OBITUARY - 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 symbol of contemporary 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.
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. Saw Bo Mya was honorably permitted to retire from the vice chairmanship. The position was immediately taken over by Gen. Tarmalarbaw, 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. Saw Bo Mya remained chief of KNU’s Defense Department.Often characterized by his blunt talks and bold acts, Gen. 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.
General Saw Bo Mya, 79, passed away at his home in the Thai-Burma border on December 24, 2006 at 2:00am local time. He is survived by his wife, Naw Lar Poe, and seven children.
December 28, 2006
OBITUARY - SAW BO MYA: A Symbol of Resistance