The story of Burma’s last monarch is soon to become much more accessible
A non-fiction account of the last king of Burma is due to be translated into Burmese. The King in Exile by Sudha Khan was first published in 2012, and details the life of King Thibaw and his family, from his rule in the late 19th century to his final years in exile.
The book was originally written in English and received positive reviews – but until now, many non-English speaking Burmese have been unable to read about one of the most momentous events in their country’s history.
The translation goes ahead with the permission of the book’s author. Khan told local newspaper Irrawaddy that she wanted the book translated “so that people who can’t read English, but are interested in the true story of their last king and his family, can read about them”.
King Thibaw ruled the Southeast Asian country between 1878 and 1885, alongside his wife Queen Supayalat.
His reign ended at the close of the Third Anglo-Burmese War, as the country fell to British Empire forces and he was forced to flee to India.
The story, according to Susan Cunningham of the Los Angeles Review of Books, sheds light on a part of Burmese history that’s often neglected.
“As foreign visitors surge in,” writes Cunningham, “the book erodes the mythology…of a happier, fairer era when white European men kept the natives gently in place.”
Treasure trove of Burmese literature
The fact that the book can be translated at all signals a real change in internal Burmese politics.
The military government moved away from prepublication censorship policies in 2012, and it’s triggered an avalanche of prison memoirs and accounts of government abuse.
And just as some English-language history books are being translated into Burmese, there is a reverse movement to publish more Burmese literature in English.
The British Council is leading these efforts, with its Hidden Words, Hidden Worlds project.
The goal is to collect the stories of Burmese writers and translate them into English, so that readers can learn more about a country that remains an enigma to many outsiders.
And with literature moving in both directions, it could herald a better understanding between Burma and the west.
As Cunningham wrote, “[Tourists to Burma] might have a better appreciation why, for much of the past 50 years, many Burmese preferred to pursue their eccentric road to socialism.”