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Twilight Over Burma

Twilight Over Burma: My Life As a Shan Princess

Inge Sargent
With a foreword by Bertil Lintner
Copyright Date: 1994
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  • Book Info
    Twilight Over Burma
    Book Description:

    "In a stirring tribute to a remarkable man and a gripping tale from beginning to end, Sargent reflects back on her loving, cross-cultural marriage to the prince of Hsipaw.... A touching memoir that would read like a fairy tale were it not for the unfortunate ending." --Booklist

    eISBN: 978-0-8248-6533-7
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. I-VI)
  2. Acknowledgments
    (pp. VII-VII)
  3. Key Persons Appearing in This Book
    (pp. VIII-IX)
  4. Foreword
    (pp. XI-XXIV)
    Bertil Lintner

    On a sunny summer afternoon in June 1966, a small Volkswagen Beetle made its way toward Schloss Laudon, a baroque castle operated privately as a luxury hotel in the 15th Bezirk, or district, of Austria’s capital, Vienna. The iron gates to the estate were closely guarded by the Austrian police, who let the vehicle pass, since it carried official diplomatic identification from the Royal Thai Embassy in Vienna.

    The Beetle chugged along the gravel road through the neatly trimmed garden that surrounded the castle and came to a halt right outside the building. A young European woman, her hair tied...

  5. One
    (pp. 1-10)

    Thusandi knew by the strange sounds that broke the silence of the tropical morning that their dream was over, that the moment they had expected for years had come. She carefully opened the screen door to the balcony, making sure not to awaken their daughters, who were asleep on her husband’s side of the bed.

    From the balcony she saw that the compound of their residence, the East Haw, was surrounded by hundreds of armed Burmese soldiers. The massive stone wall enclosing the Haw grounds had turned into a living monster. Rows of men in green helmets and uniforms jutted...

  6. Two
    (pp. 11-20)

    Only hours had passed since life in the East Haw had changed in a way that was incredible, yet horribly easy to believe. Thusandi needed to be alone to work through her emotions and consider her future course of action. She chose the east terrace as her refuge. From there, she could see the jungle-clad hill she liked to call Lookout Mountain, the green Namtu River now and then allowing a dugout canoe to disturb its mirror surface, and a sea of wild yellow sunflowers insisting on their right to bloom in the company of hundreds of red poinsettia bushes....

  7. Three
    (pp. 21-32)

    On a cloudless January morning, it was at long last time for Sao Kya Seng and Thusandi to proceed to their home in Hsipaw, northeast of Mandalay. A motorcade took them to Mingaladon Airport and to the DC-3 that made a biweekly haul of passengers and cargo to Lashio, the only airfield in the northern Shan states.

    “These are the most reliable planes in existence,” Sao said to calm his bride’s nerves. The two engines roared and the plane shook vehemently during take-off. She was white as a sheet, and her hands trembled as she clasped the arm rests of...

  8. Four
    (pp. 33-43)

    Sao wasted no time in taking charge of Hsipaw State. Some of his officials were pleased and others were worried when he decided to work out of an office in the administrative headquarters. It would have been more convenient had he followed his predecessor’s example and run the affairs of state from his private office in the East Haw. But he wanted to be among those he served. Sao was concerned that traditions and his long absence had isolated him from the people who, after World War II, had voted for him rather than for his elder brother to succeed...

  9. Five
    (pp. 44-57)

    Every day provided new surprises for Thusandi, new impressions to store away to be shared during those wonderful evenings on the verandah with Sao. They still conversed in English, the language they had spoken when they first met, although she made quick progress in learning spoken Shan and in Burmese, the official language.

    Thusandi appreciated Sao’s patience in helping her practice the five standard tones of the Shan language. As the choice of tone determined the meaning of a word, she always used great caution in addressing elders and persons deserving of respect. Using the wrong tone could turn a...

  10. Six
    (pp. 58-69)

    It was April and the heat in the Hsipaw valley was oppressive. Weary humans, thirsty animals, and parched plants were longing for the first rains of the monsoon season. Remembering the crisp spring mornings in the Rocky Mountains, Sao disliked breathing the smoke from jungle fires, which had been hanging over the valley for weeks. He planned to teach his people in the nearby hills to replace their traditional slash-and-burn agriculture with new methods that would produce better crops and do less harm. For now though, Sao wished to escape to a hilltop, somewhere reminiscent of cool and clear Colorado....

  11. Seven
    (pp. 70-82)

    Another rainy season had washed the dust from large teak leaves, cleaned the land, and restored life to agriculture and to the jungle. Once again, the swollen waters of the Namtu River shared their blessing with the thirsty paddy fields of Hsipaw valley. After the villagers had planted their crops, they could watch rain and sun continue the work. The rainy summer months were a time for fasting, for going within. Monasteries were crowded with young and old practicing their meditative techniques and seeking the words of the Buddha. The temple bells of a village monastery near the East Haw...

  12. Eight
    (pp. 83-95)

    The hot season had settled over Hsipaw valley again, with a vengeance. Man and beast sought shelter from the merciless rays of the sun under trees and roofs, suspending their lives until the big red disk disappeared behind the hills to the west. Then activities resumed, laughter filled the air, and fragrances of evening meals cooking over charcoal traveled in waves through the neighborhoods. As if to remind people that the heat would return next day, hundreds of fieryred royal flame trees (poinciana) were in full bloom, spreading their striking scarlet umbrellas over the town.

    Sao and Thusandi had ventured...

  13. Nine
    (pp. 96-102)

    The second day in his bamboo prison was coming to an end, and Sao saw that he was no closer to regaining his freedom than the day before. On the contrary. He had learned from his interrogators that General Ne Win and his army had staged a coup d’état and put thousands of people, including the entire elected government, in prison. Sao could no longer hope for Prime Minister U Nu to intervene on his behalf. At best, the United Nations and world opinion would put pressure on the Burmese Army’s so-called Revolutionary Council, but it would take time, and...

  14. Ten
    (pp. 103-112)

    The wicker chair next to Thusandi on the terrace was empty, not unusual with Sao’s busy schedule of meetings in Taunggyi and Rangoon. But this time the empty chair had a different meaning; there was a frightening possibility of it remaining so. Thusandi closed her eyes and hoped for a vision, a spiritual experience, something supernatural to connect her with Sao, wherever he was. She had heard of, even seen, such occurrences after she had arrived in Hsipaw and accepted them as part of Shan life. That took some time though; while growing up in Austria, she had been taught...

  15. Eleven
    (pp. 113-128)

    Sao and Thusandi had long ago made plans to keep the family together and provide for the children’s primary education at home instead of sending them off to boarding school. Since the local government school was unable to provide a good education, Thusandi opened the trilingual Foundation School in a building just outside the East Haw compound. The Hsipaw Sawbwa Foundation, Sao’s charitable trust, took financial responsibility, and Thusandi assumed the administrative duties.

    Shan, Burmese, Chinese, and Indian boys and girls flocked to the private school in larger numbers than expected. Their parents understood the value of a good education...

  16. Twelve
    (pp. 129-141)

    From the bedroom verandah, Thusandi could see the road leading up to the East Haw. She was anxiously hoping for a car to deliver Sao or some news of him. But all she saw was an occasional bicycle or a stray dog and, in the background, a few pillars of the old Grand Haw. She smiled when she remembered what Sao had said to her about the old Haw: The only good thing resulting from World War II was its total destruction. He had not liked a single thing about it and dreaded the thought of ever having to live...

  17. Thirteen
    (pp. 142-147)

    On his third day in prison, Sao received a change of clothing and permission to take a bath outside his hut. It was not the type of bath to which he was accustomed; however, he relished each drop of the cold water that his guards had brought him in two large buckets. Pouring it over his head and shoulders with deliberate care, he made certain that every inch of his tired body came in contact with the cleansing liquid. Though humiliated by the presence of four heavily armed military guards, Sao felt physically refreshed for the first time since his...

  18. Fourteen
    (pp. 148-159)

    Thusandi paced the floor, stopping whenever unusual sounds broke the silence. The scheduled plane to Lashio had flown over Hsipaw on time, and she nurtured the dim hope that somehow Sao would come home, even though she had not gone to the airfield to see if he got off the plane. She realized it was unwise to entertain hopes for Sao that could deliver him into the arms of enemies, who still seemed to be searching for him.

    A jeep drove up and stopped under the portico. Thusandi heard a familiar voice call out to Kawlin, “Please tell the Mahadevi...

  19. Fifteen
    (pp. 160-169)

    After learning from her sister-in-law of Sao’s arrest, Thusandi phoned Colonel Tun Oung and requested permission to send clothing and correspondence to her husband; the colonel offered to forward them for her. Thusandi wanted the Burmese Army publicly to accept responsibility for holding her husband captive, so she considered the colonel’s offer to be a good sign. She carefully packed a box, not too big, not too small, with clothing, toilet articles, medication, and writing paper, and wrote an open letter to Sao with family news and words of encouragement. Then she drove again to Kyaukme, with Moei, and delivered...

  20. Sixteen
    (pp. 170-177)

    After Nai Nai’s return, it did not take Thusandi long to decide that she wanted to move to Taunggyi with the children. She would be able to stay with her sister-in-law, Nang Lao, and contact Colonel Maung Shwe, in charge of the Eastern Command headquarters. Moreover, Sao’s sister was close to death and wanted to see her and the children one more time. Thusandi wrote a letter to the Eastern Command, with copies to Colonel Tun Oung and the captain in Hsipaw, informing them that she was moving to Taunggyi within two weeks. Two days later, the captain appeared in...

  21. Seventeen
    (pp. 178-187)

    After eleven months of isolation in the East Haw, Thusandi was at last permitted to move to Rangoon with her children. It was a crisp January morning when she boarded the train at the Hsipaw station. Hundreds of well-wishers had assembled to bid her farewell and were invoking every guardian spirit’s blessing for her journey. As Thusandi stepped into the railway carriage that was to take them away, she knew a chapter in her life had ended; she sensed that they were leaving their home in Hsipaw that morning, never to return. The premonition that had overcome her on Lookout...

  22. Eighteen
    (pp. 188-194)

    After the talk with Bo Setkya, Thusandi postponed her plans to visit General Ne Win. Instead, she wrote him a letter in Burmese, requesting again the same privileges granted to the wives of other detainees. She wrote six copies of the letter by hand and sent them by various routes, hoping that at least one would reach its destination. Then she waited for a reply, a messenger, a phone call telling her that she could see Sao or, at least, write to him. But her wait was in vain.

    The time in Rangoon passed more quickly than it had in...

  23. Nineteen
    (pp. 195-204)

    In spite of abounding predictions that the days of Ne Win’s regime were numbered, his army tightened its hold over the country’s people and its economy. Large business enterprises and foreign-owned firms were taken over first. Then all banks were nationalized, renamed as people’s banks, and numbered. Thusandi’s Rangoon bank, which was owned by several Shans, including Sao, became People’s Bank No. 20, managed by a lieutenant commander of the Burmese Navy.

    Smaller businesses—gas stations, rice mills, oil mills, and sawmills—were confiscated next, leaving the rightful owners financially ruined. Soon after, all retail shops, even the smallest, were...

  24. Twenty
    (pp. 205-213)

    It took Paula only a few days to gather her information. “Elder Sister,” she told Thusandi at the meditation center, “you will be allowed to leave the country if you follow the proper procedures.”

    “And the children? What about the children?”

    “They can leave only if you can prove that they are Austrian citizens.” Paula looked at Thusandi with concern. This was precisely the answer Thusandi had dreaded. She was painfully aware of the fact that the children of a Burmese citizen born in the Union of Burma were Burmese subjects, regardless of their mother’s status. However, she was determined....

  25. Epilogue
    (pp. 214-214)

    The military regime in Burma has never acknowledged its responsibility for the disappearance from custody of Sao Kya Seng more than thirty years ago. Continuous efforts by the author to hold the government of Burma accountable failed. Repeated inquiries into the fate of the Prince of Hsipaw by the governments of Austria, Great Britain, and the United States were met with silence. The United Nations, the International Red Cross, the International Court of Justice, Amnesty International, and other international organizations have been unable to provide assistance to the author in her search for Sao Kya Seng.

    Having committed the ultimate...

  26. Glossary
    (pp. 215-216)