By Pippa Curwen
The Burmese government’s recent rejection of community appeals for the return of the former Kengtung Palace site in eastern Shan State directly belies its claims to be promoting national reconciliation.
In August last year, the Kengtung Palace Restoration Committee, formed by Kengtung elders, sent a petition with hundreds of signatures to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi and President Win Myint for return of the land. They were asking to rebuild a replica of the palace, demolished by the military authorities in 1991, and turn it into a museum.
On February 3, the answer was given – not by the State Counsellor or President – but by a junior minister, responding in the Upper House to Kengtung delegate Dr. Sai Seng Kyauk Sam. The Shan MP’s earnest appeal, with slides showing the former grandeur of the palace and its ongoing cultural significance for his constituents, contrasted starkly and poignantly with the officious rebuff by Deputy Minister of Hotels and Tourism, U Tin Latt.
Reiterating the excuse that the “colonial-style” building was destroyed because it was structurally unsound, the minister ruled out land return until expiration of 70-year leases for two hotels on the site. He stressed the legally binding nature of the leases, granted by the Myanmar Investment Commission to two Yangon-based businessmen, at costs of 200 million kyat (US$138,000) and 25 million kyat (US$17,000) each.
In short, not the slightest show of remorse at the destruction of this cherished heritage site, nor acknowledgement of the Shans’ rights to preserve their culture – just a doubling down on contracts awarded by the central government on land seized by the military from the Kengtung people.
A sad day for ethnic reconciliation indeed.
But, for those unfamiliar with the background of this story, let me recap, drawing on an article I wrote in 1994 for Thailand’s Nation newspaper.
Like many Shans, I was angered by the senseless demolition of the palace, but also had a personal interest in the matter. The palace was built by my great-grandfather, Sao Kawn Kiao Intaleng, the 40th saohpa (hereditary chief) of Kengtung.
Of the over 30 principalities of the former Federated Shan States, Kengtung was the largest, covering 12,000 square miles east of the Salween River. For much of its history it enjoyed self-rule, and even after annexation by the British in the 1880s, the Kengtung rulers, like other Shan saohpas, were allowed to continue administering their own state.
It was during this period that the Kengtung Palace was built. Sao Kawn Kiao had attended the Delhi Durbar in 1903 and been so impressed by the style of the Maharajas’ palaces that on his return he employed Indian architects to design his new residence. Completed in 1906, it was by far the largest and grandest of the Shan palaces.
For decades, the palace served as the administrative hub of the vast province. In 1959, it was handed over by the last Kengtung saohpa, my uncle Sao Sai Long, to the elected Shan State government – only to be seized by the Burmese military in their 1962 coup. Sao Sai Long was imprisoned with other Shan saohpas in Yangon’s Insein Jail for six years. On his release, he was forbidden to live in his hometown.
The palace was used by the military authorities as a government office until its demolition in 1991, an event that stirred outrage throughout Shan State.
“They had no right to pull it down,” said Sai Sarm Tip, a Kengtung magistrate I interviewed in 1994. “It belonged to the Kengtung people. The saohpa collected money from each household to build it.”
Sai Sarm Tip and two friends were accused of distributing leaflets opposing the palace destruction and imprisoned for 46 days, before being released for lack of evidence. “When they interrogated me, the military intelligence said the palace should be pulled down because it was too old. But it was so solidly built that they needed armoured personnel carriers and chains to pull it down. It took them a month to demolish it,” he explained.
Two senior Shan monks from Tachileik pleaded with then Eastern Commander General Maung Aye to save the palace, but to no avail.
Army personnel supervised the demolition throughout. Knowing that no Shans would assist in pulling down the building, they used non-Shan workers, as well as prisoners from Kengtung Jail. Armed soldiers stood guard as the building came down, and local onlookers were warned away under threat of arrest.
Adding insult to injury, the stone rubble from the building was scattered on roads around Kengtung town, a blatant debasement of the Shans’ precious heritage.
The ostensible reasons for the demolition – that the building was unsafe, and should be replaced with a modern hotel to promote tourism — fooled no-one, especially when the regime was simultaneously renovating and rebuilding from ruins the palaces of former Burmese kings in Mandalay and Bago.
Shan State was, and still is, at war. Without doubt, the demolition of the Kengtung palace was a deliberate act of sabotage, aimed to demoralize the Shan and, by destroying an all-too-concrete symbol of past Shan self-rule, disabuse them of any notions of autonomy.
Five years after the razing of the palace, the Burma Army tightened control of eastern Shan State with the setting up of its Triangle Regional Command in Kengtung – headed by none other than future President Thein Sein. The four-storey New Kyaing Tong Hotel (now the Amazing Kengtong Resort) was opened the same year.
The characterless new hotel (rumoured to be haunted) was never popular with tourists, and was used mainly by government officials. The adjacent, bungalow-style Kyaing Tong Paradise Hotel, which opened around the same time, mostly served local travellers. Both were run under the Ministry of Hotels and Tourism, but the Paradise Hotel was sub-contracted to private investor Dr. Phone Myint.
The hurt and anger over the palace destruction never faded. Pictures of the iconic building proliferated around Kengtung.
In November 2002, when Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and U Tin Oo made an organizing trip to Kengtung, locals raised their grievances about the palace destruction, and the NLD leaders promised that if they came to power they would let it be rebuilt.
The NLD victory in the 2015 elections therefore kindled hope that this promise would be kept.
Meanwhile, the New Kyaing Tong Hotel had changed hands. After an unsuccessful attempt to turn it into a casino, it was taken over in 2015 by the Amazing Hotels group, headed by U Aung Myo Min Din, chair of the Myanmar Hoteliers’ Association.
When Daw Aung San Suu Kyi returned to Kengtung as State Counsellor in February 2019 (staying at the Amazing Kengtong Resort), locals again appealed for a return of the palace land. She advised them to apply formally to the government, which is exactly what they did.
And now we have the answer. Come back in 70 years. And, in a final twist of the knife, it turns out the new long-term leases were granted in July 2016 and January 2017 — in other words, under the NLD government itself.
In her latest Union Day speech in Panglong on February 12, the State Counsellor emphasized again the need for mutual trust in order to build peace.
Yes, indeed. Trust. I suspect that’s in short supply now in Kengtung.