On a sunny summer afternoon in June 1966, a small Volkswagen Beetle made its way towards Schloss Laudon, an old castle operated as a luxury hotel in Austria’s capital Vienna. The iron gates to the estate were closely guarded by the Austrian police, but they let the vehicle pass since it carried diplomatic numberplates from the Royal Thai Embassy in Vienna.
The car chugged along the gravel road through the neatly-trimmed garden which surrounded the castle and came to a halt right outside the main building. A young Caucasian woman, her hair tied in a bun in the then Southeast Asian fashion, got out of the car and climbed the marble steps up to the door. Two Eurasian girls, ten and seven-years-old, clutched her hands on each side. They entered the castle’s round hall which was furnished as an elegant lobby with rococo furniture and dark, wooden panels. The guests, all of whom were Asians, stared in wonder at the intruders.
Still holding the two girls by the hands, the Caucasian lady approached a woman in the party and addressed her in fluent Burmese: “I want to see the general.” The Burmese lady, to whom the request had been addressed, glanced up the flight of stairs leading to a balcony on the second floor. The Caucasian lady’s eyes followed hers and she saw a tall Asian man on the balcony, hurriedly turning left behind the balustrade and disappearing through one of the doors which he resolutely shut behind him. “Please be seated and have a cup of tea,” the by now nervous Burmese lady replied hesitantly. “No, thank you. I have come here to discuss personal matters with the general,” the Caucasian lady replied, still in Burmese and holding her head high as the two little girls clung shyly to her hands. “Er, he’s resting. He’s not so well, you see,” the Burmese lady replied hesitantly. “Not well? He seemed perfectly fit to me when he ran into that room upstairs,” the Caucasian lady fired back.
The tall man who had vanished into a room upstairs was Burma’s then military dictator, General Ne Win, who had seized power in a coup d’état four years before. The Asian lady was his wife, Khin May Than, or Katie Ba Than, and they were on a visit to Vienna where the general was receiving psychiatric treatment for an undisclosed mental disorder. Accompanied by an entourage of 50 high-ranking military officers and intelligence operatives, they had rented the entire Schloss Laudon, while Ne Win went for his daily consultations with one of Austria’s most outstanding psychiatrists, Dr Hans Hoff. The stalwart Caucasian lady who had so boldly confronted the top echelons of Burma’s military elite was Inge Eberhard, better known as Sao Nang Thu Sandi by the people in one of the most prosperous Shan States, the valley of Hsipaw along the old Burma railroad from Mandalay to Lashio. Her husband, Sao Kya Seng, had been the last prince of Hsipaw and the two girls who were with their mother in Schloss Laudon in June 1966 were the young princely couple’s daughters.
Inge Eberhard, who later became Sao Nang Thu Sandi and the princess of Hsipaw, first met Sao Kya Seng in Denver, Colorado, where both of them attended university in the early 1950s. They fell in love and were married in March 1953. Inge thought that the man she had married was a mining engineer, but when they sailed to Burma and arrived at Yangon’s port, she was startled to see a huge, cheering crowd who had come to welcome them home. It was only then that Sao Kya Seng revealed that he was, in fact, the prince of Hsipaw. At his own request, his princely status not been revealed by the rector of the university in Denver. “I wanted to make sure you married me for the right reasons,” Sao Kya Seng smilingly explained as Inge looked at him in bewilderment.
On November 2, 1957, at the palace in Hsipaw, the young couple was officially installed as Saohpalong [Great Lord of the Sky] and Mahadevi [Celestial Princess] of Hsipaw. Aage Krarup-Nielsen, a Danish writer who visited Hsipaw in the late 1950s, wrote in his book The Land of the Golden Pagodas that “it was at first somewhat of a shock for many local people to get a young European lady as their princess…but before long, their reserve melted and their Mahadevi today is admired by the entire people of Hsipaw, who regard her as one of their own.”
One of her first endeavors was to organize village fairs, the profits of which were used to build the best-equipped and most modern maternity clinic in the Shan States at the time. Sao Kya Seng, with his American education, introduced new ideas to the old feudal system of his state. Soon after his return to Hsipaw, he gave all of the princely family’s paddy fields to the farmers who cultivated them. He bought tractors and agricultural implements which the farmers could use free of charge, and introduced new crops at his own agricultural research center. Since the mining engineering ploy had not been an entire fabrication, he also initiated mineral explorations in Hsipaw and used the returns from these to finance his many development projects.
Sao Kya Seng and Sao Nang Thu Sandi became one of the most popular princely couples in the 30 or so Shan States, which constituted a semi-autonomous region within the then federal Union of Burma. Old Hsipaw residents still talk with nostalgia about the days of their young princely couple, when their living standards were far higher than they are today after decades of mismanagement by successive military-dominated regimes.
The Shan princes, or saohpas, relinquished their powers in 1959 at a grand ceremony in the Shan States’ capital of Taunggyi, and the Shan States became Shan State. But many of them stayed on in politics, most of them as members of the House of Nationalities, the Upper House of the bicameral parliament. Sao Kya Seng was one of those MPs before Ne Win staged his coup in 1962 and, like so many other Shan leaders, he had been caught in a dilemma when a Shan rebellion broke out in 1958. The early rebels demanded independence for Shan State and Hsipaw especially supplied the ranks of their army with fighters and cadres. It is said that one of the early Shan rebel leaders secretly visited Yangon in 1961 to meet Sao Kya Seng and ask him if he would be willing to have a meeting with the independence fighters. Sao Kya Seng brought out the Union Constitution and read out the oath of loyalty he had sworn as a member of the House of Nationalities.
But even so, Ne Win and his henchmen regarded Sao Kya Seng and many of the other constitutional Shan leaders as suspect. When Ne Win staged his coup on March 2, 1962, Sao Shwe Thaike, another Shan leader who had served as Burma’s first president from 1948-1952, was arrested and his 17-year-old son was gunned down when soldiers raided his residence in Yangon. In November that year, Sao Shwe Thaike’s family was told that “the President has expired in jail.” Sao Kya Seng had attended the Parliament in Yangon the day before the coup and then flown to Taunggyi to visit his terminally ill sister. Early in the morning of March 2, soldiers came to the house where he was staying in Taunggyi, but the prince had left for Heho airport before the raid to catch a plane to Lashio on his way home to Hsipaw. He was unaware of what had taken place in Yangon only hours before. But the military had already put up a checkpoint on the road to Heho and Sao Kya Seng’s car was stopped. He was last seen being driven away to Ba Htoo Myo Military Academy near Lawksawk, north of Taunggyi.
His arrest — and presumed extrajudicial execution at the hands of Ne Win’s military intelligence — was never publicly announced, but Sao Nang Thu Sandi, being the woman she was, contacted one of the most influential Burmese newspapers at that time, the Myanmar Alin, or ‘the New Light of Myanmar’ [a paper that was closed down by the military in the 1969, but the name of which was given to the state organ the Working People’s Daily in 1993, although there was no relation between the two papers]. On May 5, 1962, the real Myanmar Alin carried an article about the disappearance of the Hsipaw prince, which infuriated the military authorities.
Sao Nang Thu Sandi was threatened by agents from Ne Win’s military intelligence and was put under house arrest in Hsipaw until she managed to leave the country in 1964 together with her two daughters. They went to Austria, where she managed to get a job at the Thai embassy in Vienna — and continued her efforts to shed light on the fate of her husband. Shortly after the incident at Schloss Laudon, Sao Nang Thu Sandi and her daughters left for the United States, where they settled down as private citizens. She remarried an American, Tad Sargent, but she never gave up hope of finding out what had happened in Burma in 1962. She continued to wear her hair in the Shan fashion and never forgot how to speak Burmese and Shan.
In early 1988, as Burma was heading for turmoil, Sao Nang Thu Sandi came on a visit to Chiang Mai, her first time back in Southeast Asia since 1964. Hsipaw exiles in northern Thailand met her at a hotel in Chiang Mai, and she was overwhelmed by the heartfelt love she received. Visibly moved, Sao Nang Thu Sandi asked them if there was anything she could do for them in the United States. One of the participants said that the assistance Washington was giving the Burmese military ostensibly to fight drugs was a disaster. Poor opium farmers and others suffered while the main traffickers were protected by the military.
It so happened that a close acquaintance of hers worked for Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, who had served as US ambassador to India and had an interest in Asian affairs. Sao Nang Thu Sandi set the ball rolling and through the acquaintance Moynihan asked for a thorough investigation of US assistance to Burma. It was carried out by the General Accounting Office, and the results were published in a report dated September 1989 and titled “Drug Control: Enforcement Efforts in Burma Are Not Effective”. It concluded that “eradication and enforcement are unlikely to significantly reduce Burma’s opium production unless they are combined with economic development in the growing regions and the political settlement of Burma’s ethnic insurgencies.”
But that was not all. On August 10, 1988 — two days after the 8888 uprising and the subsequent massacre of demonstrators in Yangon and other cities and towns across the country — Moynihan tabled a resolution condemning the slaughter and called for an end to the dictatorship in Burma. The resolution was supported by five other senators, including Edward Kennedy, and unanimously approved by the US Senate on the following day. The news reached the people in Burma in translation over the Voice of America’s Burmese service. People cheered in their homes as the shooting continued outside. It was the first international condemnation of the carnage in 1988, and it was followed by more, even harsher statements issued primarily by Moynihan and his office.
Sao Nang Thu Sandi, on her part, set up a foundation to provide assistance to refugees on the Thai border. In 2008, she established the Sao Thusandi Leadership Award through which support has been given to young community leaders in Shan State, among them a staff member of the Shan Women’s Action Network (SWAN), and Sai Awn, a 24-year-old anti-coal activist who fought for compensation for local residents whose farmland was damaged by mining operations. He had died from a lung disease and Sao Nang Thusandi thought he should be remembered.
She also wrote a book, Twilight Over Burma: My Life as a Shan Princess, which was published in 1994. It later became a movie, Twilight Over Burma, in which Sao Nang Thu Sandi was played by Maria Ehrich, a German actress, and the Thai actor Daweerit Chullasapya played Sao Kya Seng, with another Thai actor, Sahajak Boonthanakit, playing the part of the evil General Ne Win. Not surprisingly, the film was banned in Burma, but DVDs, many pirated, circulated widely on the ubiquitous black market. Not only Shans were captivated by her extraordinary life story. Many Burmese loved the movie as well.
On February 5, Sao Nang Thu Sandi passed away in her home in Boulder, Colorado. She was born in Kärtnen in Austria in 1932 and would have been 91 on February 23. In the United States, she was Inge Sargent and her second husband Tad, a scientist and expert on Antarctica – and always very supportive of his wife’s work, died a year ago. Two days after her death, SWAN issued a letter of condolence saying that “she touched many lives in meaningful ways and no one will forget her legacy and the impact she had on them and Shan communities.” Sao Nang Thu Sandi was born Austrian but, as Aage Krarup-Nielsen wrote more than sixty years ago, people in Hsipaw and elsewhere regarded her as one of their own, and Shans and others will continue to do so. She is is gone, but definitely not forgotten.