The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Ruling the Rulers
By MIN LWIN MAY, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.5

Efforts to limit the powers of Burma’s absolute monarchs failed. So did the monarchy

THROUGHTOUT Asia, the middle of the 19th century was a period of political turmoil, as Western imperial powers pressed in upon countries that were subject to various forms of pre-modern rule. Burma was no exception, as it was forced to come to terms with a nation that was not only militarily superior, but also politically more advanced.

Under the country’s last two monarchs, King Mindon (1853-78) and King Thibaw (1878-85), there were attempts to reform Burmese polity in the face of growing external challenges. At the center of these efforts was Yaw Atwinwun U Hpo Hlaing, the author of “Rajadhammasangaha,” a treatise which would have laid the basis for a constitutional monarchy in Burma, and which, in the words of respected scholar Maung Htin, “might have kept King Thibaw in the enjoyment of his throne.”

Yaw atwinwun Hop Hlaing warned against the danger of absolute power. (Illustration: Harn lay/
The Irrawaddy)
The career of Hpo Hlaing and the fate of his seminal work remain relevant today, as Burma’s current rulers attempt to fashion a constitutional framework that will effectively set the military above the rule of law. As Hpo Hlaing understood, but his king did not, no power can be sustained unless it is constrained by rules which apply to everyone.

Hpo Hlaing was born in 1830 in Ywapale, a village in the upper part of the central Burmese district of Myingyan. His father, the Lord of Yenanchaung, was a royal minister of King Tharawaddy. When Hpo Laing was 16 years old, his father was accused of disloyalty and killed by the king during a meeting of the royal council, the Hluttaw.

This incident, which undoubtedly steeled his later determination to limit the absolute powers of the kings who ruled Burma, could easily have cost him his life, if not for the intervention of Princess Mahar Devi, daughter of King Tharawaddy. As her foster child, he survived to become a valued adviser to Prince Mindon when he rebelled against his half-brother, King Pagan, in 1852. Mindon assumed power the following year, becoming Burma’s penultimate king at a time when the British had completed their annexation of Lower Burma following the Second Anglo-Burmese War.

As a trusted counselor who had helped King Mindon to seize power, Hpo Hlaing received numerous titles and honors. He was named governor, or atwinwun, of Yaw and elevated to the rank of noble. He also served as minister of the interior and was entrusted with control over foreign policy matters. But his most important task was that of overseeing administrative reforms. In this, he had the support of the brother and heir apparent of King Mindon, Prince Kanaung, who together with Hpo Hlaing initiated a series of reforms designed to put the kingdom on a more equal footing in its dealings with the British.

Although he enjoyed the new king’s favor, Hpo Hlaing’s independent character sometimes brought him into conflict with King Mindon. Once, when he criticized the king for having so many wives, he was threatened with the same spear that had been used to kill his father. He stood his ground, however, saying that the loss of his own life was insignificant compared to the disasters that would befall the country if the king were permitted to have his own way in all things.

Despite such confrontations, which on several occasions led to Hpo Hlaing’s dismissal and imprisonment, reform efforts continued under King Mindon, even after the murder of Prince Kanaung in 1866. However, plans to implement far-reaching changes were not actively pursued until after King Mindon’s death in 1878. It was in the following year that Hpo Hlaing submitted his “Rajadhammasangaha”—variously translated as “A Collection of Norms for Kingship” or “Civil Society under Monarchy”—to Mindon’s successor, King Thibaw. It was, in effect, a draft constitution that would set the rules for Burma’s rulers.

Under the guidelines proposed in the “Rajadhammasangaha,” the king would draw a salary and reign as a constitutional monarch, while the affairs of state would be conducted by a bicameral parliament of the people and the aristocracy. Members of the legislature would be drawn from the towns and villages of the country in the case of the lower house and from the ranks of the nobility in the case of the upper house. The old system of audiences with the king would be abolished and a cabinet-style regime would be set up. This meant that the king could only exercise his powers within the bounds of a system designed to prevent arbitrary decisions which might adversely affect the well-being of the state.

The “Rajadhammasangaha” also set out to establish a new revenue system, whereby a household tax levied in cash would be used to cover the expenses of government, including the salaries of the king and his royal functionaries. This would replace the traditional system of assigning districts for the upkeep of officials. Under the new system, even the king and queen would be required to apply to the treasury secretary for funds.

Hpo Hlaing’s vision of a modern state also included a clear role for the press. The “Rajadhammasangaha” called for the creation of newspapers to cover the affairs of both the monarchy and the nation. Newspapers, which were to be distributed throughout the land, would inform the people of matters of national importance and report on debates in the legislative assemblies.

While the influence of foreign ideas can clearly be seen in many of Hpo Hlaing’s proposals (as part of his modernizing efforts, he sent 90 scholars to Western countries, including Britain, France and Italy), he also derived many of his political views from classical Burmese and Pali sources. In the “Mahanibbana Sutta,” part of the Pali Buddhist canon, he discovered seven fundamental principles that he attempted to apply to his ideal of a Burmese-style democracy.

These principles were collective consultation; acting by consensus; behavior in accordance with the law; respect for the admonishments of superiors; no oppression of women; respecting the rites of spirit guardians; and protection of the monkhood. Proper governance of the country by the state would also require the concurrence of respected religious figures.

In the end, however, Hpo Hlaing’s proposals fell on deaf ears, as the youthful King Thibaw, under the influence of more reactionary elements within his entourage, rejected the principles set forth in the “Rajadhammasangaha” in favor of retaining absolute power for himself. Hpo Hlaing was summarily dismissed, this time for good, 50 days after he presented his treatise to the king.

Within seven years, the reign of Thibaw was over. The young king was defeated by the British in the Third Anglo-Burmese War in 1885 and forced to spend the rest of his life in exile in India.

It is debatable whether internal changes in the workings of the royal court would have saved Burma from its fate of subjugation to a foreign power, but there is no doubt that Hpo Hlaing was correct in identifying as a source of weakness the view that the king’s prerogatives were absolute and inviolable.

Although Hpo Hlaing ultimately failed to change the course of history in his own time, his vision of a country governed by a social contract between rulers and ruled is certainly pertinent today, 60 years after the end of colonial rule. For Burma is no longer a victim of outside forces, but rather of the inevitable weakness of a state that concentrates power in the hands of a few at the expense of the many. 

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