The Book

Who Killed Sao Kya Seng, the Last Prince of Hsipaw?

The principality of Hsipaw was not the largest principality in Shan State; that distinction belonged to Kengtung. But at approximately the size of Connecticut, it was among the larger ones, and because of its location and relative wealth, Hsipaw, along with the principalities of Yawnghwe (now called Nyaungshwe), Hsenwi, Kengtung (now Kyaing Tong), and perhaps Muang Mit, ranked among the more prominent and influential ones that shaped the history of Shan State.

To understand the importance of the House of Hsipaw, it is necessary to go back in Burmese and Shan history-all the way back to Kublai Khan and his army's invasion and destruction of Bagan in 1287, which marked the defeat of the Burmese and the beginning of the Shan domination of Burma. The Shan period lasted until a nephew of the Prince of Hsipaw, Myobye Narapathe, King of Ava, was defeated by the Burmese King Burinnong of Taungoo in 1552. From then on, until the British conquered Burma, the ethnic Burmese, not the Shan, dominated the country.

A few hundred years after the fall of the Shan Kingdom of Ava, there was another connection between the House of Hsipaw and a monarch, this time a Burmese one. Strangely enough, still another king would lose both throne and empire. This time it was the last king of Burma, the erratic and despised King Thibaw, who was defeated by the British in the third Anglo-Burmese war. Thibaw's father was the respected reformer and modernizer King Mindon, whose brother and heir apparent had been assassinated. So when King Mindon died in 1878, there was no immediate successor, and because the king had had many wives, the disagreements among all the potential heirs escalated into violence. In Burma, as in many other monarchies around the world, disputes over succession have typically been resolved by expulsion and murder, but the brutality of Thibaw's wife and mother-in-law in murdering or expelling Thibaw's rivals set new standards even in Burmese history. Thibaw, whose mother was the daughter of the Sawbwa of Hsipaw (hence his name), had not been first in the line of succession, but he gained the throne once his royal rivals had been eradicated one way or another.


Here begins the story of the last four princes of the House of Hsipaw: Sao Khun Seng, Sir Sao Khe, Sao On Kya, and the last of the long line, Sao Kya Seng. Sao Khun Seng was born during the reign of King Mindon (1853-1878) and grew up at the royal court in Mandalay. After becoming the Sawbwa of Hsipaw, he had a falling-out with King Mindon's successor, the capricious and ruthless King Thibaw, who was a blood relative because of his Shan mother. In 1882 Sao Khun Seng had to flee to Lower Burma, which had already been conquered by the British. In Yangon he was implicated in a murder case, jailed, and later deported. He moved first to Thailand, then to Karenni State, but he eventually regained control of his principality after making an alliance with a well-known Shan rebel leader from Hsenwi. When the British signed treaties with the Shan princes in the late 1880s, it must have been Sao Khun Seng who signed for the House of Hsipaw. Until his death he enjoyed a close relationship with the British, who admired and respected him.

Sao Khun Seng's son Sao Khe would rule with great success and distinction from 1902 to 1928. He was a respected and influential member of the Federated Shan States' Council, formed in 1922 by the British, and was knighted by Queen Mary of England in 1928. The colonial rulers admired him for his efficiency and intelligence. His eldest daughter married Sao Kawngtai, Prince of Kengtung, who was assassinated in 1937 by a nephew in a conspiracy hatched by a relative. That relative had been involved in various illegal activities, including the early opium trade. Maurice Collis gives an interesting account of the trial of the two conspirators in his book Lords of the Sunset.

Sao On Kya, son of Sir Sao Khe, ruled during the difficult time from 1928 to 1938, when the Shan princes discovered that their loyalty to the British crown was being rewarded by their colonial rulers with less autonomy instead of more. While the Shan wanted a clear administrative and political separation from the Burmese part of the country, the British wanted to combine the Frontier States with Burma Proper for administrative purposes. The Shan rightfully feared that if the whole colony gained independence, they would become part of a Burma dominated by the ethnic Burmese. At the Special Round Table Conference on Burma held in the United Kingdom in 1931, where the Shan tried in vain to gain a special political status for their homeland, Sao On Kya was joined by his brother-in-law Sao Kawngtai, Prince of Kengtung, by Sao Shwe Thaike, Prince of Yawnghwe and later the first president on an independent Burmese republic, as well as by other Shan princes. Like his father and his grandfather, the Oxford-educated prince Sao On Kya was a highly respected Shan leader. (The previous chapter mentioned a meeting between Sao On Kya and the writer Maurice Collis, who also recounted that Sao On Kya's wife Nanda had caused a great scandal when she left him for another man. Only many years later was she permitted to return to Hsipaw, by her husband's successor, Sao Kya Seng, the last Prince of Hsipaw). Sao On Kya's marriage must have been without a male heir because when he died in 1938, the title of Prince of Hsipaw seems to have been vacant until 1947. We have to assume that the principality was without a sawbwa during the turbulent years of World War II.

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          Chapter 14
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