Monday, June 30, 2014

Twilight Over Burma

Inge Sargent was six years old when the Nazi's first invaded her village. But even post-war Austria, years later, was hard to deal with. So when afforded the opportunity, Sargent moved to the United States to study in Colorado on a Fulbright scholarship.  It was there she met Sao Kya Seng, a Burmese mining engineer student. The two fell in love and married in 1953 at the home of a mutual friend.

Seven months later, they sailed to Burma. When nearing Yangon (formerly Rangoon) a parade of people lined the river awaiting the boat.

Sargent asked what was going on, but Sao didn't reply.

As they drew closer to the shore, a band began to play and a Welcome Home banner came into view.

She asked again with no reply given in return.

Once a welcome group entered little boats, throwing flowers into the water as they neared the ship, Sao finally said, "I have to tell you something."

"No, not now," she responded, "I don't want to miss the welcome."

"Please," he requested.

"No, no, no, later. Tell me later. I want to see what's happening."

"They're welcoming us," Sao blurted out.

Sargent looked at him and asked, "They welcome every mining engineer like that?"

"No, I'm their Prince," came his response.

"You're their what?"

"I'm the Prince of Hsipaw and you are my Princess."

"Oh, why didn't you tell me earlier," she remarked, "I would have worn a different dress!"

Sargent fell in love with her new homeland. She adopted the local dress and customs and learned to speak Burmese and Shan, the local language from the minority group with the same name. The Shan state, roughly the size of Connecticut, comprises the North Eastern portion of Myanmar.  Hsipaw residing in the heart of it.

the Shan palace in Hsipaw

The royal couple worked tirelessly to create equality amongst their people.  Sao, who's family reigned since 40AD, drew wealth from rice patties. After returning home, he gave the fields to the farmers carrying for them.  They were going to buy rice just like everybody else. Their fortune would come through mining - which was his reason for getting an education in the US.

Their time in democratic Burma was a happy one. The country was wealthy and literacy was high. And through their efforts, people were gaining an equal standing with one another.

Nine years and two children later, in 1962, the Burmese military overthrew the government in a coup d'etat. Sao was arrested and imprisoned - he never really was liked by the military, being a Prince of a minority people with a foreign wife, and democratic to boot. Sargent and her daughters were placed under house arrest, which lasted for two years. She spent them exhausting her resources in search of her husband and to know of his welfare.

Still unsure of his fate, she fled to Austria with her daughters and three suitcases. Sao, if he was alive, would find her there like they had discussed early on, should something happen to him.

But he never came. She knew he was dead. Documents, eyewitnesses, and everything else she had gathered told her so. The government just wouldn't admit it. To this day, 52 years later, they still won't. Sargent's daughters, who moved with her to the US not long after leaving Burma, still write letters to the Burmese government each year asking what happened to their father. They have never received a reply. Until they do, they won't step foot into the country. Sargent isn't allowed in, even if she wanted to.

Today, in Hsipaw, to tell their story is the wife of Sao's nephew, Mrs Fern (her Anglicized name).  They lived in the palace - a small colonial styled house - together, telling the history of their family until the military government grew unhappy. Sao's nephew, Mr. Donald, was arrested, held for four years and told upon his release that he could no longer speak to foreigners. Donald and Fern moved to Taunggyi to live until Fern couldn't stand it any longer and made her way back to Hsipaw. People had to know. So she is there, on and off, welcoming a revolving door of guests to tell the story of the Prince of Hsipaw and his Princess.

Mrs. Fern, with a picture of Sao and Sargent behind.

1 comment:

Patti said...

That is a heartbreaking history.