Speaking at the Yangon Literary Festival in early February, author and historian Thant Myint U bemoaned how little the national dialogue in Myanmar brought up the past.
Though his statement is applicable to many tumultuous periods that rarely get mentioned in popular discourse, he was talking specifically about Myanmar’s transition from monarchy to colony, and how it set the country on its current path.
“It’s important to understand what happened, as well as why it happened,” he told the festival audience.
This disconnect is compounded by the fact that for many decades, discussions about the royal family were expressly forbidden by the government.
Before and after the coup in 1962, there was a general feeling among the country’s rulers that the royal family could be used to rally more traditional Burmans to a nationalistic uprising. If the royal family was mentioned at all in state news or educational materials, it was only to paint them as puppets of the British.
Daw Hteik Su Paya Gyi, the eldest of King Thibaw’s surviving grandchildren, recalls a childhood of being forced to move by the military government, and rarely being allowed contact with her extended family.
Though many of her neighbours knew about her royal lineage, Daw Hteik Su Paya Gyi and her family lived modestly, enjoying none of the perks normally afforded to nobility.
Speaking to The Myanmar Times at the literary festival, she said, “We had to paddle our own canoe,” with a hearty laugh.
However, that seems likely to change with Sudha Shah’s new book The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family in Burma.
Although in wide release since last summer, it was not officially available in Myanmar until the festival. The non-fiction work offers what might be the most complete history of King Thibaw’s family before, during and after the Konbaung dynasty was deposed by the British.
Ms Shah said at the festival that her goal was to tell a “human interest” story about one family.
Her research has stretched all the way back to 2004, when she was inspired to learn more about the royal family after reading Amitav Ghosh’s novel The Glass Palace.
“When I saw no history had been written about the royal family, I knew there was an opportunity,” she told The Myanmar Times in a telephone interview from her home in Mumbai,
Arriving in Yangon at the height of state censorship, Ms Shah reported that she never had any experience with the government censoring or impeding her research, but said their presence was still keenly felt.
“I’m pretty sure the government read my letters,” she said, “but by 2008 it seemed to stop. I think they had other problems to deal with and I just wasn’t much of a bother. I honestly had no trouble.”
But she was shocked to learn just how open and willing the people of Myanmar were to discuss their king, as if they were hungry for the opportunity.
For help with translations she relied on U Than Htay, a retired doctor and history buff living in Yangon. Not only was Dr Than Htay living in a home with no electricity, but also he was confined to his bed for much of the research process, making even sitting at a manual typewriter impossible.
Undeterred, he translated countless news articles and personal letters for Ms Shah by hand.
Ms Shah also could not say enough about her time working in the Yangon archives.
“It was the most friendly archive I’ve ever worked with,” she said. “I had an assistant who helped me any time I got stuck. I spent four days there in comparison to six months in Mumbai.”
King Thibaw and Queen Supayalat remain controversial and often despised figures in Myanmar’s history. While Ms Shaw is by no means seeking to rehabilitate their images, she at least wanted the book to provide a more nuanced portrait of the couple.
“[Thibaw] was not a particularly competent king. He was a clever man, but not particularly interested in politics,” she said, adding that the royal ministers deserved much of the blame for his many missteps.
“He was totally ignorant. He believed he was the king of the universe, he believed what his ministers told him.”
As for Queen Supaylalat, who is today most remembered for her conniving and allegedly murderous ways, Ms Shah makes no excuses, but is also quick to place her actions in context.
“She was a very selfish woman, her grandchildren say she had a cruel streak. I think with the right education and advising she could have been a good queen, but she was ill-advised [by the royal court]. I have a lot of empathy for her, for her circumstances.”
When asked about the audience for her book, Ms Shah said she hopes it can resonate with readers in Myanmar and the rest of the world.
For the people of Myanmar, it’s a chance to connect with their own history, she said. “I had the luxury of being able to spend so much time [researching]. For the average Burmese person, it is information that has not been available to them.”
For the foreigners, “It’s interesting just learning how this period worked ... and it’s an interesting story of a family.”