Features | Security | Southeast Asia

Borderline Hit Job

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.

By Phil Thornton for

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.

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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.”

Professor Ball says the ethnic groups have to bear responsibility for the breaks by factions and respond to the threat. “It’s more necessary now than ever for the ethnic armies to form an alliance; they’re all down to minimum capacity. If they don’t, they’ll get knocked off one by one.” Mahn Sha’s words also echoed Professor Ball’s assessment: “We have no uniting ideology. Without it, how are we ethnic people of Burma going to compete against the regime? We do well in the battlefield but politically we don’t. We have not yet learnt from our past mistakes, but we will.”

Mahn Sha told me the regime’s objective was to divide the Karen. “These ceasefire groups and individuals who comply with the regime are a disgrace. General Bo Mya [the late legendary Karen leader] said ‘we want peace, but it must be based on justice and dignity, not a quick profit for a few’.”

Professor Ball says Mahn Sha’s demonstrated ability to unite the opposition and form alliances was of major concern to the regime. The Burmese military dictatorship is getting ready to hold a national referendum on its own Constitution as proof to the international community of its sincerity to have political change. When the opposition alliance in Bangkok defiantly released their draft Constitution of the Federal Republic of the Union of Burma, Mahn Sha was credited as the driving force behind it. And according to his ethnic colleagues this was why he was killed.

Dr Lian Sakhong, general-secretary of the Ethnic National Council (of Burma), told The Diplomat that Mahn Sha’s death is a massive setback to the Burmese opposition groups. “Pado Mahn Sha was the leader of all ethnic nationalities in Burma, including Burmans. He united everybody. He was the bridge between the ethnic people and the Burmans. He worked hard to rebuild the union of Burma into a peaceful country and move the country to a democratic and open society. The military have sent a clear message to us by killing him – that they are not willing to engage in peaceful political dialogue.”

During our interviews Mahn Sha insisted political dialogue was the only way Burma could resolve its conflict: “We want to resolve our problems by peaceful means, but the Burmese [military] don’t want that, they like the battlefield too much.” In spite of his desire for peaceful talks, Mahn Sha was incensed by attacks on Karen villagers in 2007 that forced as many as 76,000 people to relocate to jungle hideouts. As an indication of the extent of the Burmese military campaign against the Karen, the humanitarian aid agency, the Thai Burma Border Consortium (TBBC) reported that 3000 Karen villages had been destroyed between 1996 and 2006. Currently 500,000 people are displaced.

Mahn Sha was also angry that the Karen had to keep fighting against such a formidable armed enemy without international support. “These [villagers] are not soldiers. They’re civilians. The [Burmese army] kill, burn, they torture our people and landmine our villages. We want peace, justice and we want to be part of a federation of Burma.”

Mahn Sha said he was an internationalist. He was enthusiastic about plans to form an ethnic alliance with Burman opposition groups that could effectively combat the regime. “The time of dictators is over, we live in the twenty-first century. It’s time for the Burmese generals to make genuine peace with their people.” Always accommodating to the international community and media, Mahn Sha felt more could be done by the United Nations and its members. “We need strong pressure from the international governments. Burma is an international problem. They’re one of the biggest producers and traffickers of illicit drugs, recruiters of child soldiers, have one of the world’s worst health records, poor disease controls, are an environmental disaster and traffic in people.”

Mahn Sha spoke about the death threats and took seriously an intelligence report that the Burmese military dictatorship had plans to kill KNU leaders, speaking of warnings of a hit list he had received from his own security officers. In the months leading up to his death there had been a number of grenades thrown at KNU leaders and a would-be Mahn Sha assassin confessing his intentions and his links to the regime.

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Mahn Sha said he expected attempts on his life would be at night and had taken steps to never sleep in his own home. He insisted in spending his days at his home, mainly because he enjoyed the view across the paddy field from the seat on the porch. Mahn Sha scoffed at media stories and academic articles that had recently written off the Karen as a spent force. “We will continue our struggle. Controlling land or territory is not important to us, but our people are. We save people first. It’s not the first time critics have said the Karen are finished. When we lost Manerplaw [the former KNU Headquarters] in 1995, our critics said we were beaten. But the Karen are still fighting for Burma’s freedom.”

Phil Thornton is A Freelance Journalist in Northern Thailand