The love story between a European woman from Austria and a Shan prince from Southeast Asia, told to the world through the film Twilight over Burma, has come back into the conversation after the death of Inge Sargent, the Austrian Shan princess.
The Irrawaddy, a news magazine covering Myanmar and Southeast Asia, reports the death of Inge Sargent, also known as Sao Nang Thu Sandi, who passed away on 5 February 2023 at her home in Boulder, Colorado, United States. She was born in Kärtnen in Carinthia, Austria, and would have been 91 years old on 23 February.
Local Thai people in Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai, which are in the north of Thailand and share a border with Myanmar, held a mourning ceremony in honor of “Jao Nang Thusandi”, the queen consort of Hsipaw, a town in Shan State, Myanmar.
Jamtong, a Tai Yai person who has a close relationship with Jao Nang Thusandi’s family, told reporters that many people attended the ceremony, including Tai Yai monks from several temples. Some of those present had to take time off work to attend the ceremony. She said that this phenomenon illustrated the great spirit, adding that Tai Yai people around the world were interested in attending the ceremony but faced a travel barrier.
According to the Royal Project Foundation, the Thai call the people of Shan State “Tai Yai”, while the Shan call themselves “Tai”. People in Myanmar also call the people of Shan State “Shan”.
“Shan State is a state of Myanmar. Shan State borders China to the north, Laos to the east, Thailand to the south and five Burmese administrative divisions to the west,” according to the Shan State Investment Committee (SSIC)
Jaileang, another Tai Yai from La Siew town in northern Shan State, said he felt sorry for Jao Nang Thusandi’s family. He first learned about their story when he was a teenager from his mother. The love story of Jao Nabg Thusandi and the Hsipaw Prince is a well-known story not only in Shan State. He attended the ceremony to pay his last respects to the late Queen Consort of Hsipaw.
“Everyone in Shan State knows the two royals either from a tale told by an older generation or from our history. I do not know her personally, but I want to support the ceremony as much as I can, also to pay my respects and remember her one last time as our Queen. The story of her life and of Prince Hsipaw, from whom she had to part, is known to all. We have all felt the pain,” said Jaileang.
Sao Nang Thu Sandi met and fell in love with Sao Kya Seng in Colorado, United States when the two were studying there. Unaware that he was a prince of Shan State, she married him in 1953.
Sargent was crowned queen when they were back in the Shan State. The royal couple belonged to a new-generation of thinkers who developed the state at that time.
After moving to Shan State, she studied the Tai Yai language and became fluent in it. She also focused on the development of education and health care for the people of Hsipaw City.
However, after General Ne Win and the Myanmar Army took power in 1962, all the princes were imprisoned, including Sao Kya Seng, who was abducted by the Myanmar Army and has disappeared to this day. He was last seen at an army checkpoint near Taunggyi town and no one has seen him since.
Inge Sargent was under house arrest until 1964, when she decided to bring her two daughters from Myanmar to her hometown. She then moved to the USA. Until her retirement, she worked at a high school and founded the organisation Burma Lifeline, which cares for ethnic groups on the borders. She also founded the Sao Thusandi Leadership Award for young people working for civil society, culture, peace and democracy in Shan State.
According to the Irraway, 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 gone, but definitely not forgotten.