Burma Lifeline

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Inaugural Sao Thusandi Award Given in Chiang Mai
By: Sai Awn Murng

The Sao Thusandi Leadership Award ceremony was held recently in Chiang Mai to recognize the achievements of its first recipient, Sai Phu Murng. The award was established by the humanitarian organization Burma Lifeline.

“The Thusandi Award was established to honor young people from Shan state who are committed to taking a leadership role in establishing a democratic, peaceful, and thriving Shan State. Those who receive our award must have a desire to live in Shan State when that becomes possible,” noted Poppy Copeland, a board member of Burma Lifeline.

The organization’s founder, Inge Sargent, was once married to Sao Kya Seng, the Saophalong (ruling prince) of the Shan State of Hsipaw. While serving as Mahadevi (Celestial Princess), she was known as Sao Thusandi. The couple, who met while studying in the United States, were known for their devotion to improving the livelihoods of the peoples of Hsipaw, particularly in the fields of education, healthcare, and agriculture. For his tireless efforts, Sao Kya Seng is often compared to Thailand’s revered “Development King,” King Bhumibol Adulyadej.

“The two of us were like a little Peace Corps,” recalled Mrs. Sargent in a documentary of her life entitled The Last Mahadevi.

However, their work came to an abrupt end with the Burmese military coup of 1962. Sao Thusandi was placed under house arrest before she was finally forced to flee the country with her children. Her husband was last seen being arrested by Burmese soldiers not far from the Shan State capital of Taunggyi. He was never heard from again.

Mrs. Sargent, who is often referred to affectionately by Shans as Sao Mae (Royal Mother) Inge, is now retired but continues to help the peoples of Burma through Burma Lifeline, established almost ten years ago.

“Burma Lifeline has sent funds to aid refugees and migrants from Burma survive. In addition to responding to crisis and emergency, Burma Lifeline supports basic medical care and educational programs,” noted Ms. Copeland.

These have included programs not just along the Thai-Burma border but also include providing aid to victims of last May’s Cyclone Nargis in the Irrawaddy Delta, as well as victims of the famine in Chin State. In recognition of the major exacerbating factor behind humanitarian catastrophes in Burma, the organization established the Sao Thusandi Leadership Award to “encourage and support the awardees in their work to uphold local customs and culture and to inspire others in Shan State to follow their example in pursuit of a democratic society in their homeland.”

The first awardee, Sai Phu Murng, was one of the founders of the Migrant Justice Program of the Human Rights Development Foundation (HRDF), headed by prominent Thai human rights activists Somchai Homlaor and Gothom Arya. Sai Phu Murng currently serves as a community educator and paralegal coordinator, helping to advocate for the rights of Shan migrant workers who have been injured or killed on the job. The activities of the organization, pursued through advocacy and strategic litigation in Thailand’s highest courts, have produced results which have sent ripples of hope through the migrant and Shan exile communities. Perhaps the best known is the case of Nang Noom Mai Seng, a young Shan construction worker paralyzed from the waist down as a result of a construction site injury, whose employer refused to pay compensation. Sai Phu Murng’s tireless efforts with HRDF resulted in Nang Noom’s compensation claim being settled out of court as the largest ever compensation settlement for a migrant worker injured on the job in Thailand. HRDF has also challenged the Thai Ministry of Labor’s refusal to grant access to injured workers such as Nang Noom to the Workers Compensation Fund, to which all workers in Thailand injured on the job are entitled to access by law, which does not specify ethnic origin or legal status as being relevant, in the country’s highest courts and the National Human Rights Commission and the International Labor Organization (ILO).

“I never think and never dream that I would be given this kind [of] award, which [has given me] much inspiration and encouragement,” noted Sai Phu Murng in his acceptance speech. “Now I must commit more for the Shan or my community’s sake.”

“We hope this award will be a yearly event, helping to encourage the young future leaders of Shan State,” noted Ms. Copeland. “And we hope that, one day, we can hold this ceremony where it should be held, in Shan State.”


Sao Kya Seng and Sao Thusandi, as Saophalong and Mahadevi of Hsipaw.