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Sao Yawnghwe of Shan

Burmese Relief Center--Japan
DATE:May 12, 1995
Subject: Sao Yawnghwe In Bkk Post Article


Once a princess, later an armed rebel, Sao Yawnghwe has
always been a progressive who sought to bring political
enlightenment to her people.  Today, half a world away, she
looks sadly at her homeland, where all reminders of her
contributions to democracy have been officially erased.
PATRICIA ELLIOTT reports.  Pictures by DON JEDLIC. 
(Bangkok Post, March 18, 1995)

  If the Burmese junta's much-touted Visit Myanmar  96
campaign is successful, next year thousands of foreign
visitors will descend on Inle Lake.
  The lake's calm, narrow waters stretch like satin between
two smoke-blue spurs of the southern Shan plateau.  At its
head is Yawnghwe, a languid little town where optimistic
tourism authorities have called for a doubling of hotel
rooms, from 200 to 400, within the year.
         The town features a crumbling old museum set in a large
garden of tamarind and flowering paduak trees.  A few
squatters have taken over the museum's outbuildings. 
Graffiti adorn some of the walls.  The main entrance is
dusty, dark, and junk-strewn.  Upstairs, attendants stand
guard over a display of fading, curled photographs.
         There are few clues to this building's history and purpose. 
Much of the area's true history rests in the memory of a 79-year-old woman who
 lives in a nondescript city on the vast
North American plains.  It is a cold, windswept place far
removed from the coconut groves and hyacinth-choked
canals of Inle.
         The woman introduces herself as Sao Yawnghwe and
adds, "Just call me Sao." On the surface, a simple, informal
introduction, but the true meaning is: "I am a princess of
Yawnghwe.  Just call me princess." Thais would call her
"chao" or "chao nang".
         She lives alone, her five children scattered across the
continent.  Her days are spent reading about history and
Buddhism.  She cooks her own meals in a tiny kitchen. 
Sometimes in the evening she joins her neighbours for a
friendly card game.
         Although thin and often ill, she still moves and talks with
the inborn quickness of a natural leader.  Sao Yawnghwe
was no coddled, spoiled princess: once she was a member of
the Burmese parliament and, later, the leader of a rebel
         She was born on May 27, 1916 in North Hsenwi, a large
Tai princedom in northern Shan State.  Her father was a
famous rebel chieftain who, through hard fighting and
careful negotiations with the British colonialists, managed to
take the throne as one of 33 independent rulers of
mountainous Shan State.
         The young Hsenwi princess attended convent schools in
the hill stations of Maymyo and Kalaw. She loved her
studies and vowed to be a "modern girl" who would
somehow escape the chains of feudal marriage.  But in
1937, at age 22, she was given in marriage to Sao Shwe
Thaike, the powerful ruler of Yawnghwe in southern Shan
         Forty-one-year old Sao Shwe Thaike had had two previous
wives, commoners who had both died of tuberculosis. 
Rumour held this as a sign that only a true princess could
live under the seven-tiered roof of Yawnghwe Palace
Whatever the case, the Yawnghwe prince was impressed by
his new wife's educated, confident manner.  One year later
she was elevated to the status of mahadevi, or Chief Queen.
  For the first few years of marriage, the mahadevi settled
into the traditional life of a Tai ruling family.  Some of this
life may be glimpsed by today's visitors to the Yawnghwe
museum.  The museum is in fact the family's haw, or royal
  Construction of the haw was completed in the late 1920s. 
It is a rambling structure built in the Mandalay tradition with
hardwood from the injin tree.
  Sao recalls long days spent in her royal apartment, reading
or simply gazing from her second-storey window.  At first
she felt isolated and defenceless amid the prince's extended
family.  "But it wasn't so boring you would die," she laughs.
  The royal family, which grew to include two minor wives
and twelve children, occupied three attached apartments,
each topped by a small altar room for private worship.  The
children loved to sneak out the altar room windows and
scramble across the royal rooftops.
  The family's living quarters opened onto the first of three
massive halls.  The inner hall, today identified in English as
"the Inner Levee Hall", is where the palace's main Buddha
images were housed.  It was accessible only to immediate
family members.
  The middle hall is where the prince instructed his ministers
on the administration of the state.  When delivering official
pronouncements he sat on a ceremonial gilt throne.
         The outer hall, huge and sunlit, is where the prince's
subjects came to pay homage twice yearly, in April and
November.  On these ceremonial occasions the Buddhist
clergy ascended to the hall via a decorative eastern staircase
known as the Dragon Stairs.
         Ordinary people used a simpler stairway on the hall's north
side.  Inside, they knelt before the prince and his mahadevi,
who sat side-by-side on gilt divans.  The hall's impressive
throne was reserved for the palace nat, or guardian spirit.
         The prince's subjects paid taxes to the state and were also
expected to bring offerings to the Homage Ceremonies.  In
return they expected the ruler to provide education, health
care, justice, roads, and other basics.  Princes who ruled
poorly faced endless popular rebellions and court intrigues.
         Today the great outer hall stands eerily quiet.  Once it rang
with the laughter of the royal children, who irreverently used
the place as their favourite playroom.  They raced each other
from pillar to pillar and clapped their hands at the bottom of
the Dragon Stairs to hear the echo.  
  Beneath them, in the main floor offices, the prince and his
officials busied themselves with the daily tasks of
government.  The administration of Yawnghwe principality
was, for the most part, fair and progressive, according to
Sao.  It was also peaceful.
  "If we had one murder a year, it was rare," the former
mahadevi says.  Gradually, the lonely princess involved
herself in state affairs, becoming a respected voice for Tai
  During World War II, however, the main floor offices
became the domain of Japanese soldiers.
  Prior to the war, the prince had served as a British Army
officer.  "The British were paramount," explains Sao.  Like
the Mandalay kings of old, their empire seemed
indestructible.  But, just like the Mandalay kings" the British
melted away almost overnight in early 1942.
  Sao Shwe Thaike gathered his family and fled to a maze of
canals and floating gardens that ring Inle Lake.  They lived
for a time among the Intha fishermen, who are famous for
their ability to swiftly propel small boats by hooking one leg
around a single oar.
   A ruler cannot remain in hiding forever, though. 
Eventually Sao Shwe Thaike presented himself to the
Japanese officers, who were under orders to maintain a
semblance of traditional government in Shan State.  The
family returned to the haw, where Sao remembers spending
fearfilled days and nights on the second floor listening to the
comings and goings of the Japanese soldiers below them.
  During that time, Sao carefully hid a phonograph recording
of "God Save the Queen".  The record was her eldest son
Tiger's favourite.  When the stubborn five-year-old finally
found his record and put it on the gramophone, the entire
family flew into a panic.  Despite their worries, the family
survived three years of Japanese occupation intact.
  The war signalled the end of a way of life, though.  The
British returned in 1945, but without a plan or commitment
to Shan State.  In February 1947, Shan leaders gathered at
Panglong, where they decided to throw their lot in with the
emerging independent Union of Burma.
  The date of signing, February 12, is still celebrated as
Union Day, and replicas of Panglong's commemorative
Unity Monument can be seen throughout Burma.  Ironically,
the real Unity Monument is off-limits to tourists because it
ties in a so-called "black area" of continued civil war.
In the old days, too, unity was often just a surface concept. 
Anxious to prove that their new country was multi-ethnic, in
1948 the Burmese selected Sai Shwe Thaike as president, a
largely ceremonial position.
  That year the family packed their bags for a new life in
Rangoon.  There Sao Yawnghwe served as the First Lady
and later as a member of parliament for her birthplace,
Hsenwi.  Husband and wife became outspoken proponents
of the new democracy.  The princes of Shan State gave up
their traditional powers, although many went on to serve
admirably in civilian positions.
  When the fledgling democracy crumbled on March 2,
'1962, Sao Shwe Thaike was a major target.  The Burma
Army surrounded the family's Rangoon home and opened
fire, killing Sao's third-eldest son, Sao Myee.  The president
was hauled off to jail, where he died on November 21.  His
remains were taken to Yawnghwe to rest beside those of his
son and his first wife.
  One year later Sao gathered her children and fled to
Thailand.  "I don't know why, but I was never afraid," she
says.  Operating from Chiang Mai the exiled queen worked
with her second son, Tzang, to form a rebel army.
  The Shan State Army (SSA), however, was soon
swallowed into a complex netherworld of opium smugglers
and Cold War intrigues. Alliances were made, deals were
cut, and, in the end, Sao lost control of her army.  She left
to join eldest son Tiger overseas.
  It is her role as rebel leader which has ensured Sao's era-
sure from official Burmese history.  While her husband is
still recognised as a founder of modern Burma, Sao's own
considerable contribution is ignored.  Photographs in the
palace-turned-museum feature the prince's first wife who
died of TB.
  The only official reference to Sao is contained in a book
called "The Conspiracy of Treasonous Minions within
Myanmar Naing-Ngan and Traitorous Cohorts Abroad"
(SLORC, 1989).  The book describes her as a traitor who
"cajoled" students to revolt and organised "civil servants and
police and even bandits and thieves" to fight against the
  Today Sao Yawnghwe still hopes for a peaceful, free
homeland.  Although she and her children live in scattered
exile, they are united in their attempts to restore democracy
to Burma.  Sadly, with each passing year it seems
increasingly unlikely that she herself will see this dream
  Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, night falls on
Yawnghwe.  The haw's new guardians turn up their stereo to
scare away the ghosts of the past, echoing their government's
fear that Sao's dream still haunts the quiet waters of Inle