Pado Mahn Sha, the 65 year-old leader of the Karen National Union (KNU), Burma’s largest armed opposition group, sat outside his house in Mae Sot following a briefing session with a foreign analyst. As staff prepared his evening meal, a blue pick-up stopped outside. Two men left the truck, entered the house, greeted Mahn Sha and shot him dead. One of the men fired once, the other twice. The men fled, chased by one of Mahn Sha’s staff. The assassin’s stolen truck was later found about 40 kilometres north of Mae Sot, close to a river crossing controlled by a militia group armed by the Burmese regime.
Mae Sot is a border town in the restive Karen State that has been struggling for independence from Burma for decades. Overloaded trucks packed with consumer goods make their way to river crossings. Gem dealers, timber traders, Burmese refugees, off-duty Thai soldiers, aid workers and underpaid factory workers trawl the narrow streets. It’s also the headquarters of Burma’s exiled political opposition groups.
Following Mahn Sha’s assassination, town gossip went into overdrive. Some called it “a revenge killing” or “in-fighting between opposing Karen factions”. Others reckoned it was “hired gunmen linked to joint Thai/Burmese business projects”; Mahn Sha acknowledged this saying he was under constant pressure from business interests who wanted to exploit the Karen state’s natural resources.
But regional intelligence sources deny those allegations and think the truth is simpler, reckoning that Mahn Sha’s tough stance in ceasefire talks and his refusal to accept terms offered by Burma’s generals was the reason he was murdered. The sources also say they have electronic proof that the Burmese regime’s Office of Military Affairs Security and Lieutenant Colonel Myat Htun Oo were involved as well as Lieutenant Colonel Min Chit Oo from South Eastern Military Command. “We know who is responsible for ordering the shooting, we know the links between the killers . we have all the names. It may have been a Karen gunman who was paid to pull the trigger, but Mahn Sha’s murder and the KNU hit list was ordered by the regime.”
Mahn Sha was a constant thorn in the Burmese government’s attempts to show the international community they were moving towards democracy. While he was alive the regime knew it could not achieve a ceasefire on their terms or dismantle the KNU. Other ethnic leaders who had signed ceasefire agreements had personally benefited with large houses, flash cars and timber, gems or drug concessions. But Mahn Sha shunned such inducements, remaining the one Burmese opposition leader who had the ability and the respect to unite ethnic and Burman opposition groups in a workable alliance.
But while many of the splits, factions or ceasefire groups are blamed entirely on the Burmese regime, according to Desmond Ball, a professor from the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University, it’s too simple to say it’s all engineered by the regime. “Local dynamics play a huge part, whether it’s religion, business interests, education or perceptions that leaders are living well in towns while soldiers are doing the fighting on basic rations. These are all easy issues for the regime to stoke and cause divisions.”