The story of King Tabinshwehti from ancient Burma
The story of Tabinshwehti is as fascinating as it is brutal and as accomplished as it is short.
Tabinshwehti was born at Toungoo Palace to King Mingyinyo of Toungoo and his concubine. The 56-year-old king was desperate for a son and so named him after the “Unitary Golden Umbrella”, with the golden umbrella being the sacred symbol of Burmese kings.
He was made heir-apparent of the small kingdom and the king also raised the boy’s teenage mother to be queen with the title of Yaza Dewi. From his father’s side, Tabinshwehti was a great-great-great-grandson of King Minkhaung I of Ava and his mother Khin Oo (sometimes reported as Khin Mya) was a commoner.
The young prince was cared for by seven royal servants throughout his childhood and youth. He grew up playing with other children of his servants, including one boy named Ye Htut, the eldest son of Mingyi Swe and his wet nurse Myo Myat . Ye Htut, who was only three months older, would become Tabinshwehti’s best friend and right-hand man.
Unknown to him the young crown prince grew up having to live up to a prophecy made at his birth, which claimed that he would grow up to be a great warrior. According to the prophecy, Tabinshwehti would be the reincarnation of a prince named Minyekyawswa who was put to death by his father King Dhammazedi of Hanthawaddy . The prince supposedly prayed the same prayer as Prince Bawlawkyantaw of Hanthawaddy before the latter was put to death by his own father King Razadarit in 1390.
As Minyekyawswa of Ava, believed to be the reincarnate of Bawlawkyantaw, grew up to be the nemesis of Hanthawaddy, so was Tabinshwehti, believed to be the reincarnate of Minyekyawswa of Hanthawaddy, the prophesy claimed, would be the nemesis of Hanthawaddy. The prophesy of a Minyekyawswa reincarnate may have been highly believed in the superstitious world of Burmese politics since Upper Burma was going through immense political turmoil.
For the last fifty years the power of Upper Burma, Ava, had been unable to prevent its key vassal states from breaking away just like his father, who himself had from Ava since 1510, required his son to receive a complete education in military arts. Tabinshwehiti along with Ye Htut and other young men of the palace received full training in martial arts together with horseback riding, elephant riding, and lessons in military strategy.
King Mingyinyo died in 1530, and the 14-year-old prince ascended to the throne immediately and rewarded all his childhood staff by handing out royal titles, and then marrying two of their daughters including the daughter of Mingyi Swe and sister of Ye Htut. He also placed his young friends from his childhood including Ye Htut, as confidants.
The young king’s first important decision arrived early in 1534, when the affair between his half-sister Thakin Gyi and Ye Htut was discovered. This affair under Burmese law constituted an act of treason. Tabinshwehti deliberated with his ministers, and finally came to the conclusion that Ye Htut should be given his sister in marriage, together with a princely title of Kyawhtin Nawrahta. With this unique decision, Tabinshwehti won the loyalty of his brother-in-law “without parallel in Burmese history”.
With enemies closing in the new king decided his kingdom “had to act quickly if it wished to avoid being swallowed up”. In late 1534, in a complete reversal of his father’s longstanding policy, Tabinshwehti boldly decided to break out by attacking the Hanthawaddy Kingdom to the south. This came as a complete surprise and the Burmese chronicles attribute the audacious plan to the 18-year-old king.
For the next 16 years, Tabinshwehti along with his trusted deputy Kyawhtin Nawrahta (later Bayinnaung) would proceed to unite many of the petty smaller kingdoms that had existed since the fall of the Pagan Empire in 1287 and for the first time Burma was united as one nation.