1: The Eastern Chief

The glorious sunset on the Chindwin River has always uplifted the heart. The reflection of the breath taking, ever changing beauty of colours suffusing the surface of the smooth fast flowing water with bright, glowing, gleaming hues, has always brought peace to the soul and quiet to the mind.

The circle administrator, the hereditary Taikthugyi, U So Ya, a tall, well built middle-aged man of presence and authority, gazed at the sunset from the large veranda of his substantial house of teak, a hundred yards from the bank of the Chindwin in the village of Massein. The alchemy of the sunset worked on him as usual, transmuting the usual peace and quiet once more into a daydream. He quickly became immersed in the folklore of long ago events concerning his clan, his tribe and his people, the Nanchao. Even in repose, the longish light-brown face with high cheekbones, thick black eyebrows and slightly slanting eyes looked stern. His firm belief that he was the reincarnation of the Chieftain who had led his clan on the mass migration in the distant past had made him live the part. He thus wielded his authority more in the manner of an autocratic chieftain of old, than a mere administrator over eight headmen of village tracts in the Massein Circle at the end of the 19th century. Everyone who came in contact with him felt his personality, prestige and presence.

Having taken two or three turns on the veranda he seated himself on a smooth finely woven cane mat. U So Ya let his thoughts return to the time thirteen centuries or more ago when his forbears lived in the high tableland of West China.

They had been roistering, rumbustious, warlike tribes of the famous Nanchao people, who by their courage, feats of arms and military prowess had turned back wave after wave of Chinese troops and would-be Chinese settlers. The Chinese been mauled so badly had that they had given up the fight, extended the hand of friendship and signed a treaty of peace and co-operation. The young men of Nanchao, having proved to be exceptionally good fighters would be taken into the Chinese Imperial Guards, given special status and privileges, handsome wages, clothing, uniform, arms, board, lodging and generous leave. For their consent to this arrangement, each chief would be given gold, silk, woven goods, utensils etc. according to the number of recruits supplied by the clan concerned.

The arrangement had worked well, so well in fact that when the Nanchao stronghold was attacked by a large raiding party from the north, there was not a single young warrior in the place. Had it not been for the ferocity, tenacity and courage of the women and older men of Nanchao, the stronghold would have fallen. The shock to the tribal chiefs, who had been leading comfortable lives cushioned by Chinese gold and consumer goods, was great indeed. Tribal elders and tribal chiefs met, consumed much food and liquor through a long day and a longer night, noisily exchanging charges, counter-charges and recriminations. Finally they reached a momentous decision. The young men would be recalled from the Imperial Guards at once to spearhead a long, long trek, family by family, clan by clan, tribe by tribe, far to the south-west where two large rivers and fertile plains were said to exist. Eventually, U So Ya's tribe had reached the Chindwin River in Upper Burma, driven out the Chins and Nagas living there and had settled in and around Massein. Other Nanchao tribes each with its chief, had settled higher up the Chindwin, or moved into the Kalay and Kabaw valleys. All these chiefs owed allegiance to the overall Chief, otherwise 'Big Chief', termed the Sawbwa made his headquarters at Yazagyo at the junction of the Kalay and Kabaw valleys, or Shan Kingdom of Yazagyo. Later on, the whole area had become the Tai or Shan Kingdom of Yazagyo.

U So Ya had been told all tribal folklore by his father and grand- father from childhood, and this he would one day hand on when he had a son and heir. Were they flashes of real memories of the past? Or did his mind make up images of the time he was in the Chinese Imperial Guards; of the long, long trek, of the many fights, skirmishes and battles on that march, of the first glimpse of the Chindwin as he stepped on to the top of Zibyutaung mountain range at the head of his clan thirteen centuries ago? He could supply so much more detail of that time, much more detail than any tale of folklore he had heard. Others may doubt; but in himself he was absolutely certain he was none other than the reincarnation of the Chief. Reaching this stage, his day dream would dissolve and end with the question: "For what purpose, have I come back here and now?"

The tribe had prospered and grown and spread. Massein and related villages were stockaded, entrenched and defended places to ward off the constant attacks of the Chins and the Nagas who wanted to get back their territory. The Tais had mounted counter-raids to rescue those taken prisoner by the enemy, as well as to make slaves of Nagas and Chins they captured in the process. Then in 1056 AD the great Burmese Warrior-King Anawrahts had conquered all the Shan Kingdoms of Upper Burma, including that of Yazago and made them all part and parcel of the Kingdom of Burma, with golden Pagan as its capital. Nine centuries or Burmese writing, Buddhist scriptures, Buddhist monks and Burmese culture had slowly and imperceptibly changed the Tais or Shans of the Chindwin into Burmese. There was nothing of the ancient Nanchao left for him to recognise in his people, was there? So why had he come back?

When King Anawrahta conquered Yazagyo, the then tribal chief of Massein had become a Taikthugyi, a Burmese post under the Burmese Governor of the Chindwin at Monywa. And now, after all those centuries, he had become a Burmese Official on the sudden death of his father, speaking and writing Burmese. At a comparatively early age of 25 he had had to travel down to Monywa, report his father's death and receive his formal appointment order from the hands of the Burmese Governor.

Sometimes he had wondered whether he should have raised the Tai flag when he was younger, full of fire and enthusiasm, to inaugurate a Chindwin Shan state to join the other Shan States to the east-states such as Hsenwi, Momeik, Hsipaw and so on. With hindsight he realised that he would never have had the support he needed; the people had lost all fire in their bellies; not a trace of the old Nanchao spirit remained. There had been a great chance when he was 27 and 28 years old during the chaotic days of the reign of King Theebaw and Queen Supayalat. Then the Shans of Wuntho, Kamaing and Mogaung had had nothing to do with the central Government, and the King's writ ran no further than the fort walls of the palace at Mandalay. Word had come that Queen Supayalat and her mother had engineered a palace revolution. They started massacring strong and competent Princes and would-be heirs to the wise, peaceable and deeply religious King Mindon. Then they brought young Theebaw from the monastery where he had been a novitiate and placed him on the thrown, Supreme power had gone to Supayalat's head. She ruled; ruled badly; as an ignorant, uneducated, silly young woman, With little or no contact with the world outside the Palace, could be expected to rule. 'Off with his head' was one of her favourite expressions; an order carried out by willing and cruel men she had surrounded herself with. But the chance had gone when in 1885, the English had captured Mandalay and its Palace, without a shot being fired, taking King Theebaw and his Queen into captivity in India. Thus the last part of Burma had been annexed, the Arakan and lower Burma having been taken in two earlier English wars against the Burmese.

The Burmese Governor had gone. An English Deputy Commissioner with Subdivisional Officers and Township Officers under him now administered the Chindwin District. The Superintendent of Police was English, so was the Divisional Forest Officer. U So Ya's appointment as Taikthugyi had been confirmed by the new administration; his rank, status, prestige and responsibilities remained undiminished. English Officers had toured his area and camped at Massein, treating him as man to man in a fair and reasonable way, somewhat different from the servility that the Burmese Governor had expected and had never got from him. Even so, they were foreigners who had usurped the Burmese throne. Fair words and fair dealings could give way at any time to harsh measures; foreigners could never be trusted.

U So Ya stood up, walked up and down the veranda for a few minutes before going into the living room. On clapping his hands, several young women brought in steaming dishes of rice, curries and hot soup.

He had already seated himself at the low round table set for the evening meal when Daw Nu, his wife and their three daughters, Ma Nyun, Ma Hla and Ma Mya joined him and seated themselves on the cane mat covering the teak floor boards. After lightly washing the fingers of the right hand in the silver bowl of water brought by a servant girl, they commenced to eat the rice and bits of curry with their fingers while helping themselves to curries and soup with spoons in the bowls.

U So Ya's stern face had changed and relaxed into benevolence as he looked at his eldest daughter, Ma Nyun, a beautiful girl of 16, the daughter he doted on. She had become the dearest love of his life. He felt that her beauty, grace, quickness of mind and cleverness should have grown and flowered in the Palace at Mandalay where she could easily have become a lesser queen. However, by deposing King Theebaw, the hateful English had prevented that ever happening. Being insular he despised all foreigners; but the English would merit the greatest measure of his hate, the fires of which he would keep alight and burning.