A Conversation With Burma’s First Hijacker

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 25 December 2013

RANGOON — He was 30 years old when he attempted to pull of the first-ever hijacking in Burma. It was 1954, and Maj. Saw Kyaw Aye, an ethnic Karen from the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO), wanted to commandeer a Dakota airplane and take it to an air base in the mountains of Karen State where Japanese forces had left behind weapons that could prove crucial in his organization’s war against government troops.

He and a small team of three Karen men used take names to buy Union of Burma Airways tickets from Rangoon to the Arakan State capital, Sittwe. The airplane took off on June 25 with four crew members and 14 passengers, including military officers. Before reaching Sittwe, the four Karen men forced an early landing, with plans to fly next to Karen State. But they ran into a problem: They lacked enough fuel to reach their final destination and had to abandon the mission. After the botched hijacking, Saw Kyaw Aye collaborated with the government and Karen rebels to push for a peace deal that could end years of fighting. Those efforts were also unsuccessful, with the war continuing for several decades. A ceasefire was signed in 2012 but peace negotiations continue.

Today, at the age of 90, Saw Kyaw Aye is reminiscing about his hijacking attempt, which will be the topic of a movie expected to premier in June 2014. He sat down with The Irrawaddy recently to share some of his memories.

Question: How many people were involved in the hijacking?

Answer: I undertook the mission with three other people, planning secretly. Only the top leaders in the KNDO knew about it—even my family members did not know. My children did not find out until one month after the hijacking. It was top secret. I was married and had two children at the time. My youngest daughter was only two-and-a-half years old.

Q: Were you willing to sacrifice everything if your mission failed and you were arrested?

A: Yes. My wife had relatives who could take care of her.

Q: How long were you in the plane before landing in Arakan State’s Gwa Township?

A: It was about two hours in the airplane before landing in Magyizin village, Gwa Township. I only planned to take the plane. I told the pilots and passengers that we were not enemies but revolutionaries, and that we did not plan to hurt the people.

Q: After taking control of the plane, where did you intend to go?

A: Our target place was near the Burma-Thailand border. Over the Dawna mountain range there was a small airport belonging to the former Japanese troops. We planned to land there, where there were weapons left over from British and Japanese troops. Then I intended to load these weapons onto the plane, to fight the government. At that time, the government army had big weapons but we did not, and this is why we lost battles, because we did not have big weapons.

Q: After you abandoned the plane in Arakan State’s Gwa Township, what did you do?

A: There was no response from our KNDO leaders. They knew the mission had not been completed, but at the time they were running away from their headquarters because they were under attack by government troops. The mission failed because the fuel was gone, and we did not dare land in territory other than our own territory.

Q: What were your responsibilities with the KNDO after the hijack attempt?

A: I was a major, and I guarded the headquarters after the hijacking. A few years later I returned to the legal force, in 1956. After that I became a peacemaker between the government and Karen organizations, and I have also worked for religious affairs.

Q: What was your role in the peace process?

A: There were a lot of peace discussions between the government and armed groups. A caretaker government was in power when I pioneered the peace process. I spoke with Gen. Ne Win during the peace process and was sent more than three times to meet armed groups in their territories, but the process was not successful. It was more than three years that I worked for the peace process. I did as much as I could, but it all failed. At that time I was working with some Karen government officials, including Gen. Kyar Doe and Gen. Smith Doon. That was between 1959 and 1963.

Q: Can you share your thoughts on recent peace negotiations between President Thein Sein’s government and some of the country’s biggest armed forces, including the Karen National Union (KNU)?

A: It can be successful if the government follows through on its promises in the peace process. I heard there has been some fighting between the government and armed forces even after ceasefire agreements.

Q: What does the government require to forge long-lasting peace with ethnic armed groups?

A: The government has said several times over the years that peace talks will follow disarmament. This was not successful in the past. Now ethnic people are calling for democracy and a federal policy. It’s complicated.