Ethnic Issues

Former Saopha of Shan State Revisited in New Film

By Saw Yan Naing 22 December 2015

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — A new film on the life of the late Shan prince, Sao Kya Seng, based on a book written by his Austrian wife Inge Sargent, is slated to screen internationally in early 2016.

Directed by Austrian filmmaker Sabine Derflinger, the two-hour drama “Twilight over Burma” depicts the fascinating love story between the Shan prince, or saopha, and his Austrian bride who would assume the title of Sao Thusandi, the Mahadevi (celestial princess) of Hsipaw.

The film was shot in several locations in Shan State and northern Thailand, including Chiang Mai and Mae Hong Son provinces, as well as Rangoon, Colorado in the US and Austria. Maria Ehrich, Pauline Knof and Simon Schwarz or among the film’s stars, which features several Thai and ethnic Shan actors and actresses.

Sai Myo Aung, the coordinator of Shan Youth Power, an ethnic Shan youth organization based in Chiang Mai, assisted the filmmakers with researching Shan culture, tradition and language for the film which depicts Shan State in the 1950s and 60s.

“I’m glad to contribute to this movie. I helped them with background research on what the lifestyle and dress of Shan people looked like during the 1950s and 60s. I think they tried their best to be authentic,” Sai Myo Aung told The Irrawaddy.

“I’m happy as the movie tells the story of the Shan prince and international audiences will know more about our Shan culture, tradition and history. There are many Shan movies, but they are only known locally. This one is at an international level.”

The book “Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess” was written by Inge Sargent and published in 1994. The well-known book is an invaluable account of Shan life and of the respected saopha whom Sargent married in the early 1950s after they first met at a college in Colorado.

In the book, written in the third-person, 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.”

As she writes, her husband then explained to her that he was “more than just a recently graduated mining engineer—he was the Prince of Hsipaw, ruler of an autonomous state in Burma’s Shan mountains. The welcome was for him and his bride, the Princess of Hsipaw.”

“That was a very touching moment when she realized who her husband was only when they arrived at the dock,” said Khuensai Jaiyen, a veteran Shan journalist.

“I like the book as it was well-written in a simple way that even ordinary people can understand.”

In an interview with Democratic Voice of Burma (DVB) in June 2011, speaking in Burmese, Sargent recalled the husband she spent around a decade with in Shan State.

“Even though my husband was a prince, he liked freedom and democracy. He loved his country. I had a very good time in Hsipaw and I still miss it. He served his people and I supported him however I could,” she said.

During her time in Shan State, Sargent was deeply involved in Sao Kya Seng’s work. She learned the Shan language, the culture and history of Hsipaw, and worked with her husband to improve local lives in the remote locale.

Their romance came to an abrupt and tragic end when Gen. Ne Win assumed power in a military coup in 1962. Sao Kya Seng was arrested near Taunggyi, without explanation. Conflicting speculation as to his fate continued over the years, but despite her efforts to locate him, Sargent never saw the prince again.

“The government wanted to control power and centralize the ethnic regions,” she told DVB in 2011. “My husband and I believed that there should be power sharing between the central government and ethnic states. It was hard to believe in the emergence of a federal union as the central government at that time didn’t grant autonomy to ethnic states.”

After moving back to the United States, Sargent later remarried and is now retired after a busy career teaching, writing and traveling. She continues to support Shan civil society organizations and has occasionally visited Shan communities in Thailand.