The moon beyond Burma
Published on March 2, 2008
A Shan princess reaches deep into the past to shed light on the present in a fascinating memoir full of travels, triumphs, history and heartbreak
Sao Nang Mya Sanda has, at the wonderful age of 80, graced us with a remarkable memoir that rides on history’s elephantine back out of Burma’s northern hills and across the world, ultimately to return to her homeland and contemplate the broad sweep of all it has encompassed.
The moving family portrait that is at the heart of “The Moon Princess” serves as the colourful basis for an edifying account of the Shan people, their history and their venerated but beleaguered rulers, for a fascinating glimpse of Bangkok as it used to be, for a dalliance with Cambridge higher learning, for a lesson in Lao politics and, of course, for an important personal assessment of Burmese treachery.
Sanda’s father, Sao Shwe Thaike – who she called Sao U Hpa – was the last saohpa of Yawnghwe, the last “lord of the sky” of the Shan States’ prominent southern territory that huddled against Inle Lake. He was at one time the elected president of the Union of Burma – how strange those words sound now.
A fearsome but deeply loved husband and father, he was the epitome of Asian nobility and commanded respect from everyone who would seek influence among the Shan, and that, of course, included the British and Japanese imperial armies.
Sao U Hpa wielded considerable national power as Speaker of the House of Nationalities, by which Burma’s ethnic minorities forged the Panglong Agreement that was to guarantee them autonomy at the end of British rule, and was at the forefront of negotiations with every important figure to come along with promises, both local and foreign. He knew Aung San well, and U Nu and Ne Win too, received their assurances and suffered their dismissals.
Sanda had by then been removed from the fray. As the president’s daughter she attended the wedding of Britain’s Princess Elizabeth in 1947, and it was decided that she would stay on and enrol at Cambridge. She didn’t go home for another six years, but when she returned again a second time in 1956 she did so in adventurous style – overland by Range Rover – with her British husband Peter Simms, a Buddhist scholar.
In 1953 Simms had been recruited from Cambridge to teach at Prasarnmitr College in Bangkok, and Sanda, after some trepidation, decided to join him here and become his wife. She too began teaching in Bangkok, at Trium Udon School for Girls.
Simms launched a magazine called Thought and Word for his students’ benefit and MR Kukrit Pramoj made him a Thai-culture columnist on his Siam Rath newspaper. The couple were friends with Prince Svasti as well, so they were feeling quite welcome.
“I don’t suppose anyone could have adequately described to me what I might find in the Bangkok of the 1950s,” Sanda writes. “It was a charming and romantic city with its splendid Buddhist temples, fine palaces, museums and extensive parks … There were far less motorcars then and, despite the numerous motorised samlor, there was little pollution and hardly any traffic jams.”
Home was a rented old house perched on piles on the Chao Phya River that was everything she dreamed off – until the resident ghost began complaining.
The nightly sound of the safe in the study being opened and the door slamming shut again, and the keys of Simms’ typewriter rattling, made them believers. Then a maid saw a prince upstairs, so they brought in a monk who advised them to extract the prince’s belongings from cupboards under the eves. When his gear was moved out, the prince did too.
There is much more in the book about Bangkok, complete with Jim Thompson himself, but Sanda and Peter had many more travels and career moves ahead before their gaze returned once again to Burma.
They were journalists in Vientiane in 1962 when Ne Win staged the coup that buried Burma in its bottomless dictatorship. The Simmses were allowed back into the country briefly but harassed constantly, and could do nothing for Sao U Hpa, who was rewarded for his espousal of Shan autonomy by being allowed to die a few months hence in Insein Prison.
In her epilogue Sanda joins the rest of the world watching the monks’ insurrection in Rangoon last September. “Much may ultimately depend on how much the generals value world opinion,” she concludes with optimism belying her experience.
Sanda’s story would have benefited from a good-shepherd editor, but this is a marvellous memoir whose reach extends far from the Shan mountains to touch on matters of great historical and social importance – and matters of the swelling heart as well.