The last King of Myanmar's descendants mark his exile by Britain

Relatives of King Thibaw attend a ceremony at Mandalay's Golden Palace on Nov 22, 2016 to mark the anniversary of his exile.
Relatives of King Thibaw attend a ceremony at Mandalay's Golden Palace on Nov 22, 2016 to mark the anniversary of his exile. PHOTO: AFP
Taw Phaya (center), 93, the grandson of King Thibaw, looks on with relatives at Mandalay's Golden Palace on November 22, 2016 to mark the exile anniversary of their royal ancestor.
Taw Phaya (center), 93, the grandson of King Thibaw, looks on with relatives at Mandalay's Golden Palace on November 22, 2016 to mark the exile anniversary of their royal ancestor. PHOTO: AFP

MANDALAY, Myanmar (AFP) - More than a century after the British expelled Myanmar's last king, descendants held an emotional ceremony in Mandalay's Golden Palace on Tuesday (Nov 22) in a watershed moment for a country rediscovering its royal heritage after decades of colonialism and military rule.

The last scions of the Konbaung dynasty gathered in the former seat of royal power as monks chanted prayers to mark the end of their family's reign, the first time they have publicly marked King Thibaw's exile to India 130 years ago inside the palace.

Among them was Prince Paw Thaya, one of only two surviving grandchildren of the last monarch, now both in their 90s.

"When we were young we used to come and play here," a beaming Prince Taw Phaya, dressed in a traditional maroon sarong and cream jacket, told Agence France-Presse inside the audience hall where his grandfather once ruled from on high.

"The British tried to keep us away from the common people. But... still today the common people will pay respects to royalty," he added.

King Thibaw was only on the throne for seven years before British troops swept into Mandalay on November 28, 1885, and ordered his family to leave the country the very next day.

The sight of the monarch and his heavily pregnant wife being paraded through the streets on old bullock carts as his subjects wept and prostrated themselves was a humiliation that has been seared on Myanmar's collective memory ever since.

Fearing the royal family would become a focus for dissent, the British closed off the palace to the public and the doors remained shut after independence in 1948.

The junta that seized power in 1962 also sidelined the family, seeking instead to reinvent themselves as the successors to the warrior kings of old during a half-century rule that ruined Myanmar's economy and closed its people off from much of the outside world.

But interest in the monarchy reignited under the quasi-civilian government that took power five years ago when former president Thein Sein, a reformist general, visited King Thibaw's tomb in the Indian seaside town of Ratnagiri.

Myanmar's remaining royals, who used to gather in secret for their commemorations, have seized on the renewed interest in their family this year.

In October, they held a ceremony to commemorate the death of King Thibaw's father, King Mindon, in the palace and they also plan to hold a commemoration in India in December to mark King Thibaw's death in exile 100 years ago.

"This ceremony is not only for the family members," one of King Thibaw's great-grandsons, Prince Soe Win, told Agence France-Presse at the palace. "We lost our independence. Not only independence - the whole country's identity."

In the evening, members of the household also lit candles at a towering golden Mandalay pagoda built by Myanmar's last king.

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 Ms 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 said.

Ms 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.