Obituary of Sao Kiaomurng (1920-2016) From prince to hat-maker

My great-uncle Sao Kiaomurng passed away in Birmingham, United Kingdoms, on April 10 at the age of 95, the last surviving offspring of Sao Kawnkiao Inthaleng, ruler of the Shan principality of Kengtung from 1874 to 1935.  

Sao Kiaomurng Mangrai and Sao Sein Mya soon after their marriage
The 18th of 19 children, he inherited little claim to wealth or power, and his passing made no news. Yet he was a kind, principled man, who suffered unjust persecution and exile after the 1962 coup, and his story deserves to be told – not least as a timely reminder of a not-so-distant past era of Shan self-rule.

When Sao Kiaomurng was born, in 1920, Kengtung was in its heyday. The largest of the 33 Shan States, covering most of the trans-Salween area, its main source of wealth was opium – licit in those days. His father, the ruling prince or “Saopha”, lived an ornate lifestyle, residing in a grand Maharaja-style palace with his six wives. Like other Shan princes, he was left to administer his own state, despite annexation by the British.

Sao Kawnkiao Inthaleng and his 8 princes
Sao Kiaomurng was born to the third wife, Nang Bothiplong. He attended the American Baptist Missionary School in Kengtung, then ordained as a Buddhist novice for two years, learning to read and write his native Tai Khuen (a language similar to northern Thai). He completed his education at the School for Sons of Shan State Chiefs in Taunggyi.

Sibling rivalry among the extended princely family was to spawn tragedy. In 1937, soon after acceding to the throne, his eldest brother, Sao Kawng Tai, was assassinated by a cousin. The murdered ruler’s son, Sao Sai Long, nicknamed “Shorty,” only 10 years old at the time, was to become the next and last princely ruler of Kengtung.   

During World War Two, Sao Kiaomurng experienced the Japanese invasion and subsequent Thai occupation of Kengtung, ceded to Thailand by Japan under an agreement in 1943.  

I remember him describing the heavy-handed Thai attempts to “modernize” the Shans, on the orders of Field Marshal Phibulsongkram: “They made us wear shoes in temples. My sisters were asked to cut and curl their hair, and wear skirts (not sarongs). Betel vines were cut down to stop people from chewing betel.”  

The Shans simply returned to their old ways after the war, but antipathy to Thailand remained. When asked by the British War Enquiry Commission, before the Panglong Conference, whether they wanted to stay under Thailand, Kengtung leaders declined this option – to the enduring chagrin of later generations.  

Towards the end of the war, Sao Kiaomurng had married Sao Sein Mya, of the Mawkmai princely family, and worked for a Japanese paper-making company in Lawksawk. When the Allies began bombing Lawksawk, he took his family to hide in the jungle, and joined US Detachment 101 to fight the Japanese.

After the war, he trained in law in Taunggyi, and became the Kengtung Magistrate, assisting his nephew Sao Sai Long to administer the state. These were turbulent years for Kengtung, where thousands of Kuomintang (KMT) forces had fled after the communist takeover in China. For the first time, Burmese troops were deployed into the state to drive out the KMT, and army chief General Ne Win himself came to oversee operations. In 1958, Ne Win’s convoy was attacked by the KMT near Tachileik. He was unhurt, but exploded in anger when reaching Kengtung, blaming my uncles for not warning him of the danger.

Later that year, when Ne Win headed the new caretaker government, Sao Kiaomurng was given a taste of the military’s brand of justice. While in Lashio, his 13-year-old son was knocked off his bicycle by a Burmese army jeep and suffered a serious head injury. His father wanted to charge the sergeant driving the jeep, who had no license, but was told by his brother-in-law – a police officer in Lashio – not to waste his time, as the army had become untouchable.

Sao Kiaomurng himself always tried to be fair. During his thirteen years as a judge, he avoided applying the death sentence.  Ironically, this was held against him by the military authorities when, together with most leading members of the Shan ruling families, he was arrested during General Ne Win’s coup on March 2, 1962.

Three of his brothers, and his nephew, Sao Sai Long, were jailed for six to seven years in Insein. Sao Kiaomurng was held in a military lock-up while authorities tried to find fault with his work as a judge, homing in on his failure to impose the death sentence in two murder cases.

Fortunately they could find no evidence of malfeasance, and he was released after a year in detention. However, like other members of the ruling family, he was forbidden from staying in Kengtung. He moved with his wife and five children to Taunggyi, where he struggled to make ends meet. While his wife earned an income from knitting, he learned to use a sewing machine, making hats for sale.  

Kengtung Palace was demolished in 1991 by Burmese military
He was never to live again in his hometown. The military junta turned the Kengtung palace into an office, then demolished it in 1991 -- in what many saw as a deliberate act of cultural sabotage – erecting a hotel in its place. In 1996, with the setting up of the Triangle Region Command, Kengtung was formally established as the junta’s eastern military bastion; its first commander was future president Thein Sein.

In 2004, Sao Kiaomurng and his wife went to the UK to stay with his youngest daughter and son-in-law. He never returned to Burma.

A merit-making ceremony for Sao Kiaomurng will be held in Kengtung on June 29-30, at Wat Ho Khoang, the temple where he ordained 85 years ago.

By Pippa Curwen


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