From the Archive: 5 Years On, KNU Leader’s Chilling Murder Still a Mystery

By Saw Yan Naing 15 February 2016

The Irrawaddy revisits a story from February 14, 2013, on Karen National Union leader Mahn Sha who, eight years ago on Sunday, was gunned down at his home in the Thai border town of Mae Sot.

Five years ago today, Karen National Union (KNU) 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,” said 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 initiative that 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 in 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.

Mahn 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 the 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 in 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.