Burma’s Tomb Raiders
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Burma’s Tomb Raiders

By Khin Maung Soe NOVEMBER, 2006 - VOLUME 14 NO.11


Through neglect and intimidation, Burma’s military regime tries to obliterate the memory of four heroes it wants to forget


For Burmese people, the Shwedagon Pagoda is not o­nly a sacred place of pilgrimage but also a rallying point for political movements. Burmese democracy leader Aung San Suu Kyi made her first speech to a rally of hundreds of thousands of supporters at the foot of the Shwedagon.




But few visitors to Burma know of the political significance surrounding several other historical monuments located near Shwedagon. It is not surprising, though, because they are symbols of national liberty, and the country’s military regime omits them from official lists of protected sites and considers them a threat to its status and power.


These shunned sites are the four tombs of Burmese national figures, located near the southern gate of the Shwedagon. They are the tombs of Queen Suphayalat, wife of Burma’s last king, Thibaw; the great nationalist and writer Thakin Kodaw Hmaing; former UN Secretary-General U Thant; and Aung San Suu Kyi’s mother, Khin Kyi.


The life stories of these four heroes encapsulate the political struggles of the Burmese people over more than a century, and do not fit in with the generals’ version of recent history.


The Martyrs’ Mausoleum, containing the remains of Burma’s independence hero Aung San and eight comrades who were assassinated with him in 1947, also stands within the shadow of the towering Shwedagon Pagoda. The mausoleum was destroyed by a bomb in 1983, and although the structure was rebuilt, it lacks the monumental splendor of the original.


The oldest of the four shunned tombs is that of Suphayalat. Her tragic life is the elaboration of a Burmese proverb: “Pinnacle now, firewood soon.” She ascended to the throne when she was o­nly 19, but became a political prisoner seven years later. She was sent into exile in India in 1885 with Thibaw by the British. King Thibaw died in 1916 and she came back to Burma in 1919. She was 60 at that time, and lived a further six years. The British government declared a national holiday o­n the day of her funeral, but denied the royal family’s request to bury her in Mandalay Palace for fear that it would promote nationalism.

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