During my last trip to Burma in June, I went up to Lashio, northern Shan State, and decided to stop in en route at Hsipaw to visit the residence of famed Shan Prince Sao Kya Seng.
Otherwise known as East Haw, the house is surrounded by a large compound and guarded by tall tamarind trees. Yet when we arrived the place seemed deserted—the gate was locked and all was quiet.
After bellowing for a short time, a young man wearing the region’s traditional loose trousers emerged and met us at the gate. He was flanked by a dozen canine bodyguards and carried a Shan sword.
At first, he was reluctant to allow us in and I appreciated the sensitivity of the situation. As ethnic Bamar, or Burman, we were guests in Shan State. The young boy was polite and smart yet I could feel his innate mistrust of these “foreign” visitors.
He explained that his great uncle was arrested for “tourism charges” and only recently released. I showed him our business cards and was glad to learn that he was familiar with The Irrawaddy and the famous Shan cartoonist Harn Lay who has contributed fantastic work.
But even with our credentials confirmed, he steadfastly refused to open the gate. My driver went back to the car and started the engine so gave one final plea of, “Can we come back tomorrow on our way back from Lashio?”
Then he smiled and I felt the mood change. I dropped the names of a few prominent Shan people I know living in northern Thailand. “Do you want to come in now?” he relented. The gate finally opened.
Sao Kya Seng’s palace is in a sad state but, with a little careful restoration, could be a great place to learn about the history of Hsipaw and tragic tale of its royal family. I had read Twilight Over Burma by Sao Kya Hseng’s wife, Inge Eberhard, and so had wanted to visit Hsipaw Palace for a long time.
Sao Kya Hseng was last seen in March 1962 being arrested in the state capital Taunggyi while visiting his ailing sister. He was blissfully unaware of what had taken place in Rangoon at the time. Gen Ne Win had staged a coup that placed the military at the head of state power.
The prince was arrested on his way to Heho Airport to catch a flight to Hsipaw. He was last seen being taken to an unknown place of detention by armed soldiers.
Born in 1924, Sao Kya Hseng was educated at schools at Darjeeling, India, and went to study engineering at the Colorado School of Mines in Denver, the United States, where he married his Austrian bride.
Eberhard decided to follow her husband to live in Burma—a country she had never visited. It was a fairytale trip as she had no idea that Sao Kya Hseng was a Shan saopha or prince (some Shan spell it chofa while it is sawbwa in Burmese) and the ruler of Hsipaw.
Only when their ship arrived Rangoon did Eberhard see the hundreds of people playing music and carrying flowers to welcome their illustrious guests. She wondered who the important passengers on aboard were until her husband then explained about his royal blood. It quickly became apparently that she had married a Shan prince.
Eberhard subsequently took the name Sao Nang Thusandi and became Mahadevi (celestial princess) of Hsipaw
These days, however, the luster has dimmed a little on the royal household. Our young guide took us inside East Haw where Sao Kya Hseng and Sao Thusandi lived with their children and servants. We saw the family tree and living room as well as photos of the prince and his family.
East Haw is in a sorry state of disrepair. Burma is blessed with many historic buildings but too many are neglected and forgotten—indeed, Hsipaw Palace has been left overgrown by bushes seemingly for political reasons.
While it would be valuable to restore the palace to reveal the real story of Sao Kya Hseng, and it would certainly receive some tourists, the authorities would no doubt constantly harass the occupants.
Our young guide, a relative of the late prince, was proud to show how his ancestor built the palace and brought in the old tractor still parked by the portico. He also explained how Sao Kya Hseng introduced new ideas regarding the state’s age-old feudal system.
Journalist Bertil Linter wrote in his foreword to Twilight over Burma, “Perhaps the most radical idea was to give all the princely family’s paddy fields to the farmers who cultivated them. In addition, [Sao Kya Hseng] bought tractors and agricultural implements that the farmers used free of charge, cleared land to experiment with new crops, and began mineral exploration in the resource-rich valley.”
Sao Kya Hseng was undoubtedly more than just a privileged landowner. He was an MP for Burma’s House of Nationalities, a member of the Shan State Council and secretary of the Association of Shan Princes. He remained in politics while many Shan saophas gave up their positions. But then in the 1950s, a cloud descended onto Shan State.
In 1958, Burmese government troops arrived to drive out a Chinese Kuomintang incursion and quell a rising resistance movement which wanted Shan State to secede from the Union. Shan rebels and sympathetic villagers were arrested, tortured and disappeared. However, the Shan were not even united amongst themselves.
Amid this turmoil, it is uncertain how Gen Ne Win and his loyal military officers viewed Sao Kya Hseng as they prepared to seize power in a coup.
In her book, Sao Thusandi said that the Shan who desired an independent Shan State wanted Sao Kya Hseng to lead the revolt but he was reluctant. On the other hand, pro-Union advocates suspected him of being a secessionist due to his open criticism of Burmese politics and army misconduct.
Indeed, Ne Win and Sao Kya Hseng certainly did not get along well. When Ne Win, then army chief, was passing through Hsipaw, the prince wanted to invite him for lunch at East Haw where Burmese ministers and politicians often visited.
One of Ne Win’s officers declined on his behalf and instead asked the prince to wait by the roadside for the general’s motorcade. Shocked to hear such a disrespectful suggestion, the ruler of Hsipaw declined.
Sao Kya Hseng’s supporters insisted that Ne Win and his military intelligence chief Col Lwin—also known as “Moustache Lwin”—must have had knowledge of what became of the prince after his detention.
However, Ne Win’s regime denied taking part and made several contradictory statements regarding the prince’s disappearance. In fact, Sao Thusandi received a short letter from her husband that said he had been detained in Ba Htoo—a garrison town in Shan State—and was still OK. Nevertheless, the Burmese authorities never officially admitted apprehending the prince.
Sao Thusandi went to meet Ne Win’s wife Khin May Than in Austria in 1966 where the general was having medical treatment. The dictator often went to Europe where he would meet Professor Hans Hoff, chairman of the Psychiatric and Neurological University Hospital of Vienna. Some sources close to the general suggested that he suffered from bipolar disorder.
Hans Hoff had earlier written a letter to Sao Thusandi in Rangoon that stated her husband was in detention. Ne Win assured his doctor that the Shan prince was well and two orderlies have been assigned to take care of his every need.
Hans Hoff then wrote, “The physician who looks after Sao [Kya Hseng] was introduced to me, and he testified that Sao is in good shape, both physically and emotionally.” Yet that same day Sao Thusandi received a letter from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs saying that the government had never detained the Shan prince. Was Ne Win trying to deceive his psychiatrist for some reason?
Meanwhile, several associates of Sao Thusandi told her that the prince was no longer alive. One of them was Bo Setkya—a member of the legendary Thirty Comrades. Bo Setkya, who must have had supporters in the army, came to meet the princess and told her that her husband had died. Sao Kya Hseng was killed near Ba Htoo several weeks after his arrest, he said. Sao Thusandi and her family finally left Burma in 1964.
It is not known what actually happened to the prince, although Ne Win and his top officers must have been well aware of his fate. One theory was that Sao Kya Hseng died during interrogation, while another said that he was killed trying to escape—army officers were given “shoot to kill” orders at the time.
The last theory was that he was caught alive and when young officers asked a superior what to do, they were simply ordered to execute him. Those involved then cowardly remained silent after they realized the magnitude of what had taken place.
We walked towards a wooden building far from East Haw surrounded by spirit houses and were told that this is where the late prince prayed and read books. The building, if restored, would be an elegant addition to Burmese ethnic culture, but unfortunately it has already almost collapsed.
Since the day Ne Win staged a coup, Sao Kya Hseng was prevented from ever seeing East Haw again. However, perhaps his soul somehow managed to return to this royal abode.