Karen Killing

20 February 2008

By AUNG ZAW
THE WALL STREET JOURNAL ASIA
February 19, 2008

MAE SOT, Thailand
[Source - Wall Street Journal Online]

On Valentine's Day, two gunmen walked up to a wooden house in this border town and assassinated one of Burma's most prominent ethnic minority leaders. The killing inflicts a serious blow to Burma's flagging pro-democracy movement.

Mahn Sha was the leader of the Karen National Union, an armed rebel group fighting for autonomy from Burma's ruling military junta. He joined the KNU in 1966 after finishing his studies in history at Rangoon University. Over the next few decades, he rose steadily through the ranks, finally serving as General Saw Bo Mya's personal secretary. At the KNU's 12th Party Congress in 2000, he was elected secretary-general, the third highest-ranking position in the KNU.

A Buddhist in a mostly Christian movement, Mahn Sha was unusual for his ability to win support from across Burma's various pro-democracy movements. As KNU leader, he spearheaded several rounds of peace talks between the Karen and the ruling Burmese military junta. He also supported Nobel laureate Aung San Suu Kyi's National League for Democracy. When the KNU delegation went to Rangoon in December 2005 for peace talks, the regime requested that Mahn Sha be excluded from the discussions -- surely a sign of his moral authority.

Unfortunately, Mahn Sha didn't preside over a unified movement. The KNU is rife with grave internal conflicts, mostly over whether to talk or fight with the ruling junta -- something the former secretary-general was careful not to expose in interviews with the international press. These divisions have only served to strengthen Burma's generals, who employ a "divide and conquer" strategy to weaken pro-democracy groups -- as well as brute force, as last year's killings in Rangoon demonstrated.

Mahn Sha himself recognized the danger from internal party conflicts. On Burma's Union Day, a celebration of the country's independence from Britain and two days before his untimely death, he told Irrawaddy magazine: "So 60 years have been wasted in vain, and instead of prosperity, we have fallen into poverty because of the military dictatorship. There is no security. That's why we want to establish a democracy and federal union, which is the best form of government to bring all the ethnic nationalities together."

In fact, his assassination could be the result of those very divisions with the Karen movement itself. The Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, a Karen group that broke away from the KNU in 1995, is now allied with the Burmese army. In January last year, another group, the Karen National Liberation Army Peace Council, also split from the KNU, and its leader, former KNLA 7th Brigade commander Htain Maung, signed a ceasefire agreement with the regime. Since Htain Maung's surrender, there have been several assassination attempts and killings among Karen groups, but mostly within Burma. On Jan. 29, for instance, Htain Maung's son-in-law was killed when a bomb was placed under his bed in Karen State in Burma. The breakaway faction accused the KNU and Mahn Sha of planning the killing.

Still, there was little reason for Mahn Sha to fear for his life in Thailand. Since the start of the Cold War, Bangkok enforced a "buffer zone policy" with respect to its neighbors. Ethnic Burmese minorities such as the Karen, Mon and Shan rebels enjoyed relative freedom in Thailand, and -- most importantly -- access to arms which they then shipped back into Burma to rebels fighting for autonomy.

It's unclear if Mahn Sha's assassination signals an end to these "buffer zone" freedoms. Thailand is now a major trading partner of Burma, dealing mostly in gas, teak and other natural resources. The new, democratically elected government in Bangkok has been unusually silent on the killing, leading many Karen to wonder if the still-unknown culprits will ever be brought to justice.

The KNU named a new secretary general, 61-year-old Htoo Htoo Lay, last week. But the party's president, Saw Ba Thin Sein, and its vice president, Tamala Baw, are in poor health. Mahn Sha was a respected, articulate KNU leader who fought his entire life for freedom and democracy. If the Karen can't get their act together soon, they may soon sink into irrelevance -- and with them, so too will Mahn Sha's vision of a free Burma.

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