Relics of Resistance

By Zarni Mann 17 April 2015

MIN HLA, Magwe Region — The dusty roads and high temperatures at Min Hla, a small town in Magwe Region resting on the west bank of the Ayeyarwady River, recall any other central Myanmar locale. But any apparent ordinariness is belied by the site’s rich history of bitterness and bravery, invasion and resistance, irrevocably linked to the waning days of the Konbaung Dynasty.

After the Second Anglo-Burmese War in 1852, the British had annexed all of lower Myanmar, including Yangon and Bago. In 1854, British troops were deployed at Thayat, about 60 miles south of Min Hla and close to territory still held by the Myanmar kingdom.

The Royal Palace took this as a sign of another impending invasion and Crown Prince Kanaung, the younger brother of King Mindon, began preparations to establish forts at Min Hla and Kway Chaung on opposing banks of the Ayeyarwady River in 1860.

Now more than 150 years old, the gigantic red brick Min Hla fort on the river’s edge, built with the assistance of two Italian engineers, Commotto and Molinari, is a lasting relic of an era of upheaval.

According to historical records, 35 cannons were installed at Min Hla fort, which also housed a small telegram room, soldiers’ quarters, an armory and commanders’ offices. Located about 300 yards north was a small telegram office which relayed communications to the fort.

Min Hla fort was called into action in November 1885 when the British sailed up the Irrawaddy River to claim the Royal Palace at Mandalay during the decisive Third Anglo-Burmese War.

After war was declared, Myanmar troops readied cannons and other weapons at Min Hla fort, Kway Chaung fort and Sin Paung Wae fort and at dugouts at Pan Daw Pyin and Htoo Pauk, all located along the Ayeyarwady River.

Myanmar vessels, including some steamers armed with small cannons and canoes with armed rowers, spread out along the river and waited for the appearance of one of the world’s strongest navies.

The British overcame the downstream defenses only a few days after the war began on Nov. 14. Min Hla fort and its sister fort of Kway Chaung became the last major hope of defending the royal capital. The commander of the frontline forces sent an urgent telegram to Mandalay requesting reinforcements.

On Nov. 17, the British laid siege to Kway Chaung fort with naval and infantry units. It was soon abandoned by Myanmar troops after their commander and dozens of soldiers were killed.

Around this time, a telegram from the Royal Palace had arrived at Min Hla. It read: “Do not defend against the British. Defenders will be noted as rebels.” At the same time, another contradictory telegram reached the front lines: “Go on with the battle. The reinforcements will be there soon.”

The two opposing telegrams, the result of fissures within the country’s leadership, confused commanders and soldiers on the front line. At Min Hla, commanders ordered their troops to fight back against the British.

One of the commanders, Min Htin Min Hla Yekhaung Thurein, was noted as saying, “I will never take the British as my lord. Just let me die while fighting them.”

However, by the evening of Nov. 17, Min Hla fort had fallen to the British.

The triumphant British troops then sailed up the Ayeyarwady River to Mandalay, swiftly overcoming other Myanmar fortifications with heavy artillery. At Thabyaytan fort located near Amarapura, Myanmar troops who had received the royal order not to resist, stood silently with gritted teeth as they watched the British navy pass by.

These days, the historic forts of the last Myanmar royal dynasty are under the care of the Ministry of Culture. However, most have long been abandoned to nature. A sign outside the Min Hla fort says the ministry assumed responsibility for its maintenance in 1957.

Min Hla fort is a major tourist attraction for those who take a cruise along the Ayeyarwady River. However, the façade of the fort has partially collapsed into the river due to the erosion of the riverbank. Local residents in Min Hla said the government had neglected to maintain the historically significant structure.

“Since the history of this fort is failure, the authorities show no interest in its maintenance,” said U Hla Maung Win, a 62-year-old elder in the town.

Proof of the fort’s neglected place in history was evident in 2013, when locals and amateur historians planned to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the Min Hla and Kway Chaung forts. According to local residents, a permit to hold a ceremony, donate alms to monks and read aloud patriotic poems at the Min Hla fort site was denied.

“The group went to Kway Chaung fort to hold the ceremony. But after about 30 minutes, some men who called themselves [officials] from the Ministry of Culture arrived and forced them to stop without giving any reason,” U Hla Maung Win said.

“It is such a shame they want to wipe out this history from the present. Failure or triumph, history is history and these forts are heritage we need to maintain.”

Min Hla can be reached by bus or car from Magwe. The journey is around 37 miles. Small motorized boats can be hired at Min Hla to cross the river to Kway Chaung fort. There are several local travel agencies operating cruise tours along the river between Pyay and Mandalay which pass through the Min Hla area.

This article originally appeared in the April 2015 issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.