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Princess with a Cause, Part I
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>From The Denver Post (Colorado), Sunday, 30 June 1996, pp 1A & 12A
PRINCESS with a CAUSE
By Mary George
Special to The Denver Post
One day 43 years ago, Inge Sargent woke up a princess in Burma. Since
then, the Boulder resident's life has gone from fairy tale to nightmare to
crusade for justice.
Boulder-- In her worst nightmare, retired Fairview High School teacher
Inge Sargent is still a princess, and she's running.
Chased by bullets, she is gripping the wrists of her young daughters, and
they are running from the Burmese soldiers who murdered the prince.
The dream is based partly on fact. From 1954 until 1964, Inge Sargent was
the princess of the Burmese state of Hsipaw. She was married to Sao Kya
Seng, the prince of Hsipaw. The military imprisoned him during a 1962
coup. Sargent and her children never saw him again.
After more than two years under house arrest, the princess escaped and
smuggled her daughters to Austria.
A few years later, they moved to Boulder.
Until recently, Sargent kept their royal past under wraps. She feared the
long arm of the army, which still rules the country with a ruthless hand.
She taught school, and she remarried. She worked hard to help her
mixed-race children fit into homogeneous Boulder.
But her prince and the pain of his nation kept disturbing her sleep.
"People do not know what's going on in Burma now," she said, referring to
the land the generals renamed Myanmar in 1989. "The roads are built by
child labor, and they are using slave labor to make way for tourists,
"Tourists say, 'We have gone to Burma, and it looks fine." This makes me
so angry. They go to Mandalay, to Rangoon, to Pagan, only to the places
the military wants them to go. They cannot go anywhere else.
"And, yes, there are prisoners. Just like my first husband was a
So now, at age 64, from her modest Boulder home, the former princess is
campaigning full time for democracy for the people who crowned her. Her
traditional Shan hairstyle and measured speech present a regal air. But
she shuns the title "princess," except for the credibility it gives her
Inge Sargent is philosophically one with Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese
opposition leader who was awarded the 1991 Nobel Peace Prize.
Suu Kyi urges foreigners to boycott her country and dry up the generals'
sources of foreign cash. Similar international pressure forced South
Africa's rulers to give up apartheid in the 1980s, and Suu Kyi has been
called "the Nelson Mandela of the '90s."
Sargent has embraced Suu kyi's goal as her own.
"I am a lone voice here," she said. "But we have to stand up. If we
don't, who will?"
Sargent's story begins in 1952. An Austrian native, she was an exchange
student at Colorado College.
At a gathering for foreign students, she met Sao Kya Seng, a Burmese
studying at the Colorado School of Mines. Only the university president
knew that Sao was the ruling prince of Hsipaw (pronounced SEE-paw), one of
the 30 remote Shan states on the nation's hilly frontier with China, Laos
Sao had sworn the president to secrecy. The prince had come to study
mining engineering and American political theory, not to be treated like
The prince and the young Austrian woman fell in love, and still he didn"t
reveal his true identity. He wanted to be sure that his sweetheart loved
him, not his royal title, Sargent writes in her book "Twilight over Burma,
My Life as a Shan Princess," published in 1994.
The couple married at a friend's home in Denver on March 7, 1953. After
Sao's exams and graduation, they traveled to Europe, then set sail for
Sao's homeland. As their boat docked in Rangoon, hundreds of Shan
citizens on small, brightly decorated boats clamored to welcome them,
waving banners and bouquets.
It was only then that Sao informed his adventuresome bride that she had
unwittingly become a princess.
She was shocked and hurt that her husband hadn't trusted her love for him.
But she put her emotions aside and took part in the welcome, winning
For the next eight years, the royal couple lived in Hsipaw, in a palace
with 46 servants. (Sargent prefers to call them "employees.") The prince
had a personal secretary, the princess a personal maid, each of their
children a nanny. When the weather became oppressively hot, the household
retreated to a summer palace in the hills. The former princess writes
that her days began by "filling 20 vases with cut flowers" and that
diamonds, rubies and sapphires were part of her daily wardrobe.
But there the fairy-tale trappings of royalty ended. Sao's goal was to
modernize Hsipaw and its feudal ways. Like a "mini Peace Corpse," Sargent
said, they introduced western farming, mining, medical and political
(Continued on following transmission)