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 her 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.
“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.
King Thibaw and his wife, Queen Supayalat, were swiftly and unceremoniously removed from Myanmar and deposited in the small Indian seaside town of Ratnagiri.
King 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 King Thibaw’s body to Myanmar.
A visit by Burmese President Thein Sein to King Thibaw’s tomb in Ratnagiri during an official trip to India last December reignited interest in Myanmar’s monarchy.
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.
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 demigod in Burma. He was worshiped 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.”
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 — King Thibaw and his queen notoriously executed dozens of potential rivals for the throne.
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.