From the Archive

Burma: A Killing Legacy

By Kyaw Zwa Moe 2 February 2017

It is one of the tragedies of Burmese history that assassinations of influential leaders, while not common, have periodically blighted the nation’s political life since the period around the achieving of independence in January 1948.

In the almost 70 years between the deaths of General Aung San and eight comrades in July 1947 to the appalling attack on the NLD’s legal advisor U Ko Ni on Sunday, many other important political figures have lost their lives to an assassin’s gun.

In this article from February 2008 in our archives, English editor Kyaw Zwa Moe recalled the history of assassinations in Burmese politics just after the esteemed Karen leader Pado Mahn Sha was brutally gunned down at his home in Mae Sot, Thailand.

In the history of modern Burma, dozens of ethnic and Burmese leaders have met their end at the hands of assassins.

The definition of “politics” in dictionaries lacks one more description. That description fits both ancient and modern times. It applies to both the East and the West. And it is blind to creed and colour. It is the art of assassination.

From American civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr and US president John F Kennedy in the 1960s, to former premier Benazir Bhutto in Pakistan last December, assassination fits squarely into the definition of politics.

Burmese politics is no exception. Its latest victim is Mahn Sha, a Karen rebel leader.

On Valentine’s Day, two cold-blooded gunmen walked into Pado Mahn Sha’s house in Mae Sot, near Thailand’s border with Burma, and shot him in the heart after greeting him in the Karen language. ‘‘Ha ler gay [good evening],’’ they said. Then they drove away.

Mahn Sha’s organization condemned the splinter groups – the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) and the Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council (KNLAPC), which are now allied with the Burmese military government – for the killing.

Mahn Sha was general secretary of the Karen National Union, one of the longest surviving rebel groups in Southeast Asia, struggling for autonomy since 1949.

He was respected among opposition groups as one of Burma’s most broad-minded and committed ethnic leaders. But rival groups saw him as a hardliner for his unwavering refusal to compromise with the military regime, which has never given autonomy to ethnic minorities.

His assassination was based on political motives. Once again, Burma lost a leader of vision.

Like Mahn Sha, dozens of other Burmese leaders in the country’s modern history have met their end at the hands of assassins.

The most historically significant assassination happened at 10:37 a.m. on July 19, 1947, just six months before Burma gained its independence from Britain.

National hero Aung San, father of then-detained pro-democracy leader Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, and eight colleagues were assassinated by U Saw, a rival right-wing politician, and his followers. U Saw was Aung San’s main rival for the premiership of independent Burma. Many observers believed that some British army officers supplied at least some weapons to U Saw. It was a great loss and the whole country was plunged into grief. July 19 has become known as Martyrs’ Day.

It was a bad omen for the country’s future. Since then, assassinations have become a familiar feature of Burmese political life: politicians on the left kill those on the right, who in turn kill their left-wing opponents; the government kills rebels, and rebels kill people in government; Karen fighters kill each other over ceasefire agreements; members of one ethnic group kill members of another; rivals kill rivals.

Another assassinated Karen leader was Saw Ba U Gyi, father of the Karen resistance movement, who was killed in 1950 by Burmese government troops in an ambush in a town close to the Thai-Burma border.

Ba U Gyi was a minister of revenue in 1937, when the country was still under British rule. Karen people said the authorities never allowed the body of Ba U Gyi to be buried because the government was afraid his tomb might become a political focal point for ethnic separatists. The body was reportedly thrown into the sea. How can the Karen ever forgive the assassination of their revolutionary father?

Sometimes the politics of assassination follows logic: friends of enemies may be regarded as enemies, just as an enemy’s enemy can be counted as a friend. But sometimes assassination makes no sense at all.

Bo Let Ya was a leftist-turned-rightist who was killed by the anti-communist Karen National Union, near the Thai-Burma border in 1978. Reports said Let Ya was killed when he was asked to surrender to the KNU.

Three Kachin people who were prominent leaders in the Kachin resistance were also killed. Pungshwi Zau Seng and brothers Zau Seng and Zau Tu were assassinated together in 1975, as a result of a power struggle with fellow members of the Kachin Independence Organization. The assassin was later killed by other leaders of the organization.

After Ne Win staged a coup in 1962, there were more such assassinations. Sao Shwe Thaike, the first president of Burma after it gained independence in 1948, was believed to have been killed while in detention. The former president, who was a Shan sawbwa [local chieftain], was taken away at bayonet point by government soldiers. At least one other Shan chieftain was believed to have been killed after the coup.

In politics, there is no father and son. Bo Yan Aung was executed after being named a traitor by his party. His son, a fellow Communist Party member, was among those who condemned him. Before his father died, he said, ‘‘I wish I could kill him myself.’’

Today, assassination seems to be less common than in the past, and the current government rarely resorts to assassination against opposition leaders.

But democracy leader Daw Suu Kyi has been targeted a couple of times. The most striking incident occurred on May 30, 2003. A motorcade carrying Daw Suu Kyi was ambushed in Depayin, northern Burma, by members of the junta-backed civic organization, the Union Solidarity and Development Association.

She narrowly escaped after her driver sped up the car to escape the mob. Daw Suu Kyi and her party’s deputy leader, Tin Oo, were both injured and later placed under house arrest. Opposition groups said dozens of Daw Suu Kyi’s supporters were beaten to death in the attack.

No one can read the minds of the current military leaders, so it is impossible to rule out the possibility that they may one day make another attempt to finish off their enemies once and for all.

And no one has been a greater thorn in the side of the generals than Nobel laureate Daw Suu Kyi. Since she entered Burmese politics in 1988, the generals have faced a lot of difficulties in handling her because of her fame in the international community.

As assassination means killing important leaders, we can say that all those who have been assassinated in Burma were people who contributed something important to the country. If the young Aung San had not been killed, Burma might have been a very different country today.

Like him, Mahn Sha might have been an even more important leader of his people if he had lived to see a genuine union of Burma.

Brig-Gen Jonny, commander of Brigade 7 of the Karen National Liberation Army, the military wing of the KNU, told The Irrawaddy after the assassination of Mahn Sha, “All this is enough to make the Burmese government very happy. We Karen people should be unified. If we are divided, we will never achieve self-determination and the rights we demand.”

The big question is if the KNU leadership can unify itself or not. Over the past decade, the effectiveness of the KNU has diminished. Its revolution seems to have turned into a storm in its own tea cup. No new blood is ready to replace KNU leaders like Mahn Sha. It means a new vision and policy ideas are lacking.

A senior KNU official has said that two more senior KNU military leaders are on the hit lists of the KNU splinter group, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army. They are Gen Mu Tu, the commander-in-chief of the KNU’s military wing, and Brig-Gen Jonny.

Meanwhile, Mahn Sha’s organization searches for the assassins of its leader. And it is not difficult to imagine what they hope to achieve: revenge.

This version of the original article has been mildly edited.

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