still buried there, a point that deeply rankles his great-grandson U. Soe Win, or Maha Chandra Kumara, who is the chief protagonist of the film, and who was present at the screening.
Later, in the course of a long interview, the mild and soft-spoken Myanmar royal who’s now more than 70 years old, described the long work ahead of him, to resurrect his family’s name, in his country’s history.
“I’ve been going to the Myanmar people for this, not as a royal, but as a citizen, telling them that they must resurrect their history and re-gain their identity” he stated simply.
It disturbed U. Soe Win that even though there had been more than 300,000 Kings in Myanmar, they did not even get a mention in the history texts of the country.
U. Soe Win admitted that the British took away everything from his forefathers, when they sent them into exile. This included everything, from land and estates to oil wells, palaces, jewellery, artefacts. In fact, his grandmother, often called the “Rebel Princess”, sent a long “memorandum” to the British government, demanding that they return all that they took, or pay a huge compensation, which the British did not do, of course.
He informed that they had numerous palaces, but now, only the Golden Palace at Mandalay was in public view. U. Soe Win informed that he was trying to restore this, plus two other palaces, with the active support of the Myanmar people.
“It is their responsibility as much as mine, to restore their heritage,” he stated simply.
It was for the same reason that he wanted to bring back the remains of his great-grandfather, the last Burmese King Thibaw, from India, and bury him in his homeland. He did not know when this would be possible, but he was willing to wait.
However, he was happy, that for the 100th death anniversary of King Thibaw in 1916, a high-level delegation from the Army Junta, including the vice-president, visited Ratnagiri, India, for the auspicious Pardawmu ceremony, which was conducted by senior monks from Myanmar.
According to him they had a public ceremony later, which was attended by 2,000 Buddhists from India.
“My ancestors were fairly comfortable in India, but they were unhappy of course, as they were always aware that they were ‘prisoners’. In fact, their ‘warrant’ was extended, every year”, U. Soe Win said. After King Thibaw’s death in 1916, the rest of the family were allowed to return to their homeland in 1919.
U. Soe Win informed that he himself did not lead as tough a life as his exiled ancestors. He was born in Myanmar, joined the foreign service, and served as a diplomat in various places — Hong Kong, Washington, Beijing, Tokyo.
He confessed that his toughest job, as a diplomat, was to resurrect the image of his country, even when it was going through its roughest times, as happened when he was posted in Washington, from 1987-91.
While a diplomat at the foreign office, U. Soe Win said that he had seen Aung San Su Kyi several times, especially when many foreign dignitaries went to meet her. During one such meeting, he mentioned his antecedents to her.
“Her whole expression changed, and she asked about my Uncle Taw whom she knew very well, “he added. “She is our leader, and we will all support her,” U. Soe Win simply said.
It was his equanimity of attitude and calm vision that gave dignity to this Myanmar royal, who admitted that whether he liked it or not, he could not deny his royal name or blood.
“I don’t want to flash my royalty, I want to use it, only to restore our heritage and history, which is our country’s heritage and history,” he said with characteristic simplicity.
Why didn’t he think of joining politics, like many of the erstwhile Indian royals?
“I studied politics, during my academic years, but it’s one thing learning the isms, and another being a part of party-politics. I prefer to be a political statesman,” he said with a smile.
When asked what did he think of this film, which was made by a young British researcher, Alex Bescoby? Whether it was a pay-back for what the British had done to his ancestors?
U. Soe Win laughed. While he was happy by the making of the film, the support from the British production company, as well as the screening of the film in the British Library, the Myanmar royal felt that sometimes the attitude was flippant in the film, and almost comical, especially some sequences with his old “royal” uncle and aunt, who are now in their 90s.
“This is not comedy, this is the tragedy of our lives,” he said earnestly “may be at some time in the future, I’ll make my own film”.
U. Soe Win gave credit to a recent book on the last King of Myanmar, by an Indian author, Sudha Shah, called A King in Exile for its authenticity, and informed that she had spent seven years researching on the subject.
In fact, he said that a lot of info for the film We Were Kings, came from this book.
He hoped that the film could be screened in India (the director of the film said the same), as he had many fond memories of the country. In fact his favourite food was Indian cuisine, and “even when I went to London for the screening of the film, I was looking for an Indian restaurant,” he said.
U. Soe Win informed that some of the erstwhile Myanmar royals had married Indian citizens, and were still living there. As for the bungalow they lived in, as also the late King Thibaw’s cemetery, they were being protected by the ASI.
With a son who runs a printing business, and two well-settled, married daughters, one living in the US and the other in Vietnam, the Myanmar royal said that his life was a comfortable one, interspersed with his many “patriotic activities”.
His main diversion, outside his “patriotic” activities, was football, and U. Soe Win thoroughly enjoyed being the head of the International department of the Myanmar Football Federation.
“I go to Thailand often. When I see how much the late Thai King did for his people, it inspires me to do so much for my own people,” said the Myanmar royal.