Respected Karen Leader Tamla Baw Dead at 94

By Saw Yan Naing 27 June 2014

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The former chairman of the Karen National Union (KNU), a respected general who once fought alongside British troops in World War II’s Burma theater, passed away on Thursday.

Gen. Tamla Baw, 94, died of natural causes in the border town of Mae Sariang, in Thailand’s Mae Hong Son Province. Tamla Baw was one of the ethnic Karen people’s most venerated leaders, for his commitment to fighting for the rights of Karen people and dedication to the cause of Karen armed resistance against the Burmese government. He is survived by his eight children, including daughter Zipporah Sein, the KNU’s current vice chairwoman.

Tamla Baw served in the British Army against occupying Japanese forces before joining Burma’s ethnic Karen minority in their struggle against the central government after the country gained independence in 1948.

Zipporah Sein told The Irrawaddy that her father was dedicated to the Karen’s revolutionary cause and had often warned leaders of the KNU not to betray their ethnic brethren, many of whom gave their lives fighting for self-determination and equality.

“When he was alive, he told us that if we did not succeed in our goals of equal rights and self-determination, for which we have been fighting for over 60 years, it would be like we had betrayed our colleagues, soldiers and leaders who have sacrificed their lives for the revolution,” Zipporah Sein said.

Born in 1920 in Moulmein, Mon State, Tamla Baw served as a British Army intelligence officer under Force 136. He also served as a lance corporal in the 2nd Burma Rifles unit.

Tamla Baw was arrested and briefly jailed by occupying Japanese forces in 1943, but managed to escape four months later and joined the British Army. Post-independence, he joined up with the KNU and involved himself in a number of conflicts in Taungoo, Pegu Division, beginning in 1949, before officially joining the KNU’s militant wing, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), in 1969. He also served for a time as commander-in-chief of the KNLA.

Though his health deteriorated in his later years, Tamla Baw continued to follow Burma politics and often raised his concerns about disunity among the KNU’s current leadership. He often advised KNU leaders to maintain a united front and avoid falling into a trap set up by the Burmese government, Zipporah Sein said. Those words were increasingly stressed in the years since the KNU has engaged with Burma’s reformist government in peace negotiations.

“He [Tamla Baw] always worried that KNU leaders would fall to the enemy [the government],” she said. “He warned KNU leaders to stand firm and fight for equal rights for the Karen people. He worried a lot about us being cheated [by the government].”

Zipporah Sein said her father believed in self-determination, equal rights and the establishment of a federal system in Burma. Without these prerequisites, the late general said the Karen people and other ethnic minorities in Burma would likely never see their ethnic ambitions realized.

The London-based Burma Campaign UK released a statement on Thursday paying tribute to Tamla Baw’s service in the British Army, and his principled fight for ethnic minorities’ aspirations.

“He regularly reminded Burma Campaign UK of the special debt that the British owed the Karen people as allies during WWII. He never gave up hope that one day the British government would honour that debt and the promises made to the Karen to support their struggle for self-determination,” the statement read.