The Tragedy and Hope of a Palace
By Kyaw Phyo Tha 18 August 2017
HSIPAW, Shan State — The last time she saw Inge Eberhard, the wife of the last prince of Hsipaw, was in 1964 at Mingalardon Airport in Yangon, shortly before the Austrian woman and her two children left Myanmar out of fear for their safety. It was two years after the sudden disappearance of the prince during his detention by the army.
Sao Sarm Hpong was among the few people who bid farewell to the mother and children outside the airport before the trio was escorted by two Military Intelligence Service officers for questioning about their departure. A European-bound Pan Am Boeing 707 was waiting for them—the last passengers—on the runway.
“She looked really scared at the time,” the now 73-year-old Shan woman recalled about that particular night on May 11. “Because authorities could have blocked their departure if they were suspicious,” she added on a recent afternoon, while sitting in the Haw, a one-time palace where Prince Sao Kya Seng and Inge Eberhard, the princess, and their daughters lived 53 years ago, in Hsipaw, now a growing tourist destination in northern Shan State. They ruled the provincial town from 1954 to 1962 until the late Gen Ne Win staged a military coup in Myanmar.
Sao Sarm Hpong and her husband Sao Oo Kya, also known as Donald, the nephew of the prince, have been taking care of the residence for more than four decades.
Widely known as the “Shan Palace” among international tourists, or “Hsipaw Haw” locally, the white two-story manor house with its tiled roof, large French windows, balconies, and terraces resembles an English country house.
The 93-year-old brick building is the most accessible to visitors out of the six haws (or palaces) of saophas (princes or rulers) in Shan State, the rest of which are either off limits, razed, or in a sorry state of disrepair.
In her 1994 memoir about her regal days, “Twilight Over Burma,” Inge Eberhard reminisced of “well-kept gardens, lawns and exotic trees” that surrounded the manor.
But The Irrawaddy’s recent visit saw the Haw was far from its former glory.
There are no more lawns and the five-acre compound is partially reclaimed by the forest. The tennis court where the saopha once played with state champions is in total ruin. The family swimming pool is dried up and neglected.
The brick building itself is also weather beaten. Sao Sarm Hpong said the roof leaks when it rains. The guttering needs urgent repair.
“We have difficulties for the maintenance as we rely on visitors’ donations only,” she said.
People’s Princely Couple
Sao Kya Seng was arrested by the army on March 3, 1962—a day after the coup. According to his wife’s memoir, the prince as well as a member of Parliament was accused of financing Shan insurgents and plotting a secession of the Shan states from the Union of Myanmar. Then aged 38, he was reportedly killed by the army during his detention after repeatedly denying the accusations. Rather than admitting the execution, the army said in a letter to Inge Eberhard in August 1962 that the saopha “has never been taken into custody by the Defence Service.”
Until today, Hsipaw’s elders remember their prince and princess as people who were passionate about healthcare and economic development in the area.
“They wanted Hsipaw to be a role model of development for Shan State. What a loss!” said town native U Ye Aung, 73, who knew the couple, as his parents were close friends with the saopha and mahadevi (princess). His mother was in charge of Foundation School, a free nursery founded by the princess for local children.
As a boy in his early teens, he remembered his mother and the princess drove a Land Rover to nearby Shan and Palaung (Ta’ang) villages. Their mission, he said, was to encourage women to deliver their babies at the maternity home in Hsipaw in order to reduce maternal fatalities. She secured ambulances to use as mobile clinics for child delivery in rural areas.
The saopha had his philanthropic endeavors, too, implementing agricultural projects by giving all the family land to farmers and buying tractors to help sow experimental new crops such as coffee, pineapples, ginger and soybeans. As a trained mining engineer, he established The Tai Mining Co., to tap the region’s unexplored mineral deposits.
U Ye Aung said he and his dad frequently delivered mineral samples found by farmers to the prince.
“He once said we would be able to pave the roads of Shan State with gold in the next ten years,” he recalled.
The couple, he said, was under the watchful eyes of the townsfolk upon their arrival in 1954, especially the princess, as the prince took the hand of a European woman while there were eight beautiful potential brides waiting for his return to Hsipaw.
“But to everyone’s surprise, the mahadevi studied Shan language and culture, and behaved like a Shan woman within six months,” he said with a laugh.
Even Inge Eberhard described her attempts in her book. When she dressed in a gold brocade sarong and white silk blouse with her knee-length hair tamed in a Shan knot, her impressed maid commented, “Mahadevi, you look more like a born Shan every day,” adding, “If only you were a few inches shorter.”
After the Good Old Days
When the princess and her daughters, Mayari and Kennari, left the Haw in 1963—after the 11-month virtual house arrest by the army and the prince’s demise— the only people left in the building were their butler and his family.
“They didn’t have enough money to maintain the building. When we arrived back here in around 1972, most of the furniture inside had been destroyed by termites and rats,” said Sao Sarm Hpong.
She remembered most of the townspeople stayed away from the Haw at the time, as they were afraid of government retribution.
“But they welcomed us when we went to the town,” she said.
The first visitors, foreigners who were probably informed by “Twilight Over Burma,” appeared at the gate of the Haw in 1996 when the then military regime opened the country to tourism with the slogan “Visit Myanmar Year.”
When Myanmar re-opened to the world in 2012, she said, the ‘Shan Palace’ became a popular site on the map of international tourists who traveled around northern Shan State.
Despite a steady flow of visitors, Sao Sarm Hpong’s family does not charge an entrance fee, as the Haw is not a museum.
“It’s our residence. So we only accept donations,” she said.
Visitors from home and abroad are confined to the building’s current living room where she explains the history of the Haw, describes the prince and princess, and laments the saopha’s tragic disappearance, in English, Shan and Burmese, under the gazes of Sao Kya Seng, Inge Eberhard and his forbearers, whose old pictures decorate the walls.
“[Inge Eberhard] is 85 years old now, unfit to travel to Myanmar. But she still wants confirmation from the army that they had killed her husband,” she explained to visitors. She added that a film based on the princess’s memoirs was banned from public screenings at a human rights film festival in Yangon by the authorities, stating they were afraid the movie could harm ethnic unity in the country.
Sao Sarm Hpong admitted that her family simply can’t afford to renovate the building, despite wanting to do so, and they haven’t had any correspondence with Inge Eberhard and her daughters since they left Myanmar.
She said her family has been taking care of the Haw because of its historical value for the Shan people who grew up during the time of the military regime, as “they know nothing of our history.”
“Yes, this is a historic building. But even if the government wants to take care of it, there may be complications, as we live here,” she said. Her husband, the prince’s nephew, was away on a trip at the time.
U Ye Aung said the Haw must be conserved due to its historical importance—not only to Hsipaw, but to the country. He urged the caretaker family to jump at any opportunities that would keep the residence intact.
“We have lost the saopha. It would be a shame for our town if we lose his Haw,” he added.