February 14, 2008

P'doh Mahn Sha: the man I know

P’doh Mahn Sha: the Man I know

Naw May Oo

Minutes after the assassins killed P’doh Mahn Sha, the news reached me from across ocean. First, I was frightened. It was almost 5 o’clock in the morning and I would wake up anyway around the same time. Half of me was wishing it was not true. The other half was thoroughly numbed. I could not react anymore than that for two hours. Then, I broke my own silence. In between, I got calls from people in Australia and Thailand. I handled the calls quite well. But, what’s wrong with breaking down for the loss of a loved one? I don’t know what to do. I don’t really want to talk to people either. I think of Nant Bwa, Nant Zoya, and Poe Bala. I think of their mother who has already passed away. I think of our people. I think of our Revolution. I think of all our leaders. What more do we have to lose?

I am sure there will be many who can give testimonies as to the leadership Tee Mahn Sha provided for and within KNU. Although he is not without criticism, he was undeniably an exceptional leader. He stood out among many leaders and was noticed by all – ordinary civilians, our soldiers, students, and youth. His remarkable determination was one among the many fine qualities he displayed.

My very first encounter with Tee Mahn Sha was through correspondence, a letter that I wrote, titled the voice of the people. It was soon after the fall of Marnerplaw. The cries of the Karen people were still loud and fresh after having left their stronghold, the pride of all Karens, the headquarters of the movement against Burma’s ruthless military regime. In that letter, I cut and pasted pieces of letters from various Karen people I received from Karen State and refugee camps in Thailand. I told him I wanted him to know what many Karen people were feeling and thinking at the time. He welcomed my letter and we became friends. Aside from being a national leader, the leader of the Karen people, he was my personal pedagogical figure, who shared with me a fatherly love, and never found it difficult to not see me beyond being his “daughter” in the Revolution. He named me Nant Tsan Bwa, because I already had a name that represents fire, he said. He thought I was born to be a politician and he believed politics was in my blood. With delight, he added that he wanted me to be a revolutionary as well. When I told him I studied speech communications at the university, he was amused. He laughed and asked, “Do people really teach speech in university?”

When I went back after my graduation, he took me into his office with one of his staff members and talked to me. He said he wanted his staff to be in the meeting so that I would take it as a serious matter as opposed to our usual and casual conversations. He told me how he made decision to join the Karen Revolution after his graduation from college and how he did not turn back. I respected him and his decision, without a doubt. But, I told him that I had to disagree with him for having the same expectation of me. He was not very happy, but he decided not to say more on that. At the same meeting, he told me how he accepted any responsibility bestowed upon him by the leaders and the Revolution. He demonstrated this recognition to all of us who knew him. But, I told him that I could not promise him that I would be able to do the same, because there maybe responsibilities for which I have neither training nor expertise. I knew he did not enjoy my excuses very much. I did not remember how our meeting actually ended. But, I learned a few things about the man, my leader.

I don’t remember when and how we became very close, but he certainly was someone with whom I felt most comfortable among all the leaders in KNU. Internal politics led some people to come up with jokes like “the Uncle and the niece,” referring to me and Tee Mahn Sha. When some people would express their dissatisfaction toward him, they would say to me, with an expression on their faces, “Your Uncle.” It became apparent to some people that I was the protégé of P’doh Mahn Sha, something I proudly accepted. Everyone did not necessarily take it in stride. And since, I noticed he was somewhat a controversial figure.

At the end of 1999, I went back to work with the women’s organizations in order to prepare the first shadow report to be presented to the UN experts committees on CEDAW, in parallel with the SPDC’s first country report. At the time, the KNU was also to hold its 11th congress. Tee Mahn Sha invited me to take part. Naturally, the KNU Congress participants were representatives from the seven constituent districts, departments’ officials, and some independent persons with whom the KNU works or somehow relates to. Tee Mahn Sha wanted it to be my entry into the organization in which he wanted me to work, although he never explicitly told me so.

Whenever I went back to Mae Sot, people could usually find me in two places – one at Tee Mahn Sha’s place (the Office of General Secretary) and the other at the KSNG office. I picked up messages from both places every time I returned. He ran the office with an iron fist. I broke the rules quite a few times. I could disappear for days with the motorbike and he expected it. If needed, he knew he could always find me at the KSNG office. I enjoyed having meals with him very much, because we shared similar tastes for food – no greasy or oily cooking, only grilled or boiled, with chili paste, and a bowl of greens. I would like to call him a friend of the earth. He loved growing plants – flowers, trees, and vegetables. He mastered bamboos, incomparably. Give him a nice, fat, and mature bamboo and in return you can expect incredibly beautiful set of furniture – tea-table or chairs.

P’doh Mahn Sha was a well-read revolutionary leader, too. One year I went back, he told me a story of the old man and the sea, a novel by Hemingway. I also had read the novel, so we both could discuss about it. He was telling it to me in the context of his children who were all away in schools. He concluded at the end, “May Oo, I don’t know how much of the fish will be left for me at the end, but I am still struggling with faith.” I don’t think I responded with anything, because I was also having a guilty conscience at the time as I was also in graduate school.

There had been so many personal encounters that are all memorable. I do not want to be saying the same things about him that many people will be talking about at this time. I came to know this man from a very unique angle and had a very unique relationship with him until his last moments. I had learned so much from him in many different ways. I did not get to work with him so long, but during the years I got to know him, he demonstrated his inner strengths to me.

Naturally, we did not agree on many things. When one of the KNU officials was dismissed by the organization, I talked to him and he said he was sad to do it, but he followed the constitution of the KNU. I told him I disagreed with his reason and that if I were him, I would change the constitution instead for that particular case. A few years later, he was one of the key decision makers to dismiss me and my brother from the organization. I never attempted to talk to him about why, although I was curious, and I was sure that he would have his own justified reasons. I felt that he was being unfair and I thought I would talk to him someday about it as I always talked to him before. Last summer when I went back, I paid him a visit, as usual. He made hot tea for me and before I left, he gave me a small pack of tea, all as usual.

The news this morning woke me up from my sleep. I realize that I still have conversations to be continued with P’doh Mahn Sha, the man who had held the banner of the Karen Revolution so firmly, the man with whom I had yet to make peace. He was undoubtedly a great leader, an able leader, and a willful man with unbreakable determination. Notwithstanding our ideological disagreements, I still believe that he was truly one of our great national leaders.

I absolutely condemn this act of assassination - plotted, directed, and carried out by any individual or group. There is zero tolerance for this act and all acts alike against our leaders, and I am committed to pursue justice for the victim of this outrageous act, whenever and wherever circumstances permit.

In the footsteps of a fallen Karen Revolutionary,
Naw May Oo (Nant Tsan Bwa)
Indiana University School of Law