MANDALAY — The national premiere of “We Were Kings” – a documentary about the forgotten royal descendants of King Thibaw, the last king of Burma – kicked off a nostalgic atmosphere at the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay over the weekend.
The 58-minute film features interviews with the grandchildren and great grandchildren of King Thibaw. Author of “The King in Exile,” Sudha Shah, was joined by the only two living grandchildren of King Thibaw, their descendants and royal descendants of the penultimate King Mindon.
“We Were Kings,” directed and produced by Alex Bescoby and Max Jones of Grammar Productions, has won the Whicker’s World Foundation Award 2016.
The film brings the lost descendants of King Thibaw into the spotlight by focusing on the struggle of U Soe Win, the great grandson of King Thibaw, as he tried to bring the remains of the exiled king back to Myanmar. King Thibaw was sent to India by the British in 1885 and died in exile in 1916. Some of the last king’s descendants had hoped and planned for years to return the remains.
“There are many different views, even in our family, about bringing back the remains, as were featured in the film,” U Soe Win told The Irrawaddy, after the premiere.
“My uncle Taw Phaya said let it be and my cousin Devi said it was not yet time. But I still wanted to keep trying simply because I do not want him to rest in exile, not because I want to reestablish the monarchy.”
U Soe Win led his family to restore the abandoned tomb of King Thibaw and the first princess in Ratnagiri, India. Since King Thibaw did not receive a proper royal ceremony or religious rituals at his funeral, U Soe Win struggled to perform these rituals by seeking support from the governments of Myanmar and India.
“But bringing back the remains was another story. It was not only up to the royal descendants. It became the affair of the entire country and the decision rests in the hands of the people,” said U Soe Win. “We also need to think about the descendants of the first princess, who are living in India. Maybe, the time hasn’t come yet for that [to move her remains].”
Prince Taw Phaya – the third son of the fourth daughter of King Thibaw, Princess Hteik Su Myat Phaya Galae – said the remains should be left where they are as the country and the world have changed greatly.
“May he rest in peace. Let’s not dig this up again,” he added.
On the other hand, for the royal descendants of King Thibaw and King Mindon, “We Were Kings” revisits their lives in Mandalay, the last royal capital where King Thibaw spent his final days as monarch.
“I do not want to recall the bitter past. When I watched this film with my brother, family and other royal family members, I was sad remembering that my mother had to struggle a lot,” said Princess Hteik Su Phaya Gyi, the only living granddaughter of King Thibaw, who presented at the premiere.
Princess Hteik Su Phaya Gyi, 95, widely called Phwar May or Aunty Su among the royal descendants, is the second daughter of the fourth daughter of King Thibaw, Princess Hteik Su Myat Phaya Galae.
“Since stories of us have been wiped from the pages of history for a long time, youth today have no idea what is happening with King Thibaw’s descendants. I thank Alex, Max and Sudha Shah,” she said.
“However, I no longer want to live as royals after all the time and troubles. Things have changed. I am now at peace living as an ordinary person. Do not call me princess or a royal, for I am not anymore. It was history and let it stay history,” she said.
The film will be screened in Yangon in the coming weeks.
Together with the film’s Myanmar premiere, one mystery has entered the spotlight again—the disappearance of an enormous ruby of the royal family.
According to an article by Bescoby that appeared in BBC last week, U Soe Win travelled to London for the first time and visited the Victoria & Albert Museum to see valuable artifacts that once belonged to his family.
Accompanied by Bescoby, U Soe Win’s visit had another purpose—a treasure hunt for an enormous ruby, also known as “The Nga Mauk” of the then-royal family that was said to be “worth a kingdom,” the piece said.
Hundreds of gold and gem-studded items were seized from King Thibaw by the British and the then British colonel Edward Sladen, who was the chief political officer of the invasion force and has been the main suspect in the disappearance of the ruby, Bescoby’s piece stated.
There are rumors within the royal descendant’s family that the ruby was given to Queen Victoria as a gift by the colonel and might have been kept as part of the Royal Collection since then.