An excerpt from my forthcoming book, ‘A Just Country – The Karen of Burma: Nationalism and Conflict’ (Photos courtesy KHCPS archive – Orginal source KNU)
The pagoda at the KNU controlled Thu Mwe Hta village was located at the conjunction between the rivers Moei and Salween and had originally been consecrated on the 20th of April 1989. The monk who built the pagoda, U Thuzana, was a cousin of the wealthy KNU Forestry Minister, Padoh Aung San. U Thuzana had built a number of pagodas throughout Karen State and this, like the others, gave solace to a large number of Buddhist practitioners in the area. Unlike the others, however, the location of the pagoda and the actions of a number of errant KNLA officers were to transform the location into a battleground and a place where Karen would fight each other and the revolution would see a major rebellion.
In 1975, a meeting had been convened by Gen. Bo Mya. He invited the Buddhist clergy to attend and appoint a Karen Buddhist council to minister to Karen Buddhists. Among those chosen to sit on the executive council were U Thuzana, the Khaw Taw (Myaing Gyi Ngu) Sayadaw and U Wizzana, the Noh Poh Sayadaw. Some years later U Thuzana asked permission to build a pagoda at Thu Mweh Hta and it was granted by General Bo Mya. However, it was requested that the pagoda not be whitewashed or have a zinc roof and that a Chedi not be placed at the summit. It was feared that this could be used by the SLORC to target the area. Further restrictions also imposed were to include preventing Thai pilgrims from crossing the river to visit the pagoda due to fears that SLORC agents could infiltrate the area from the Thai side of the river.
The Beginnings of Dissent
The first problems began to occur when a notorious Karen commander, Saw Charles, a cousin of General Bo Mya’s wife, was asked to deal with a number of issues that had been occurring at the monastery. Saw Charles, according to the one observer, had been able to achieve his relatively high position due to:
‘. . . favouritism from Bo Mya because of the ties of affection between them. Although being loyal to his nation…Saw Charles was to blunder according to his whims and fancies. To correct Saw Charles shortcomings, it seems that Bo Mya tolerated him with a rank to get him to change for the better.’ [i]
To help his relative, Bo Mya had overturned a previous promotion decision made by Gen. Hla Htoo, Lt Gen. Tamla Baw, Gen. K’ser Doh, and vice-president Than Aung. He appointed Saw Charles to be the Second Gate-in-Charge and 2nd company commander at the main trading gate at Mae Tha Waw, an extremely sought after position. In 1989, he rose to become company commander at Maw Pokay. However, it was during his command that it was brought to the attention of GHQ that summary executions, rape, robbery and over-taxation had become prevalent throughout the predominantly Buddhist area. It was reported that some villages were being taxed at over 100,000 kyats. After a problem with the local township committee for Hlaingbwe, he was finally recalled to headquarters and detained.
It is believed that the alleged actions perpetrated by Saw Charles against the local Buddhist population may have angered the revered U Thuzana. The KNU realising the damage that had been done requested that Em Marta, then KNU Foreign Affairs Minister, ask the monk to return to Thu Mweh Hta and finish the pagoda, work on which had been halted, as an act of appeasement.
Saw Charles, not long after the battle of Sleeping Dog Mountain, was appointed Chairman of the Hlaingbwe Township Committee and had immediately implemented a policy of forced portering, ie. press-ganging the local people to work for the KNLA. This included a number of residents who had been living in Buddhist monasteries, an act that was regarded as highly deplorable by local Buddhists. It was due to the heavy handedness of Charles’ leadership that a number of villagers were forced to flee. In addition, he was also well known to despise the KNLA’s Buddhist troops, not only in the districts but also those at GHQ. [ii] Unable to tolerate his behaviour the KNU leadership was, once again, forced to recall and detain him.
Thu Mweh Hta itself had begun to grow since the building of the pagoda. U Thuzana on his return formed a thriving Buddhist vegetarian community which was able to feed over 800 adherents. The ability of the monk to feed so many people began to sow suspicions among some KNU leaders who believed he may have been given support by the SPDC. Such doubts were further enhanced by the fact that it was generally regarded by Tatmadaw units in the area that the monk’s followers were free from forced conscription and portering. Travelling papers provided by the monk allowed their carriers to pass freely without hindrance through Burmese army checkpoints. Originally, the followers of the monk also received similar treatment from the KNU and adherents were spared from joining the army or portering for KNLA operations.
It was this sedate life in the village that had apparently led some KNLA soldiers to choose to leave the army and join the commune. A situation that had not escaped the notice of General Bo Mya. With most of his soldiers Buddhists, Bo Mya, feared the rise in power of the monk and the possibility of further defections. He asked Saw Charles, in May 1993, to deal with the situation. Which Saw Charles allegedly did by abusing the followers from the monastery and then evicting them. The situation was further inflamed when Colonel Walter, who was responsible for overall security in the area, prevented the erection of a Hti (an ornate umbrella) and purportedly threatened to shoot a number of the performers who were celebrating the event. Col. Walter figured largely in the affair and was accused of assaulting a number of pilgrims, an action he denies.[iii] Despite a number of complaints being made against him, especially by Col. Kyaw Heh, 4th column commander of 102 Battalion which had been tasked with security in the area, Col Walter was transferred and then apparently promoted.
Angered by the problems caused by Saw Charles and Colonel Walter, a number of Buddhist civilians and KNLA soldiers, led by Bo Aye, set off for Manerplaw but found their way blocked. The boat in which they were travelling in was fired upon killing two people. In response, over 500 people including 200 KNLA soldiers on the 10th of May, [iv] rallied and demonstrated at the KNU headquarters, before finally being placated by General Bo Mya, who had agreed to look into the incident. In response to what was perceived as agitation by U Thuzana, officials were appointed to monitor him and some of his followers. The KNU began to believe that the unseen hand of the SLORC was behind the continuing unrest amongst the soldiers.
On the 17th of May, an inquiry committee led by Padohs Thackabaw and Aung Shwe were dispatched to investigate the alleged abuses at the site of the pagoda’s construction where over a thousand people had now gathered. Unhappy with the response they had received from the Headquarters, once the committee’s finding had been put forward, over a thousand people led by U Thuzana and a group of about seventy KNLA soldiers including Warrant Officer Kyaw Than went to Manerplaw on the 18th of May to meet with Bo Mya. They demanded some form of redress. Bo Mya apparently promised the group that action would be taken against any offenders and gave a written reply stating that ‘Religion shall not be used for furtherance of political ends.’[v]
Although the KNU’s actions had placated the Buddhists’ resentment, many within the KNU leadership still believed that the Tatmadaw were behind U Thuzana and were seeking to split the revolutionary forces. On the 24th of November 1994, an emergency meeting of the Kawthoolei Sangha was held at Manerplaw. Despite U Thuzana being invited, he failed to attend. [vi]The meeting was attended by over 102 monks and lay people, as well as by KNU leaders and observers. The problems of the Khaw Taw (Myaing Gyi Ngu) Sayadaw were addressed and the final recommendations were to be implemented by the Sangha;
Not to be involved and inhibit the political, military and administrative proceedings in carrying out the religious or mission works.
People who desire to go into monk hood, must be examined in accordance with the laws and rulings set down by the Buddha re: fitness for monk hood.
To stop mission works: such as building of religious constructions and others within battle areas and regions.
No action detrimental to the unity among the people and the clergy and among various religions must be committed in the name of religion.
Cases or problems arisen from among the Sanghas (clergy) or any case of complaint, big or small between the Sanghas and the regional officials must be submitted to the Kawthoolei Sanghas’ Association and the decision laid down by the said association must be adhered to.
To oppose any penetration of undesirables into the fold of the Sanghas and to condemn anyone who tries to use religion as a scapegoat.
On the occasions of constructing religious temples and the pagodas, the Laymen arid the Laywomen must coordinate and cohese with the regional authorities.
For many of the local Buddhists however, especially those loyal to U Thuzana, the Kawthoolei Sangha Association was seen as nothing more than a KNU Buddhist front. It had been set up by Bo Mya and headed by U Wizzana. They saw the implementation of such rules as an attempt by the KNU to stifle the influence of not only Buddhism but also that of the much revered Khaw Taw (Myaing Gyi Ngu) Sayadaw. Regardless, on the second day of the meeting, a message was received from U Thuzana stating that he would no longer be involved in the building of pagodas and those that had been built would be entrusted to the Kawthoolei Sangha while he himself was to begin a 49-month retreat.
By the 1st of December, U Thuzana and a number of his followers had left Thu Mweh Hta and had returned to Khaw Taw (Myaing Gyi Ngu). While the monk was on his journey back, a number of KNLA soldiers began to leave their positions at Manerplaw and make their way back to the pagoda. The first to arrive was an NCO, Pah Mee (Karen Blood) with around 18 men shortly followed by a warrant officer, Kyaw Than and approximately 110 men. [vii] Both had led a number of their own subordinates from their positions and on encountering other soldiers asked them to join their ranks. Those who refused were disarmed.
The deserters began to stop boats, used for trade and travel, on the Moei and, according to some sources, asked the occupants if they were Buddhist or Christian. Those who refused to answer were beaten and regardless of religious affiliation, all were robbed before being allowed to continue their journey. Manerplaw was informed of the incident. The then Justice Minister and KNDO Commander, Colonel Htoo Htoo Lay and a number of other committee members,[viii] travelled to Thu Mweh Hta to hear the grievances put forward by Kyaw Than. In a meeting attended by the rebel soldiers and local villagers, Kyaw Than accused the KNU of Buddhist oppression and of conspiring to force U Thuzana to leave. He gave Col. Htoo Htoo Lay a statement that asked the KNU to ensure that Buddhists be treated fairly and to take legal action against those responsible for:
Discrimination and religious oppression.
Offences against religious buildings.
Offences against religious doctrines and teachings
Offences through both verbal and action against religious workers
To offend, harass, and to act against freedom of worship which are against the law. [ix]
On the 6th of December, a delegation of monks from Khaw Taw (Myaing Gyi Ngu) arrived at Thu Mweh Hta and asked to meet with members of the KNU leadership. Col. Htoo Htoo Lay, who had been staying in the monastery and acting as liaison, requested a negotiating team be sent to talk with the delegation. The meeting the next day between the Buddhist defectors and a negotiating team consisting of Gen. Maung Maung, Padoh Mahn Sha, and Padoh San Line ended cordially around 11.30 am. However, when members of the KNU team attempted to leave they were prevented in doing so by armed dissidents. Attempts to locate Kyaw Than proved impossible and after another meeting, it was agreed that Gen. Maung Maung and Col. Htoo Htoo Lay could return to Manerplaw.
The situation in Thu Mweh Hta was in chaos. As soon as Kyaw Than had returned to the monastery he was accused of being a traitor for letting the two KNU members leave. Meanwhile, a separate faction of deserters, commanded by Pah Mee, had broken away and were planning to execute Col. Johnny who had been at the monastery at the time and had also been arrested. This group had then gone into the holding cell and had taken away three Christian prisoners, a KNDO Captain, Kyaw Eh, a customs officer and a civilian leader from Thaw Leh Hta. Kyaw Eh and the civilian were both executed while the customs officer was able to escape.
Colonel Htoo Htoo Lay and Gen. Maung Maung returned to the monastery and found that the situation was deteriorating rapidly. Those KNLA soldiers who had initially abandoned their positions had been replaced by a number of undisciplined militias and militant rebels. It was also noticeable that a number of monks could be seen brandishing firearms. Whether these had been those from Khaw Taw (Myaing Gyi Ngu) was unclear.
While KNU suspicions about SLORC involvement had yet to be proven they were further substantiated by the arrival, on the 10th of December, by a group of militant monks from Papun. These monks immediately arranged a meeting for that evening which was attended by about 500 followers from Thu Mweh Hta village and KNLA defectors. Col. Htoo Htoo Lay, who was also at the meeting, recalls that when the monks were addressing the crowd they regularly used SLORC terminology to discuss Karen areas. At one point one of the monks demanded that the KNU be informed that Bo Mya was to come to the monastery to meet them. When he was reminded that the KNU had already agreed to meet with defectors on neutral ground in Thailand, another monk in the Papun party retorted:
‘They are Christians and you know there crimes. If Bo Mya does not arrive by 9 a.m. tomorrow you can take action against them as you please.’ [x]
Pah Mee and a group of fifty to sixty soldiers buoyed on by the proceedings decided to take matters into their own hands. Believing they were charmed they set off towards Manerplaw in an attempt to confront the leadership. After being able to overcome the first checkpoint, which had radioed ahead to GHQ about the situation, the group was finally repelled at the second checkpoint. It opened fire killing two of the defectors, Pah Mee and a Thar Thit Ka Lo. The rest retreated in disarray back to the monastery.
After this assault the leadership at Manerplaw decided to shell the perimeter of Thu Mweh Hta compound as a warning. [xi] One villager was accidentally killed in the attack and three others seriously injured. The chaos caused by the shelling led to one monk, U Pyinnya Thermi, bursting into the holding cells brandishing a pistol and radio and threatening to kill Col. Johnny. Although the monk finally calmed down, it was not long after that another group of soldiers arrived issuing the same threat. The two Buddhist KNU members of the negotiation committee, Padoh Mahn Sha and San Line, were separated from the Christians who were bound and taken out of the cell but later freed.
At 6 a.m. on the 15th of December, the KNLA 7thBattalion launched an offensive forcing the dissidents commanded by Kyaw Than and Kyaw Heh to withdraw from Thu Mweh Hta. They retreated to a safer position near Ohndaw village leaving the monastery, and 500 civilians, to be defended by a hundred armed men.
A mediating team comprising Naing Aung from the ABSDF, Nai Pe Than Zar, from the NMSP, U Tin Aung from the NLD-LA and a monk from Sutse Monastery in Thailand contacted the defenders of Thu Mweh Hta. They asked them to negotiate a settlement on the Thai side of the border. The KNU prisoners, accompanied by U Pyinnya Thermi, U Kuntinyya and Bo Kyaw Ka, boarded a boat at 1 a.m. and were taken to the rendezvous on the Thai side of the Moei where they met with the KNU mediating team. This team included Lt. Gen. Tamala Baw, Padoh Ba Thein, Em Marta, Padoh Mahn Yin Sein and intelligence commander Lt. Col. Soe Soe. Here an agreement was signed with both sides agreeing;
To form a committee representing Buddhists
This committee to find the right approach to solve any argument that arise
The KNU to take full responsibility to ensure that yebaws (comrades), Sanghas and other people involved in the incident are not punished, arrested, killed or jailed.
The respective command leaders to be given the right to judge should a case occur concerning the shooting of Buddhist yebaws (comrades) and commanders.
Strict action to be taken against hindering freedom of worship with a view to propagating religion.
Commanders Kyaw Than and Kyaw Heh, who had retreated from Thu Mweh Hta before the signing, rejected the five points and after meeting with U Thuzana at Khaw Taw (Myaing Gyi Ngu) on the 20th of December, refused to further negotiate with the KNU. On the 21st of December 1994, they formed the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Association (DKBA) led by U Thuzana and civilian leaders from Papun. They were supported by a force comprising over 250 men from 102 and 104 battalions, local KNDO units and a number from 1st Brigade. The DKBA stated their intentions in the first of a number of declarations:
Declaration 1/94 Dated 21st December 1994.
- For the purpose of building a peaceful and prosperous Kayin State, the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Association (DKBA) has been founded on the 4th waning of Nattaw, 1356 (21 December 1994.)
- The Programme of the DKBA is roughly as follows:-
(a) Will strive to build a peaceful and prosperous life for all national groups of the Kayin State.
(b) Will give priority to developing all national groups of the Kayin State.
(c) Will strive to develop the economy of all national groups of the Kayin State.
(d) Will do utmost to strengthen and promote religions, cultures and traditions of all national groups of the Kayin State
3 Details of Organisation will be announced separately
Seven days later another policy statement was issued renaming the DKBA as the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Organisation (DKBO) and clarifying that the DKBA would be known as the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army (DKBA):
Announcement No 2/94 28 December 1994.
- Democratic Kayin Buddhist Association in paragraph 1 of the Announcement No 1/94 of the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Association is amended as Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army (DKBA) and Democratic Kayin Buddhist Association as Democratic Kayin Buddhist Organisation (DKBO).
- The Democratic Kayin Buddhist Organisation accepts the guidance stated in Announcement No 1/94 and will proceed to ensure consolidation of nationals, freedom of worship and equitable benefits and to perpetuate the Union.
- This Organisation believes that the majority of the human race is confronted with all kinds of social sufferings due to a group of people who ignore kindness and compassion and oppress and bully the people who are weak and ignorant.
- This Organisation is absolutely independent of the KNUstarting from the issuing of the announcement. It is announced that all members of the Organisation have resigned from the KNU.
- In accordance with this conviction, we announce that our Organisation will form different levels of the following bodies with the aim of setting the people free from all social sufferings and establish peaceful state in order that the noblest of worldly values such as political, economic and religious freedom may be enjoyed equitably with consideration among fellow human beings.
(a) Patrons comprising six members of the Sangha including U Thuzana as chairman,
(b) Central Committee members comprising nine including U Tha Htoo Kyaw as Chairman and necessary committees under its control will be formed,
(c) Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army HQ and units under its command will be formed as necessary.
With the formation of the organisation a number of other dissatisfied soldiers began to defect and leave their positions, sixty men from 6th Brigade; Bo Cha Teik, 1stCompany, 19th Battalion; Bo Kyaw Kalei, 2nd Company 21st Battalion and Bo Takee, 5th Company, 104th Battalion among others.
General Bo Mya, who has claimed constantly that U Thuzana had been deliberately sent by the SLORC with the intention of splitting the KNU by exploiting religious dissatisfaction, ordered KNLA operation’s Commander Lt Col. Law Wah Dee to shell the dissidents. Aware of the consequences of a rebellion within the ranks, the general wished to take a harder stance in his own words:
‘We must fight and crush those who revolt against us. We can no longer employ the means of charity or love.’[xii]
However, a number of Central Committee members including Em Marta, Padoh Kaw Soe and Padoh Yoh Shoo approached Law Wah Dee and persuaded him to refrain from such direct action. Instead the KNU, on the 26th of December 1994, issued a deadline to the dissidents to disarm and return to the organisation by midnight 31st of December. They said that failure to do so would result in retaliatory action. In a further attempt to try and convince the defecting Yebaws, back to the ranks General Bo Mya issued another request, via his traditional Karen New Year speech on the 29th of December 1994, for unity in the face of what he obviously believed was SLORC involvement in the Karen split:
‘There have been 46 years of fighting since the 1949 revolution began. Just as there has been unity in the past, we have to continue the fight unitedly with the leadership of the KNU till freedom is obtained.
One regrettable episode of 1994 is that we are misunderstood and opposed by some yebaws, who due to instigations, are saying Christians oppressed Buddhists and denied them rights. This act is the scheme of the enemy. The enemy struck at us to cause our disintegration.
It is explicitly prescribed in the KNU organizational rules that all religions shall have freedom of worship.
It is prescribed that religions be not of lower or higher status, that they be equal and shall not find fault in each other, that they be united.
According to the words of the elders, unity brings success. What the enemy said about Christians oppressing Buddhists is totally untrue. The truth is, Christians and Buddhists are friendly. They help each other. When monasteries are built, the required timber and other items were given. Help was given to each other as necessary.
Because we leaders truly desire peace and unity, none of the yebaws who believed the enemy will face action or be punished. We forgave and wrote off all their acts.
As our elders said, just as the sky is not free of clouds, no one is free from faults. Therefore, all those who have believed the enemy’s instigation should revert to what is right and collectively take part in work that will be of benefit to Karen nationals. I want all Karen nationals to be united and work together with one mind in 1995.
Karen nationals, all yebaws,
You will see that if the faces of roosters which are creatures, are smeared with pot-black and set against each other, they will fight. In making them fight thus, the one who makes them do it does not suffer. Those who fight suffer. The enemy has smeared us with pot-black and made us fight one another. If we fight against each other, who will suffer? We Karen suffer. If Karen fight each other, the enemy will applaud and will be happy.
In a past episode, the enemies used Karen to assassinate Kawkasa Saw Ba U Gyi. The enemy issued weapons to them and made them fight the KNU. They sacrificed their lives for the enemy in vain.
Therefore, build the unity that will be of benefit to Karen nationals with a view to forging unity of the entire Karen nationals. As 1994 comes to a close, forsake the instigation of the enemies and march toward unity. May all Karen nationals find unity, peace, prosperity and success on this auspicious Karen New Year.’ [xiii]
The deadline passed without comment while U Thuzana, trying to rally support and create a civilian base, sent a letter, dated the 2nd January 1995, to all refugee camps in Thailand stating that:
‘Weapons must be confiscated as quickly as possible from every Christian leader who settles in these camps. All Karen Buddhist refugee families can come to Burma by car from Mae Ta Wah freely to Pa-an city. From Pa-an city you will be sent to your own native village. There is a launch already prepared for anybody who will return you will be safe on your trip.
No Christians, only Karen Buddhists are allowed to go. No Christians will be given safe passage. Do not let any hesitation or hindrance stop you from returning.
Time of peace in Karen State has come.’ [xiv]
Refugees were also allowed to return to Myaing Gyi Ngu and Thu Mweh Hta , however, those wishing to do so had to follow strict rules:
To remain vegetarian forever inside and outside the camp.
No one is to argue or to cause trouble outside the camp.
There is to be no division between races.
Everybody must keep the 5th Commandment of the Guatama Buddha (Do not kill).
Do not gossip or use slander that will cause harm to anybody in the compound.
No political discussions or arguments are allowed to disturb the people in the compound.
No religion apart from Buddhism is allowed to be discussed in the compound. [xv]
With the passing of the deadline and DKBA attempts to turn Buddhist Karen against Christians full-scale fighting was inevitable. On the 3rd of January 1995, fighting broke out at Thu Mweh Hta monastery. Khaw Taw village (Myaing Gyi Ngu) was shelled the next day destroying two monasteries and the ordination hall. The DKBA force, consisting of about four hundred men, and backed by the Tatmadaw, immediately began an offensive against Manerplaw.
[i] IKHRA, ‘The River Conjunction’
[iii] Colonel Walter has refuted such allegations claiming that an officer under his command did beat two boatmen but such actions were in line with security measures in place at the time. Correspondence from Col Walter to IKHRA dated 15/7/96.
[iv] New Light of Myanmar, ‘Whither KNU’, 29/1/95
[v] Excerpts from Kyaw Than’s Diary included in ‘Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw’, Myaing Nan Swe
[vi] Interestingly the SLORC propaganda piece ‘Whither KNU’ states that ‘The Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw came but spat up blood and had to be sent to Chiang Mai.’ The monks own biography, however, states that he was still working on another pagoda.
[vii] Extracts from Kyaw Than’s Diary, ‘Khaw Taw (Myaing Gyi Ngu) Sayadaw’
[viii] Gen. Maung Maung, Gen. Hla Htoo, Maj. Htain Maung, Maj. Kyaw Lay, Lt. Johnny, Lt. Tamala, Phado Mahn Yin Sein, Phado Mahn Sha, Padoh San Line, and Lt Kyi Aung.
[ix] IKHRA, ‘River Conjunction’
[x] Independent interview with Saw Htoo Htoo Lay on the 5th January 1995 by an aid worker
[xi] Ibid. A total of 53 shells fell on Thu Mweh Hta on the 11th December.
[xii] Gen. Bo Mya, ‘Memoirs…’
[xiii] New Year Speech, 29/12/04, NLM, ‘Whither KNU’
[xiv] Translated letter, Atiah