Burma’s Ministry of Hotels and Tourism recently announced that it plans to turn the compound of Yawnghwe Palace into a marketplace.
Located in Taunggyi District, close to the popular resort of Inle Lake, Yawnghwe Palace, known locally as Yawnghwe Haw, was the residence of Sao Shwe Thaike, an ethnic Shan prince who became the first president of the Union of Burma in 1948 on the day that the country gained independence from Britain. He was deposed and arrested when Gen. Ne Win seized power in 1962, and he died in prison soon after.
Sao Haymar Htaike is a daughter of Sao Shwe Thaike. She spoke to Shan Herald recently about her hopes of getting custody of the palace back in her family’s hands, and her expectations for the newly elected government led by the National League for Democracy (NLD).
Question: The government says it will transform your family’s former residence, Yawnghwe Palace, into a marketplace. What are your thoughts on this?
Answer: This is simply not right. In Burma, there are so many heritage places, such as Bagan. So why does the government want only Yawnghwe Palace to be converted into a marketplace? I would speculate that they want to destroy our history. They want to eliminate our valuable sites. In doing so, people in the future will never know who built the palace. It will all gradually disappear. Who is responsible if our history disappears? Because of the 21st Century Panglong Conference, people are now talking about peace. But in fact, a peaceful mind is what should be important to us. If we, the family, see our palace being used as a market, how can we be at peace?
Q: Assuming that the government knows that Yawnghwe Palace is a Shan State heritage site, but they insist on using the compound as a marketplace, what would be your message to them?
A: I strong oppose the plan. They say they wish to enhance our heritage and culture, but then why would they create such a market in the palace grounds? Why don’t they do the same at Bagan or Mandalay Palace? Why only on a Shan heritage site?
I am so worried about this. I am afraid the palace will be erased just as Kengtung Palace was. Nowadays, the new generation knows nothing about Kengtung Palace.
Q: Have you written to the government, addressing the matter?
A: Yes, I have. On July 28, I sent a letter to the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism. I stated that I strong opposed their plans to create a market in the compound. I also sent letters to the President’s Office, the State Counselor’s Office, the Ministry of Culture and Religion, the Shan State government, the Shan State Ethnic Burman minister and the Ethnic Intha minister.
Despite this, during a parliament session on September 7, the minister of hotels and tourism stated that they would create a marketplace. This means they disrespect my father’s family.
Q: If the government insists on pursuing the project, what will you do?
A: This would not be a rightful way of governance. Good governance must be based on listening to people’s voices. I am a citizen of this country. They should discuss the issue with citizens. But what they are doing is flexing their own muscles. This is not right. If they insist on doing this, people will react against them in the next election.
Q: The minister of hotels and tourism has said that they had a plan to discuss the issue with local people, and work with experts in order to stay neutral. What are your thoughts on this?
A: Right now, I am just an ordinary person, not a sao pha [feudal lord]. But nonetheless, why did they not talk to us? This palace belonged to us. I lived there when I was a child; therefore I am the rightful owner. They said they would ask for local participation. But they didn’t even engage with the family.
The government tried to explain to the public that they had a good relationship with the family of the sao pha, but that is a lie. We totally disagree with them. Because of this, the issue has now grown into a huge problem.
Actually, our country faces problems with building peace and consolidating the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement]. So why do they insist on focusing on the Yawnghwe Palace? I really do not understand, and I want to help solve the problem through peaceful means.
Q: As a member of a royal family, can you explain to us your lifestyle and experiences during your time in the palace?
A: Yawnghwe Palace was built during the time of my grandfather and father. We, the family, lived there and we love it. In fact, I can say this about all the people of Yawnghwe town, not just my family members. It is very important to all of us.
We had some lovely traditions at Yawnghwe Palace. During my father’s reign, there was a dharma exam every month, and monks from across Shan State were invited to come and stay as a place for relaxation. At the time, the local residents would gather at the palace to offer food to the monks. It was an enjoyable and remarkable occasion.
Another event was during Buddhist Lent [October or November] when we held a ceremony at Inle Lake, and paid respects to the elderly. This event was held both inside and outside the palace. However, all such activities stopped after 1962.
I am now 72 years old. The only thing I can do to keep our culture and tradition alive is by writing about it. I love the palace. I have good memories there. So, now I am writing some history about the palace.
Q: You said that you sent letters to the government. What is the current status?
A: In July 2013, the central government put the palace under the control of the Shan State government. Regarding the properties that were seized by the government, many people demanded they be given back to the rightful owners. On July 23, 2013, my mother Sao Mya Win, then aged 94, who was the wife of Sao Shwe Thaike, sent a letter to President Thein Sein and the Shan State chief minister to request the return of the palace. But she received no response. My mother passed away in 2014. In July 2015, I wrote to the Shan State government, and then again after a new government was elected [in November 2015]. But still no response.
Q: So what do you expect from the government now?
A: I expect that the government will give the palace back to us.
Q: If you get the palace back, what will you do with it?
A: We have studied the details of the U Thant museum in Yangon [Rangoon]. But first, we will discuss the matter with the Shan State government, the Culture and Tradition Department, and with local people and monks.
The palace grounds cover about seven acres. We would build a playground and a study center for youths. This center would be free of charge.
Q: And if you cannot get it back, what do you plan to do?
A: I will continue campaigning and demanding until I get the palace back. And I will oppose any project that eliminates our culture and traditions. I will protect our valuable heritage. I will also start discussions with our Shan leaders.
Q: You and the minister of hotels and tourism know each other, so why did he not talk with you about this matter?
A: I also want to ask him about this. We have known each other about 14-15 years. I do not understand why he is behaving like this. Even though we cannot meet in person, he can talk to me by telephone. Neither has U Nay Myo, the representative of Yawnghwe Township, spoken to me about it. What they are doing is disrespectful to me.