From elephantjournal.com’s Autumn 2005 Issue.
Waylon H. Lewis, for elephant: You were formerly a princess, I understand..!
Inge Sargent: I was the mahadevi of Hsipaw State. Nowadays, no crown or gown…nothing! But I’m still princess of the Shan state in Burma—about the size of Connecticut. My first husband’s family had ruled that state since 40 B.C. And as my first husband said, nothing much ever changed there. That’s why he gave up his rulership and decided to come to the Colorado School of Mines.
I met him in Denver. I was a Fulbright at Colorado Women’s College from Austria. He was studying mining, because he felt that it could help his people economically. And also help them change their system. He felt it was wonderful to be an autonomous ruler if you were enlightened, but maybe he were not! And so he decided to come here. Nobody except the president of the School of Mines knew who he was.
ele: And he was the king or prince of that region?
Sargent: He was the ruling prince. If he said, “Let’s chop these 20 or 30 heads off,” people would do it—he was
absolute in just about everything. He was 22 when he was declared the ruler of the state. After being absolute ruler for two years he said, “I rule, but I really cannot help my people.” And he had been to college abroad already, and the natural thing would have been for him to go to a British school. But he wanted to go to the country of Thomas Jefferson—
Sargent: —where everybody is equal. The School of Mines accepted him, and he made a beeline to the President’s office and said, “I want to be a student like everybody else. I don’t want to be in any way different. I want to experience life the way it is in the country of Thomas Jefferson.”
ele: He kept his royalty secret from everyone, including his fiancée. So how did you wind up finding out?
Sargent: When we went on a passenger freighter ship, the S.S. Voyager from Liverpool to Rangoon. We had been married
for about seven months. It was 1953 or ‘54, just at Christmastime. The approach to Rangoon—no air pollution, no high-rises—you could go 60 miles up the Rangoon River and see the beautiful pagoda, the symbol of Burma, which has about 60 tons of gold in it. And the tip of the pagoda has 2,000 gems in it, diamonds, emeralds, rubies and sapphires…and when the sun hit them, they glistened. An incredible sight. It’s still there, but now you have the high rises, pollution, and they’ve put neon lights on it.
ele: So you thought your husband was just an ordinary man.
Sargent: Yes. And when we came to Rangoon we saw lots of people in beautiful dresses with flowers on the bank of the
Rangoon River. No other ship was there, so I said, “Gee, what’s going on, is there a festival?” And Sao didn’t say anything
and then I said, “Look, look, there’s even a band!” And then I saw this banner saying Welcome Home, and I said, “They are welcoming somebody, who is it?” We were the only ship going into Rangoon harbor. We were on that ship for a month, so we knew everybody. And he didn’t say anything. The welcoming group was getting into little boats and throwing flowers in the water and coming nearer to our ship. Finally he said, “I’ve got to tell you something.” I said, “No, not now, I don’t want to miss this welcome.” He said, “Please.” And I said, “No, no, no, later, tell me later, I want to see what’s happening.” We were newly married. He said, “They are welcoming us.” And I looked at him and I still remember, I said, “You mean they welcome every mining engineer like that?” [Laughter] and he said, “No. I’m their Prince.” “You’re their what?” And he said, “I’m the Prince of
Hsipaw, and you are my princess.” And then, of course, as a typical 21-year-old, what did I say? “Oh, why didn’t you tell me earlier, I would have worn a different dress!” [Laughter] So that was my introduction. I had no idea.
ele: I was reading a bit of your book, Twilight over Burma. You talk becoming a princess to the Shan people of Thailand. Youwere Austrian. That must have been quite a challenge: they’d never had a foreign princess.
Sargent: The people were so tolerant and so kind. They said, “Well, if she’s good enough for our prince, we have to give
her a chance.” And so they did.
ele: And you had two daughters.
So, elephant normally focuses on specific ways of living, like yoga or organic foods. Your story is interesting to me because what all these specific ways of living add up to is— whatever religion anyone is or isn’t—we’re hoping to help create what we call an enlightened or a healthy society. And it seems that your husband, the Prince, really did a lot to help that happen. Can you describe some ways he tried to improve his country, based on his experience in America as well as his own inspiration?
Sargent: First of all, he really believed that everybody was equal. Everybody had access to him; he listened to every
opinion. His wealth was paddy fields. Rice. The people worked on the paddy fields that his ancestors had established.
He just said, “We don’t need them.” He gave all of those away. Even I said, “Can’t we keep one or two, just for our household, our servants and this and that?” He said, “No, we will buy our rice.” So the people became owners of their land! It was administered by the Buddhist monks, who were instrumental and helpful.
In terms of economics, he wanted to develop the mining industry. We were sitting on minerals…you name it: lead, zinc, silver, antimony, gold. And in farming, he ordered 40 tractors and everybody could use them. He would offer them to the people and say, “If you want to improve your orange or citrus groves, here’s help.” It was just a paradise. After three years, the orange groves, which we established— you just stuck a branch of an orange tree into the ground and in three years it bore fruit. It was unbelievable, everything grew. But so did the weeds! We established experimental fields in pineapples, ginger, coffee, soybeans, and all sorts of citrus fruits at different levels of elevation. There was already a lot of tea growing there, and so he helped that.
He insisted that we paid the people on a daily basis—they would have done it for free for the ruler. And then, of course, he was much into helping people to help themselves. For instance, there were some people that got aid from the U.S., artificial fertilizer. But the people didn’t know how to read English, so they put the whole bag of fertilizer on the tree. And of course the tree died. And the people came to him and said, “I thought that was good stuff.” And he said, “Please, if you plan to do something like that, come and talk to me.” He had people there everyday, everyday, asking his advice.
ele: So at that point, it was quite a healthy, happy society? And Burma, overall, was one of Asia’s biggest rice exporters, a wealthy nation.
Sargent: Yes. It was after the colonial, during a democratic time. And literacy was high.
ele: Even with the farmers?
Sargent: Yes, yes. They learned in monasteries from the monks. Up to a certain age, girls and boys would learn how to read and write.
ele: And almost the entire nation was, and is still Buddhist. So that’s the picture then. But it’s a different nation now. Could you say something about the present state of Burma?
Sargent: Well, in 1962, my first husband was killed. I was put under house arrest for two years as a CIA spy because I had been in the U.S. for a year! I didn’t know what the CIA was, but anyway. [Laughing] But they were not allowed to hold me because I had kept my Austrian citizenship. It didn’t matter that I was a princess. They killed many of our servants and people—
ele: There had been a military coup.
Sargent: Yes, and they are still in power. They arrested everybody. They had no right to keep me, but they kept me for awhile. Finally I got to Rangoon. And I stayed there, and I tried there to do what was right. The people wanted me to stay; my family wanted me to come back to Austria. I had promised Sao that if something should happen to him—the army never liked a feudal lord who was beloved by his people, married to a foreigner, and democratic—Sao always told me that if anything happens to him, I should go back to my family and if he was alive, he would get in touch with me. So after two years in Burma, trying everything to see whether he was alive or not, I escaped to Austria with my two daughters, who were then 5 and 8, and three suitcases.
ele: You had to leave everything behind.
Sargent: Everything, everything. No money, no journals, no photographs, no documents, no jewelry, nothing. Just—go. I was 32. I went to Austria. I didn’t even have a dime to make a phone call to my parents. I tried through every possible way to find out what had happened to my first husband. 43 years later, the government still has not admitted that they’ve killed him. Eyewitnesses, documents, I have everything and they won’t admit it. Every year, our daughters write to the military government, saying what happened to our father? They’ve never gotten a reply.
ele: What’s the situation in Burma now?
Sargent: It’s one of the most cruel, terribly depressed countries in the world. And that is saying something. The military shoots, rapes, kills, tortures. So we just couldn’t do nothing about it. Before, when I lived there, they had a quota of 500 to emigrate to the U.S. It was never half-filled. Now you have 2 million refugees in Thailand alone. We don’t know how many in India, but half a million in Bangladesh, and we don’t know how many in other countries. They just come with the clothes on their back. Many children have seen their parents were killed. They are 4 or 5, 6 years old, coming across the border—if
they’re lucky enough not to get blown up by the land mines.
This is why my second husband, Tad (or Howard) Sargent and I formed Burma Lifeline. We now have our first part-time employee, and Indochine is helping us put on the big Burma Benefit Bash. I just can’t forget the people. We can do something—I mean, we really have to do something to help.
ele: So 50 years ago, hardly anyone wanted to leave Burma. And now there are millions leaving, and most of them are
Sargent: You know Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner of Burma—she’s been under house arrest for something like 20 years. She was elected, in ’88 or ’89—she was elected by 82% of the vote while she was under arrest. The Burmese military thought that they would win. They got about 3 or 4% of the vote. But, of course, they formed the government and put her under house arrest. So many of her followers are ethnic Burmese, like herself, and they have left as well. Now and then she gets let out. The last time, there was an attack and they tried to kill her.
ele: And she’s only let out within Burma.
Sargent: They would love to get her out of the country, and keep her out, but she won’t go. She says, “They are my people, the people need me.” She is a devout Buddhist, against force and killing. The military—those hoods, those cowards—I have lots of things I could call them! [Laughing] But they are the ones going to the monasteries and having pagodas built and so on. They have killed monks, but they are trying to be Buddhists in one way. There are thousands and thousands who were killed. Sometimes the government tries to promote themselves, the military government, by using the monks—but, you know, people are just humans. They are not only good because they are Buddhist and all bad if they are something else.
The people in Burma are suffering and they need help and the international press, the media is just ignoring it. And it’s one of the countries where there is no email, no modem allowed. Only 1 percent of the people have a telephone, 1 percent! And there’s strict control of all media, of what goes out. Aung San Suu Kyi, the Nobel Peace Prize winner, said “Do not go visit Burma until we are free.”
ele: And why is that?
Sargent: Because it all helps the military government. It has its finger in every pie. There is no enterprise in Burma that can
go on without the military getting a cut. Now, the general who was responsible for killing my first husband, he died in 1999 he died, a general, with $2 billion U.S. abroad. Not in Burma
ele: And you met him, you knew him.
Sargent: Oh yeah, I knew him. I didn’t like him, to say the least. Now that he’s dead, his heirs are fighting over the $2
billion and that’s in a country where they spend 28 cents a year to educate a child, 34 cents a year for medical care. So I can’t
get away from helping people who cross the border, many ethnic groups. Whoever gets across gets help from our Burma
Lifeline foundation. What people get from us is 12 kilos of rice, a quart of oil, a kilo of salt, and a kilo of fermented soybeans.
That’s it. And they will survive. It costs about $19 for us to help them survive for one month.
ele: That’s for a family of five.
Sargent: Right. That’s all they get from us—no eggs, no vegetables. We have people from Burma Lifeline who have been there recently. I can’t go, of course. If you are in Burma and you have my book, Twilight over Burma, it’s 17 years in jail. I’m not even allowed to go into Thailand anymore because the Burmese government asked them to keep me out because I’m a troublemaker; I still have a lot of influence with the people who have fled, especially the Shans, who think I am some legend because they thought I was dead and now they find I’m alive and I live in America. That’s how it is. But some of our directors have gone there, and they say people at the border are hungry, they are sick, and they need education. Sometimes the Thai government pushes them back if the Burmese generals get tough on them, but they don’t give the people who come across food, they don’t allow them to go to school or hospitals. They say, “These are migrants, they should go back to their own country. There’s nothing wrong in their own country!” But we know better.
ele: Burma is now poor. It hardly exports any rice, has one of the biggest heroin and opium markets in the world—the whole country is under a cloud.
Sargent: The military is involved in the opium and the heroin. There are three zones in Burma. One is what’s called
the green zone, where the tourists go. Rangoon, Bagan, Mandalay…there you don’t see the army. You can’t speak
because you don’t know Burmese, right? Everything looks hunky-dory there. Then you have the brown zone, where the
backpackers go. You have to have a permit or a minder— somebody watching you all the time. You won’t know that
person. But everybody that talks to you, if you are a tourist, the minder will then ask, “What did this person ask?” People are scared. And then the largest part of Burma is the black zone. You are not allowed to go there. If you go you will get shot. Even if you are a tourist. They kill you first and then they ask you questions.
ele: That doesn’t make for a good brochure.
Sargent: No. [Laughing]
ele: I have two friends who I just ran into the other day and they said they were going to go on a tour of Southeast Asia, including Burma. I’ve been involved in the Tibetan freedom movement, and people always argue that it’s helpful to trade with China, to buy Chinese goods—the more we’re involved with China, the more it opens up that country. Maybe that’s a different situation. But in Burma it seems that since everything is controlled by the military, trade and tourism, it’s actually not helpful.
Sargent: I’m sitting on the fence. Aung San Suu Kyi says “Don’t come,” period. “Tourism helps the government.” I feel that informed tourism is not a bad thing. It gives the people hope.
ele: Even though most of the money goes to the military?
Sargent: That’s hard. But the people there, if they can, they get their message out and they get hope from people being interested. If they are sure nobody else is listening they tell tourists, “Please help us.” One of our directors from Burma Lifeline went to Burma recently and she was in the brown zone so she was being watched. She was taken to the airport by four or five Buddhist monks who didn’t speak English. She doesn’t speak Burmese. The military made them stop. They wanted her passport; she didn’t give it to them. They wanted her out of the van; she didn’t get out. And finally the Burmese soldiers were spitting at her. They were spitting at her. That was last year.
ele: Probably not a good idea to give your passport to people like that.
This is an amazing story of this idyllic paradise turning into this horrible situation, with so much suffering. Meg and I were just talking about 4 or 500 orphans who had just crossed the border. And every one of those is a human life—assuming they survive—that’s going to be troubled. So what can we do about that? We live in a powerful nation. And for all we complain, we have a lot of freedom. What can we actually do about it, if anything?
Sargent: Well, the first thing, the most important thing, is awareness. This is wonderful, with your magazine, that you are able to raise awareness for people. As Aung San Suu Kyi said, “Please use your liberty, use your freedom, to help us get ours.” The second thing is to help the people survive until…being a Buddhist, I think nothing is permanent, everything changes and, I always believe, this will also pass.
ele: When did you become Buddhist?
Sargent: By living there. First, I wasn’t really that much interested. But then, the meditation saved my mind because I was
going nuts after my first husband was killed. All of a sudden, I would look at a table and it had eight legs, not four. I saw eight. I couldn’t sleep; I couldn’t eat. But I had to make decisions. People still came to me and said, “Help, make decisions,” and I couldn’t make my own.
ele: You were under arrest at the time.
Sargent: Yes. And when I went to Rangoon I meditated and I went to a wonderful teacher, a Buddhist monk. And he taught me meditation. He said, “Just sit down and get clarity of mind. And that will help you.” I did.
ele: And you still practice?
Sargent: I do, but I don’t do vippasana. And I must say that I have gained a certain amount of insight, which will always stay with me. I don’t think that, in a way, you revert!
ele: That’s my logic. I don’t practice hardly at all anymore, because I figure I have lots of merit. That was meant to be a joke.
[Laughter] You were talking about ways to help.
Sargent: Help the people survive until they can go back home. Because that’s all they want—they don’t want to become
immigrants and stay in another country. They want to survive, and go back home. I’ve been raising funds for years and sending
them to Thailand and, and now we are doing some serious fundraising and Indochine [a store in Boulder, Colorado] has been nice enough to lend us these two girls, Maureen and Meg. They are helping us. We can show you, we get spending reports for every penny we send. Every penny. It’s helping people survive; helping those orphans to grow up and eat.
ele: What can be done governmentally, in terms of the larger picture, if anything?
Sargent: Put pressure on the other Asian countries and China—because the only country that really helped Burma,, half of
their income is not on the books—if they needed anything, they always have got it from China and Asian countries like
Thailand and Laos and so on, which have been, they have been manipulated into being quiet. Now, though, some of them
are standing up—like Malaysia and the Philippines, saying “We must dialogue.” The U.S. has sanctions. But in the last
election, the Cheney/Bush campaign had sweatshirts made in Burma, despite the sanctions. We raised a stink and finally
they said, “Oh, whoops, sorry, it’s a mistake!” [Laughing] We want no trade with that government. Haliburton is still there,
but many other corporations have pulled out. They simply won’t do business with them. The European Union is like that too.
The world needs to tell Burma, “Hey, you can’t get away with what you are doing for much longer.” They’ve gotten away with it
for so long.
In terms of the sanctions, again, because the military controls everything, the sanctions hurt the military, not particularly the people. The people are already being hurt by the military. Burma is over 80% rural, agrarian. Sanctions hurt people in industrial societies much more. Yes, a few people will get hurt. But the military gets hurt most, because there is not shop, there is no cinema, there is nothing in Burma which isn’t partly owned by the military. Everything, everything. I was there when they were closing every little shop, they said “This is no longer so-and-so’s shop! This is People’s Shop #1, #2, #3. No longer is this the movie theatre of so-and-so, this is People’s Movie Theatre #1, #2!” I was still there, it was in the ‘60s, and the students had a demonstration. And you know what the army did? They shot at the students, into the demonstration, put the dead and the injured in their trucks, put them in the student union and blew it up. These things were never heard about. The world didn’t know. They just blew it up.
In ’89, about 10,000 people were killed in Rangoon. They wouldn’t allow foreign media in, so nobody knew. That was just before Tiananmen Square, which everybody knows about. In Burma, nobody was there. Now and then you hear something
about Burma—which has been renamed Myanmar, which I don’t agree with because the people were never asked. The year after after the election, and after they killed 10,000 people in Rangoon, the military decided, “The country isn’t called Burma, it’s called Myanmar.” Maybe there were killings in Burma, but Burma doesn’t exist anymore. So, it’s easy.
As long as I live and breathe, I want to help. Those are my people. Though I was born in Austria, that’s where my heart is. Without my second husband, Tad, Burma Lifeline wouldn’t be possible. One person can’t do this alone.
ele: And he encouraged you to write your book, as well.
Sargent: Yes. I would have written a book, but I wouldn’t have gotten through the publishing thing. Without him Burma Lifeline wouldn’t work. And without all the people who support us, we wouldn’t be able to help. We wouldn’t have a website.
ele: Yeah, burmalifeline.org? So thank you. You’re a brave woman. I was inspired to do this interview because we’re always talking about suffering versus enlightened society and how to bridge that so things can get better. But we often do it in an insular way, and it’s compassionate activism that comes out of real peace that’s important. So this is in a sense our first article that’s not just about our own little world.
Sargent: And that’s what the people need. Compassionate activism, if there is such a thing, is absolutely necessary. True to
Buddhism, you just talk about it, you just don’t do it mindlessly. But we have to draw the line somewhere. It is our duty
and responsibility to help others.
On Saturday, September 24, 2005, Indochine, elephant and a dozen other sponsors hosted the Burma Benefit Bash to benefit Inge Sargent’s Burma Lifeline foundation. Held at Indochine’s glorious, vast warehouse in east Boulder, Colo, there was live music courtesy of ‘Girls on Top!,’ food and drink, and a bling-bling silent auction (with elephant’s editor serving as Master of Ceremonies).