5 Years On, KNU Leader’s Chilling Murder Still a Mystery

On Feb. 14, 2008 gunmen shot prominent Karen leader Mahn Sha in his home at Mae Sot, Thailand. His murder remains shrouded in mystery until this day.

Five years ago today, Karen National Union leader Mahn Sha was sitting on the balcony of his home in Mae Sot, a Thai town on the border with Burma, when two gunmen entered the house and shot him several times at point blank range. They left safely and were never seen again.

A Thai police investigation came to nothing and the assassination of the prominent KNU general-secretary went down in history as a mysterious, cold-blooded murder that sent a chilling message to Burma’s ethnic armed groups fighting the country’s government.

“As neither the victim nor the gunmen were Thai citizens, I don’t think the Thai authorities will take this case seriously,” David Taw, a late former KNU spokesperson at the time.

His words foretold the outcome. Five years later there has been no investigation, legal action or any new piece of information about the killing.

On Thursday, Mahn Sha’s family said they remain deeply disappointed over this lack of action in the case. “We are very sad as there is no legal action. Even if there is no legal action, we at least want to know the truth,” said Nant Zoya Phan, Mahn Sha’s daughter, who works with the London-based Burma Campaign UK.

Her sister Nant Bwa Bwa Phan said by phone from London that she supported any initiativethat would help uncover what happened on Feb. 14, 2008. “I want to encourage the KNU or any independent group to investigate the murder of our father,” she said.

Sunai Phasuk, a Thai researcher for New York-based Human Rights Watch, said that Thai authorities had failed to thoroughly investigate the case. “No matter who the victim is; the incident happened on Thai soil, so Thai authorities have a responsibility to bring the case to justice,” he said.

Mahn Sha was considered an inspirational leader for the Karen living Burma and Karen refugees in Thailand, while he was also respected by Burmese dissidents for his support for the pro-democracy struggle in the country.

He held many rounds of peace negotiations with Burma’s military government and was expected to assume the KNU’s leadership before he was gunned down at age 64.

In decades past, tens of thousands of Karen have sought refuge in Mae Sot, just over the border from southeastern Burma’s Karen State, where the KNU has been involved in a long-running conflict with Burma’s central government.

The KNU were tolerated by Thai authorities, as it had ties to the group. But Mae Sot’s murky environment of armed rebels, Burmese dissidents, Thai and Burmese businessmen, and Thai intelligence officers frequently led to unexplained incidents and killings.

Manh Sha’s killing remains unresolved although theories for the murder have been offered. Some said it was related to his opposition to the construction of Hat Gyi hydropower dam on Salween River, a project that was planned by the Burmese government and the Electricity Generating Authority of Thailand.

Sources close to the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), a Karen splinter group, have said elements within the DKBA had been involved for Mahn Sha’s slaying. The group signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military regime after it split away from the KNU in 1995.

His children said they hoped that the truth about his killing would surface in the future. “I believe there will be a finding about the murder of my father. The truth will come out one day for sure,” his daughter Bwa Baw Phan said.

Mahn Sha’s adopted son Saw Say Say Phan added, “As his children it was very difficult for us to lose a father, but it gave us comfort to see how so many other people also felt the loss of our father so deeply. He was a man who was widely loved and respected.”

In memorial of their father, his four children have set up the Phan Foundation, a charity that supports young Karen people or Karen organizations that fight poverty, promote education and development, or preserve Karen culture.


6 Responses to 5 Years On, KNU Leader’s Chilling Murder Still a Mystery

  1. Without the death of Mahn Sha, the opportunists Mutu and Kwe Htoo could never have taken over the KNU. Mutu would not even have had the opportunity to commit treason, by signing the ceasefire. The KNLA would still be fighting, supporting their ethnic Kachin brothers to the north. There would be no Dawei. The corporate exploitation all over Burma would be greatly reduced. All the opportunists, including Suu Kyi, should thank the DKBA assassins. Because of Mahn Sha’s murder, they got exactly what they wanted.

    • Dear Roland,
      When you are talking about a person, Mahn Sha, in this case, he would be the subject of the sentences of this short paragraph. If you want to talk about another person, please write in another paragraph. Phado Mahn Sha, Mutu, Kwe Htoo, KNU and KNLA are related to the topic that you said. Why do you mention Daw Suu’s name in this paragraph? This is irrelevant. Daw Suu does not know about this killing- at that time, she was confined in her house.

  2. Dear Yebaw,

    The argument I was making is this. There are turning points in a nation’s history, and many times they are not only not clear; they are missed completely. The death of ethnic leader Padoh Mahn Sha five years ago was an example of one such turning point. It was not only a tragedy for the Karen, it was a disaster for all of Burma.

    At the time there was already a split in the KNU, following the decline and ultimately the death of long-time leader General Bo Mya. This created a power vacuum, between individuals who wanted to stick to the organization’s policy to defend the Karen people, and others who had grown tired of waiting for the Karen Revolution to succeed, including in this group people who had become corrupted and who were making business deals with regime officers. Mahn Sha was a strong and principled leader, dedicated to the Revolution’s goals, and destined for the top role of Chairman.

    His death provided an opening for the opportunists, and ultimately, at last year’s Karen Congress, they took over. Without additional action from Aung San Suu Kyi, though, this would have only marked a turning point for the Karen. At the time of Mahn Sha’s assassination, she was still holding strong to the goal of real freedom for Burma, and her opposition to ending the sanctions.

    But, Suu Kyi subsequently turned. She abandoned her positions, reversed course, and became an opportunist as well. So, the lead figure in Burma now backed making a deal with the generals, and which deal would not require them to give up power and permit real democracy. Karen and other ethnic opportunists then jumped on this, as the chance they had been waiting for for years, to end their own struggles in exchange for personal gain.

    A precursor for all of this was another event, of which few people are even aware. “Pro-democracy” funder OSI had a conference in Washington, D.C. in October 2004, titled Managing Economic Transitions: The Role of Global Institutions and Lessons for Burma/Myanmar. I attended this conference. It’s main point was that the time had come to start developing Burma, democracy be damned. Big money interests were also tired of waiting. The conference actually had as its agenda initiating the development, but a curious thing happened. Ethnic nationality participants made their voices heard, in no uncertain terms. Development would have to wait until real freedom for their peoples – for all of Burma – was achieved.

    This remained the status quo until Suu Kyi changed. Of note, she has never properly explained her decision. Then, the broader significance of Mahn Sha’s assassination became clear. Without it, he would have been leading the KNU. I can’t say how he would have reacted to Suu Kyi’s volte-face, but he certainly would never have abandoned the KNU’s goals, much less permitted the Burma Army to totally militarize Karen State, as is now happening under the opportunists. The ethnic flank would have remained intact, and developments in the country, certainly corporate exploitation in ethnic areas, would have proceeded much more slowly, if at all.

    Interestingly, another key participant at the 2004 conference was Harn Yawnghwe, of EBO. At the behest of his European funders, he has been one of the strongest proponents of development. It was under his influence that many of the ethnic opportunists rallied over more conservative voices, and signed ceasefires.

    So, Suu Kyi surrendered, and Harn Yawnghwe finally could pursue his objective that the ethnic nationalities do the same, without the strong hand of Padoh Mahn Sha to counter his treachery. You’ll note that he and the Karen opportunists were with Aung Min at the KIO meeting in China.

    • Good points, Roland.

      Harn Yawnghwe of course would not be approved by some of his own siblings but somehow becomes exceedingly useful to the Sit-tut.

      But Aung San Suu Kyi’s treacherous 18th August 2011 pronouncement of effusive support of the rapists and looters of the land is the true green light for the international wolves watching from the hill tops to descend to rip the -now dead- beast which was beautiful Mother Burma.

      But one essential point which is not put into discussion is the sea change of societal attitude. One can easily see the youths slaving in Thailand envy their Thai counterparts for their roads, electricity, iPAD’s, foreign travels, mini-skirt girls, etc. That recently introduced and rapidly rising covetousness blind every one to support whoever seemingly giving those to them especially the negative future is for now far, far away. The dangling bait is too tempting for people to get in bed with torturers/ suppressors/ rapists/ cannibals/ killers of generations of their own ancestors and themselves. Less exposure of such apparent opulence may explain why the Kachin youth are eager to sacrifice their lives for their ideals compared to the Karen youths.

      But that is just a segmental example. Wider view of the country will show the same picture. One can easily see the soon-to-be-ripped-and-scorched-and-poisoned-and-destroyed land- called Burma is now inhabited by lower form of human compared to their ancestors with hardly any observance of fundamental “Five Precepts” or its equivalent in other religion now. Massage parlours/ cum brothals and Beer shops are always jam-packed with Grand Royal alcohol distributor raking in more money than they can count. Monks who are now prominent are not the ones who preach to control “Law-ba, Daw-tha, Maw-ha” any more as it is so hard to do that at Sedona and Traders Hotels reading the lectures off iPAD’s. In fact “Lawba, Mawha and Daw-tha” are encouraged every where.

      True though. Thila “Five Precepts” was (was) supposed to be held/ grasped like the “Longyi”. Now people stopped wearing Longyi, and there is no need to hang on these useless”Thila” any more either.

      Now it is the covetousness ( greed, Lawba) of the general populace which will allow others to enslave them forever with not a single shot fired!

      With every one saying nothing else but “Want, want, want” – to be fair- even if honourable person like Padho Mann Shar is still around or even if people opposite of him like the ones you named are not colluding with the evil-doers, Burma as a honourable land is truly doomed.

      For “Want”. For lack of wisdom. For greed and blindness.

  3. One thing for sure. Current day KNU is NOT worthy of saying this man’s name.

  4. Mahn sha’s daughters are highly respected here in the UK, especially by the media who invite them to take part in discussions concerning all aspects of burma…….they are brave and fearless young women, and it hasn’t been easy making a life in the |UK. but they are excellent examples of the modern young of burma who make sacrifices for a democratic burma.

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