Revolutionaries, Not ‘Rebels,’ Insists Burma’s First Hijacker

By Kyaw Hsu Mon 18 December 2013

RANGOON — At a promotional event for an upcoming film that will tell the story of Burma’s first hijacking, the perpetrator of the daring aerial commandeering said he hoped the movie would accurately reflect his motivations at a time of intense conflict between the government and the country’s ethnic Karen minority.

“I don’t want the audience to think we were thabon,” Saw Kyaw Aye said, using a word that roughly translates to “rebels,” but in the Burmese language carries with it a negative connotation.

Now 90, Saw Kyaw Aye was 30 years old when he and two other members of the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) hijacked a Dakota plane en route to Sittwe, Arakan State, from Rangoon on June 25, 1954.

At a time when the ethnic armed resistance mounted by the KNDO was sputtering due to a lack of funds, medicine and weapons, Saw Kyaw Aye and his colleagues hijacked the plane in hopes of using it to access a cache of weapons thought to have been left behind by the Japanese high in the Karen State mountains.

Their attempt ended in at least partial failure: After landing in Arakan State’s Gwa Township, the plane did not have enough fuel to continue to where the weapons were thought to be stashed. The hijacking trio abandoned the plane, but made off with nearly 800,000 kyats (US$800) in cash that was onboard the aircraft.

With filming set to begin later this month, Saw Kyaw Aye on Wednesday said the hijacking should be understood in the context of the Karen people’s struggle against a government that had systematically oppressed the ethnic minority.

“I am glad that Antony is going to shoot my true story. I was a Karen revolutionary since 1948. We were not ‘thabon,’ and I would like to ask director to communicate this to the audience,” he told The Irrawaddy, adding that it was never the hijackers’ intention to harm anyone on the flight.

Invited to Wednesday’s promotional event for the film to come, 84-year-old Than Swe, who was one of 14 civilian passengers on the flight that day, said he was 24 when he boarded the fateful Rangoon-Sittwe flight.

“This hijacking, I have never forgotten it,” said the former professor at Burma’s National Defense Academy, who escaped the incident unharmed.

The film, “With the Dawn,” is set to begin shooting on Dec. 25, but its director Antony is still waiting to find out whether the government will allow him to use one of the only two remaining Dakota planes in existence, which belong to the Air Force.

The 60th anniversary of the hijacking will be next year in June, and the director aims to release his film at that time.

“My acting team is getting ready now and I’ve already chosen who will act as Saw Kyaw Aye,” Antony said. “The crew from Thailand has arrived, but the only thing I need to wait the permission from the Air Force to use a real Dakota airplane. Though I sent a proposal letter to them, I still have not yet received the permission.”

The film team hopes to conclude shooting in February, in time to premier June 25, 2014.