YANGON, Myanmar – In a modest Yangon apartment, the granddaughter of Myanmar’s last king lives poor and unrecognized by her neighbors – a far cry from the power and riches of her ancestor.Princess Hteik Su Phaya Gyi said the childhood days when her family had a bevy of servants and retained some of its royal status were now a distant memory.
The British colonial regime dethroned her grandfather King Thibaw in 1885 and later the military junta, which ruled the country for decades, kept the family out of the public eye.
“They didn’t want us to be somebody,” said the silver-haired princess, swathed in a shimmering purple shawl worn especially for the rare interview.
“I have lived as an ordinary person for 60 years,” she told Agence France-Presse.
“Of course I repent a little over the glorious times that we had when we were young,” she said, displaying a lively wit undimmed by her 90 years.
The demolition of the monarchy, at the end of the third and final war that brought the nation firmly under the colonial yoke, smashed centuries of royal rule in the country then called Burma.
Thibaw and his wife, Queen Supayalat, were swiftly and unceremoniously removed from Myanmar and deposited in the small Indian seaside town of Ratnagiri.
Thibaw died in India aged 56 in 1916, shortly after suffering a heart attack, and the family eventually fractured.
Some settled in India while others made their lives in Myanmar, which remained part of the British empire until 1948 and came under junta rule in 1962.
A cloak of silence was thrown over the monarchy by successive Myanmar regimes that viewed it as a potential rival, while army leaders sought to evoke much earlier warrior royals.
“Most of Myanmar has forgotten about the king,” said deputy culture minister and royal historian Than Swe, who has spearheaded a campaign to return Thibaw’s body to Myanmar.
A visit by President Thein Sein to Thibaw’s tomb in Ratnagiri during an official trip to India last December reignited interest in Myanmar’s monarchy.
But Than Swe said Myanmar’s government had more immediate priorities, such as the sweeping reforms implemented since junta rule ended in 2011.
Queen Suphayalat’s tomb in Yangon is barely marked. When the family tried to place a simple sign there to inform visitors of the pedigree of the occupant, the former junta immediately removed it.
From demi-god to prisoner
Thibaw was born into a courtly lifestyle steeped in incredible luxury and his fall was bewilderingly sudden.
The royals lived a lavish and isolated existence within the walls of their gilded teak palace in Mandalay. They could only be approached by people crawling on their knees.
“This man was a demi-god in Burma. He was worshipped by his people,” said Sudha Shah, author of “The King in Exile: The Fall of the Royal Family of Burma”.
“Suddenly he was controlled like a puppet on a string by the British.”
The British wanted Thibaw off the throne to appease business and Christian missionary interests in the country, Shah said.
They opted for complete destruction of the monarchy, partly due to fierce resistance to their incursion which saw the country flooded with British forces.
There were also doubts over finding a pliant royal heir that the British could rule through — Thibaw and his queen notoriously executed dozens of potential rivals for the throne.
Restitution of the royal line was vaguely considered as Myanmar entered independence.
But one episode when the military tried to enlist the royal family to help it counter communist insurgents ended the generals’ enthusiasm for the monarchy, Shah said.
Local people thronged to catch a glimpse of the family and women knelt and spread their hair on the ground for the family to walk on.
“So taken aback were the generals by the depth of public sentiment demonstrated for the royal family, that they no longer involved the family in any further campaigns,” Shah said.
The family had a brief period of public activity when the princess and her siblings set up the “Miss Burma” beauty contest — she was in charge of catwalk training.
The eldest brother, Prince Taw Phaya Gyi, also became involved in the Olympics before he was assassinated by insurgents in 1948.
Princess Hteik Su Phaya Gyi and her younger brother Prince Taw Phaya, the 89-year-old potential heir of the Konbaung dynasty, are the only surviving grandchildren.
Living with snakes and leeches
The royals, refusing the small allowance offered after the British left, were forced to make their own way in the world.
The princess used the impeccable English she learned as a child studying in a Catholic school in the southern city of Mawlamyine to land positions at both the Australian and US embassies before settling as a teacher — a job she still does today.
But a family quarrel in the late 1990s saw her lose her inherited home and end up living “in a hut”.
“During the rain the water was up to here,” she said indicating knee-deep flooding. “The snakes come into the house. And leeches.”
She now lives with her daughter, who works at a burial association, and said none of her six children, 20 grandchildren and eight great-grandchildren showed an interest in reviving the royal line.
She is “grateful” that Thein Sein took the time to visit Ratnagiri but believes her grandfather should not be moved.
Several members of the family scraped together the money to travel to India in the early 1990s — her only visit to her grandparents’ home in exile.
She recounted her own mother’s stories of the queen standing on a balcony overlooking the Arabian Sea and weeping for her homeland.
“When I went there I looked up at that little veranda and the sun was setting. So I said ‘Oh my grandmother must have felt the same’, and I had tears in my eyes.”