On This Day

Marking the Death of a Karen Revolutionary Leader

By Wei Yan Aung 12 August 2019

YANGON—Karen national leader Saw Ba U Gyi died on this day 69 years ago. The England-educated lawyer served as vice chairman when the Karen National Union (KNU), which later became one of the major ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, was established after World War II.

He served as the transportation and communications minister in the British colonial government led by Governor Sir Hubert Rance in February 1947, but resigned from the post that same year over disagreements with the national legislature over the establishment of Karen State.

After Myanmar gained independence, the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) government led by then Prime Minister U Nu agreed to the establishment of Karen State, but disputes escalated over the right to secede from the country, and the territory of Karen State.

The Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO) under the KNU rose against the AFPFL government, and was able to take control of major cities including Mandalay and Pyin Oo Lwin, and even Insein, on Yangon’s doorstep. However, government troops defeated the KNDO at the Battle of Insein, effectively repulsing them.

Saw Ba U Gyi

Saw Ba U Gyi then formed the Karen revolutionary government in Toungoo, Bago Region, and continued to lead the Karen’s fight against the AFPFL government. According to the government, Saw Ba U Gyi was killed during a military raid on KNDO troops in the village of Htaw Ko Koe between Hlaingbwe and Kawkareik townships in Karen State.

But Karen people have disputed this account. They said their leader, who was 45 at the time, was captured during the military raid and executed by Captain Sein Lwin of the Myanmar military, who led the raid.

One year after his death, Hpapun Township was incorporated into today’s Karen State and other townships were incorporated at later dates.

The date on which Saw Ba U Gyi died is marked by Karen people as Karen Martyrs Day. Successive governments banned commemoration of the day. The current government under the National League for Democracy has allowed it, but has ordered that the term “martyr” not be used.

Capt. Sein Lwin rose to fame in the military after he defeated Saw Ba U Gyi, and became military dictator General Ne Win’s henchman. He was dubbed the “Butcher of Rangoon” for his brutal suppression of pro-democracy protests from 1962 to 1988.