Churchill Road was initially named for Lord Randolph Churchill, British politician and father of Winston Churchill. In his brief tenure as Secretary of State for India, Churchill brought about the final invasion of the then kingdom of Burma. His primary motivation was commercial – the oil, ruby mines and teak forests of Burma, and through it, access to the markets of China. Developments in the relationship between France and Burma were also a source of concern, with Vietnam already under their control.
Churchill’s political star rose quickly, but burnt out equally fast. Secretary of State for seven months, he then became Chancellor of the Exchequer (the British equivalent to finance minister) aged only 37, before ending his career through political miscalculation. He died at 46 of suspected syphilis, and by then was more concerned with horse racing and Irish politics than the fate of the distant country he had forever changed the course of.
Years later, after Burma had regained its independence, Churchill Road became Komin Kochin Road. Komin Kochin means Our King, Our Kind, and was the name of a political party formed in 1930 by the nationalist group Dobama Asiayone; We Burmans. Members of the group referred to each other as Thakin, meaning master; reappropriating the term that Burmese used as a deferential address to the British.
The group was radically anti-colonial and ideologically fluid, but there was no desire for the return of the monarchy. Its methods were direct and confrontational: strikes, protests, and public shows of defiance. They rejected the 1935 constitution as another tool of British control, and when it became law some members gathered outside the high court to burn a copy, along with a Union Jack. The party did compete in the 1936 elections, and sent three Komin Kochin members to the legislature; though mostly to just disrupt proceedings and cause as much trouble as possible.
Although Komin Kochin and Dobama Asiayone have long since disappeared, absorbed into other groups in the face of changing politics, its legacy was considerable. Some of these young firebrands are familiar faces today – Aung San was a member, as was Burma’s first Prime Minister, U Nu. In 1938 the group split into two, on the surface due to increasingly left wing ideology. Aung San and U Nu were part of the left wing group. The right wing splinter group included Shu Maung, who would later become the dictator Ne Win.
The most famous resident of Churchill Road was Queen Supayalat, the wife of Burma’s last king, Thibaw. After the British completed their conquest of Burma, she accompanied the deposed Thibaw to exile on the furthest shore of India. This was a typical British maneuver; the last Mughal Emperor of India had been sent to live out his days in Rangoon in 1858, and had died there while Thibaw was an infant. The bodies of both men remain in their countries of exile to this day.
In another typical ploy, the British spread propaganda about Thibaw to help justify their invasion, and to weaken any subsequent royalist factions. He was painted as drunk and a despot, and above all, weak and incapable. Unfortunately the success of British efforts was such that these stories have entered popular imagination, and while other kings and queens are celebrated, Thibaw is largely overlooked.
Given the spurious nature of these claims, stories about Supayalat should also be approached with scepticism. They claim she was responsible for the massacre of almost 100 of Thibaw’s relatives to secure his throne – including the killing of child princes, smashed against walls. She killed rivals, humiliated ministers, coveted wealth. She was the true power behind an ineffectual king. As a child, she pulled the wings off birds. And so on.
Three years after Thibaw’s death, Supayalat was allowed to return to Burma. The British gave her a modest house on Churchill Road – a slightly uncharitable choice given Churchill’s role in the end of her husband’s reign. The queen would receive visitors, and in 1924 a Burmese journalist recorded a conversation with her. At one point, unprompted, she asked if people believed she was responsible for the killing of the princes. The journalist admitted they did, and she denied any part; she was a child when the massacre took place.
Supayalat died in 1925 and was buried in the mausoleum area south of Shwedagon. Her neighbours include Thakin Kodaw Hmaing; the legendary poet and one time leader of the Dobama Asiayone. Fittingly, her mausoleum is built in a traditional style, nearly identical in design to a tomb built in Mandalay by Thibaw for his father.
Today the road seems to officially be part of Lower Kaba Aye Pagoda Road, and hosts one of Yangon’s new flyovers, intended to relieve congestion at key junctions. Most buildings still give their address as Komin Kochin.
Taking a walk along the road, I tried to find some sign of Supayalat’s house, which was reportedly at number 23 or 24. House numbering in Yangon can be a little unpredictable, due to changes in plot sizes and varied approaches during different building periods. Two adjacent plots on Komin Kochin go from 18 to 26, with the former divided between a fashion store and an electronics showroom. But at number 26 is a fairly new mansion building.
The neo-classical abundance of pillars and balconies are common in the new build mansions of Yangon, but adorning the entry gates are a set of royal crowns, in a European style. Intentional reference or not, these seem to be the last trace of royalty on Churchill road.