Inge Sargent’s “Twilight Over Burma” is a fascinating and disturbing book. Inge Eberhard was an Austrian on a Fulbright Scholarship spending a year in Denver when she met a young mining student, Sao Kya Seng, also a foreign student, a native of Burma. They married and, because Sao had made his plans clear from the beginning, returned to Burma in the mid-1950s.
It was not until their boat entered the harbor of Rangoon, and she saw throngs of festive looking people at the dock, that she learned that Sao was not simply a young mining engineer determined to help economically to build his country, but also the Prince of Hsipaw, and she was now the Princess.
They lived a comfortable, rewarding and productive life in Shan State, hundreds of mikes north of Rangoon, where Sao was very active in modernization and development projects, and where Inge helped found a strong academic school and helped bring neo-natal care and better childbirth services. They had two daughters and she quickly went from being an outsider in a community that saw few outsiders to being an important and welcome member of the community.
Sao was also a member of the Parliament of Burma, taking a strong stand on matters of interest and import to his Shan community.
Burma was, after the end of World War II, a politically unique place. Geographically, the ethnic Burmese lived in the south, which the north was the home of various non-Burmese tribes, such as the Shan. Before the war, The south of Burma was a British colony, while the northern part of today’s Burma, an area of some unrest, was divided into various tribal areas (Shan state, the size of Connecticut being the largest), which were treated as British protectorates. After the war, all parts of Burma, anxious to gain independence, banded together as the Union of Burma, adopting a constitution which allowed the northern states to withdraw from the union, if they so chose, after ten years.
The question as to whether the Union would continue was much debated, with some in the north attempting to gain equal treatment for their non-Burmese residents as the price of their continuing to remain in the Union. Sao was one of those northern leaders.
In 1962, General Ne Win and the Burmese army staged a coup which brought into existence the military dictatorship that rules the country even today. On the day of the coup, all opposition parliament members, including Sao, were arrested. Sao was executed, apparently within days.
After exhausting the possibility of finding her husband, or even finding out anything about him, Inge and her children left Burma, going first to Austria and then back to Colorado, where she taught high school German for thirty years and, with her second husband, advocated for Burmese democracy. She wrote her story in the early 1990s
The book is interesting on a number of levels – Burmese history, geography, and rural social customs. And of course her very unusual, positive, and ultimately tragic experience. If you can find a copy of the book (published by the University of Hawaii Press), you should read it. I have read that a film version of Inge’s story is in the works. My guess is that the story will make a. Ery good film.