The Tragic Queen
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Wednesday, December 06, 2023


The Tragic Queen

By Khin Maung Soe FEBRUARY, 2007 - VOLUME 15 NO.2


Thibaw’s maligned widow—was she as wicked as some say?

Whenever the name of Burma’s last queen, Suphayalat, is mentioned, it evokes in most Burmese minds the image of a powerful and ruthless woman absolutely corrupted by absolute power. When they read about her tragic life in exile as a dethroned monarch, they are reminded of the Burmese saying, “Pinnacle now, firewood soon.” They are often unaware, however, of the later period in the queen’s life, when she returned to Burma to live under house arrest, revered by anti-colonial nationalists. She retained the stature of a queen until her death in 1925, and it’s true to say she never fell from the pinnacle in terms of virtue.

Suphayalat became a queen at the age of 19 when her beloved Prince Thibaw ascended to the throne in 1878. According to history book accounts, Thibaw and Suphayalat seized power by killing their rivals, including 14 princes, four princesses and more than 40 close relatives. It was believed that Suphayalat alone had orchestrated the massacre, because Thibaw was known to be a devout Buddhist incapable of murder, let alone a massacre of this scale. Moreover, he was obviously under the dominance of the queen. Although Thibaw was king, many historians say it was Suphayalat who actually ruled the country. The bloody coup that brought her and Thibaw to power associated her name with cruelty, brutality and barbarity.

The queen denied having anything to do with the bloodshed whenever she had a chance. She told visiting guests, including the well-known Burmese writer Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, that she was a teenager at the time and too young to undertake such an inhuman act. The massacre must have been organized by ministers and officials, she maintained.

There can be no doubt that Queen Suphayalat exercised influence over her husband.  Traditionally, Burmese kings had three queens and many consorts—Thibaw’s father, King Mindon, had more than 100 concubines. Suphayalat tried to change this tradition and never allowed her Thibaw to take another woman as a consort. His affairs invariably ended in death for the woman involved, and monogamy eventually ruled the palace bedchamber.  “It was her greatest achievement,’’ says her great granddaughter Devi Thant Sin, who lives in Rangoon.

In 1885, British colonial forces invaded Mandalay and put an end to Burma’s royal dynasty. King Thibaw, Queen Suphayalat and their two daughters were sent into exile in Ratanagiri, India. During this dark chapter of Suphayalat’s life, o­ne of her daughters had an affair with a married Indian staff member and gave birth to an illegitimate child. Another daughter eloped with a Burmese member of staff. Disgraced and humiliated, King Thibaw died of a heart attack in 1916. Three years later, the British sent Suphayalat back to Burma, confining her under house arrest in Rangoon. She was never allowed to leave her home, which was under constant observation by the police.

At the time of the former queen’s return to Burma, the country was in the grip of nationalist fervor. She became a focus of anti-colonial, nationalist sentiment for such leading activists as Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, who founded, with other nationalists, a “Protection Committee for the Queen.’’

The committee pressed the British government to improve Suphayalat’s living conditions and provide her with a small allowance. For her part, Suphayalat disdained British rule to the end, never regarding herself as a subject of the British crown, shunning British products and any association with her country’s colonial rulers. o­nly a few British visitors were welcomed into her presence—among them, the British author Noel Whiting, who sympathized with the Burmese nationalist cause.

“My great grandmother was a very determined woman,” says Devi Thant Zin. “She was against colonialism all her life.”

The well-known Burmese writer Paragu, who translated Harold Fielding-Hall’s Thibaw’s Queen, sums Suphayalat up as “sharp…powerful.”

The British colonial authorities had a similar kind of respect for Suphayalat’s strength of character and influence. They never allowed her to return to Mandalay and denied the royal family’s request to hold her funeral there after her death in 1925, evidently afraid that such an event in the former royal capital could fan the flames of nationalism. The memory of Suphayalat never died in those flames—she was never a piece of firewood, she never really left the pinnacle of her former position of majesty. 

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