CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The real-life tale of an Austrian woman who became royalty in Shan State has made it to the big screen in Southeast Asia, with a showing held in Chiang Mai, Thailand, on Saturday.
It took nine years to make “Twilight Over Burma,” a film about the former Hsipaw Saopha Sao Kya Seng and his wife, Inge Sargent, which is based on her autobiography, “Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess.”
It was released late last year in German and was screened privately with English and Thai subtitles in Thailand twice this month.
Special screenings were held in Chiang Mai, home to a large Shan community, on Saturday night and in Bangkok last Thursday.
Charm Tong, a Shan human rights activist, said: “For me it [the movie] shows the atrocities. This was a very horrible life. [The film] shows the lives of the people in Shan State at that time.”
“Chao Inge Sargent, the former Mahadevi of Hsipaw, is still alive, so you can imagine how hard it has been for her whole life,” she added, using the Shan word for “princess.” “Not only this is her story, it is the story of Shan. This is just one example of what happened in Shan state.”
The movie begins in 1948 and covers the early years of Burma’s independence up to a few years after the 1962 military coup, revealing not just the conditions of Shan State, but the situation in Burma as a whole.
Sargent’s husband, Sao Kya Seng, was a US-educated mining engineer who returned to his home of Hsipaw to assume the role of saopha, a Shan royal title. In her book, Sargent describes her arrival in Rangoon by ship in 1953 and the revelation that her husband was a Shan prince—a fact only revealed when she saw on the docks “hundreds of well-wishers displaying banners, playing homemade musical instruments, carrying bouquets of flowers.”
Sao Kya Seng instituted land reforms and promoted democracy, but was arrested by the army during Gen. Ne Win’s coup and later killed in prison under mysterious circumstances.
Charm Tong said ethnic minorities in Burma still lack equal rights, and there is no genuine peace or democracy yet in the country, highlighting the Burma Army’s recent air strikes and major offensives in northern Shan State.
“In Burma and Shan State, we can still see atrocities and injustice, and also human rights violations [are] still taking place inside Burma,” she added.
The Chiang Mai showing was attended by about 100 viewers, including the female lead Maria Ehrich, the Austrian Ambassador to Thailand Enno Drofenik and Kaung San Lwin, the Burmese consul-general in Chiang Mai.
Kaung San Lwin told The Irrawaddy: “Generally speaking, as a movie, it is a good one, which portrayed the tragedy of a Shan prince and his family.”
“I hear it will be shown in Burma next month and Burmese audiences are also excited to see it,” he added.
The movie is scheduled to have its Burma premier at the annual Human Rights Human Dignity International Film Festival, which will be held from June 14-19 in Rangoon.
“Burmese people should watch it to learn more about history, and also those who lived at that time could reflect on the film’s historical accuracy,” the consul-general said.
Drofenik said his government hopes to have the film shown more widely in Burma and they have been talking to the Burmese Ministry of Culture about it.
Drofenik said supporting a societal consensus and respecting minority rights were “preconditions for a functioning democracy in which all groups in the society are part of the decision making process.”
“It is always very interesting for me to hear about the changes in Burma,” said Ehrich, the German actress who played the role of Sargent.
She told The Irrawaddy: “For people who do not really know the story, it may seem like … a great, fantastic movie. But I hope [the Burmese people] enjoy the film and I hope things will change.”
Correction: The Human Rights Human Dignity Film Festival will be held in Rangoon only, not Naypyidaw as an earlier version of the story reported.