Veteran Shan Democracy Campaigner Khun Tun Oo Dies

By The Irrawaddy 11 May 2022

Khun Tun Oo, the former chairman of the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), who was widely considered the key Shan leader in the late 20th-century, has died.

The 78-year-old died of natural causes at his home in Yangon on April 30, SNLD joint secretary Sai Kyaw Nyunt told The Irrawaddy. A Shan funeral was held on May 2 at Yayway Cemetery in Yangon and his ashes were interred at the tomb of the relatives of the Hsipaw saopha (feudal lord) in Hsipaw, Shan State, according to the SNLD.

A total of 67 organizations, including the United Nationalities Alliance, the civilian National Unity Government, ethnic armed organizations and civil society organizations, expressed their condolences.

Khun Tun Oo was born in Hsipaw on September 11, 1943. His father served as the secretary in the post-colonial Shan State government. Khun Tun Oo is the nephew of Sao Kya Seng, the last saopha of Hsipaw, who went missing in detention after the 1962 coup by military dictator Ne Win.

Khun Tun Oo and colleagues established the SNLD to serve Shan interests after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising.

Current SNLD chair Sai Nyint Lwin, who had close ties with Khun Tun Oo for 34 years, said: “Members came from different nationalities when the SNLD was established in 1988. There were Palaung, Shanni and Pa-O and many other nationalities represented in the central executive committee. Shan Nationalities is in our party’s name. Many do not notice. It is because the party was formed by various nationalities.

“Khun Tun Oo inherited the duty from his ancestors to establish federalism,” he added.

“We have lost someone with vast experience. Suggestions and advice from such people are valuable. It is a loss for us.”

Under Khun Tun Oo’s leadership, the SNLD contested the 1990 general election held by the State Law and Order Restoration Council military regime and came second to the National League for Democracy (NLD).

The military, however, refused to hand over power and instead held a national convention to draft a new constitution.

The SNLD participated in the convention between 1993 and 1996 but the NLD boycotted the convention in 1995 and the SNLD followed suit when it resumed in 2004.

In 2005 Khun Tun Oo and other SNLD leaders were charged with high treason and he was sentenced to 93 years and sent to Putao Prison.

He was released in 2012 when reforming, military-backed President U Thein Sein granted amnesties to political prisoners.

The party had not contested the 2010 general election while its leaders were in custody and the election body dissolved the SNLD. Khun Tun Oo and other SNLD leaders re-established the party after their release.

In the meantime, SNLD leaders who avoided arrest established the Shan Nationalities Democratic Party, also known as the White Tiger party.

Khun Tun Oo said: “They established the White Tiger party and contested the 2010 election. When we were released, White Tiger members had received ministerial positions and their attitude had changed and we could not work with them. We re-registered the SNLD in 2012.”

The SNLD won a majority of Shan seats in the 2015 general election but Khun Tun Oo did not stand.

Frictions emerged between the SNLD and NLD after Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s party took office in 2016. The NLD offered to nominate Sai Nyunt Lwin as one of the three vice-presidents.

Discussions were held but the military opposed Sai Nyunt Lwin’s nomination and the NLD offered to make him ethnic affairs minister instead, which the SNLD rejected.

On May 7, 2016, at the United Nationalities Alliance in Yangon, Khun Tun Oo said ethnic minorities could no longer rely on the NLD.

“People voted for the NLD with high hopes. But the result is obvious over the Rakhine issue. The NLD can no be longer relied upon for ethnic rights,” he said, in reference to the NLD’s failure to help more than 2,000 people displaced by fighting between the military and Arakan Army since April that year. A parliamentary proposal by ethnic Rakhine MPs for a ceasefire and inclusion of the Arakan Army in peace talks was rejected by the NLD-dominated parliament.

But a majority of NLD members respected Khun Tun Oo as a Shan leader who devoted his life to creating a federal democracy, said a long-time NLD member, who asked for anonymity.

“His death is a loss for the struggle for federal democracy. We mostly agreed with him. We were partners. He was righteous, loyal and consistent,” he said.

Khun Tun Oo resigned in September 2020 as SNLD chair after more than three decades.

Then joint secretary Sai Kyaw Nyunt told The Irrawaddy that Khun Tun Oo had probably resigned to spend more time with his family and to empower younger generations.

Some Hsipaw residents speculated that Khun Tun Oo resigned because he wanted to take care of his inheritance from his uncle, Sao Kya Seng.

Sao Oo Kya, Sao Kya Seng’s son, currently lives at Hsipaw Haw, the saopha’s residence.

In 2012, Khun Tun Oo traveled to the US and met Inge Sargent, the Mahadevi or queen consort, wife of Sao Kya Seng. Mahadevi, who wrote Twilight Over Burma, transferred the ownership of the Haw to Khun Tun Oo, who then claimed it from Sao Oo Kya.

Sao Oo Kya refused to hand over the Haw, which he officially owns. Khun Tun Oo filed a civil case which has not been concluded.

In his speeches, Khun Tun Oo called for collective leadership and spoke against ethnic chauvinism. He urged for the empowerment of younger generations in political and armed organizations to undermine the dominance of older people.

Only collective leadership can guarantee ethnic equality and sovereignty, he said. As a critic of Burmanization, he urged Shan communities, who make up the majority in Shan State, not to oppress smaller ethnic groups in the state.

He believed federalization is the key to solving Myanmar’s problems.