February 20, 2005

Revolutionaries and Resistance

SAW BO MYA: A Symbol of Resistance

By – Saw Kapi

The quiet recognition among the Karen people is that General Saw Bo Mya is the one and only living symbol of Karen resistance movement. Born and raised in Hteemukee Village of Mudraw District, Saw Bo Mya belongs to the Sqaw Karen tribe and was an animist until he met his wife, Naw Lar Poe, who later ‘saved’ him to accept the Baptist Christian faith, which, in this case, happens to be that of the Seventh Day Adventist denomination. Saw Bo Mya founded the Karen National Liberation Army and was its Commander-in-Chief until 2000. In the 1980’s he was the paramount leader of KNU or the Karen National Union, the organization that has spearheaded the Karens’ struggle for self-determination since 1949.

“Our revolution is one that must fight against evil and all the wrongs. We must never go against the masses of the country.” Saw Bo Mya

Without any formal education, Saw Bo Mya proved himself to be capable of earning the respects and fear from Karen people of all backgrounds, both Pwo and Sqaw, from urban as well as rural. He actually spent his whole life in defense of his people, militarily, although he fell short of successfully articulating the Karen cause. More than that, his instrumental role in building alliances, both ethnic and broader national opposition, reflects not only his sphere of political influence but also his vision for a solution to Burma’s decade long problem. In the early 1980s he helped forge a broad armed ethnic alliance known as the National Democratic Front. In the 1990s, he was elected the first Chairman of Democratic Alliance of Burma, which, albeit largely defunct by now, is the broadest opposition alliance Burma’s politics ever saw. When the Kachin Independence Organization secretly sealed off a cease-fire agreement with the Burmese military regime in 1993 without acknowledging either NDF or DAB, he came to realize, in a very hard way, how weak those alliances were.

Along with the Karen armed resistance, Saw Bo Mya and his revolutionary comrades brought Marnerplaw, the long time headquarters of the Karen National Liberation Army, onto the regional political map. But the Karen headquarters, which also housed more than a dozen of other Burmese opposition offices, was overrun by the Burmese troops in 1995. It was widely alleged that the capture of Marnerplaw was made possible, or at least easier, by the Karen splinter group known as Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. Most Karens credited Saw Bo Mya for the rise and some also blame him for the fall of Marnerplaw. To the latter, he disagreed and rebutted that, “should my orders were obeyed early enough, the split [of DKBA from KNU] could have been prevented.”

Karen people never cease admiring Saw Bo Mya for his devotion to their cause; there is no doubt, nonetheless, that they at times wished they had a politically shrewder leader. During his glory days in the 1980’s as the President of KNU, he was surrounded by some loyal but inept advisors, who never uttered a word to disagree with him, but handsomely benefited from the huge sale of timber and other mineral resources within KNU-controlled territory at that time. Saw Bo Mya, a legendary Karen military commander, who learned to master guerrilla warfare in his fight for his people against the regime in Rangoon, was not adequately equipped to manage the economy he controlled. It was one thing to fight the war of resistance, another to be engaged in national and regional politics, build schools and deliver healthcare.

His final legacy will, arguably, be shaped by the trip he made to Rangoon to meet quite amicably with the now ousted Burmese military intelligence chief and Prime Minister, General Khin Nyunt. With his decision to meet with the Burmese regime for talks, Bo Mya became the first and only ethnic resistance leader in Burm’s history to fly into Rangoon from a foreign capital, Bangkok. As the vice chairman of KNU, he transformed his image from a recalcitrant revolutionary to a hopeful revisionist, who holds both the guts to fight and the courage to change the course of his action. During his meeting with Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, he negotiated a “gentleman’s agreement” and demanded the rights of Karen people. His detractors, however, charged that he was simply duped by Khin Nyunt, and thereby the regime, to be assuaged in return by the opportunity to celebrate his 77th birthday at Kandawgyi Palace Hotel in Rangoon. He seemed simply caught between the expectations of his supporters, who cannot conceivably envisage any credible political deal with the historically crooked regimes in Rangoon, and the reality of Burmese military superiority, which almost precluded any serious military challenge by the KNLA, or for that matter, any other ethnic resistance forces.

At the 13th KNU Congress held in December 2004, Gen. Bo Mya, 77, was honorably permitted to retire from the vice chairmanship. The position was immediately taken over by Gen. Tarmalarbaw, 81, who also headed the KNU peace delegation twice in Maulmein, the capital of Mon State, in 1996. Although less active in day-to-day political activities, Gen. Bo Mya remains chief of KNU’s Defense Department.

Often characterized by his blunt talks and bold acts, Saw Bo Mya never wavers to speak against what he believes to be wrong. He succinctly defines what the Karen revolution must mean: “opposing the wrong and constructing the right things.” Saw Bo Mya has served Karen people well in terms of the former, but the latter is left for the new generation participants in the Karen resistance movement. It is entirely up to the younger generation Karens to choose whether they want to be a generation of the future or mere followers of the past. There is little doubt that Saw Bo Mya will prefer the former.


SAW KWEH HTOO: A Profile of a Political Life

By – Paw Taw Oo

Known to be one of the most pragmatic leaders within the leadership, Kweh Htoo, a leading members of KNU peace negotiation team in 2004, became the Governor of KNU’s Mergui/Tavoy District in 1990 and has been serving as a member of KNU’s Central Standing Committee ever since. He accompanied Gen. Bo Mya to Rangoon on the historic trip made by the KNU leaders in January 2004 and remains active in the efforts ever since.

Prior to joining the Karen resistance movement in 1974, Kweh Htoo studied economics at the Rangoon University but did not realize his educational dream due to the government’s closure of the university in response to a student movement known in Burma’s history as the “U Thant Crisis”.

P’doh Kweh HtooAt one point, Kweh Htoo found himself at odd with Gen. Bo Mya during the chaotic period immediately after the fall of Manerplaw, the long time KNU Headquarters. But, his constructive and yet critical review on Karen resistance movement earned him respects from many of his colleagues, including Saw David Taw, Chief of KNU’s foreign affairs, and Htoo Htoo Lay, one of the Group’s two Joint General Secretaries. “We as the organization need to evolve around the ever-changing circumstances,” once said Kweh Htoo. Among younger, emerging Karen political activists, he is regarded as one of the most progressive, who is well attuned to the changing regional political dynamics. “Our revolution needs new blood, new ideas, and new thinking.”

Despite his popularity in his southern district, Kweh Htoo is not without his critics in Karen politics. Some in the top KNU leadership feel that he has pushed for change within the organization much harder than the leadership can take.

At the advance of the overwhelmingly stronger Burmese troops to his area in 1997, he was able to display a skillful leadership in handling the orderly relocation of hundreds of thousands of Karen villagers from the previously KNU-controlled territory to the refugee camps along the Thai-Burmese border. Kweh Htoo won the heart of his people by maintaining close touch with the grassroots community though out the most difficult time. He basically managed to have kept the chaotic situation under control.

He traveled several times to Geneva and London during 1997 and 2002 to inform the United Nations’ Human Rights Commission, key British Parliamentary members as well as the Foreign Office, and the London based non-governmental organizations of the deteriorating human right situation and the urgently needed humanitarian assistance for internally displaced Karen people in Burma. While he understands the importance of international pressure, Kweh Htoo places a high priority on being close to his suffering people. Despite his busy schedule, he makes efforts to spend time in the Karen territory, travels from village to village in his district, urging his people to preserve high political alertness. He likes meeting and listening to what the ordinary people have to say. “He feels our pains,” once commented a villager.

He may be lesser known in Burma’s broader national politics, but Kweh Htoo, for many Karens, is a trusted leader with a progressive-mind, who does not compromise his people’s need with a place for his own in the national politics. Such, indeed, is a rare trait of leadership. Among grassroots Karen communities, he is considered one of the best hopes for the new wave of Karen resistance movement.

Kweh Htoo, the devote father of six, is married to Naw Sar Rah. Aside from politics, he retains keen interest in Karen language, literature, history and traditional music.

October 16, 2004

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