Former Princes Works to Help Refugees from Burma


By Janna L. Graber Special to the Tribune

DENVER — The road to life in America has not been easy for Dah Doh Moo, a 40-year-old refugee from Burma. The mother of three fled her own village at 17, and spent the next 20 years hiding in the jungles. At 22, she joined the Karen National Liberation Army, a resistance group fighting the Burmese military regime that took over the country in 1962.

“I spent five years training women to shoot AK-47s and M-16s,” says Dah Doh, as she shows a visitor pictures of petite women carrying powerful weapons.

Although Dah Doh is learning English, her experiences are easier to convey in her native Burmese.

With the help of Inge Sargent, a 68-year-old Colorado woman, the immigrant’s words are translated into English. For Sargent, the words also are painful. She knows all too well the sad reality behind them.

Sargent is the former princess of the Shan State of Hsipaw (SEE-paw) in Burma.

“Dah Doh and her family are the lucky ones,” Sargent says. “They got out [in September] and have a new life here.”

With the help of Ecumenical Refugee Services in Denver, Dah Doh and her family have a new home and jobs.

It is those who have been left behind in Burma, and in the refugee camps along the border in Thailand and Bangladesh who most concern Sargent. Once the biggest exporter of rice in Southeast Asia, Burma (which is 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 says. “Now it is one of the least developed countries.”

According to the U.S. State Department, human rights abuses are commonplace in the country. Rape, torture, imprisonment and forced relocation often occur.

“If the soldiers want to burn down a village and kill everyone, they can,” says Dah Doh.

Burma’s 15 largest minority groups make up 40 percent of the country’s 45 million population. Members of these groups are systematically targeted for relocation and forced labor. The country is the second largest producer of opium and heroin, according to State Department figures.

But this turmoil-ridden place is not the Burma that Sargent knew and loved–or even a close semblance of the country that once adopted her as their own.

Sargent grew up in Austria, but came to the United States to attend college in 1952. At an international student party in Colorado, she met a young man from Burma named Sao Kya Seng–and her life was changed forever.

Although impressed with Sao, an engineering student, Sargent never imagined that he was a ruling prince in Burma. Sao had decided to hide his identity because he wanted to live a normal student life while he studied.

The two fell in love and married, and eventually sailed 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. It was a gathering to welcome someone important.

That important person was her husband. Sargent listened in shock as Sao told her who he really was. Today she still laughs at her response. “I wish you would have told me!” she exclaimed at the time. “I would have worn a different dress!”

Although Sargent was hurt that Sao had hidden his identity, she understood his reasons.

“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 eventually 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, Sargent says. He abolished the practice of servants kneeling before him, gave his rice fields away to the farmers who worked them, and introduced new farming methods.

“Sao was a good man, and no one could corrupt him,” Sargent says proudly. “But ultimately, it was his strong beliefs and actions that made him a threat to the military.”

In 1962, while Sao was away attending parliament meetings, the military staged a coup under the leadership of Gen. Ne Win. Sao was arrested and never seen again. Eventually, word came that he had been killed.

For two years, Sargent and her two daughters lived 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 been so happy.

As a single working mother, she was 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” (University of Hawaii Press, $12).

Writing the book stirred Sargent’s passion for the people of Burma. In 1999, the Sargents founded Burma Lifeline (, 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.

The organization has found support from all over the country, including from Robert Pritz-ker, president and CEO of Chicago-based The Marmon Group, who is an enthusiastic board member and also married to Sargent’s daughter Mayari.

“The plight of the Burmese under their oppressive government is just terrible,” Pritzker says. “The good thing is that more than 99 percent of what Burma Lifeline raises goes to help these people.”

“There are several million refugees hiding in Thailand and Bangladesh,” Sargent says. “Another 5 million are displaced inside Burma.”

Conditions in the camps are hard, and most refugees have little health care or education. Life in the jungle is even worse. Just ask Dah Doh Moo.

“My greatest fear was not the enemy, but keeping my children healthy,” Dah Doh says. “I was terrified they would get malaria or dysentery. Finding our own food was very hard. We were often on the run. I ran carrying one child in my arms and the other on my back.”

“Our objective is to help these refugees survive their ordeal,” says Sargent, who was awarded a United Nations International Human Rights award last year for her work.

Sargent now spends her time lecturing on Burma, monitoring Internet communications regarding the situation there, and raising money for refugees–many who still call her the “Shan Royal Mother.”

Every penny raised goes to provide food, water and medical care for these people, Sargent says. These goods and services are distributed by her trusted Burmese relatives, who know where to find the refugees and how to get them the help they need.

“I am connected to the people of Burma,” Sargent says. “I’ve lived with them–and lost my heart there. How can I not help them? Someone has to help them.”


Category: News Features