Title: Great Lords of the Sky: Burma’s Shan Aristocracy
Author: Sao Sanda Simms
Year of publication: 2017
Everyman is my superior in some way
In that I learn from him.
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882)
I have already reported on the first part: Historical background. Part Two: Guardians of the Shan Plateau talks about the Saohpas (“Lords of the Sky), the rulers of the Shan State’s former princedoms.
There were 34 Saohpas, big and small, but generally equal in power among each other:
21 of them Shan
Sao Kya Hseng and his Mahadevi
The following are glimpses of the same of the princes, as Sao Sanda has recorded.
Sao Kya Hseng Hsipaw (1924-1962?)
The 38 year old prince disappeared after he was detained by the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) outside Taunggyi following the coup on 2 March 1962. He was one of those Shan leaders regarded as a “hardliner” by the Burmese.
However, Shans saw him differently.
My brother, Tzang Yawnghwe, mentions in his book that in 1961, he had asked the Hsipaw Prince if he would like to meet the dissident leader of the Shan State Independence Army. In reply, the prince “brought out the Union constitution and read out the oath of loyalty he had sworn as an MP of the Upper House” (1987:195). (Page 122)
Twilight over Burma: My life as a Shan princess (1994), by his surviving consort Inge Sargent aka Sao Thusandi, has immortalized him.
Sao Hom Pha Hsenwi (1902-1963)
The prince, as signatory of the Panglong Agreement, was known for his active participation both in World War II and the fight against the KMT incursion. He had served as Chief Minister of Shan State before the 1962 coup.
Sao Hom Pha Hsenwi
Playing the rule of an outsider, Sao Hom Pha did not participate further in Shan State affairs. Perhaps Sao Hom Pha had shrewdly seen the writing on the wall and realized that he had to support the Tatmadaw to gain their goodwill. He doubtless did the right thing for himself by keeping away from the Federal issue discussions, for General Ne Win did not arrest him with the other princes when the disastrous coup took place in 1962. (Page 143)
Sao Hso Holm Mongyai (1917-1989)
Sao Hso Holm Mongyai
Of all the 34 Saohpas in Shan State, Sao Hso Holm had been outstanding, because he had done the one thing what others, either previous or contemporary, had not done.
In 1938, Sao Hso Holm married Sao Nyunt Kyi (1921-1964), the eldest daughter of Sao Hkun Has, Saopha of Lawksawk. They had eight daughters. Sao Hso Hom was installed as saohpa in 1947. Since they did not have a son, their eldest daughter, Sao Tern Murng (b.1939), or Ellaline, as she was known at school, was recognized as his heir. (Page 156)
Sao Tern Moeng, (it’s her spelling of her own name) who updated the 1881 Cushing’s Shan-English dictionary in 1995, lives in exile in the United States.
Sao Tern Moeng, eldest daughter
Sao Hkun Hkio Mongmit (1912-1990)
He had participated in both the 1946 and 1947 Panglong conferences, and served as Chief Minister of Shan State after Independence. But he was more well known as Burma’s foreign minister and a close associate of U Nu.
Sao Hkun Hkio Mongmit
From 1948 to 1962, his appointments included twice being Head of State for the Shan State, serving as Union of Burma Foreign Minister, and Deputy Prime Minister in U Nu’s AFPFL government. Prime Minister U Nu came to value Sao Hkun Hkio’s friendship and from time to time, took his advice on political matters concerning the Shan State. (Page 164)
The author also tells us something about the Mogok Ruby Mines and how when it was taken from
In either 1594 or 1607 (the exact dates are unclear), the ruby mines were eventually taken over by a Burman monarch of the Toungoo Dynasty. In this deal, the Mong Mit Prince was forced to exchange the Mogok mines for Tagaung, an ancient city that lay adjacent to the mines. The prince might have been in a quandary. Owning Tagaung would enlarge his state and give him greater prestige, but owning the ruby mines would give him greater wealth, although a smaller state. In fact, he had little choice, since he had been commanded to make the exchange. (Page 165)
Hkun Pan Sing Tawngpeng
Hkun Pan Sing Tawngpeng (1894-1975)
One thing that has always puzzled me was how he could have accepted the decision made by U Nu, an outsider, to choose his deputy Sao Shwe Thaike instead of himself, already President of the Shan States Council, as President of the newly independent Union of Burma.
The author has provided an explanation:
Realizing in September 1947 that there was an urgent need to select someone to represent the Union of Burma at the Royal Wedding of Princess Elizabeth to Prince Philip in November of that year, Prime Minister U Nu sent for U Tun Myint Galay, the Tai Shan politician, who was in Rangoon attending the Constituent Assembly meeting.
Daw Khin Khin May, Tawngpeng Mahadevi
Not knowing why he had been summoned, U Tun Myint Galay decided to take two other Tai Shan politicians, U Ba San and U Tun On, with him.
When they reached the Prime Minister’s office, U Nu told them that there was a need to appoint a provisional president. It seemed that Bogyoke Aung San had by this time chosen the Tawngpeng Saopha Long as President, but he wanted the opinion of the Shan politicians on this choice.
U Tun Myint already knew that a Shan President elect had been chosen, since he and my father had visited General Aung San in July when the Bogyoke revealed that a Tai Shan was to be elected President of the Union and that the Tawngpeng Saopha Long had been chosen.
In his autobiography, U Tun Myint recounted their conversation with U Nu. He told Thakin Nu that they were very pleased to hear that a Tai Shan was to be elected President, but they felt the Yawnghwe Sawbwa was a more appropriate choice. Alarmed, U Nu asked what was wrong with Tawngpeng Sawbwa.
U Tun Myint explained that Tawngpeng Sawbwa’s Mahadevi was a “white face” and it did not seem right that Burma should be represented by a President with a “white face” wife. They wondered if such a choice was wise for international relations.
Thakin Nu was surprised as he had no idea that the Tawngpeng Mahadevi was a “white face.”
When asked if it were true that Yawnghwe Sawbwa had two wives, U Tun On, one of the other politicians, told U Nu that one of the prince’s wives was his own sister and if there was a problem, he could ask her to divorce the sawbwa.
U Nu insisted that this was unnecessary and added that if the AFPFL chose the Yawnghwe Sawbwa, then it would be all right for him to have two wives, so long as they were nor at the President’s House at the same time.
U Tun Myint confessed in his autobiography that he and his friends were in favor of the Yawnghwe Prince, since they knew him personally and they were all from the same state. For instance, U Ba San had served together with my father in the Territorial Force. U Tun on, my maternal uncle, was a brother-in-law and U Tun Myint himself, had married one of the prince’s nieces. They and other Tai Shan politicians endorsed Yawnghwe Saopha as the most suitable to hold the presidency. (Page 83-84)
Still my question was: Since U Nu did not have jurisdiction over the Shan States Council, the final decision rested with the latter. What had Hkun Pan Sing had to say for U Nu’s choice, made under mistaken assumption (His mahadevi was a Eurasian, not “white face”). I hope someday there’s someone from the Tawngpeng House who either has the records or remembers.
In the meanwhile, we’ll probably have to make do with the following story retold by the author:
In 1936 when Maurice Collis met Sao Hkun Pan Sein and other princes in Mong Mit, they discussed the possibility of a Tai Shan replacing Philip Fogarty, who was then the President of the Shan Chiefs Council. The Tawngpeng Prince, a forthright, plain-spoken man, told Collis “We sawbwas are too jealous of each other. A Shan president (of the Federation) would lack support and authority”: (1938:212). His statement indicates how difficult it was to reach a consensus among the saohpa to unite under one prince. Doing so would have been to their advantage, but somehow there was little interest in uniting and selection a suitable saohpa to be the commissioner. Tawngpeng Saohpa certainly knew how most princes felt on this issue. It seemed they could unite and make decisions, but had no desire to have another saohpa lead them. (Page 179)
Sao Sai Long and wife with daughter
Sao Sai Long Kengtung (1927-1997)
I think there’s a lot of things we can write about him, all the good things he had done for the Shans. But since nobody else seems to have written anything about them, I think I’ll wait and bide my time.
I have always wondered why Hsipaw and Kengtung, geographically so far from each other, were so close to each other relationship-wise. For example, many Kengtung princes were married to princesses from Hsipaw.
In this respect, the author may have provided an answer:
Two factions emerged in 1523 during a dynastic struggle in Kengtung. One side sought support from Lan Na, while the other went to Hsipaw. King Kaeo sent Lan Na armies to re-exert control, but these forces were defeated by Hsipaw armies. (Page 194-195)
She also gives us a short account of how the Emerald Buddha came to be in Bangkok:
A year later in 1547, Prince Chaiyasettha returned to Lang Xang to become the ruler, assuming there regal title of Setthathirath. For a time, he was ruler of both Lan Na and Lan Xang and when he left, he took the Emerald Buddha, the palladium of Lan Na from Chiang Mai to Luang Prabang. However, when the Siamese later sacked Lang Xang in 1779, they took the Emerald Buddha to Bangkok, to safeguard and protect their own Kingdom of Siam. (Page 195)
Sao Yang Zhencai and his Mahadevi Lu Shwin Zhen
Sao Yang Zhencai Kokang (1918-1971)
Also spelt Yang Kyein Tsai, and known as Edward to his friends, he was reportedly the one who had negotiated for Kokang’s secession from Hsenwi after WWII. But since Kokang would remain in the Federated Shan States, the number of the federation rose from 33 to 34. Meanwhile Mongpai aka Moebye, with a Kayan majority population, was calling for a referendum to secede and join with the Karenni/Kayah, to which the Federation had agreed.
I haven’t much more to write about Kokang except to urge the reader to find The House of Yang: Guardians of an Unknown Frontier (1997), the book written by Jackie Yang-Rettie, the eldest daughter of Yang Zhencai. I’ll be trying to get hold of a copy of it myself too when I can. There must be a lot of learn about this group of Han Chinese, who had managed to win themselves a place in the official 135 “national races” line-up.
Sao Num Laikha
Sao Num Laikha (1906-1986)
If there’s one prince we have almost always taken for granted when we talk about Panglong, it’s Sao Num, also spelt Sao Noom.
We speak in admiration of other Saohpas like Sao Sam Htun, Sao Hkun Kyi of Hsatung and others, but scarcely nothing about Sao Noom. And we have to thank the author for writing about him:
The Laikha Saopha, Sao Num (1906-1986: r. 1933-1959), is best remembered for hosting the first Panglong Conference in 1946 in his State. Panglong, a small village six miles from Loilem, one of the administrative centers, was considered the center of the Shan Plateau. Sao Num generously contributed both his time and money, for he was largely responsible for funding the conference. It was the first opportunity since the Japanese occupation for the princes to be together, ruminate, and make plans. Sao Num was eager to see that there was no hitch to the Conference and seemed the right man to be given the job of organizing the various events. He was a cheery, likeable person and the other princes teased him about his many wives. (Page 242)
In 1949 when KNDO, Kachin and Pa-O insurgents took control of Taunggyi, spreading south and into eastern regions, including Loilem, Sao Num made his haw the headquarters for organizing and planning attacks against the insurgents, and managed to drive them out of Laikha and Loilem, regaining control of both. Together with the neighboring Saohpa of Hsipaw, Hsenwi, Mong Yai, and Wa in the north and Kesi Mansam, Mong Nawng, Mong Kung, Maukmai, and Mong Pan in the south, he recruited men to fight the insurgents. Many of these princes had served in the British army and were renowned for their various exploits. These civilian volunteer groups were later joined by a division of the Burma Army under the command of Colonel Tin Oo, who was commissioned by Major General DA Blake.
Eventually, together with the Tatmadaw, they crushed the insurgents and regained control of Taunggyi. It took until 1951-1952 to defeat the remaining insurgents in Mong Kung and Laikha regions. (Page 243)
On my way back from Laikha on 12 October, after attending a literature seminar there, a thought struck my mind:
Thailand had honored Prince Singhanart aka Shan Galay aka Sao Khun Sa with a statue in the heart of the Maehongson city, after he decided to join Siam, instead of the British Shan States. Doesn’t Sao Noom deserve less for hosting the two Panglong conferences and signing the agreement?
Palace of Mawkmai
Kolan Mawkmai (1844-1887)
The author doesn’t have much to say about the last ruling prince and its heir. But she has a lot to say about their illustrious ancestor, whose Burmese nickname “Kolan” (meaning “nine fathoms”) became more well known than his real one “Nai Noi”.
I learned about him first from Sao Saimong Mangrai’s “The Shan States and the British Annexation” (1965), while I was stationed at Mongmai, the town he had set up as a base to recover Mawkmai, during the years (1985-1996).
There are two stories how the nickname came about:
Nai Noi had been useful in helping Shwebo Min repel the Karenni, but displeased the king due to his frequent quarrels with the local Burman governors and non-payment of his taxes. Consequently, he was imprisoned in Mandalay. He managed to escape by using a pole to vault over the prison walls and then made his way back to Mawkmai through Eastern Karenni. This escapade explains his nickname.
Another account says that Mawkmai Saohpa Sao Nai Noi was once surrounded by nine different enemy troops, including that of the Burmese, but audaciously managed to fight his way clear. For whatever season he came to be known as Kot Tat Lan Sawbwa (Nine Armies Routed), which was eventually shortened to Kolan. (Page250)
Sao Shwe Thaike Yawnghwe (1896-1962), first president of the Union of Burma (1948-52)
I’m afraid I didn’t find many among his contemporaries who thought highly of him, although among the Burma Army, he was said to be much hated. But among the Shan clergy, he is being honored as the major patron, and one of their greatest heroes.
During the 1950’s, Sao Shwe Thaike, who had a keen interest in Shan literature, initiated as project to have the Pali Buddhist texts translated into Shan. In many ways, he contributed to the resurgence of Shan national consciousness. (Page 294)
“For the success of this project, I’m ready to sacrifice my head, or even my life, if necessary,” he was quoted by Bhadanta Kheminda, Abbot of Loikern.
The Yawnghwe Saohpa faced a lonely and untimely death in solitary confinement. It seemed an unjust end for a man of intergrity who was forthright, loyal, and straightforward, who had been awarded the highest accolades and honors such as Kambawsarahta Thiri Pawaramahawuntha Thudamaraza, Agga Mahathraysithu, and Agga Maha Thirithudhamma.
My father’s death was never explained. There is no way of knowing why or how he passed away on 21 November 1962.
Sao Sam Htun, Mahadevi with children and her brother
Sao Sam Htun Mongpawn (1907-1947)
Following the Panglong Conference, Sao, Sam Htun was selected by the Shan States Council and the Supreme Council of United Hill Peoples (SCOUHP) as Counselor (meaning minister) for Frontier Areas Affairs in the Executive Council headed by Aung San. And when Aung San was assassinated, he was among those who was caught in the fray.
His son, Sao Hso Hom recounted that his father had been shot through the mouth but, as was typical of him, his thoughts were for others. He accordingly told the doctors to attend first to those who were in worse condition than himself. By the time he received medical attention, he was beyond care. He might have survived had there been enough medical staff to immediately attend to all the wounded. As it was, Sao Sam Htun died the following day. With his untimely death, dreams of a better, brighter future for the Tai Shan and the Shan State disappeared. (Page 316)
By all accounts, he was a prince beloved by his people.
An often-retold story tells that one evening before the Japanese occupation, the prince had been walking on the outskirts of Mong Pawn dressed casually in a pair of old, baggy Shan trousers and an open-necked shirt. A villager driving a bullock cart had got stuck in a deep, muddy pothole in the road. The villager hailed him and asked if ai sai ‘young brother’ would help push the cart out of the mud. The prince happily helped and they managed to push the cart onto the hardened surface of the road. After acknowledging the help given, the villager drove off into town.
A few days later, the same villager had to go to the state administrative offices on business. Imaging his surprise when, on kneeling to let the approaching saohpa pass, he recognized him as his helper. He threw himself on the ground asking for pardon, which was granted willingly as the prince had enjoyed his little incognito adventure and was pleased to be magnanimous. (Page 317)
His son. Sao Hso Hom, who succeeded him, became a prominent member of the Steering Council for the Amendment of the (1947) Constitution with the aim of rebuilding a more, peaceful and united union.
Unfortunately, the proposals by the ethnic nationalities, known as the Federal Movement or Federal Proposal, were met unfavorably by the Union Government and the Tatmadaw. On 2 March 1962, General Ne Win seized power, throwing out the Constitution and the legally elected government of U Nu.
Sao Hso Hom and other princes were then detained. Sao Hso Hom spent five years in the infamous jail of Insein. Upon his release, he was forced to sign a statement stating that he would not engage in politics, nor write anything detrimental about the regime. Like other detainees, he was not allowed to return to his Mong Pawn State. (Page 319)
I had never understood why he had always turned down petitions by Shans to lead their movements against Rangoon. Until now. As a result, he may not have been writing anything. But the said signed statement does not seem to apply to his better half.
His wife, Sao Khemawadee Mangrai, the daughter of Sao Hkun Mong of Kengtung and Sao Ohn Nyunt of Hsipaw, recently wrote her memoirs, Burma My Mother: And Why I Had to leave (2014). (Page 319)
Sao Hkun Kyi
Sao Hkun Kyi Hsatung (1901-1949)
He was, among the Saophas, certainly one of the most enlightened statesmen.
When the Saohpa attended the 1931 Round table Conference, Sao Hkun Kyi found an opportunity to write a report detailing suggestions on what future steps he felt the Shan States could take when Burma’s eventual separation from India occurred. He presented the report to the delegates, hoping that it would help them in their negotiations. Soa Hkun Kyi believed the report was not fully appreciated and that was the reason why the four princes chosen to represent the Shan State, had come back empty handed. This speculation was true enough, as the British authorities never considered the Shan proposals. (Page 326)
He was for a union with Burma. Nevertheless he maintained that “Burman had to show respect for other ethnic groups/nationalities.” (Page 327)
Sao Hkun Kyi’s untimely death in 1948 robbed the Shan States of one of its aspiring progressive princes and a leading statement. (Page 328)
Sao Htun Yin
Sao Htun Yin Nawngmawn (1912-1950)
Not all Saophas were for amalgamation with Burma. But their protests had fallen on deaf ears.
One of them was Sao Htun Yin, who had won the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire (MBE) for his bravery and distinguished services during WWII.
And this review would have been incomplete without including him.
In his biography in Freedom Way magazine, it said that he was not in favor of the Panglong Agreement and accused the senior saohpa who were involved of “wanting to make slaves of us” and “lead us into Burmese prisons.” Perhaps his long association with the Burman had made him aware of these pitfalls. His warnings and predictions may have come too early for people to have taken notice and to pay attention.
An outspoken man, he had many enemies. He died in 1950 under mysterious circumstances. He was only thirty-eight years old. (Page 357)
Perhaps I should also write about Sao Htun E, the Danu Saohpa of Hsamong Kham, and Sao Aung Myat of Pwela, who become Chief Minister of Shan State under U Thein Sein’s presidency, 2011-2016.
But somehow I have run out of steam. So I should stop here.
Thanks to Sao Sanda. From her and others, I have learned much. I hope our readers have too, enough to fire them up with a desire to learn more, read more and act on them.
If so, I would consider that I have done my duty.
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