Alex Bescoby studied modern Burmese history at Cambridge University, largely on his own.
“I had a whiteboard, an empty South East Asian studies library, and I just threw myself into it,” he tells me over lunch at Somerset House. Alex fell in love with Myanmar over the course of his studies, where he immersed himself in the fascinating and complex history of the country. In 2008, through a scholarship programme created by 10 leading universities from around the world, Alex spent several months studying the shared history of Thailand and Burma on the Thai-Myanmar border, and picking up Thai and Burmese along the way. He left Cambridge in 2010 with a passion for the country he spent so long studying.
“At that time it was difficult to get into the Burma beyond the tourist trail, so the scholarship provided the perfect opportunity to gain access.” As a Brit, he became fascinated with the intertwining story of the UK and Burma in particular, and the part it played in the forming of modern Myanmar. He had decided to write a book exploring this shared history, but following a chance meeting ended up taking an entirely different and unexpected path.
In 2013 Alex returned to a newly opened Myanmar to work with the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, and to research his book. One particularly fateful episode that gripped his imagination was the last few days of the reign of Thibaw, the last King of Burma, whose rule was ended in 1885 by the British annexation of Burma. Thibaw was exiled to a remote fishing village in India, where he’s still buried today. A journalist friend had told him that there were still descendants of the lost king alive in Burma, and told him to look for a sign on the Shwedagon Pagoda road in Yangon if he was interested in talking to someone who could tell him more.
Armed only with this mysterious instruction, Alex walked up and down the road, scouring the walls and doors of houses until at last he found a small sign offering English lessons to passers by. Upon knocking he was greeted by the teacher, a quiet man who, on further discussion, would also turn out to be the great-grandson of Burma’s last King. As a result of that extraordinary meeting, Alex’s plans were completely changed. He spent the subsequent two and half years documenting on film the lives of this extraordinary, and almost entirely unknown, family. As he did so, the story of modern Burma itself began to emerge.
“The teaching of history in Myanmar has been so limited, so politicised by colonial and later military governments, that generations of Burmese people have grown up knowing very little about their own past. If you don’t know where you’ve come from, it makes it even more difficult to know where you’re going. A better understanding and awareness of history will be crucial in this time of fundamental change in Myanmar.” Alex told me. “I thought a film exploring just one of Burma’s fascinating historical narratives would be a more powerful tool to helping people to know more about their own history than the book I was planning to write! I would love to see new generations of Burmese students taking up history as a degree choice, and perhaps this film might inspire just one or two to do so.”
In January 2016, Alex applied for the Whicker’s World Foundation Funding Award – the largest single prize available in UK documentary – and was amazed when the film was shortlisted for, and finally won the funding he needed to finish the film. December this year marks exactly 100 years since Thibaw passed away in India, and Alex will be back filming with the family as they mark this quite unique moment in their family and their country’s history. Burma’s Lost Royals is now in the final stages of production, and the film will be released to the public in the summer of 2017.