|From her modest home near the foothills of Boulder, Colorado, Inge Sargent is waging a battle. It is not a war of weapons, but of words and empowerment. Sargent is struggling to help the oppressed people of the nation she was forced to leave behind.
The 69-year-old retired teacher is the former princess of the Shan State of Hsipaw in Burma. It is a life that Sargent never imagined she would live.
Growing up in her native Austria, Sargent spent her early years worrying about the strife that filled her own country. She was six years old when the Nazis marched through her village. Sargent saw her mother arrested three times, and watched as neighbors disappeared, never to return.
Times were tough after the war, and Sargent decided to study abroad. In 1952, she came to Colorado on a Fullbright Scholarship, and met the man who would change her life forever.
Sao Kya Seng, a handsome young man from Burma, was studying engineering and the American political system at the Colorado School of Mines. With his winning smile and thoughtful personality, Sargent was easily taken with him.
The two fell in love and married, later sailing to live in Burma. As they reached the port in Rangoon, Sargent noticed that hundreds of people had gathered on the dock. Others floated nearby in brightly colored boats, holding up welcome signs.
“There must be someone important on this ship,” Sargent remarked to her husband, who knew he must make a confession.
Sargent listened in shock as Sao told her who he really was — the prince of Hsipaw.
Today Sargent still laughs when she tells of her response, “I wish you would have told me! I would have worn a different dress!” she exclaimed at the time.
Although Sargent was hurt that Sao had hidden his identity, she understood his reasons, “First, he wanted to live a normal student life. Then later, he wanted to be sure I loved him for who he was, not what he was,” she says.
The bewildered bride soon grew used to royal life. She learned both the Shan and the Burmese languages, and the names of their 46 palace servants. The couple soon had two little girls, Mayari and Kennari.
Sao and Sargent were “working” leaders, and Sao established a mining company and salt mine. During his studies in America, Sao had come to appreciate freedom of speech and the idea that everyone is equal, says Sargent. He abolished the practice of servants kneeling before him, gave his rice fields away to the farmers that worked them, and introduced new farming methods.
Sargent became deeply involved in her adopted country, establishing a birthing clinic, teaching the villagers nutrition and setting up a trilingual school. For nine blissful years, Sargent and Sao lived a fairytale life.
But Sao’s talk of democracy angered the Burmese military. In 1962, while Sao was away attending parliament meetings, the military staged a coup under the leadership of General Ne Win. Sao was arrested and never seen again. Eventually, word came through acquaintances that he had been killed.
For two years, Sargent and her two daughters lived in a state of terror under house arrest. Finally, with the help of the Austrian Ambassador, Sargent and the girls were able to escape, carrying only three suitcases.
Sargent returned to Colorado, where she and Sao had once been so happy. As a single working mother, she determined to make a good home for her girls. She became a high school German teacher, and her daughters adapted to life in America. In 1968, the former princess married Howard (Tad) Sargent, who later adopted her girls.
“Tad encouraged me to write down my life experiences, and to confront my past,” Sargent says. Her story is written in her book, Twilight over Burma, My Life as a Shan Princess.
Writing the book stirred Sargent’s passion for the people of Burma. In 1999, the couple founded Burma Lifeline (www.burmalifeline.org), a non-profit agency dedicated to helping refugees who have fled the military regime, and are either in refugee camps or still hiding in the jungles of Burma.
Conditions under the authoritarian military government have not improved since those days. Once the biggest exporter of rice in Southeast Asia, Burma (now called Myanmar by the military government) is currently one of the poorest countries in the world.
“Burma once had one of the highest literacy rates, and a good health care system,” Sargent states, “Now it is one of the least developed countries.”
Ethnic minority groups such as the Shan, Akha and Karen make up 40 percent of the country’s 45 million population; yet they are systematically targeted for relocation and forced labor.
Nang Ying, a 30-year-old Shan woman, is just one example. “I was 16 when I was taken to do forced labor for the military,” she says, “We worked all day long. They gave us no food and water.”
Rape is a common occurrence, says Ying, who saw such violence first hand. A recent human rights report, “License to Rape,” documented 625 rapes by the Burmese military between 1996-2001. Twenty-five percent of the rapes resulted in death; 61 percent were gang rapes.
Such violence and forced labor continues, says Ying, who later escaped into Thailand. Now a leader in the Shan Women Action Network, a democratic grassroots effort to address the issues Shan women and children face, Nang finds support and leadership in Sargent, whose Burma Lifeline helps to finance the work.
Burma Lifeline also funds several Shan schools in refugee camps along the Thai border, and provides medical supplies to refugees.
“There are several million refugees hiding in Thailand and Bangladesh,” says Sargent, “Another five million are displaced inside Burma.”
“Our objective is to help these refugees survive their ordeal,” says Sargent, who was awarded a United Nations International Human Rights award in 2000 for her work. She spends her time lecturing on Burma, monitoring Internet communications regarding the situation there, and raising money for refugees — many of whom still call her the Shan “Royal Mother.”
Every penny raised goes to provide food, water, and medical care for these people, says Sargent. The help is distributed by her trusted Shan relatives, who know where to find the refugees and how to get them the help they need.
“I am connected to the Shan people of Burma,” says Sargent. “I’ve lived with them — and lost my heart there. How can I not help them? Someone has to help them.”
Photos Courtesy of Inge Sargent