Relate paper


A Review of the Fight for the Karen People’s Autonomy


Ba Saw Khin
Tucson, Arizona

(Revised 2005)

A Review of the Fight for the Karen People’s Autonomy


Relater article
"Join the army or go to jail": A story of a Burmese child soldier.
Paper relate to the Karen struggle
FIFTY YEARS OF STRUGGLE: A Review of the Fight for the Karen People’s Autonomy: by Ba Saw Khin
Ethnic Issues in the Politics of Burma: A Karen Perspective: by by Naw May Oo and Saw Kapi
A Karen History: by Karen National Union (KNU). History of the Karen and their struggle for freedom, and about the KNU
The negotiation between the KNU and SLORC (The State Law and Order Restoration council)
April 8, 1998
Manerplaw Agreement to Establish a Federal Union of Burma



A Meeting That Failed To Take Place

The Karen People and the Karen National Union (KNU)
Historical Background (Synopsis)
The Battle of Insein
Elsewhere in the Country
The Toungoo Interlude
Papun and the Demise of Saw Ba U Gyi
Transition Period
Karens Inside Burma Proper
Rapprochement with the CPB and the Zin-Zan Agreement

The Formation of the KNUP and the KNU’s Second Phase Program
Inconsequential British Involvement
More Than Socialism?
KNUP-KNU Split, 1960 Peace Talks and the 1964 Peace Treaty
Bo Mya, the KNU Leader, NULF Alliance KNU and NDF Serious Setbacks- Still Striving
Beyond Manerplaw
Concluding Remarks




The Karen people have lived in Burma for many centuries. They may well have been one of the first of many ethnic nationalities in Burma, if not the very first. That they could have been among the first settlers in Burma is indirectly supported by an account, written more than a century ago by the Consul for France in Rangoon in his book, “Burma under British Rule”, which was later translated by Sir James George Scott, and quoted by General Smith Dun in his Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel. Part of the last paragraph of the quote reads: ‘What is certain is that there was an irruption of Hkayins (Karens) into Burma before there were any Burmese there, and that the Burmese destroyed their capital and subjugated them. At this period, about the fourth century of our era, the Burmese were called Pyu, and the Karens down to the present day still call the Burmese Piya ’.1 [The Sgaw Karen term for the Burman has always been P-Yaw (which, to the French ear might sound Piya.) It should be noted that current usage of the word ‘Burmese’ covers all the people or citizens of Burma as well as the major or official language spoken, and ‘Burman’ refers to the ethnic majority, the predominant people in the country who, until relatively recent time, would also be referred to as Burmese.]

The Karens have had a long history, albeit oral, in Burma and yet it was only after the arrival of the British in the early nineteenth century that they were able to emerge from obscurity. The Burmese kings, starting with Anawrahta in 1044 A.D., had never officially recognized the Karen people as an ethnic entity and ignored them as they did the other lesser ethnic minorities such as the Chin, Kachin, etc. To answer the question of why the Karen people are now desirous of having a state or country of their own is going to require more than a simple explanation. In a broader and somewhat simplistic sense, the answer may well be obvious. To quote a recent newspaper article, “Most global conflict can be blamed on a basic imbalance: - humankind is made up of 5,000 ethnic groups with only 190 countries to live in.” 2

There are dozens of distinct ethnic minorities in Burma, who have been almost invariably dominated by the majority Burmans. The present-day Karens are but one of the dissatisfied groups, and this is not even taking into consideration politics and various contending parties that easily complicate matters further, engendering problems and conflicts that have been pervasive in Burma ever since gaining her independence from the British on January 4, 1948. At this writing, the current military SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) government claims that they have achieved peace and stability in Burma. This happens to be true only on the very thin surface of the real situation in that country. The regime is still engaged in suppressing the various dissident groups, one of the long standing and most stubborn among them being the Karens of the KNU (Karen National Union), and is using a variety of inventive and insidious methods, means and tricks, with full employment of seemingly inexhaustible military resources, to suppress them. The KNU is now cooperating with other ethnic minorities and various Burman opposition organizations toward eliminating the repressive military regime and the establishment of a government of true pluralism in Burma and, eventually for the ethnics to achieve genuine autonomy for themselves.

On the eve of Burma’s independence shortly after the end of World War II, most of the Karen leadership felt, with some justification that, without a separate and autonomous region, despite the high military positions held or promised to be attained by some of their own ethnic minority members, which they deemed to be merely cosmetics, the Karen people eventually would be subjugated. They suspected that there was a distinct possibility that they would even be eliminated completely from the Burmese scene by the major ethnic Burman leaders who have hitherto never proved themselves trustworthy, not to mention the Karens’ perception of the Burmans or Bama as a people with habitual predilection to chicanery, duplicity and domineering. The current Burmese military government is generally understood to regard the KNU as one of its most, if not the most, hated foes. The premises and facts of all aspects of the Karen struggle may never be satisfactorily explored.

This booklet has no Index simply because it is not meant to be anything more than a synoptic background about the Karen people’s struggle and aspiration for a separate place to live in and manage own affairs in the current difficult, often locally complex, global situation.


On January 31st, 1949, at noon, Saw Ba U Gyi, President of the KNU (Karen National Union) and Thakin Nu[later U Nu] Prime Minister of the brand new, barely one year old, independent Union of Burma, were to meet for resolving the rapidly deteriorating situation between the Karens and Burmans, in general, and the KNDOs (Karen National Defense Organization, the armed wing of the KNU) and the Levies or ‘Sit-wun-tan’ troops (roughly, irregular armed units of the ruling AFPFL party of the government) as well as Burman Police and UMP (Union Military Police) forces, in particular.3 The night before, the Karen village at Thamaing, the southern suburb of Insein town, was fired upon by the Levies and intermittent gunfire into this Karen quarter continued for the entire nocturnal hours. Early on the 31st morning, the Levies practically surrounded the Thamaing Karen quarter and started firing into it in earnest. Attempts to contact U Nu, the PM, by phone were unsuccessful. This meant that communication between Insein, where the KNU Headquarters had moved to some time earlier, and Rangoon, a bare eight miles to the south, was completely severed. The meeting between Saw Ba U Gyi and U Nu never took place.

There were three Karen villages or quarters in the Insein area; the Thamaing quarter in the south, closest to Rangoon, the Gyogon-Seminary area that lies some three-quarters of a mile to the north of Thamaing, and the Nanthagon-Taungthugon Karen village in the north and north-east part of the town. The Nanthagon-Taungthugon was the largest Karen quarter, about a mile to the north of the Gyogon-Seminary hamlet.

The Levies, sometimes in conjunction with armed Burman inhabitants of Insein town, had been firing off and on into the Thamaing and Nathagon Karen quarters for several weeks already. During that time, responsible local Karen and Burman elders, including Police and paramilitary officers, with the blessings of some of U Nu’s government officials in Rangoon, had endeavored to stop the impending conflict. We will never know the sincerity on U Nu’s side, although some of the local Insein Burman leaders had been quite serious in trying to contain the deteriorating situation.

No matter how the situation is now viewed, the fighting started, undeniably, as a communal strife between the Burman and Karen peoples, even while there were countless mutual close friends on both sides. It took a little while longer before the fighting evolved into a rebellion by a minority ethnic political group, the KNU, against the government of the AFPFL (Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League) party that was dominated by the majority ethnic Burmans.

As January 31st dawned, Saw Ba U Gyi was in Insein, by this time married to a daughter of U Zan, a retired Karen official of the Burma Civil Service. Ba U Gyi evidently failed to get hold of his erstwhile friend, U Nu, by telephone. The day fighting started in Insein, regular Chin troops were ordered to search the Rangoon Karen quarters at Ahlone and were able to confiscate five shotguns, legally licensed and two Army rifles, unlicensed.4 That very night of January 31st, that Ahlone Karen quarter, also known as Th’taygon village, was attacked and torched by irregular Burman troops, killing a few people in the process. According to U Nu, he, Brig. General Ne Win, the deputy C-in-C of the Burma Army, and the Police Commissioner hurried over to the Ahlone Karen quarters in the morning, but it was too late to do any good for the Karens there who became instant refugees at their own doorstep.5

January 31st, 1949, is therefore recognized as the official date when the KNU began their revolution against the Union of Burma government, the armed insurrection in their attempt to obtain a separate state for the Karen people.


According to the March 31, 1992, census of the Burmese military government, the Karens, numbering some 2,630,000 out of the countrywide total of 41,880,000, is the largest minority ethnic group in Burma, making up slightly over 6% of the entire population.6 That figure of the Karen population is disputable since many Delta Karens, the majority of them being Buddhists, are usually counted as Burmans. The Shans, at 2,220,000, came in second, but they also claim that there are a lot more of them than this number that the military government has shown. Be that as it may, there is a consensus that the Karen and Shan people are the largest minority ethnic groups in Burma.

Unlike the Shans who have had their chieftains or Sawbwas, ruling different states, throughout historical time, including the somewhat unique semi-autonomous status under the British in the mid-1850’s to the time of the Second World War which reached Burma in 1942, the Karens have never been known to have a separate state or region of their own even though they, together with the Shan, Mon, Pyu (precursors or part of the early Burman) people, have been the earliest settlers in the land of Burma. This was mainly because, with the exception of the Hill Karens, a large percentage of them have made their home in the low valleys, flat terrain and the Delta region, having been pushed down from the north by the Pyu/Burman people until they ran out of land and had to yield to the mixed situation that ensued, living and working the land, more or less side by side, with the Burmans. The lowland Karens have somehow retained their separate identity even while many of them, for generations, having accepted the majority religion of Buddhism.

There are two main branches, namely, the Sgaw and Pwo Karen, each making up approximately 30 to 35% of this ethnic group in Burma. Subsequent to the conquest of Burma by the British, starting with the 1st Anglo-Burmese war in 1824-26, the Karens were able to assert themselves and augment their identity as a distinct minority ethnic people. It was at about this time that many Karens, due mainly to their oral traditions, including that of a ‘white’ brother bringing back to them a Book (the Bible), began to accept the Christian faith. Protestant Christian evangelical work in Burma, was actually begun before the turn of the 19th century, with little or no success, by the well-known English Baptist William Carey and his son Felix Carey. Only after the ardent and persevering American, Adoniram Judson, and his co-workers came on the scene in the early1800s that Christianity was planted firmly in the country. The first person to be converted to Christianity in Burma was a Buddhist Burman by the name of U Naw, and this was in 1819, after almost seven years of Judson’s arrival. And, curiously, it was also a Burman, Maung Shwe Bay, the fourth person to have accepted Christianity in Burma, who was responsible for the conversion of a first Karen, Ko Tha Byu, a murderer and slave, to become a Christian. Ergo, the Burman, Maung Shwe Bay, was the first Christian missionary among the Karens.7

By 1881, the Karens, usually depicted as a meek and docile ethnic group without any ambition to asseverate themselves or desire to stand up against hostility, had organized themselves into a party called the Karen National Association (KNA){Daw-Ka-Luu, in the Sgaw Karen language}, the founding father and first President being Dr. T. Than Bya, M.A., D.D., probably one of the earliest individuals, if not the very first person, from Burma who acquired a higher western academic degree. Successive presidents included (Sir) Dr. San C. Po, M.D., Kt., C.B.E., Saya U San Baw, O.B.E., K.I.H., and attorney Saw Ba Maung, Bar-at-Law.8 The KNA was the organization that represented the Karen people in British Burma until World War II. In 1943, during the Japanese occupation of Burma, the KNA was temporarily replaced by the Karen Central Advisory Board (KCAB) with the former KNA presidents as board members. By the end of WW II, the KCAB was renamed the Karen Central Organization (KCO) with Saw Tha Din as President and Treasurer, Mahn Ba Khin, Secretary, Saw Tha Htoe, Associate Secretary, and Executive Members of Saw Ba U Gyi, Saw San Po Thin, Saw Myat Thein, Mahn James Tun Aung, Mahn Shwe Tun Kya, Saw Ba Maung, James Tahpa, and Sidney Loo Nee.9 With the Burmese leadership under General Aung San trying to win independence of Burma from Britain, the Karens felt that they needed to remind the British of their help during the latter’s reign in Burma, and also the possibility of their being mistreated by the Burmans once independence was won. The KCO therefore sent a Good Will Mission represented by Saw Tha Din, Saw Ba U Gyi, Saw Po Chit and Sidney Loo Nee, to the United Kingdom in July-August, 1946, to discuss the Karen people’s situation in post-war Burma, and also look into a provision for a Karen State.10

By this time, there were other organizations among the Karens and this included the KNA which has not been quite eclipsed by the KCO. The other major organizations were the Buddhist Karen National Association (BKNA), and the Karen Youth Organization (KYO). In February of 1947, these four organizations were united to become the Karen National Union, the KNU. The first President of the KNU was Saw San Po Thin, and the Central Executive Members included Saw Tha Din, Saw Ba U Gyi, Mahn Ba Khaing, Mahn Win Maung (later to become the last President of the Union of Burma government of constitutional democracy), Mahn Ba Zan, Saw Hunter Tha Hmway, Saw Sankey, and Saw Aung Win. At the KNU conference of Feb 5 – 7, 1947 held in the Pegu Karen High School compound, Ahlone, Rangoon, a decision was made that they could not accept, and actually opposed, the Aung San-Atlee (British Labor Party Prime Minister) Agreement for Burma’s Independence, and submitted their own proposals for allotting representatives proportional to the Karen population in the new country’s parliament, with electoral ballots in areas with predominantly Karen population; to allow the Karens to continue to form class battalions, i.e., military units of battalion-size comprising exclusively Karens, and to form a separate Karen state. These proposals were wired to the British Prime Minister on Feb 17, 1947, with the request of a reply for compliance by March 31st. Failure to hear from the British PM by that date would be a signal to the Karens to boycott the impending general elections in Burma.11

Major grievances for the Karens were that, although two prominent Karens, Mahn Ba Khaing as Minister of Labor and Industry, and Saw Ba U Gyi, as Minister of Information, were representatives in the British governor’s ruling Council, not only that a Karen leader was not included to present the Karen’s cause and aspiration during the London negotiations for Burma’s independence, there was also no mention in the Aung San-Atlee Agreement (January 27, 1947) of the establishment of a separate Karen State that had been contemplated for quite a while already. It must be noted that at the oft-quoted Panglong Conference (February, 1947) where Aung San and his AFPFL (Ant-Fascist People’s Freedom League) managed to show the British authorities who were concerned about the fate of the Frontier area ethnic minorities that they (Aung San et. al.) could win their trust and cooperation, particularly the Shan, Chin and Kachin representatives, other minority groups such as the Karenni(Kayah), Arakanese and Mon were absent. The Karens (KNU) only sent four observers who did not take part in the proceedings of that conference.

Having failed to receive any reply from the British PM by March 31st, as previously agreed upon, Saw Ba U Gyi resigned his Information Minister position. Unfortunately, with Ba U Gyi’s resignation, Saw San Po Thin, the KNU President, together with other KYO members of Mahn Win Maung, Mahn Ba Khaing, Mahn Kyaw Sein and Saw Sein Tin, left the KNU organization. On April 10th, the KNU convened an emergency meeting of Central Executive Committee members and elected Saw Ba U Gyi as the new President, Mahn Saw Bu as Vice President, Thra Tha Htoh as Secretary, and Saw Tha Din became Treasurer.12 It is this superseded KNU that was later to be described as ‘a most anti-Burman organization’ by U (ex-Army Brig. Gen.) Maung Maung.13

On Feb 11th, 1948, the KNU staged a peaceful demonstration that was nationwide with over 400,000 people, the largest mass concentrated in Rangoon, setting forth four thematic slogans:
1- immediate creation of a Karen State;
2- demand of equity - one kyat for the Burman and one kyat for the Karen;
3- the undesirability of civil war; and
4- objection to communal conflict.
Points 1 and 2 was to indicate the Rights to National Equality and Self-determination, and 3 and 4 was to emphasize the sentiment against the dominance by the major ethnic people and the detesting of communal antagonism that would be created by the ruling majority group. In other words, the demand was within the political and democratic principles.14

While the KNU was able to organize the majority of the Karen mass and democratically made known their demands, the KYO members such as Saw San Po Thin, Mahn Win Maung, Norton Bwa and others, with considerably less followers, were able to strike a deal with the fledgling Burmese government led by U Nu, giving the impression that the Karens did not really want a state of their own.15

The area that the Karens, represented by the KNU, indicated as desirous for their state, was indeed large, including the Tenessarim division, Toungoo district, Irrawaddy division, Hanthawaddy division, Insein district, and Nyaunglebin subdivision. This, according to unofficial accounts, was meant only as a starting point for negotiation to obtain a Karen state. The KYO, on the other hand, objected to this seemingly unreasonable and, obviously, unrealistic demand, and pointed out, undoubtedly in consultation with the ruling Burmese government, that if the Karens must have a state, they should claim only the Salween district, the Karenni (Kayah) state and adjacent areas to be called “Kawthulay (Kawthoolei)”16

The area of Lower Burma that includes the fertile Irrawaddy delta was first inhabited by the Mons and Karens but ruled by Mon kings for centuries. It was then known as Hanthawaddy Kingdom. The Burmans took Hanthawaddy in 1757 after defeating the Mons and ruled it for 95 years until the British conquered this land in 1852(the end of the Second Anglo-Burmese War). The British returned Burma to the Burmese people in 1947, thus ending their rule, including this part of the country, after another 95 years. The Karens, in demanding this part of Burma, were supposed to have an agreement with Mon leaders to make it a Mon-Karen State once it came into existence. Why the Mons were not actually involved as much as the Karens in this struggle at that time may never be verifiable although small units of Mon troops (the MNDO or Mon National Defense Organization) did fight alongside the KNDOs in the Insein battle and, later, in other parts, particularly in the eastern region, of the country.17

There is also the fact that the majority of the Mons in lower, southeastern and the Tenasserim regions of Burma have had, for centuries, assimilated themselves with the Burmans and, basically, their common Buddhist religion has facilitated them to be melded into one ethnic entity.


There is a general consensus that the Karens, along with the Mons and Shans as well as the Pyus, later Burmans, have migrated down the Irrawaddy and Salween river valleys from the north, presumably from Tibet or western China, since much more than a millennium ago. Until the Burmese kings were eventually defeated by the British who came to rule the country for about three-quarters of a century, the ethnic Karen people were practically unknown. First, the Mon kings, and later the Burmese kings, who dominated the country apparently ignored the Karens, particularly those who lived near and among them in the lowland and delta areas of Burma, never really bothered to make friends with this traditionally aloof people or tried to incorporate them into their societies, except, perhaps, when they needed slaves or recruits into their armies. That the Karens, despite living side by side with these relatively advanced peoples, the Burmans and Mons, and yet having been able to keep to themselves, speaks for their ability to preserve their identity for many centuries. The hill Karens were of course quite isolated which made them easier to retain their distinctiveness to relatively recent times.

For the Karens in the days Burmese and Mon kings who wanted to get anywhere at all, there seems little doubt that they would have to relinquish their identity and became part of the major ethnic society, the Mon or Burman Buddhists. This is true of the Karen people and other ethnic minorities who have lived in Thailand for countless generations and who always have had to simply identify themselves as Thais.. Another point of note is that the Buddhist Karens were still distinctive, decades after the British came to Burma. For example, Mahn Ba Khaing, the Karen leader who was assassinated along with General Aung San and other cabinet members in 1947, came from a staunch Buddhist family, even though he himself became a Baptist Christian after attending the American Mission School at Henzada.

The worst situation came when the British, with strong urging by a very limited number of enthusiastic but somewhat misguided American missionaries, including J. B. Vinton, used Karens trained as policemen or soldiers to suppress the Burman resistance movements, most of which were euphemistically called dacoities or armed robberies, during the first few decades of British rule in Burma (“True Love and Batholomew”, J. Falla, Cambridge University Press 1991, pp. 21-22.). The Karen ethnic cause also gained passionate support from at least one 19th century British colonial official, D. M. Smeaton, who quite eloquently tried to promote the Karen people as loyal subjects of the British empire.(“The Loyal Karens of Burma, by Donald Mackenzie Smeaton, Bengal Civil Service., Kegan Paul, Trench & Co., I. Paternoster Square, London, 1887). Actually, Indian, Punjabi, Gurkha or Nepalese, and other minority (Kachin and Chin) troops were also employed to subdue the Burmans, especially in large uprisings, including the 1930 Saya San rebellion. Particular resentment, especially toward the lowland Karens, may have focussed on the fact that they had always been neighbors of the Burmans for many generations without any serious conflict between the two ethnic peoples. These ‘peaceful’ pre-colonial days of course represented the time when the Burmans would always have had the upper hand, until the arrival of the British (rulers) and Americans (missionaries) who managed to win the allegiance of the Karens and used them in their nefarious (in the eyes of the Burman) service to suppress the Burman nationalist activities.

. Things came to a head during World War II when the Japanese invaded Burma in early 1942 with the help of the BIA (Burma Independence Army) headed by Bogyoke (the Burma Army’s designation of Major General) Aung San. By the time the British were driven out of Burma and the Japanese had control of the country, former Karen soldiers in the Burma Rifles and the Burma Military Police battalions who did not follow the British to India, had already deserted and returned to their villages, many of them taking their rifles, to be hidden and used against enemies. Needless to say, these enemies at that time were mainly the BIAs who made no pretense about targeting the Karens as British lackeys. The BIA invasion of Myaungmya, culminating in the massacre of Saw Ba U Gyi’s cousin, Saw Pe Tha, a Cabinet Minister in Colonial Burma, his British wife and all but one of their children, was a blow to the Karens. The BIA also managed to imprison and kill off a few dozen Karen males before the Japanese authorities learned about the situation and put a stop to it.

By the time the British and the Allies drove the Japanese out of Burma in mid- 1945 (the Japanese evacuated Rangoon by May 1st, 1945), Karen levies of Force 136 in the eastern hills, led by British officers and NCOs, had been instrumental in wiping out at least 12, 500 Japanese troops.18 This help rendered by the Karens, together with other loyal deeds toward the colonial power, should earn for them, so they thought, some gratitude from the British government who would lend a good ear when they asked for a separate state to be created for them. What the Karens were little aware of was that the British were at the end of their tether at the close of World War II, and were already contemplating ways to relinquish their colonies as gracefully as possible, without having to contend with rebellions from their former subjects, particularly those in Southeast Asia who had seen them humiliated by their Axis enemies, and in Burma they happened to be the Japanese. In short, when the Karen leaders broached the subject of a separate state for themselves, the British Labor Party government referred them to the British sponsored post-war Burmese government, now led by younger Burman politicians and soldiers trained by the Japanese.

Burma’s independence was granted from the British in January 4, 1948, and shortly after that, chaos began to reign. Small units and, sometimes, whole battalions of the Burman Regiments in the Burma Army began to desert and went underground, simply because they were loyal to their political leaders, including Communists, who apparently felt that they did not get the correct pieces of the pie when the country gained her freedom. The Communists were of course aiming for dominance of the entire country. The new government led by Prime Minister U Nu had to rely on ethnic minority troops such as the Karen, Chin, Kachin and Burmese Gurkha, most of them from the class battalions. They apparently saved Rangoon, and the government, in July of the year 1948, from falling into the hands of the Communists and Burman Army deserters who closed in on the city.19

During this turmoil, the Burman leadership was always on the alert, anticipating a possible solidarity among the minority Karens, Chins and Kachins. Burman troops loyal to the government were ordered to try and disarm Karen irregulars who stood guard in their own villages. There was a questionable Burmese government order known as “Operation Aung San” that called for ‘the elimination of the Karens first and then other hill people’. When the Kachin-Karen troops ‘captured’ Maymyo in February 1949, Captain Naw Seng (more about this officer in the following) is reported to have found the document in the Commandant’s office, [purportedly] a Col. Maung Maung (most probably the author of BURMESE NATIONALIST MOVEMENTS, 1940 – 1948), whose signature was on the order. Although some doubt has been expressed as to the existence of this order, the intent of it could well be judged from an exchange between Karen elders and U Nu at Thaton in May 1949, where U Nu was reported to have angrily told this gathering that he would “personally see all Karens in Burma were killed.”20

The Burman government also formed their own irregular force, the Levies (Sit-wun-htans), designed to reach the strength of 50 battalions.21 Meanwhile, the Karen regular troops, scattered all over the country, did not help matters when they committed excesses during their government-sponsored operations against the rebel Burman Communists, themselves former Burma Army comrades. This played well into the hands of the Burmese government that was able to readmit Burman deserters into the fold of the army, the feeling of kinship undoubtedly stronger, and ethnic animosity (against the Karens) already much exacerbated.

In late August of 1948, the Karen Armed Police, part of the Union Military Police (UMP), moved in and took Thaton and Moulmein without any resistance after a series of arrests of Karen and Mon leaders by the Burmese authorities. Shortly after, at the urging of KNU leaders and Karen general staff of the Burma Army, Lt. General Smith Dun and Brigadier General Kyar Doe, the cities were returned to the government, specifically to the Kachin troops loyal to the Burmans, under the command of Major Naw La. In no time, Major Naw La was transferred and replaced by Lt. Colonel Hting Nan who, obviously at the urging of Premier U Nu and his Ministers, promptly arrested Karen leaders in Moulmein, such Saw Tha Din, Saw Po Chit, Saw Tha Hsay, etc., the very people who returned the city peacefully to the government.22

Responding to the request by the Burmese government to return the cities was clear evidence, at least in the eyes of the Karens, that the KNU leadership was indeed sincere to reach a settlement by peaceful and political means, while there was also the understanding that the Burmans promised to give the question of Karen State first priority. Sir Ba U who headed the committee to look into the creation of a Karen State had, by this time, agreed, in principle, that the Karens should have a state within the Union of Burma. The Burmese government, meanwhile, kept up their efforts to disarm Karen villagers throughout the country, in spite of the fact that the whole country was in turmoil, and the Karens needed to have their weapons to guard themselves against myriad unknown enemies. The climactic point came on Christmas eve of 1948 at Palaw village, between Tavoy and Mergui, when the villagers gathered at their church just before midnight to celebrate Christmas with bells, carols and worship. Worship had just begun when grenades thrown in by the Burmese Police exploded inside the church. The Burmans had completely surrounded the church and those who did not die inside were shot down with machine guns as they fled the church. The whole village was also torched and set ablaze. As it turned out, the villagers had been disarmed earlier by the Burmese Police, using a trusted Karen officer who accompanied them as a ruse, with assurances given and fully endorsed by the latter, apparently in good faith. The elders conceded and handed over all their arms and ammunition. A very tragic mistake that cost over 300 lives.23


(Part of the following is taken from an unpublished account titles “Three Months and Twenty Days Plus”, by the writer.)

As is true of any conflict, it is impossible to say who fired the first shot. At this point in time, top KNU leaders including President Saw Ba U Gyi, Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe, Mahn Ba Zan, Saw Sankey, and a few others were in Insein with their headquarters presumably at U Zan’s house on the eastern edge of Taungthugon, and also at Saw Sankey’s hilltop home at the Gyogon-Seminary Karen quarter. The Nanthagon-Taungthugon KNDO and local village defense troops were under the command of Skaw Maw Lay, hitherto known as Maung Maung Than, an energetic man in his late twenties-early thirties who had earlier resigned as a Preventive Officer from the Customs Dept.

According to the then Prime Minister U Nu’s version of what happened just prior to the Insein battle, “About the middle of January 1949, Karens from KNDO headquarters in Insein began disarming government officials stationed in Insein, Gyogon, and Thamaing. Since this was taking place only seven miles out of Rangoon, government troops were dispatched to restrain the Karens. On 31 January fighting broke out and the KNDO overran Insein. The gates of Insein Jail were opened and two thousand prisoners set free, and all the money in the Insein treasury was looted.”24

The author was a native of Gyogon-Seminary Karen quarter of Insein and a seventeen year-old freshman at the University of Rangoon during that time. Completely apolitical and though worried about the deteriorating conditions, but paying little attention to them at that stage, he could have easily heard of the Karens disarming of government officials, if that had really taken place, since such news would have surfaced and passed along swiftly in those days. The late U Nu’s statement about these disarmed officials was too general and glib to be taken even as part of the explanation for events leading to the Insein conflict. The author knew of momentary blunders when the KNDOs took up positions at the Gyogon junction on the Rangoon-Insein highway and conducted inspection of passing vehicles. There was a distinct possibility that a few Burman government officials ended up as victims of those illegal inspections, which the KNU leaders put to a stop almost immediately after learning about what certainly could be construed as seditious activities.25 Details of attempts to prevent the Insein Karen-Burman clashes from becoming a full-fledged armed altercation can be seen in depositions by the two Karen elders, Saw Bellay, erstwhile Customs official, and Saw Po Tu, Police ADIG, already mentioned before. Their statements suggested that at least a few of the Burman military and Police officials were sincere in their combined efforts to forestall the outbreak of conflict.26

The day the fighting started in Insein, January 31at, 1949, Lt. Gen. Smith Dun, the then Commander-in Chief of the Burma Army wrote: “Early that morning Dun received a telephone call from one of the elders from Thamaing about the incident and the catastrophe that was taking place. Dun at once phoned up the Premier U Nu (hitherto known as Thakin Nu), who was also Defense Minister, requesting him to intervene, not knowing under whose orders and directions this was done, although he was a supreme of all Burma’s Armed Forces. The Prime Minister replied that he would and that he was going to contact someone whom he named, who was no (sic) other than Dun’s deputy. So it must be presumed that Dun’s deputy was actually conducting that particular operation which started the wholesale shooting war between the Karens and the Burmese.” No guessing needed as to who Dun’s deputy was, – Ne Win, of course. Just a day or two earlier, Gen Smith Dun was to call a conference of all his senior officers, battalion commanders and above, to brief them about the seriousness of the situation and to keep the army impartial and stay above the communal clash between the Karens and Burmans, the flames having already been fanned by several vernacular newspapers. That evening, while he was talking to his two Brig. Generals, Let-ya and Kyardoe, his then Deputy came in. Dun briefed him about the conference that was to take place. His Deputy listened quite attentively, but at the end he got up and said, “If only the Karens had started two months ago it would be alright for them, not now.” And he left. Both brigadiers, Let-ya and Kyadoe, were stunned and dumbfounded by Ne Win’s attitude and behaviour.27

In the early morning hours of January 31st, 1949, the very day that KNU President Saw Ba U Gyi and Prime Minister U Nu were to meet at noon, the Burman irregular troops, the Levies (Sitwunhtans) concentrated their fire, including mortar rounds, toward the Thamaing Karen quarter, from the south, and by 6:30 or 7:00 AM, they have already overrun a few houses and started torching them. The Thamaing Karen village did not have any KNDO troops and was defended entirely by its able-bodied men in the village. By mid-morning, nearly one/fourth of the Thamaing village on the southern side had fallen into the hands of the Levies who, in the northern part were lined up against the Ka-weh-gyan railroad bund, using it as cover and firing at will toward the village without yet rushing the defenders. It was at this critical point that units of the Burma Artillery, comprising almost exclusively Karens, arrived at the scene from the north. They were able to easily rout the Levies lined along the bund, shooting them unexpectedly from their rear and killing or wounding quite a few of them. This timely arrival of regular Army Karen troops saved the village from falling into the hands of the Levies.

The two artillery-cum-infantry regular Karen companies were under the command of Major Aung Sein, a career soldier who at this very point had looked forward to going abroad for further training in the UK, scheduled within a month or so. It must have been a weighty decision on his part to come over with his troops.

The Thamaing Karen quarter defenders gained a respite for after the arrival of Major Aung Sein’s companies who, naturally, were the best troops on the Karens’ side in the entire Insein area. There were a company-size KNDOs in the Nanthagon-Taungthugon Karen area and about a platoon-size KNDO force in the Gyogon-Seminary area. The Thamaing Karen defenders, all local villagers, could not have numbered more than a few dozen. These, together with just about every able-bodied native Karen villager drafted into the defense force in the Nathagon-Taungthugon and Gyogon-Seminary Karen quarters, might have totaled no more than 400, a best guess at that point. The local or native irregulars were much less adequately armed, some of them with just pellet air rifles. Military .303 Lee-Enfield rifles were almost unknown in the hands of these local, ill-trained or untrained young people. Some of them might have been lucky to be armed with .22 rim-fire rifles and 20- or 12-gauge shotguns.

At this point on the side of the Burmans, hence government forces, were UMP (Union Military Police) units, the Police, Levies, and armed Insein Burman civilians, numbering several hundred, but probably less than a thousand. The Insein Railways Station was guarded by a platoon of UMPs, with additional dozens of armed Burman employees of the Railways Workshop, located next to the railroad station.

By noon of January 31, indiscriminate rifle and Bren (machine) gunfire came from the Burma Railways station as well as from the railroad area to the Gyogon-Seminary hill. Intense gunfire and mortar rounds were also directed and lobbed against the Nanthagon-Taungthugon Karen quarters from the District administrative buildings and the adjoining Insein Police Station by the Burman UMP, Levies and Police troops. The Nathagon-Taungthugon KNDOs by this time managed to occupy the two-story Insein High School building, separated from the government buildings and Police Station by a mere football (soccer) field. Meanwhile, the Thamaing Karen quarter was barely holding on against the Levies.

It was on the second day, February 1st, that some of the KNDOs from the Nanthagon-Taungthugon village and a detachment of Karen regulars from the former Artillery force overran the Mingaladon Branch of the Ordinance Depot. They brought back a truckload of rifles, automatic small arms, a few Brownings, the .303 machineguns used on Spitfire fighters, .50 caliber heavy machineguns and 20 mm Oerlikons. The 20-mm cannons were, unfortunately, without automatic components, thus not quite effective as single-round weapons. Another truck brought back the much-needed ammunition. This was a lucky stroke for the Karens who by now would not just be able to defend themselves, but to begin to repulse their attackers and think about commencing offensive operations of their own. The Karens later could ill-afford the use of the every effective Browning machineguns since their extremely rapid fire consumed too inordinate an amount of the much-needed common .303 ammunition, also used by the Lee-Enfield rifles, and the more sedate and rather versatile Bren guns.

By nightfall of the second day, the Karens increased their fire on all fronts, the frontline being roughly the Thamaing Karen quarter’s southern edge, the area west of the Rangoon-Insein road along the Gyogon-Seminary Karen quarter, and the area west of the Insein High School in the Nanthagon-Taungthugon village.

Just before dawn on the third day, February 2nd, the Karen Artillery troops were able to overrun the Railway station and had to shout to their comrades in the rear to cease covering fire. The District administrative offices and the Insein Police station were also overrun by the Nanthagon-Taungthugon KNDOs at about the same time. By mid-morning, the Insein Prison, the largest incarcerating institution in Burma at that time, fell into the hands of the Karens and the doors were thrown open, with the result that all the inmates were freed. Just about all the Burman convicts very rapidly escaped with a mixture of fright and glee, literally vaporizing into thin air. There might have been a few of them who had served life sentence or confined in death row and they may have fought, perhaps momentarily, with the Insein Karens. Karen convicts joined their brethren and formed a platoon-size unit under one Seaplane, an assumed nom de guerre; his real was either Tin Maung or Khin Maung. Seaplane, orphaned after all his parents and family members had been killed during the war by the BIA troops, was barely into his teens when he was sentenced to life imprisonment for having robbed and murdered countless Burmans. He was still in his late teens when he came out of the prison. His later exploits as a KNDO leader were somewhat legendary.

By this time, the Karens occupied practically all of Insein town and its environs, a piece of real estate totaling approximately 10 square miles. They were surrounded on all sides by the Government forces which by now included non-Karen elements of the 4th Burma Regiment that was until that time commanded by a Karen major who was disarmed and interned in Rangoon, together with all the Karen military personnel from various units scattered in the Rangoon-Mingaladon area. The 4th regiment troops on the government side were mostly Burmese Gurkhas (Nepalese).

The Karens made their only serious offensive attempt toward Rangoon about a week after they secured Insein. Two companies, one the regular Army troops and the other comprising the KNDOs, were used. On a Wednesday morning, they started their attack with the regular company on the west side which was mostly open ground, and the KNDO company on the eastern, mostly along a rubber plantation with more tree cover. By midmorning, the regular troops almost reached their objective which was the Thamaing road junction, nearly a mile from the south end of the Karen village. By this time, all the government troops, presumably UMPs, a few assorted regular units and Levies, had withdrawn from the junction leaving three or four armored cars that were already disabled by 20 mm Oerlikon fire from the Karens. Meanwhile, the KNDO company, advancing from the east side, had faltered. There were a few casualties, one or two dead and half a dozen wounded in each of the companies. These were indeed light casualties, considering that they were on offensive operation. Apparently, the regulars were well prepared for this whereas the KNDOs, whom the regulars refused to be amalgamated with even before their attack began, seemed to have been discouraged and demoralized after seeing just a few of their comrades killed or wounded. As it turned out, at the point of disarray and hasty withdrawal of the Burman government troops, the timely arrival of the Burma Navy’s jeep mounted 40 mm Bofers, firing rapid rounds toward the Karens, particularly to the KNDOs in the rubber plantation, became the turning point that put an end to the Karen offensive. Thus, the only organized Karen attempt to invade Rangoon resulted in complete failure.

Also at about this time, it was believed that the whole battalion of the 5th Burma Rifles was hastily air-lifted back from the Arakan region where they had been fighting the Mujahids, the Moslem Arakanese rebels. The 5th Burif, one of the remaining very few battalions loyal to the government, comprising almost exclusively Burmans, was a seasoned unit and, in the Insein fighting, did excel themselves. They were, however, attacking the Karen perimeter manned by equally well-trained regular troops of the Artillery force that already had enormous infantry experience. Within a month or so, although the Karen perimeter kept shrinking slowly, it was obvious that the government had to have additional help should it wish to see the Karens driven out of Insein.

The KNU leadership had already requested the Second Karen Rifles, now stationed at Prome, about 190 miles north of Insein/Rangoon, to rush down to the aid of Insein. The 2nd Karen Rifles, after reassembling their units that had been dispersed fighting the Communists (including elements of the 1st Burma Rifles) in outlying districts, apparently moved down almost immediately after receiving the urgent message from the Insein KNU Headquarters. To do so, however, they had to bring their entire family members and dependents, and they used all the means, legal or otherwise, to obtain necessary vehicles and supplies, much to the distress of local residents. The logistics of moving the whole battalion with all the dependents and also fighting their way through government road blocks along the Rangoon-Prome trunk road were too much to cope with. Unspecified Burman troops which the government was still able to muster, under the famed Bo (probably Colonel in rank) Sein Hman, effectively ambushed and defeated the 2nd Karens in the vicinity of Zigon, some 40 miles south of Prome, aided by bombing and strafing from the Burma Air Force. By the usual battle standards, casualties were indeed light, and yet the element of surprise and aerial attack were too terrifying for the families with the result that just about all of them surrendered, along with their battalion commander, Lt. Col. Mya Maung. Small units of the 2nd Karen managed to filter through into Insein a few weeks later, travelling on foot via jungle trails. Others were able to head eastward across the Pegu Yoma to join other Karens in Toungoo.

News of the defeat of the 2nd Karens was dropped by air in Insein. The leaflets gave the true situation of the surrender of this battalion, complete with the CO’s (Lt. Colonel Mya Maung’s) signature. The Insein Karens refused to believe the bad news and yet it was true, and a real setback for the well-informed KNU leadership who had been banking on the speedy arrival of this reputable battalion.

It may have been around the early part of March that a large column of battalion-strength troops, rumored to number 700+ (perhaps an inflated figure), arrived from Toungoo under the command of one S’kaw Tawbloh. His given name was Saw Richmond Tohkut and he came from a very prominent Toungoo Karen family. In his mid-thirties, his name Tawbloh referred to his relatively towering stature, close to six-feet which would be unusually tall for a Karen, although literally, Tawbloh means long backbone. This brought some relief to the much tired out Insein defenders and, for a short while, there seemed to be a bit more effective resistance against the government troops which, by now, included a Chin battalion, the 1st Chin Rifles. For the most part, Kachin troops were also loyal to the Burmese government, but it is understood that they were not really involved in the Insein battle. It was quite some time before the Thakin Nu government was able to persuade the two major ethnic class battalions to fight against the Karens whom both the Chin and Kachin peoples regarded as their co-ethnic brethren, not to mention their gratitude toward the Karens to bring the Christian faith to them. The last, of course, applied to the more educated and Christianized leadership of these ethnic peoples.

It was at the beginning of April that the Burmese government made overtures to the Insein Karens for a cease-fire and invited the KNU President Saw Ba U Gyi to Rangoon for peace talk. According to one source, the cease-fire was arranged through the intercession of the British and Commonwealth ambassadors in Rangoon. The intermediary was Bishop West, a trusted figure in the Christian Karen community in Insein.28 The invitation was brought over to Insein by the late U Ba Tun Tin, a prominent Karen official in the Burmese government service who, as Assistant Director of Public Instruction, was the second highest ranking government education officer.

What truthfully occurred was that during the three-day truce, the Burmese military moved their companies and platoons boldly in the open, and in broad daylight, to positions, especially on the west across the Hlaing river, where they had never been able to deploy their troops before. The Insein Karen defenders, knowing that their top leader and his party were still in Rangoon for peace talks, had to look on helplessly without being able to stop these deceptive maneuvers by the Burmese government.

The peace talks having ended in fiasco, the Insein Karens resigned themselves to enfeebled attempts of repulsing the once or twice a week offensive actions that came almost rhythmically from government forces, and with no hope of further reinforcements, ammunition and supplies in sight, they had to yield ground more often than they wished to. The regular former Artillery troops were very tired by now, their ranks thinned out when many of them departed for their own homes, and this particularly applied to those who came from the delta area. Real estate held by the Karens in Insein had by now shrunk to less than five square miles.

By the second week of May, the entire civilian population of the Insein area except, perhaps, less than half a dozen families, had prudently moved into the Insein Jail (Prison). This was more for safety to themselves since the high walls were good protection against strayed bullets and shells. Many KNDO units had already taken off, sometimes deserting their posts without the knowledge of higher command.

In the last few weeks, the Insein Karen forces were said to be commanded by S’kaw Tawbloh who tried hard to prevent the desertions. His efforts were almost in vain since more Karen troops disappeared and the Insein defense perimeter was indeed getting to be very porous. This, fortunately, escaped the attention of government troops. The most disappointing news was the departure of the KNU chief Saw Ba U Gyi to the west of Hlaing river. The remaining Karen officials made every attempt to quash rumors that their leader was evacuating a town of imminent defeat. They issued bulletins that Ba U Gyi, in fact, went to contact one Bo Gamanni, a PVO (People’s Volunteer Organization) commander who was then still in revolt against the government. Bo Gamanni’s previous overtures to ally his sizeable troops with the Karens had been spurned. Now the Karens appeared to have changed their mind, obviously out of dire necessity. Whether Ba U Gyi was actually to meet with Gamanni or moved his headquarters to a safer place is unclear. His departure preceded the fall of the town by only a few days.

The final night of May 20th came merely as an anticlimax. On the full moon night all the fighting units of the Insein Karen defenders plus a good number of civilians managed to cross the vast Hlaing river, swollen by high tide, at the northwest end of the town. Ironically, with the dozens of army and assorted civilian vehicles moving from the center of town to the northwest had apparently alarmed the government troops who also noted the silence on the Karen frontline side with hardly any return gunfire. They may have believed that the Karens were being reinforced and were on the verge of a counter-attack. When the next day dawned, it took several hours by the remaining Karen civilian elders, including the writer’s eldest brother, to contact the government troops who had previously withdrawn from their frontline positions by several hundred yards, and only in mid-afternoon did some Gurkha, Burman and Chin soldiers cautiously entered the town. Some people witnessed unusually wary Burman troops driving herds of cattle in front of them to make sure that there were no KNDO snipers nor booby traps and mines on the roads.

To make certain that the Karen civilians and wounded KNDO personnel left in Insein prison, now totaling several hundred, were not mistreated by the Burman units of the victorious troops, the government, probably by the order of Premier U Nu, basically a very decent man, has the Insein prison guarded by the 1st Chin troops in the beginning few weeks of reoccupation.

During the whole Insein fighting that lasted three months and twenty one days, counting the 31st of January as the first day, casualties on the Karen side may have exceeded the thousand mark, of which fatalities, unofficially, numbered between 350 and 400. A little more than 50% of this death toll involved civilians hit by strayed bullets, 25-pounder shells or 3-inch mortar bombs.

Thus came the end of the very first and, perhaps, most important phase of the Karen struggle.


Among the top leaders and advisors to Saw Ba U Gyi were U Zan,, his then father-in-law, Mahn Ba Zan, Mahn James Tun Aung, Saw Bellay, and Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe. According to Mahn Ba Zan, after the evacuation of Insein, Mahn James Tun Aung, Saw Bellay and U Zan became disenchanted with the Karen cause and left the KNU.29 Top leaders who left Insein and met at Kya-Inn-Haung village of Tantabin Township in Insein District comprised Saw Ba U Gyi, Mahn Ba Zan, Saw Sankey, Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe and Skaw Maw Lay. It was decided that Saw Ba U Gyi, Saw Sankey and Skaw Maw Lay were to proceed to Toungoo and set up the KNU Central Headquar-ters there. Mahn Ba Zan and Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe would remain in the Delta area and be responsible for the organization and tactical activities of the KNU and KNDOs in that part of the country.

According to one source, by January 27, 1949, Toungoo fell to the First Karen Rifles commanded by Lt. Col. Min Maung.30 The C.O. was a veteran of both of the famed World War II Wingate Operations in 1943 and 1944, and winner of the British M.C. (Military Cross). (He was later ambushed and killed in March 1961.)31 What may have happened during those confusing days was that Toungoo, which at that time was defended by a garrison comprising Civil Police, Union Military Police (UMP), and Sitwunhtans (B.T.F.or Burma Territorial Forces), mostly or all Burmans, was easily defeated earlier by the KNDOs, made up of battle-tested ex-soldiers and levies who had fought the Japanese during World War II. It was not clear whether or not the 1st Karen Rifles were in collusion with this KNDO force.

The First Karen Rifles and the First Kachin Rifles, stationed further north in Pynimana, were then ordered by the Rangoon authorities to retake Toungoo.32 Lt. Gen. Smith Dun who was the C-in-C of the Burma Army, himself a Karen, was about to quit his job which was made untenable by the KNU-KNDO activities, but still felt that the two battalions, the 1st Karens and the 1st Kachins were absolutely loyal to the Burmese government.33 After reassembling the units that had been dispersed in the district fighting assorted Burman rebels, including Communists, the 1st Kachin troops moved down from Pyinmana, led by Captain Naw Seng, a somewhat dashing military leader, and also winner of two Burma Gallantry Medals in the Wingate Operations (mentioned above). He met the 1st Karens at Yedashe, some 20 miles north of Toungoo, and decided that he would rather join the Karens. He then returned to Pyinmana to bring back almost the entire 1st Kachin battalion and joined the Karens in Toungoo.

Meanwhile news reached them that most of the troops of the Third Karen Rifles and other Karens in different auxiliary units as well as Karen civilians in the Mandalay and Maymyo area to the north had been disarmed and imprisoned. This was disturbing news to the Karens in Toungoo, and the memory of the Palaw massacre where the entire village of wiped out atrociously by the Burmans during Christmas, just a few months earlier, was still very fresh. A meeting of the leaders of KNU, KYO (the Karen Youth Organization still operative in Toungoo), and the Kachins was held to decide whether to go north and rescue the interned Karens, or to fight their way south to Insein and try and capture Rangoon. A combined Karen and Kachin troops of brigade strength, plus the still capable Insein defenders, would certainly have a good chance of overpowering the Burmese government defenders in Rangoon. But concern for the fate of the Upper Burma Karens in Mandalay and Maymyo was more imminent and Naw Seng agreed to dash to the north with a column of Karen and Kachin troops to attempt what they believed was their first call of duty.34

As it turned out, one company of the 3rd Karen Rifles was out on operation in the west, in the Pakokku area, and was the only unit of this battalion to later join the KNU. Lt. Col. DeeHtoo, an individual known to be sympathetic and loyal to the Burmese government, commanded the 3rd Karen Rifles.

In their dash to the north to Mandalay and Maymyo, the motorized column of combined Kachin and Karen troops under the command of Naw Seng went through the large towns of Pyinmana, Yamethin and Pyawbwe with virtually no resistance, and when they reached Meiktila, they discovered that two civilian aircraft had just landed (Cathay Airways Dakotas [DC-3s]).35 In a daring and somewhat brilliant maneuver, Naw Seng promptly commandeered the two aircraft, loaded two platoons of Karen and Kachin troops and ordered the British pilots to fly them to Maymyo. (Before flying back to Rangoon, the British pilots asked Naw Seng how to explain themselves to the Burmese government authorities. The reply was that they should report everything exactly as happened. What the pilots did not know was that when they landed back in Rangoon, orders were already given to Burman troops at the airfield to open fire on the planes as soon as any green uniform-clad person appear at the door of the aircraft.)36 They were able to take the Maymyo defenders by surprise although it was a while before they could drive off the Burman troops, largely irregulars, and managed to free all the Karen prisoners. Many of them joined them but some remained on the side of the government, or stayed neutral, as did General Smith Dun who happened to be there at the time. The Karens and Kachins held the town throughout March and part of April.

By mid-April, the Third Kachin Rifles, under the command of Colonel Lazum Tang, were ordered to come down from Myitkyina, some 200 miles to the north, and retake Maymyo. Meanwhile, Naw Seng and a large combine Karen-Kachin force of 2000-strong departed Mandalay to drive to the south. One of the objectives was to capture Thazi, an important railroad junction, where they intended to acquire rail transportation to enable them to rush down to Rangoon. Naw Seng figured that they could capture Rangoon by May 1, 1949.37 Thazi was defended by a Chin battalion, the Chins generally remaining loyal to the Burmese government in those crucial days. Several unsuccessful offensives were launched from Meiktila, a mere 20 miles to the west. After having lost the lives of over 50 soldiers and several precious days, the Kachin and Karen troops bypassed the railroad junction town and traveled down the Rangoon-Mandalay trunk road and went through Toungoo on their way south to the capital.

By the time they reached Nyaunglebin, some 80 miles south of Toungoo and about halfway to Rangoon, they encountered fierce resistance by elements of the Second Burma Rifles. The 2nd Burif was known to be a mixed battalion of each company of Burman, Karen, Kachin, and Chin. All the Karens from this battalion, probably including the commanding officer who was purported to be a Karen, had long since deserted or been interned by the government. It took three days of intense fighting. The first day’s attack was made by the Karen troops, the second by the Kachins, and it was only on the third day, by a combined Karen-Kachin assault against fierce resistance, including hand-to-hand combat, that the town fell. No less than 40 of Naw Seng’s Kachin troops were killed.

After Nyaunglebin fell, Naw Seng and his combine Karen-Kachin troops pushed down further south as far as the hamlets of Payagyi-Payagale, not far beyond Daik-U, ten to fifteen miles short of Pegu, where they ran into a very determined defense by the better prepared government troops. By this time ammunition and ration supplies were running extremely low which compelled Naw Seng to withdraw on May 1, 1949, to Toungoo.


Saw Ba U Gyi arrived in Toungoo in early June and called a meeting on the 14th of that month, attended by KNU delegates from Thaton, Nyaunglebin and Toungoo. Naturally, those in the Delta could not attend. The KNDO was renamed the Kawthoolei Armed Forces, and organized into two divisions, the Delta and Eastern, under General Min Maung. Following the meeting, the Free Karen radio station at Toungoo broadcast an announcement to the world about the establishment of a provisional Kawthoolei government with Saw Ba U Gyi as the first Prime Minister.

Karenni or Kayah State was already in the hands of the KNDOs and Kayah nationalist forces under Sao Shwe, a Sawbwa family member. Taunggyi, an important large town in the Southern Shan State, was captured on August 13, 1949, by a combined force of Karen, Kayah, PaO and Kachin troops. From here on, Naw Seng who may have felt the jealousy and covert discrimination by his Karen military colleagues whom he believed were deliberately keeping him and his troops short of arms and ammunition, became disaffected with them and parted company. He went to the Northern Shan State, and eventually into China as already mentioned. There were about two platoons of Karen troops who followed Naw Seng to the north, and even into China. Naw Seng later returned as a Communist commander of the CPB (Communist Party of Burma). Before he departed, he left a young lieutenant, Zau Seng, and some Kachin soldiers with his Karen allies. It was Zau Seng who formed the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), more than a decade later, and became its first president.38

For a while, a CAS-K (Civil Affairs Service-Kawthoolei), patterned after the post-WW II British CAS-B (Civil Affairs Service-Burma), was established to administer the KNU-controlled areas. Political organizations were abolished or not recognized under the Kawthoolei Military Administration, as this provisional government was then known. J (Joshua) Poo Nyo, whose house and the entire Thamaing quarters had long since been reduced to ashes at the inception of the Insein battle, and who had also been a very high ranking Karen official in British Burma as well as in the post-war government of independent Burma, the latter as Secretary of the Karen Affairs Ministry, became the Administrator, and signed all temporary standing orders. Since the KNU organization itself had never been effectively formed except in the areas of Rangoon, Bassein and a few other localities in the country, the civil administration was not really in functional mode, and the civilian officials were not exactly prepared for the ongoing war that took priority on almost everything.

Without Naw Seng’s dashing thrusts and military achievements, roughly a mini-scale success of the U.S.General George Patton of World War II fame, the KAF or Kawthoolei Armed Forces could not sustain the ‘spectacular gains and losses’ of territory formerly demonstrated by this brave young Kachin officer; he later met a mysterious death in 1972 in the Wa hills, but not before he made his mark again in a stream of victories as a commander of the NEC (North-East Command) of the CPB under vice-chairman Thakin Ba Thein Tin.39 The KAF units of usually company size and lesser were spread over a distance of 300 miles from Bassein in the western part of the Delta to the eastern hills of Loikaw and Myawaddy, and although radio contact could be maintained between all of them, no tactical plans were possible with gaps and stretches filled by Burmese government troops in between. With no way nor hope of replenishing the dwindling stocks of weaponry and ammunition, conventional warfare of holding and defending territories by the usually small KAF garrisons was fast diminishing as an option, and the KNU leadership was duly warned of this by respective military commanders.

Nyaunglebin fell to the hands of the Burmese government in February of 1950 and shortly after, Toungoo itself was lost on March 10. And Pyinmana, some 60 miles north of Toungoo, which had been hitherto occupied by the CPBs, was recaptured by the government just a few days later.40


After the fall of Toungoo, the KNU headquarters was moved to Papun, some 90 miles to the southeast. Papun has always been a subdivision town that was dominated by Karen people since the time of the British raj. It is situated on Yunzalin river, a small tributary that flows south into the mighty Salween, itself only 20 miles to the east where, for a winding stretch of over 70 miles, forms the international border between Burma and Thailand. At that time there was only a fair-weather dirt road that reached the town from Kamamaung, another small town in the south, some 60 miles away, at the Yunzalin-Salween junction.

Once at Papun, Saw Ba U Gyi, the KNU President, educated in England with a law degree and in his late thirties, began to draw up plans for restructuring the KNU. A full KNU Congress was convened on July 17, 1950 in Papun.

From the Delta came S’Gaw Ler taw, a.k.a. Thra Taw Yay, Major General Saw Sankey, and Officer Rolly (Mika Rolly). The Toungoo area was represented by General Min Maung, Thra (Teacher or Professor) Paul Paw, Htoo Ra-Oo, and A. Soe Myint. From Nyaunglebin district came Zu Maung Pu, and a few others. Representing Thaton were Colonel Saw Ohn Pe, Saya Ohn Pe Nyunt, and Saw Bala. There were delegates from Nyaunglebin, Moulmein, and Tavoy and Mergui districts. The Mons sent a group comprising Naing Ngwe Thein, Naing Thein Maung, Naing Tun Thein and Naing Hseik Noek. Also invited were representatives from Karenni State and the Indian community. Attending as observers were Mrs. Ba U Gyi (U Zan’s Daughter), P’doh (meaning government Official) U Tauk, Wareegyaw, Colonel Tahkapaw. P’doh Willy Kaw, Saya Baldwin (probably Rev. Baldwin, a Karen-speaking Seventh Day Adventist missionary, who had been deported from Burma by the British shortly before the country’s independence, probably for having been too vociferous for the Karen cause), Sayama (meaning Lady Teacher) Edna May, and others.41

In his opening statement, Saw Ba U Gyi pointed out that for the Karens, this would be the first and last revolution. He also emphasized that the Karen revolutionaries could never expect to all travel to Rangoon and slit the throats of the enemies. Two speeches followed, one by General Min Maung on the improving the organization and training of the KAF, and by P’doh Rawley Pokee from the Moulmein district on the enhancement of the civil administration. On one of the most important motions, if not the most, for the Congress, which was the reorganization of the KNU and presented by Saw Sankey, and seconded by S’Gaw Ler Taw, there was vehement objection from some delegates, particularly the Toungoo military representative A.(Alfonso) Soe Myint . After rather patient explanations and discussions that ensued on this point, A. Soe Myint’s strong opposition, using somewhat unseemly expletives, forced Saw Sankey to withdraw his motion.42

This one and only KNU Congress that Ba U Gyi led ended inconclusively and although no substantial decisions and achievements were made during the meetings, the three ways of gaining a Karen autonomous state advocated in his opening speech were discussed and adopted; these were: (1) voluntary gift of what was rightfully deserved that would never happen, (2) to fight for it, and (3) to obtain it by means of prevailing or surrounding circumstances. It seemed that, Mawchi in the Karenni (Kayah) State, had been chosen as the capital of Kawthoolei, probably through expedience, and at the meeting, one of the decisions was to move the capital to Papun. The KAF reorganization included the forming of the Thaton force into two brigades, one to be called the Thaton Brigade on the western side of Sittang river under Colonel Ohn Pe (formerly a high ranking Forest official in British Burma and a veteran of Force 136 during WW II), and the Takapaw Brigade on the eastern side of Sittang river, under Colonel Takapaw. Decisions were also reached on setting up successive political training classes, and on opening cooperatives in villages under the KNU Territory (Kawthoolei). General Saw Sankey was also appointed as P.A.(Personal Assistant) with the formal designation of Private Secretary to Ba U Gyi, the KNU President.43 Also adopted were what have since become known as Saw Ba U Gyi’s “Four Principles of the Karen Revolution”, which are:
There shall be no surrender.
The recognition of the Karen State must be completed.
We shall retain our own arms.
We shall decide our own political destiny.
At the close of the Congress, these were broadcast in Karen, Burmese and English over the Free Karen radio on July 31st to August 2nd, 1950. Although the Congress fell far short of Ba U Gyi’s expectations, according to meeting notes, he had privately assigned the tasks of the reorganization of KNU in the east to three of his most trusted men, Saw Sankey in Thaton and Moulmein, S’Gaw Ler Taw in Nyaunglebin, and Mika Rolly in Toungoo, Thaton and Mawchi.44

In early August, Ba U Gyi and Saw Sankey with a small party set out to the Moulmein area, purportedly to reorganize the KNU and improve on the revolution activities.45 According to another source, the Congress minutes show that Saw Ba Gyi’s last words were, “I am now going to pull a political stunt.”46 There was speculation that Ba U Gyi might have been on his way to Thailand to meet a foreign contact. Near Tahkreh village, Karen elders tried to persuade them to wait for the heavy rains to slacken, but the two leaders insisted on continuing their journey, saying that it was extremely important for them to keep their mysterious appointment. When they reached Tokawkku village, the village headman assigned them to a small bamboo hut in the field near a swollen river to wait for the water to subside before crossing it.

It is widely believed that there was an informant, a dissident Karen in that village, who contacted the nearby Burmese troops at Nabusakan. Ba U Gyi and party also stayed more than one night at that emergency camp waiting for the rains to stop. In the early hours of August 12th, 1950, the rains still pouring down, a young Burman lieutenant (or captain - said to be Sein Lwin, the same man who became General Sein Lwin, or Butcher Sein Lwin, as he was later known when he ordered the killing of several hundred students and civilians on 8-8-88) and his troops crept up on the camp before dawn, surrounded it and demanded Saw Ba U Gyi and his party to surrender. Of course there was no surrender, and Ba U Gyi, together with everyone else in his party, was killed. Ba U Gyi’s body was brought to Moulmein, put on public display, and later transported four miles into the sea and was thrown overboard. For him there would be no martyr’s grave, and he did not deserve to be buried in Burma’s soil.47,48 It turned out that the Burmese troops did not recognize Saw Sankey. He and the others were disposed off in the nearby river, according to unconfirmed eyewitnesses.


At the KGB (Kawthoolei Governing Body) meeting in April of 1951, August 12th, the day Saw Ba U Gyi, Bogyoke Saw Sankey and others who gave up their lives was designated as Martyr’s Day.

Even though on the Burma Broadcasting Service announced that they captured Saw Ba U Gyi dead on August 12, 1950, which was repeated three times daily, the whole Karen populace found the news hard to believe and even refused to do so for a while. It was five days later when Mrs. Ba U Gyi sent out radio messages about his demise, and also wishing to know who would be taking his place. At first, nobody knew that Saw Sankey was with Ba U Gyi when he was ambushed, which prompted a radio message be sent out all over to the effect that Bogyoke Saw Sankey had been appointed as the new KNU President. Only when messages were received that Saw Sankey also died along with Ba U Gyi, then the problem of selecting a new President arose.

Among the contenders, Thaton U Hla Pe, a pre-WW II ethnic PaO member of parliament and who had served as Minister of Forestry in Dr. Ba Maw’s wartime Cabinet, and J. Poo Nyo received the nod from most of the dispersed Karen leaders. Not long after that, a meeting was called by Mrs. Ba U Gyi and General Min Maung on September 24, 1950 at Mawchi Lehyalo. At the meeting, it was decided that the first choice was Thaton Hla Pe, and an urgent message beseeching him to accept the Presidency of KNU was sent to him in southwest Shan State where he was organizing a fast-spreading PaO revolution. He sent back a reply regretting that he had to decline the offer. J. Poo Nyo, the second choice, became interim KNU President and moved to Papun. It was at this juncture that Hunter Tha Hmwe who was one of the two leaders (Mahn Ba Zan was the other) in the Irrawaddy Delta sent a congratulatory message to J. Poo Nyo, who happened to be related to him as a second cousin. In that message, Hunter Tha Hmwe also requested him to reorganize and restructure the KNU in order that the Karen revolution could improve and become more effective. The somewhat autocratic J. Poo Nyo, for reasons best known to him alone, was so enraged by this request and sent back a reply to his cousin that if his acceptance of the leadership would also involve the restructuring of the KNU, he could never take the position. He left Papun and settled down in Hsamupeh village.

Back to square one; the Karens went without a new KNU President for another three months. On January 8, 1951, General Min Maung called a meeting at Swallow, Toungoo district which was attended by many leaders, including U Saw Lone and Thra Paul Paw from Toungoo, Zu Maw Lwi from the Nyaunglebin Brigade, and S’Gaw Ler Taw from the Delta. January 8 being the Karen New Year day, the meeting began only on the next day, January 9th. Before the meeting started, the Toungoo delegation attempted to have U Saw Lone elected as the KNU President.

The meeting, chaired by Gen. Min Maung, considered two options: to elect a President or to form a Committee. They settled on the Committee, and now came the part of giving a name to the Committee. The choice was between the Kawthoolei Supreme Council (KSC) and the Kawthoolei Government Body (KGB). Again, the latter received more votes and thus the KGB replaced CAS(K) as the governing arm of the KNU, more or less skirting the question of having a President of the KNU. It was also decided to have a Chairman of the KGB, and three names appeared as candidates: U Saw Lone, Thaton U Hla Pe and J. Poo Nyo. Meanwhile, it was recognized that U Hla Pe’s return from the southern Shan State would be difficult, and J. Poo Nyo seemed to have already become disaffected with the revolution. Nonetheless, they had enough supporters and thus their names, along with U Saw Lone, were on the ballot. There was also a provision for electing a co-Chairman of the KGB, and for this, a motion to nominate Gen. Min Maung was made by U Saw Lone, who pointed out that the general deserved the position since he was the C-in-C of the KAF and it was war conditions, and thus everyone seconded it. The KGB members were elected according to the respective military areas, such as: U Saw Lone for Toungoo, Thra Marshall Shwin for Nyaunglebin, P’doh Lawry Po Kee for Moulmein, and S’Gaw Ler Taw for the Delta. Added later were P’doh Gilbert Kyar Soo for Karenni, and Naing Thein Maung for the Mon area.

A fervent request to U Hla Pe to accept the KGB chairmanship was radioed to him at the end of the meeting, signed by all the attending leaders. In February, U Hla Pe sent back a reply, expressing his deep apology for not being able to accept the position, and suggested that co-Chairman Gen. Min Maung might be elevated to the Chairman of the KGB. Gen. Min Maung, on his part, pointed out that he was a soldier and had no knowledge of politics or political organization and related civil administrative duties, and thus had to refuse the full time chairmanship. Eventually, Hunter Tha Hmwe in the western Delta area was called upon to take up the Chairman position. His radio reply was that he would not refuse to act as KGB chairman, but because of his reorganizing work in the delta, he suggested Thra Taw Yay (Skaw Ler Taw) to act on his behalf until he could head back to the east. On March 10, Skaw Ler Taw met with Gen. Min Maung, at the latter’s request and was shown Hunter Tha Hmwe’s radio message. Although declining at first on the grounds of not wishing to be made a fool of since he lacked the skill of a politician, at the insistence and encouragement of the western Delta leader, he accepted to act as interim KGB Chairman.

The first KGB conference was convened on April 4 at Papun with interim Chairman Skaw Ler Taw, and other attendees that include P’doh Lawry who acted as Secretary, Thra Marshall Shwin from Nyaunglebin, Pu Pway Htaw from Thaton, and Major Johnny Htoo of the Takapaw Brigade. Thus almost eight months had elapsed after Ba U Gyi’s death before the KNU leadership began to function again.

It was at the meeting of November, 1953, in Papun when the KGB was dissolved to make way for the Kawthoolei Government administration.49

In December, 1954, Hunter Tha Hmwe arrived from the western Delta area to take up his post as head of the Kawthoolei government. S’Kaw Ler Taw who had been overseeing the day-to-day KNU central political organization as interim Chairman had a very difficult task of integrating the various Karen subgroups, numbering over 20, and this had never really been attempted before. On the military side, the KAF was about 15,000 strong in 1950, counting also guerrilla troops. There had always been clashes between the KNDOs and ex-Burma Army Karens troops, and in local territories, armed clashes between Karen forces were not unusual. The KNU areas, like other Burmese rebel groups, including the CPB, were also rife with banditry. Skaw Ler Taw noted that, “Of all the problems the KNU faced (military, political and financial), “warlordism” was the greatest.” 50


For the Karen population at large, both supporters and opponents of the KNU, the outbreak of rebellion was nothing short of catastrophic. Besides the many killed, wounded or made homeless, thousands of Karen civil servants, soldiers and policemen were arrested and interned. Many others lost their jobs. Only in 1951 did the government feel confident enough to start reinstating a handful of Karens into the police and, in 1952, into the army, but the Karen community never regained its former influence in the military or government bureaucracy.

By this stage three main parties had emerged: the Union Karen League (UKL), president, Mahn Win Maung, based largely in the plains, included former KYO supporters, affiliated to the AFPFL; the Union Karen Organization (UKO), president, Dr. Hla Tun, based in the eastern hills; and the Karen Congress, which included ex-KNU supporters who has either not gone underground or later given themselves up. In 1951 the Karen Congress briefly won control of the Karen Affairs Council, but later withdrew leaving the UKL and UKO to contest the field. By 1956 both had virtually ceased to exist. That year, with the final abolition of the Karen reserved seats in the national parliament, the AFPFL convinced the UKL leaders to dissolve their party and stand as AFPFL candidates in the general election. Meanwhile in the Karen State to the east the KYO formally merged with the AFPFL.


The KNU’s claim for Karen State territory in the Delta, initially begun as a casually played bargaining chip, was now elevated into a basic political demand; many leaders argued that force was the only way to achieve a solution. The American missionary, Dr. Gordon Seagrave, whom the AFPFL government had briefly imprisoned in 1951 for his alleged support for the Karen cause, made this somewhat redundant remark: ‘The trouble was that the Karens demanded just too much.’

In 1951, the KNU still controlled, albeit loosely, the majority of Karen populated areas in the countryside, both in the Delta and in the east. Both ‘Tatmadaw’ (the Burma Army) and KNU leaders recognized that the Delta would be the strategic battleground for the long-term success of the Karen rebellion and it was here that both concentrated their early efforts. By December 1950, with the capture of Einme and Pantanaw, the government had retaken the last major towns under KAF control, though the situation was still rather one of stalemate. The KAF units roved freely from Henzada to Pyapon in the Lower Delta.

It was always the KNU’s Delta leaders who led the way with reform. In December 1949 they made their first moves towards reorganizing the KNU on a revolutionary footing. At a meeting called by Mahn Ba Zan at Ywathagone village near Bassein, it as agreed to divide the Delta Division into seven military brigade districts; Henzada-Tharrawaddy, Myaungmya-Pyapon, Maubin-Twante, Labutta-Bassein, Bogale and south to the sea, Insein-Prome and the western Pegu Yoma, and Bassein (extended to eight in 1956 when the Pegu Yomas were organized under a separate command); and to set up a civilian KNU administration in each district. In early 1952, taking advantage of a steady decline in CDB activity in central Burma, Ne Win launched a major offensive, throwing in planes, gunboats and tanks against the KAF No. 1 brigade in Tharrawaddy district, 60 miles north of Rangoon. Government troops began to burn down Karen villages and destroy paddy fields in a severe but effective scorched earth policy which forced Gen. Kaw Htoo(a.k.a. Kyaw Mya Than), the brigade commander, to order the main body of his troops to pull back into the Pegu Yomas. The government then immediately switched the offensive to KAF No. 7 brigade in Bassein district and the No. 2 around Myaungmya. Again KAF troops were forced to pull back, some to the Arakan Yomas, some into the Pegu Yomas, and others into the empty grasslands and mangrove swamps to the south. Hounded night and day by government troops, several leaders, including Hunter Tha Hmwe and Mahn Ba Zan, were lucky to escape with their lives.

As KNU units retreated deeper into the more remote forests and foothills they increasingly came into contact with small CPB units taking shelter in the districts; faced with a common enemy, military commanders on both sides immediately recognized the futility of fighting each other.

From the earliest days of the insurrections, even before the Karen uprising, there were infrequent clashes between KNU and CPB supporters. Nonetheless, during the April 1949 peace talks, KNU President, Saw Ba U Gyi, demanded that all armed opposition forces, including the KNU and CPB, be admitted to government. After the fall of Insein, in June1949, the KNU sent an emissary, Saw Maung Lay, to the headquarters of the People’s Democratic Front in Prome to discuss the formation of a joint anti-AFPFL front. But Than Tun denounced Ba U Gyi as a ‘lackey of imperialism’ and the KNU as the ‘running dogs of imperialism’. It was a critical error. A joint KNU/CPB/PVO offensive at this stage might well have led to the capture of Rangoon.

In 1952, as the AFPFL government continued to win back ground from both the KNU and CPB, a truce was called, the initiative this time coming from the CPB. According to the popular version of events, troops on both sides spontaneously stopped fighting after CPB cadres brought the body of one of their comrades, killed in a recent clash, into a KNU camp and implored leaders on both sides to stop the killings. The plea was successful. In November 1952 a high ranking CPB delegation, headed by Politburo member, Thakin Zin, traveled into KNU-controlled territory to Anangon Village, Thabaung township, to meet Mahn Ba Zan, the KNU’s Delta leader. The result of their discussions was what became known as the Zin-Zan agreement, which established an effective cease-fire, a committee to discuss common problems and Joint Operations Committee to coordinate future military campaigns.

It was the beginning of a long, often antagonistic, relationship which has followed the course of insurgent politics in Burma ever since. Nonetheless, the series of meetings with CPB leaders now set in motions had a critical impact on Karen thinking at a time when many KNU leaders had already decided a complete change in tactics was needed if the Karen revolution was to survive.


The first English-language copies of MaoZedong’s Protracted Warfare and Liu Shao-chi’s On Inner Party Struggle was brought to Toungoo by Saw Ba U Gyi in 1949. Most Karen leaders, despite their generally pro-British views, were familiar with other communist works, in particular Stalin’s Social and State Structure of the USSR and the National Question in the Soviet Union’s 1936 Constitution. Now with the increasing contact with the CPB, Burmese-language copies of Mao’s Protracted Warfare and Guerrilla Warfare were widely circulated; they have, however, never been translated into Karen.

While the KAF’s ability in conventional and guerrilla warfare had never been called into question, many of the new ideas, especially on party organization, has an immediate impact. One theme, in particular, hit a common nerve among the KAF commanders, disillusioned by the military aid the British government was giving the AFPFL. The very continuation of the armed struggle, many organizers argued, had now become dependent on the rural farmers and forestry workers, who had not only were feeding and sheltering KAF units but also had to bear the brunt of the fighting. This led Karen leaders into their first serious discussion of class analysis and a complete review of the goals and tactics of the KNU movement.

A group of KNU leaders, summoned by Mahn Ba Zan, met at Weythaung village in the Lower Delta on 9 June 1953 to discuss ways ‘to preserve the Karen revolution’. Their first solution was to copy the CPB and set up a new vanguard party, the Karen National United Party (KNUP). The role of the KNUP was ‘to get the political leadership. The KNU would remain the mass organization, the backbone of the revolution’. The KNUP was then formally inaugurated at a conference at Gayetau village, Maubin district, in September; approval of its establishment as the KNU’s vanguard party was given at the main KNU Congress, the First National Congress, in November 1953 at Papun. A number of Mon and Karenni representatives were also in attendance.

It was at the KNUP’s historical inaugural meeting at Gayetau that many of the principles of what became known as the KNU’s Second Phase Programme were drawn up. There was considerable controversy later over this new line and much of the second phase ideology has long since been abandoned. But many of the second phase policies, especially in the party and military organization, have had a lasting impact on the KNU movement and were later studied and borrowed by other ethnic minority fronts elsewhere in Burma. Though no mention of communism or the CPB was made, the KNUP was supposed to fulfil the role of any other Marxist-Leninist vanguard party. According to Skaw Ler Taw, the first object of the Second Phase Programme was ‘more or less centralization’.

In the Delta KNUP cadre training classes began in late 1953 and some of the second-phase policies were introduced in the brigade districts. The most notable success was the eradication of warlordism, which had remained a lingering problem in much of the Delta. Perhaps most important of all, in areas of mixed Karen-Burman population, or where CPB/KNUP forces overlapped, there was support from local Burman villages. With finances now better centralized and the KAF now attuned to fighting a mobile guerrilla war, in 1954 and 1955, KAF units were able to infiltrate back into many of the areas lost in 1952.

There were also some counter-productive results. Christian pastors and Buddhist pongyis joined some of the earlier training classes without any apparent objection. But when a radical anti-religious movement developed within the KNUP, sensibilities were stirred up in both Buddhist and Christian Karen communities and , in some areas in the Delta, these still rankle. Like other ethnic minority parties, the KNU has always regarded the right to religious freedom as a key demand. KNUP leaders were, however, slow to react and only tried to solve the problem in the early 1960s when it was probably too late.



A reasonable account of purported help from the British is abridged from Martin Smith’s book, in ‘The Accusation of British Involvement’, in Chapter 6, pp. 112-114. It can now be inferred that the official British government had nothing to do with this rather murky incident. In August 1948, Moulmein and Thaton were temporarily taken over by the troops loyal to the KNU and then returned to the Burmese government under the instructions of Saw Ba U Gyi and Burma Army Karen high command, Lt. General Smith Dun and Brig. H. Kyardoe. “But according to Mika Rolly, from the beginning a member of the underground cell, Group X, liaising between the Karen Rifles and Saw Sankey, who actually ordered the occupation, there was another urgent motive, namely to take a seaport to land arms expected from British sympathizers.” Some believed that Ba U Gyi, apparently, was not fully informed of the plan. “But there was a British plot, though in the light of subsequent publicity it was much smaller than popularly believed. It cost the Karens dearly and reinforced the lingering image of the KNU as an unpatriotic, pro-British front.” At that time, the government Burman leadership, Socialists and assorted parties, including the CPB, in trying to unite themselves again, agreed that the ‘main weapon the imperialist (British, American and Burmese) would use was the Karen revolts led by the KNU and KNDO’.

“But instead of involving the British government or opposition Conservative Party as had been feared, the instigator was an ex-Force 136 adventurer, Col. Cromarty-Tulloch, who had parachuted into the Karenni hills during the war to organize local resistance. At the war’s end Tulloch returned to Britain with a letter of accreditation
from the Karen Central Organization authorizing him to represent Karen interests until their delegates could arrive. In the hills today many nationalists believe his motives were not entirely altruistic and think he discovered something during the war, possibly gold, for which he was determined to return. ….

“ Back in London Tulloch actively supported the Karen cause, writing articles and organizing meetings for the short-lived Friends of the Hills peoples of Burma, which were attended by a number of prominent Burma veterans, including post-war governor, Dorman-Smith, and ex-FAA director, H.N.C.Stevenson. But most drew the line at his most ambitious plans. In mid-1948 he traveled to Calcutta with the apparent intentions of sailing on to Moulmein with a boatload of arms and ammunition. Another Force 136 confederate, Alexander Campbell of the ‘Daily Mail’ made it to Rangoon, but the plot was uncovered and he was arrested and deported, leaving Tulloch stranded in Calcutta unconvincingly protesting his innocence. Of the Tulloch group only Reverend Baldwin, a Karen-speaking Seventh Day Adventist minister, who himself had been deported by the British shortly before independence, is known to have made it back into Burma. Crossing over the border from Thailand at the beginning of the Karen insurrection, Baldwin worked in the KNU Foreign Relations Department until his death from blackwater fever near Kamamaung in 1951. ….

“… Oliver Ba Than, who traveled to Britain with Baldwin, was Tulloch’s link with the Karen underground. Rolly claims that Ba Than conveyed the instructions from Tulloch that led Sankey too order the occupation of Moulmein; it was clearly a highly secret plan. Ba Than, like Sankey, was killed in the early days of the insurrection and, other than Rolly, few Karen survivors appear to have direct knowledge of the real details of the plan. But H.A. Stoner, a Karen sympathizer and veteran of the Welsh Regiment, has confirmed the key details of the Tulloch conspiracy. As part of the operation, Stoner traveled to India where he was meant to link up with Tulloch, but when the plot was uncovered he traveled to Thailand to find that the other members of the group had already given up and gone into hiding. Tulloch was later arrested and imprisoned in Britain on unrelated fraud charges; he was so afraid of being assassinated by Burmese agents that he refused bail while waiting trial. It was perhaps the Karens’ misfortune to become involved, however, unwittingly, with such a man. At his trial the judge described him as ‘a champion of lost causes’. ”


(Martin Smith’s book, for the most part, pp. 170 -174 and 326-329)

At the Second National Congress in mid-1956 held at KRC’s Maw Koo camp in the Papun hills, and attended by more than 150 delegates and observers, the KNUP’s Second Phase Program was formally unveiled and ratified. Mahn Ba Zan and the KNUP cadres praised the progress of the Second Phase Program in the Delta. Hunter Tha Hmwe, not a KNUP member, spoke enthusiastically about the KNUP’s village cooperative system. KNUP theoretician Skaw Ler Taw described the second phase as ‘more or less a communist strategy’. Marshall Shwin from Shwegyin said it was ‘more than socialism and less than communism’. Mahn Ba Zan who drew up many of the Congress resolutions, described himself as a socialist. Many of the KNU’s objectives were now defined in contemporary Maoist terminology. The main Enemy being ‘imperialism and feudalism; Immediate Target – the AFPFL which represents those interests; Strength – leadership of the working class, etc.; Alliance – intellectuals, government employees, businessmen; Strategy – armed struggle as the main tool; and so forth. In less than a decade, the KNU’s change from what the left in Burma once described as simply an ‘imperialist plot’ to a radical, communist-aligned movement was apparently complete. With confirmation of the KNUP as the Karen vanguard party, the name KNU was eclipsed and did not resurface in common usage until the 1970s. when Mahn Ba Zan and Bo Mya, a Hill Karen commander in the east, began the second major reformation of the KNU.

How far the Karen nationalist movement ever accepted the Second Phase Program is a matter of controversy, but within ten years it caused a complete east-west split of the KNU. Hunter Tha Hmwe, as president of the KGB (or KRC ) which would be the governing body of the KNU, tried to win Western aid for the Karen cause and met with Thai, American, CIA, SEATO and KMT officials in Bangkok who made clear their disapproval of the KNU’s improving relationship with the CPB, which fuelled Tha Hmwe’s growing disillusionment with the KNUP and his eventual surrender in 1964.

In the Delta and parts of the Toungoo hills the KNUP survived as a radical political force for another 20 years, and while most KNUP ideology has long since been rejected, many key KNUP principles in areas such as military and tactical organization remain standard KNU policy. The KNUP also had a considerable influence on the development of other ethnic insurgent parties in Burma. The first ethnic minority front, the Democratic Nationalities United Front (DNUF), was formed in April 1956 at a meeting of Mon, Pao, Karen and Karenni representatives, chaired by Mahn Ba Zan, at the KRC’s Mewaing camp in the Papun hills. With mass surrenders in 1958, the DNUF ceased to exist, and the KNUP allied itself fully with the CPB the following year, with the formation of the National Democratic United Front (NDUF), more or less a formal military alliance. (see below)

A number of veteran leaders from other ethnic fronts who joined Karen leaders in these critical meetings now freely admit that their discussions with Mahn Ba Zan et al. had a deep impact on the political direction of their own movements. The KNUP rather than the CPB was thus the first major conduit for communist ideology to these parties, all of which took up strongly left-aligned positions.

Objections to the Second Phase Program were not slow to emerge from within the KNU movement. At the end of the 1956 Congress a KNUP training course for Eastern Division leaders was held at Me Ni Kawn village, Kyaukkyi township, where Mahn Ba Zan lectured on the international situation, Skaw Ler Taw on the second phase, and Thra Pla Say on party organization. In an extravagant speech on agrarian policy, Mahn Shan Phale alienated Buddhist as well as Christian representatives by describing Kyaiktiyo monastry in Thaton in derogatory terms. Delegates from the Thaton fifth brigade led by ex-Buddhist monk Bo Soe, then refused to attend the remaining classes and the meeting eventually had to be abandoned. The fifth brigade, then the strongest of the KNU’s eastern units with 1,200 men under arms, now went its own way, and in fact it had never been brought under central KNU control. While it continued to cause considerable trouble to government forces, it also became notorious for poor discipline. Bo Soe himself was later assassinated by his own men and the entire brigade eventually surrendered in 1964 under another equally notorious commander, Lin Htin, along with the KRC president, Hunter Tha Hmwe.

Many of the same objections were voiced by veteran Christian leaders, and in the next few years several surrendered. Others such as Marshall Shwin and Tha Din stepped down from active day-to-day involvement in the KNU and retired with their families into the hills.

Of its relation with the CPB, years later the KNUP accused its ally of being ‘lax in its intention’ to building the NDUF and described its claim to be representing all Burma’s nationalities as divorced from ‘realities’. As early as 1968/69, in response to many leaders’ growing doubts about the CPB, the KNUP had already sent three secret delegations to China to investigate the tumultuous developments in the communist world from across the border. Later, in December 1971, Skaw Ler Taw led his team of 37 men from the Toungoo hills to China to confer with the CPB vice-chairman Thakin Ba Thein Tin. It was a very difficult journey with the team having to pass through a complex terrain controlled by rival rebel forces. It took two attempts to reach China, and only after several joint battles with other rebel forces against government troops in which many KNUP members were killed. Only in December 1973, did Skaw Ler Taw’s party, accompanied by SSPP (Shan State Progress Party) members, arrive at Sumao(Szemao?), inside China, and met Ba Thein Tin. Even though Skaw Ler Taw explained that they had come all this way to meet CCP (Chinese Communist Party) CC officials, they were only able to attend a conference set with the seven-man Sumao Province Committee headed by Col Kwan, a veteran of the Long March.

The meeting with Ba Thein Tin boiled down to the fact that if the KNUP accepted the ‘leadership of the workers’, it should be able to accept the leadership of the CPB. The KNUP was not quite prepared to do this. Finally, they accepted some small arms and equipment offered them and left. The meeting was a failure, and in Skaw Ler Taw’s words: ‘We had learnt a lot about China, communism and the CPB, and we had also seen a lot of the other nationalities in Burma. But we had agreed before we even started out that we were not prepared to accept the leadership of the CPB. It was a long way to go just to repeat this message.’

While the Burmese government continued to depict the KNU as an illegal ‘bandit’ organization, the second phase was undoubtedly very much in tune with the political climate of the time. There was a widespread desire for peace and in many front-line areas government appointed ‘peace guerrillas’ were openly sympathetic with the KNUP aims. Like the CPB, underground KNUP organizers were able to move freely in and out of towns, recruiting supporters and setting up cells; in Rangoon the KNUP established its own contacts with the above-ground BWPP(Burma Workers and Peasants Party), NUF (National/Nationalities United Front) and its small affiliate, the All Burma Karen Organization, which tried to introduce KNU demands into the national political debate. At the university, meanwhile, the KNUP was able to begin organization amongst Karen and other ethnic minority students.

In fact it is this threat to the national security that Ne Win loyalists, even after the 1990 general election, use as the main pretext for the ‘Tatmadaw’s’ right to intervene in national political affairs. Since the army’s experiences in the disastrous civil war of the 1950s, so their argument runs, elected politicians cannot be trusted.


On May 16, 1959, the NDUF (National Democratic United Front) was formally inaugurated with CPB, NMSP (New Mon State Party) and the KNUP, but not the KNU, as initial signatories. This reflected the KNUP’s growing independence from Hunter Tha Hmwe and the objections of a number of Karen conservatives who, like Tha Hmwe, rejected any formal relationship with the CPB, and within four years there was to be a major split within the KNU. A month later the Chin National Vanguard Party (CNVP), a small guerrilla group, then only 40 strong from the southern Chin region, and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) also joined the NDUF. This was during the caretaker administration of Ne Win and the ‘Tatmadaw’, which managed to have won back the initiative from the different insurgent armed forces, especially in the Delta. However, the interim Burmese military government apparently also recognized the KNU as still having the largest army. Shortly before they handed back power to the civilian government, in early 1960 senior army commanders offered to meet KNU leaders for secret peace talks.51

In early February, Gen. Kaw Htoo and Skaw Ler Taw flew by helicopter from Papun to join Bo Khin Pe, the KNUP’s Delta president, and Mahn Mya Maung, the KAF’s Delta commander, in Rangoon, for a series of four meetings spread over ten days. The Burmese military government was represented by Brigs. Aung Gyi, Aung Shwe, Col. Maung Maung and other junior officers. Colonel Maung Maung whom the KNU had held briefly in custody in1949, was the military government’s chief spokesman. The expression of ‘ending the civil war’, not used by the AFPFL politicians before, was willingly used by the Burma army officers who were quite prepared to accept KAF troops and local KNDO militia, estimated by Skaw Ler Taw at 20,000 men under arms, into a reformed Karen Rifles and a Special Police Reserve. Only the question of an enlarged Karen State, which army leaders gave the impression of being sympathetic but insisted they had no power to discuss constitutional matters, remained. A new Karen State, they said, could only be agreed upon once the KNU had entered the legal fold. The Karen delegation rejected the terms on the grounds that ‘according to Saw Ba U Gyi’s Four Principles there was no Karen State and the inference was still one of surrender.’52

Hunter Tha Hmwe, leader of the KNU Kawthoolei Revolutionary Council (KRC) faction, long believed that without foreign aid, the Karens would never win. In the mid-1950s he tried to contact various American, Thai and SEATO officials in Bangkok to ask for arms, but found them to suspect the KNU’s declaration of a Free State of Kawthoolei as being part of China’s plan to overrun South-East Asia by announcing ‘autonomous nationality regions’ across the mainland peninsula. H. Tha Hmwe felt that the quickest way to get foreign help would be to drive out the left leaders. His irritation with the KNUP grew by the day as he found himself increasingly outfoxed by its leaders who, in the manner of any other Marxist-Leninists vanguard party, would meet in advance of the KRC or KAF conferences to draw up their own campaign plan. ‘A particularly bitter argument broke out after the First KNUP Congress in January 1959, at which the KNUP drew up a draft Constitution of the KNU with a new order of hierarchy: the KNUP at the top of the “elite party of the Karen revolution”, an elected political and military council representing all KAF military brigade areas to supervise the administration of party policy, the KNU as a “mass organization” and, at the bottom, the KRC as a central governing body of handling day-to-day affairs.”53

The rift between the KRC of H. Tha Hmwe and the KNUP widened with the institution of the NDUF in 1959, and as already noted, in deference to his objections, the KNU’s name was not included in the treaty. Hunter Tha Hmwe grew increasingly critical of his old comrade, Mahn Ba Zan. Both men devout Christians, Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe was an impassioned orator and populist leader, describing himself as a ‘capitalist’, whereas Mahn Ba Zan was a stoic, cautious politician, relying on the importance of party organization. Then there was the questionable, ephemeral NLA (the Nationalities Liberation Alliance) that Hunter Tha Hmwe, on ‘foreign advice’, formed with young dissident Shan and Kachin leaders in April 1960, which was to be separate from the CPB-backed NDUF, with the proposal to annex the entire east and southeast of Burma. Skaw Ler Taw, the former general-secretary of the KRC, described the NLA as ‘more or less a CIA’ plan, and he supported both the NDUF and NLA on the premise of requiring the unity of all revolutionary forces in trying to overthrow a common enemy. The NLA’s military efforts to join up and coordinate operations with the Shan and Kachin groups met with failure simply because the Shans were not at all united, and the KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) was, in early 1961, in its incipient stage.54

At the Third Kawthoolei National Congress in April 1963 at the KRC’s Kasawa (White Elephant) camp in the hills a day’s journey on foot north of Papun, H. Tha Hmwe explained that he called the Congress to repeal the ideological basis of the Second Phase Program. On the eve of the Congress, the KNUP held its own Second Congress, and with the arrival of the Delta delegates, Tha Hmwe knew that he would be defeated before the Congress even started. A total of 58 delegates, representing all the KNU districts of the Delta, Pegu Yoma, and the Eastern Division, were able to attend. Tha Hmwe called for the abandonment of the KNU’s anti-imperialist line’ and urged the Congress to look to the West for support. The KNUP representatives reject this, as did the most other delegates from the east, including the Papun-Paan 7th brigade commander, Bo Mya. Of all things, an argument developed over the definition of the ‘enemy’ of the Karens. H. Tha Hmwe wanted ‘the Burmans’, and the KNUP favored ‘Burman Chauvinism’, a term Tha Hmwe equated with communist ideology.

On the third day, after a discussion about dividing up areas of influence to prevent a complete breakdown came to naught, Tha Hmwe and 11 of his KRC supporters walked out and moved into Lin Htin’s 5th brigade area in the west where they formed a new organizing committee. The possibility of forming a ‘third neutral party’ headed by Skaw Ler Taw of the KNUP and Mika Rolly of the Tha Hmwe faction was discussed to heal the rift, but each time Tha Hmwe refused to bend. The Congress with the remaining 13 members, all KNUP CC members, and a majority of just one, continued on April 24, 1963 without him. Without Tha Hmwe’s opposition, the Congress quickly ran through a list of motions and reports, virtually the same ones presented to the KNUP’s Second Congress the previous month. The clearest statement was the adoption of a communist ideology that neither challenged the CPB nor weakened the KNU’s national platform: ‘For the progress and development of the Karen people we accept Marxist-Leninist as our guiding principles. But we do not accept KNUP as a worker’s party but as a nationalist party for the progress and development of the Karen people.’ There was never any suggestion of forming a Karen Communist Party.

General Ne Win seemed to be aware of the division between the KRC leadership and peace overtures were made by his Burmese military Revolutionary Council (RC) on June 11, 1963. Though at first rejecting any possibility of negotiations with the RC, Hunter Tha Hmwe agreed to go to Rangoon but proposed that his KRC and the KNUP (which was actually entitled to the organizational name with its majority membership of the KRC) go separately. In August 1963, two separate Karen delegations arrived in Rangoon. Ne Win’s original intention may have been to win over Mahn Ba Zan and the ‘socialist’ KNUP, also the NDUF, but the negotiations with them ended within three months. The peace talks, apparently suspended for a while, resumed between the Burmese Revolutionary Government and the Kawthoolei Peace delegation headed by Kawkasa (master of the country) Hunter Tha Hmwe on January 27 1964. The final peace treaty was signed on March 12, 1964 by the Burmese military RC and Tha Hmwe’s KRC. On April 3 1964, the Karen State was agreed to be officially renamed ‘Kawthoolei’. A few of the KNU's leaders who came back with Hunter Tha Hmwe included KRC ministers Saw Ba Tun, P’Doh Waree Kyaw and Bogyoke Ohn Pe, Brigs. Lin Htin and Truman, together with a military force of the Thaton area 5th brigade and a battalion of the Nyaunglebin 3rd brigade, probably less than a tenth of all the KAF divisions at that time.55,56


Throughout the Karen revolution up to the mid-1960s, the leadership in both the eastern hill region where Sgaw Karen and other closely related tribes of mostly Animists, Buddhist-Animists and some Christians, and the western / Delta areas of Pwo and Sgaw Karens comprising 80 % or more Buddhists and generally living side by side with the Burmans, has been university-educated, English-speaking Karens of both Pwo and Sgaw sub-groups. Gradually though, the eastern military command became dominated by local hill Karens. Two of the younger officers who emerged as quite forceful commanders were Shwe Hser of the 6th brigade operating in the countryside south of Kawkareik, and Bo Mya of the 7th brigade in the Papun-Paan districts to the north. Both were born Animist Sgaw Karens, actually within a few miles of each other in the Papun hills, and both apparently owed their early promotions to the KNUP functionaries who may have thought of them as more pliable for manipulation. Of these two, even though Shwe Hser has commanded quite an effective guerrilla force operation in the southern Dawna Range, it was Bo Mya who eventually rose to the top of the KNU hierarchy.

By the time the Karens’ revolution began, Bo Mya returned to the eastern hills to join the KNU’s Highland battalion as a company commander. When his battalion was disbanded after Hlaingbwe fell to the Burmese army, he and his men momentarily returned to form part of the government-sponsored ‘Pyu Saw Hti’ militia, but later returned to the KNU side. In the early 1960s he was promoted to a colonel and commanded the Eastern Division’s 7th brigade. At the time of the party split, he had sided with Mahn Ba Zan and the KNUP and his critics pointed out that his rapid promotion was due to the defection of his predecessor, Major General Ohn Pe who along with Hunter Tha Hmwe and Brig. Lin Htin returned to the then BSPP(Burma Socialist Program Party) government of Gen. Ne Win.

It was during this stage that the KNU forces started collecting custom revenues from black market goods coming in from Thailand on their way to Rangoon and central Burma. South of Myawaddy, the 6th brigade under Shwe Hser has its custom station at Phalu, and in the north, Bo Mya’s 7th brigade opened one at Kawmoora. Other custom gates followed all along the border of Burma and Thailand as trade escalated, and the only government-held towns at that stage were Tachilek in south-eastern Shan State and Myawaddy in the south, leaving some 200 miles of the boundary in the KNU territory. It was also about this period that dissidents from Rangoon arrived, among them the NLC (National Liberation Council) led by Hansen Kyardoe and BoYan Naing. Kyardoe had always advocated to cooperate with the Burmans, but was also adamantly anti-Communist and advised Bo Mya to sever ties with the CPB. Bo Mya later urged KNUP chairman Mahn Ba Zan to call a national congress to review the KNU’s ‘socialist’ political line, to which the latter agreed to do so. However, due to rapidly changing events the meeting never took place.

In January 4, 1966, he ordered all KNUP troops and officials based in the Eastern Division to leave immediately and join the main KNUP forces in the Delta and Pegu Yoma. Bo Mya, in personal letters to Mahn Ba Zan and Skaw Ler Taw, the two KNUP leaders very close to him, requested them to leave peacefully. By now Bo Mya hoped to elicit Western support and considered the KNUP a liability. Bo Mya then formed the KNLC (Karen National Liberation Council) without any election of members, but rather, the senior administrative posts filled by appointees of Bo Mya. The KNLC was just another emergency administration and without any political initiative, its function never really came to fruition, and the only legacy of the KNLC left today is the KNU’s military wing, the KNLA (Karen National Liberation Army).

In mid-1967 Mahn Ba Zan and four other senior KNUP officials came back to join Bo Mya. It may have been the disillusionment with the CPB brought on by the excesses of the Cultural Revolution of the 1966-68 that was well known at that juncture. By this time KNUP and CPB forces in Pegu Yoma and the Delta were also reeling from the incessant Burma Army campaigns using their very effective ‘Four Cuts’ program (more about the ‘Four Cuts’ will follow). In any case, although Mahn Ba Zan and his men may not have given up their KNUP ideology entirely, and could have even hoped to win Bo Mya over, he eventually gave way and Bo Mya became president of the KNU in 1976. Back in September 1968, the KNUF (Karen National United Front) was formed with Mahn Ba Zan as chairman and Bo Mya as KNLA Chief-of-Staff, more or less as a halfway house on the road to the reformation of the KNU. The KNLA grew to over 10,000-strong well-armed force, including village militias, and the new KNU movement flourished again. In May 1970, the NULF (National United Liberation Front) came into existence in Bangkok with U Nu of the PDP (Parliamentary Democracy Party), Mahn Ba Zan for the KNU and Nai Shwe Kyin for the NMSP (New Mon State Party) as signatories. It seemed that U Nu now found the right moment to cooperate with his former ethnic minority enemies. The NULF promised to reintroduce the word ‘federal’, omitted from the 1947 Constitution.

U Nu’s PDP with its armed wing, the PLA (Patriotic Liberation Army), having a peak strength of 4,000 troops fought with the KNLA and allied forces against the Ne Win government for about three years until U Nu resigned in April 1972. ‘The prospect of U Nu, a self-styled Buddhist man of peace, sharing the hardships of jungle life in rebel territory with such veteran KNU leaders as Marshall Shwin, Bo Mya and Mahn Ba Zan always had an uncomfortable irony. U Nu in fact rarely left Bangkok.’57 (It is interesting to note that in his book, U Nu – Saturday’s Son, which he completed in 1973, the late U Nu ended his memoirs with the 1962 coup by Gen. Ne Win. Although he apparently had ample time to do so, he never recorded this portion of his life and the CIA-backed NULF.) A point of note is that U Nu seemed to object to the initial 1970 NULF treaty agreeing to the goal of a ‘federal union republic’. There were also KNU officers who protested that, in agreeing to join a federal union, the KNU appeared to have given up its long-held demand for the right to self-determination, identifiable with the right to secession granted to the Karenni and Shan States in the 1947 Constitution. Most other PDP leaders, including Bo Let Ya, had few objections to this. The largest NULF operation was when a force of 1,500 troops, predominantly Karen, unsuccessfully attacked the border town of Myawaddy in March 1974. Shortly after, at the Ninth KNU Congress, Karen leaders resolved to leave the NULF. The PDP, later as PPP (People’s Patriotic Party), with its PLA troop strength dwindling rapidly, died its natural death when on 29 November 1978, its leader Bo Let Ya who was most trusted and respected by the Karens, fell in an unintended and mistaken clash with a KNU force. It is interesting and rather fitting to interject here what could be considered a sincere Burman’s view of the typical Karen naivete when U (ex-Brig. Gen.) Maung Maung lumped Bo Let Ya with Gen. Smith Dun as sincere and simple persons with little ability to recognize the motives of other people.58 U Nu, Bo Hmu Aung and Bo Yan Naing, the famed PDP leaders returned to Rangoon under the 1980 amnesty and were personally received by Ne Win.


At the Ninth KNU Congress in September 1974, the basis for a substantial shift in KNU policy towards the political right was laid, which continued in force into the late 1990s. Although there were many alliances made with other rebel groups, the only ethnic minority front of any significance was the NDF (National Democratic Front) which was inaugurated on May 10, 1976, at the KNU’s general headquarters of Mannerplaw (Victory Field). Members included the SSPP (Shan State Progress Party), KNPP (Karenni National Progressive Party), the NMSP (New Mon Stat1e Party) and the ALP (Arakan Liberation Party). Like most of its predecessors, including the RNA (Revolutionary Nationalities Alliance) formed in May 1973 at Kawmoora by the KNU, SSPP, KNPP and KNLP (Karen/Kayan New Land Party) and later superseded by the FNDF (Federal National Democratic Front) at another meeting of KNU, SSPP, KNPP, NMSP (New Mon State Party) and ALP (Arakan Liberation Party) in May 1975, in its early years it rarely proved effective; only with the return of the KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) in 1983 was it for the first time galvanized into action.

Over the years most NDF members had redefined their political goals, generally toning down any ‘separatist’ language, but here for the first time the demand for the right of secession by all NDF members, including the KNU, was explicitly dropped and the political goals of the NDF were rewritten in terms designed to win support from the Burman majority.

The KNUP’s forces in the Pegu Yoma with their CPB allies had already been largely decimated by Burmese government troops in the 1960s and KNUP leaders have moved back to Bo Mya’s area. Led by Mahn Ba Zan , they were still trying to maintain their leftist leaning, so to speak, particularly with the Chinese government whose ‘high priority support of minority rights’ seemed hopeful for a possible source of help. Mahn Ba Zan wanted the KNU to receive aid from whichever side that can accept the KNU-NDF programs. Bo Mya was adamant that the KNU would accept aid only from ‘capitalist ‘ nations. After a day-long argument at an emergency CC meeting on August 10, 1976, Bo Mya got his way and Mahn Ba Zan resigned to become ‘honorary adviser’ to the KNU and was replaced by Bo Mya as president. Bo Mya also appointed himself Ministers of Foreign Affairs and Defense, and also remained as the KNLA Chief-of-Staff. One of the most important major policy changes was to cleanse the KNU’s ‘national democracy’ objectives of any class or Marxist implications. The KNU declared in 1986 that its national liberation movement is a “National Democratic Revolution”, which was absolutely different from the CPB’s “People’s Democracy Revolution” for the liberation of classes.59

Bo Mya’s return to power was welcomed by the Thai government that had been worried by the CPT (Communist Party of Thailand) insurgency. Under Bo Mya, the KNU has given the Thai government invaluable help in blocking the spread of communist activities in the region. Without the KNU’s opposition, a solid line of sympathetic liberated zones straddling both sides of the border might have linked the communist parties of China, Burma, Thailand and Malaya. The mass surrenders in Tak Province during 1982/83 of over 6,000 communist sympathizers and their dependents along with more than 700 heavily armed CPT guerrillas, most of them ethnic Karens or Mons, showed that the CPT’s presence on Thailand’s western border was once no idle threat. Not all NDF members were for the KNU’s anti-Communist line, but it did mean that in the mid-1970s when the CPB’s NEC (Northeast Command) launched its most serious military offensives westwards to central Burma and south towards the Thai border, a line of generally pro-West armies stood in its way, allowing the Thai Supreme Command to concentrate troops against the CPT and the wars raging along the Laotian and Cambodian borders in the north and east.60

Bo Mya has been described as a Karen military strong man and a ruthless guerrilla fighter, and his leadership style has also been depicted as authoritarian. He has nevertheless generated a coherent sense of identity amongst the ethnic diversity and poverty in the eastern hills. Until the early 1990s he has managed to keep alive a true Karen society with basic but relatively flourishing forms of Karen language and culture, quite apart from their rapid disappearance in the lowland and Delta areas of Burma. The KNU has been able to establish hospitals, clinics and village schools, including five high schools, which have since been forced to be closed down or moved to refugee camps in Thailand.61 At the Second Congress of the NDF in May-July 1987, which was attended by the nine members, including KIA’s Brang Seng and the SSPP general secretary Sai Lek who both had made the dangerous trip down the Thai border to placate him, Bo Mya was not satisfied with the explanation given by most of the members who had fought alongside with the CPB at different times in the past, even after their insisting that the alliance with the CPB was simply a matter of convenience. The NDF alliance of the different groups of ethnic nationalities has always been fragile. By March 1988, Bo Mya has already contemplated to leave the NDF.62 Earlier in December 1987, Bo Mya had gone to Mong Mai in southwest Shan State to meet Khun Sa who’s SUA (Shan Unite Army) had merged with the TRC (Tailand Revolutionary Council) for a discussion on general regional developments and trade, and both parties issued a joint anti-narcotics statement at the end of the meeting.63

The KNLA troop strength at its peak in the early 1980s was estimated at 5,000 regulars and another 5,000 KNDO village militia. Recruits received no pay and were provided with just food and uniforms but had to get pocket money from their own families. Despite these hardships, for many hill Karens, service in the KNLA has for many years been a quite respectable profession, and the troops have displayed remarkable endurance and bravery. The military system was, however, flexible, and the KNLA can at short notice call up or demobilize large numbers of troops according the state of war. Theoretically, KNLA organization and finance were centralized, but in practice, each brigade was largely responsible for raising its own funds and arming its own troops. This meant that the strongest brigades, the 6th and 7th , with their once very lucrative trading and Customs posts along the Thai border had prospered, while the smaller ones, such as the Toungoo (No 2) and Nyaunglebin (No.3) brigades had only meager resources.
This also meant that local commanders could become very wealthy, and some of them had also been accused of ‘warlordism’. Mahn Ba Zan, before his death in 1981, had remarked to a young Rangoon University recruit that the Karens ‘could survive poverty but he was not so sure that they would be able to withstand prosperity.’64


By the early 1980s and throughout the decade into the 1990s, the Burmese Military government began massive offensives on Karen strongholds along the Thai border such as Kawmoorah, Phalu, the Three Pagoda Pass in the south (also partly controlled by the MNLA – Mon National Liberation Army), Mae La, Maw Po Kay, May Tha Wah, Klaw Tay Lu, and the main Mannerplaw headquarters in the north. A major ‘Four Cuts’ offensive was launched for the first time against KNU strongholds in the northern Dawna Range in January 1984.65

(By the mid-1960s, the Ne Win government began its ‘Pyat Ley Pyat’ or the Four Cuts policy which was patterned after the ‘new village’ tactics developed by the British forces under Sir Robert Thompson in fighting, and eventually defeating, the communist insurgency in Malaya in the late 1940s to early 1950s. A similar concept, the ‘strategic hamlet’ program, was also employed by the U.S. troops, with Thompson’s advice, in Vietnam. There was little question that human rights abuses were involved in both cases. The four cuts was a counter-insurgency program designed to cut the four main links – food, funds, intelligence and recruits [according to opposition forces, the standard procedure for the fourth cut would be cutting off the heads of the rebels themselves] – between insurgents, their families and local villagers.

Army units ordered villagers to move to new strategic villages under military control on the plains or near major garrison towns in the hills. Any villager who remained was treated as an insurgent and ran the risk of being shot on sight. Food in the old villages was confiscated and crops were destroyed, and all houses burned down. Mobile government columns then moved out from towns, crisscrossing back and forth in every direction, to try and flush out rebel units hiding in the woods. The whole district was declared a free-fire zone and it became difficult for rebels to hide their weapons or pass themselves off as local villagers, as they had done many times before. Under constant attack and deprived of food, logistical support, and all contact with family and friends, they soon found that they were faced with only three choices: fight to the death, surrender or retreat to the next military area.

The Burma army started these tactics in the Sagaing Division, Kachin State and southwest Burma in 1965-67 and used them in full force in the Lower Delta. The four cuts campaign was introduced to the Shwegyin hills in 1975. Each year four or five villagers had to die for no reason and no one could stay in the villages any more. Villagers were also press-ganged into frontline porter service carrying supplies for their army captors. For the Burma ‘Tatmadaw’ (Army), there is no such thing as an innocent villager; every community must fight, flee or join them. Farmers and families forced to the new strategic villages are mobilized to fight on the government’s side. Villages are fenced in, usually with the army’s blockhouses or barracks located in the center of the compound to prevent shelling or guerrilla attack. Villagers themselves are trained to act day and night as village lookouts and guards. Insurgent commanders admit that these ‘people militia’ , of which thousands have been formed in the last 25 years, have proven one of the most effective components of the Four Cuts plan. Across Burma they have divided communities in rebel-controlled areas, making it virtually impossible for families to remain on both sides of the battle lines. Once a base area is lost, it is impossible for guerrilla forces to infiltrate back into it.)66

Many of the KNU outposts, Maw Po Kay, Kawmoora, Phalu(or Palu), were actually redoubts, constructed at oxbows of the Moei (Thaungyin) river, protruding toward Thai territory in the east, with a narrow, heavily fortified neck facing west to Burma, immediately beyond which were multiple strata of booby traps and mine fields. The attacking government forces found it extremely difficult to make frontal attacks on these positions. The Burma Army would invariably utilize all available means and equipment, including air support and slave labor, euphemistically ‘porters’, consisting of the local population of usually old men and females to carry their ammunition and supplies, and also acting as mine sweepers by being forced to go ahead of the troops where countless numbers have been blown to pieces. In June 1982, the KNLA managed to shoot down two Bell helicopters and a third in 1983. These choppers have been supplied by the US State Department Narcotics Control Unit under anti-narcotics program. Although narcotics and insurgent groups in Burma are hard to distinguish, because of the fact that there has never been any evidence that the Karens were involved in drug trafficking, there is little question that the Burmese Military government has violated the spirit of the State Department agreement.67

Even those unabashedly rooting for the underdog such as the fiercely anti-Communist SOF (Soldier of Fortune) conservative adventurers began to show concern: ‘….. the KNU and the KNLA have suffered severe military setbacks to rapid-order Burmese Army attacks. The loss of May Tha Wah, Doi Kham and Klerdey to BA attacks, the abandonment of a crucial Maw Po Kay base and the sudden Burmese Army northern offensive launched 23 February 1984 against KNLA positions opposite Mae Hong Song Province, Thailand, combined with determined southern advance of the Burmese Army troops from secure bases opposite Maesot may spell doom for the Karen forces under the command of Gen. Bo Mya.’68 In November 1987, a party of foreign military attaches were taken for the first time on a lightning three-day tour of the war-torn Karen State, and in Paan, Col. (later to become Lt. Gen., the military intelligence chief and the most powerful man in the military junta) Khin Nyunt predicted that the army would ‘smash’ the KNU within two years.69 As of mid-1991, Maw Po Kay was still held by the KNLA even though the Burmese Army had almost completely surrounded it.70

The drastic downturn of the KNU’s luck was contributed, inter alia, by the beginning of rapprochement between Burma and Thailand with a sharp increase of diplomatic missions during 1985-88, even before the democratic uprising in Burma in August1988. It was the Thai army commander-in-chief. Gen. Chaovalit Yongshaiyudh who visited Burmese army leaders in April 1988 and, backed by powerful business interests, began trading projects, particularly logging of which the Burmese government sacrificed their still lush Burmese teak forests, following the ecological destruction of their new-found friends’ own forest reserves in Thailand. This was also part of the scorched earth (‘Four Cuts’) policy to deny the Karens of one of their main sources of income at the border, and at the same time reduce the countryside to total denudation, thereby limiting the mobility of KNLA troops who normally would need forest cover for their activities.

The scale of destruction by the Thai logging companies was beyond belief; in 1989 alone, well over 100,000 trees were cut down at the Wale forest reserve. It seemed that even SLORC officials were embarrassed after they were billed as ‘Partners in Plunder’, and promised in July not to renew the two- to three-year logging contracts sold to more than 30 Thai companies; but this came only after having received the estimated $ 112 million per year payments. In many ways the ‘Four Cuts’ campaign in SE Burma in the years 1984-90 was without doubt one of the most brutal military operations since independence of the country.71

After the 8-8-88 massacre of thousands of unarmed civilians in the short-lived democracy movement, and the coup by the Burmese military, later known as SLORC (State Law and Order Restoration Council), more than 6,000 civilian activists, including university and college students arrived at the Thai border. Not surprisingly, a plethora of parties were represented by these Burman dissidents, among them: the CRDB (Committee for the Restoration of Democracy in Burma), the ADSUB (Alliance for Democratic Solidarity Union of Burma); the DPNS (Democratic Party for New Society); and the ABSFU (All Burma Federation of Students Union). In the largest gathering of insurgent leaders ever held in Burma, 22 parties, including the ABSDF and CRDB, met at the KNU stronghold of Klerdey from 14-18 November 1988 to form the Democratic Alliance of Burma, the DAB. Bo Mya was elected chairman, and KIO’s Brang Seng and NMSP’s Nai Shwe Kyin were vice-chairmen.72

There were several intense offensive operations against the border Karen outposts such as Maw Po Kay in the north, Kawmoora and Pahlu in south central near the border Thai city of Maesot since the late 1970s into the early 1990s. The loss of many outposts, including Kawmoora and Phalu that later fell in the early 1990s, undoubtedly resulted from Burmese troops encroaching on Thai territory, apparently with tacit understanding of the Thai border police, and attacking the KNLA from the rear.

Many of the Burman students who arrived in the border area after the 8-8-88 Burmese military crack-down soon realized that they were not quite prepared to assume the harsh life of guerrilla warfare, compounded by jungle diseases, especially the deadly malaria of which practically no medicine was available for them, and risking arrest and possible deportation by Thai authorities back into the evil that they believed they had escaped from, continued to disappear into exile in Thailand. By 1990, as many as 2,000 young Burmese were estimated to be hiding in Bangkok alone. Those in the KNU area learned about the hard way of the Karens, most of them native to the area, who also shared with them, at least in the initial stages of their arrival, what meager supplies that they themselves could barely survive on. However, by January 1990, though they had thus far collected only about 1,000 weapons, ABSDF leaders estimated that 5,000 members had completed basic military training, and over 30 had already died in battle. Later, 18 student battalions were formed, 10 of them in KNU territory, two with NMSP (New Mon State Party), one with KNPP(Karenni National Progressive Party, one with PNO(Pao National Organization),two with KIO(Kachin Independence Organization), one with SSNLO(Shan State Nationalities Liberation Organization), and one with NUFA (National Unity Front of Arakan).73

Major offensives to dislodge the defenders from their KNU headquarters of Mannerplaw, located at the strategic enclave a few miles south of the confluence of the Moei river and the mighty Salween which has its headwaters in western China(Tibet), were begun by the Burmese ‘Tatmadaw’ since early 1992. It was not until the fall out between a 400-strong dissident group, the DKBO/A (Democratic Karen Buddhist Organization/Army), and the KNLA in late 1994 and early 1995, that the headquarters fell to the Burmese government troops. In early December 1994, a small Buddhist group of the KNLA with a strong tie to the Abbott residing in what has long been known as Myaing-gyi-ngu monastery in the Dawna range to the west of Mannerplaw appeared to resent the KNU Karen leadership comprising mostly Protestant Christians. The small group, helped by a number of young Karen Buddhist monks, was agitating in the Thoo-mwe-hta outpost, complete with a rudimentarily fortified monastery, at the very junction of the Moei and Salween, just a few miles to the north of Mannerplaw. It was during this momentous interval that the KNU sent up some military brass, headed by Maj. Gen. Maung Maung, and also Mahn Shalapan, a civilian Buddhist KNU CC member to resolve what had been long standing problems. The KNLA officers, including Gen. Maung Maung, were detained with death threats at one point or another. Skirmishes that ensued resulted in a few deaths on both sides.

On 8 December 1994, a committee of DAB leaders, including the NLD-LA (National League for Democracy-Liberation Army), the APL(Arakan Liberation Army), the PLF (People’s Liberation Front), the NMSP and the ABSDF, met at Thoo-mwe-hta for a few days and on 10 December signed a plea to the Buddhist monks who, earlier, apparently wanted the KNU chairman himself to personally come to them. The committee, comprising essentially the same members, met again on 13 December with representatives of both the KNU and the dissidents, and a tripartite five-point preliminary agreement was signed on 15 December 1994, followed by an eight-point clarification and implementation, signed on 16 December 1994 by a member each of the three parties representing the DAB committee, the KNU and the DKBO. These peace papers were to be sent to the Myaing-gyi-ngu Abbott.74 These efforts turned out to be too little and too late for the KNU leaders. Meanwhile, the Burmese ‘Tatmadaw’ did not miss the chance to capitalize on the deteriorating KNU situation that had already existed for the preceding few years. It is almost a certainty that the ‘Tatmadaw’ had been infiltrating the KNLA and in very subtle ways had sown seeds of dissatisfaction among the Buddhist Karen troops against the predominantly Christian higher command. They eventually managed to win over the DKBA. For both the KNU and the mutineers there was no turning back. The relatively small battalion-size KNLA became politically embarrassing but militarily dangerous to Bo Mya and the Karen struggle.

On 27 January 1995, victorious Burmese forces, at least 10,000 strong, marched into Mannerplaw led by several hundred KNLA troops that had defected to their side nearly two months before. The KNU headquarters had already been torched by the defenders and not a single building was left standing. The last remaining troops blew up Law-wa-dee command post and the nearby Saw Ba U Gyi statue. In 1992 the Karens were forced to defend Mannerplaw to save the resistance, and in 1995 they destroyed it in order that the revolution would survive.75


Recalling the extreme disappointment when Saw Ba U Gyi’s life came abruptly to an end and the almost yearlong interval of a rudderless KNU, the fall of Mannerplaw has also meant a great setback, this time more of a loss in symbolic territory. However, it is obvious that the KNU has not been quashed by the efforts of the ‘Tatmadaw’, now in collusion with the DKBA. As the meaning Mannerplaw implies, so long as hope and resolve are there, the KNU will yet establish many another Mannerplaw or Victory Field.

Meanwhile, the hope for peace with dignity has never been discounted. As early as mid-June 1994, KNU President Bo Mya wrote to Sr. Gen. Than Shwe of the SLORC to hold peace negotiations. During 1994, there were other attempts to hold talks between the DAB (Democratic Alliance of Burma) and SLORC. By March 1995, the KNU convened an emergency CC meeting during which it was decided to attempt bilateral negotiations with the SLORC and at the 11th Congress of the KNU held in July 1995, a decision was also made on the fundamental points and policies to be adopted for the negotiations.

A preliminary peace negotiation took place in mid-December 1995 at Moulmein. Of the eleven terms submitted by the KNU, four were rejected outright by SLORC. Among the rejected terms, SLORC was adamant against letting the KNU representatives meet with Karen elders and educated elites residing in Burma and other national political leaders, including Daw Aung San Suu Kyi. A second negotiation took place on Fe. 15-16, 1996. Of the 12 items on the KNU’s viewpoint, 5 were rejected. But before the remaining 7 items were to be considered, SLORC stipulated a prerequisite stating that the KNU would have to sign an agreement to “relinquish the armed resistance course of action and return to the ‘legal fold’”. SLORC claimed that all the 15 other ethnic resistance groups had accepted this same scheme and this included, by implication, the KIO (Kachin Independence Organization) which was the most powerful ethnic resistance group at that point in time. [A very reliable confidential source that could not be revealed here disclosed, however, that after lengthy threshing over, the KIO signed an agreement in which the key phrase was ‘to participate and cooperate within the legal fold in order to produce a basic constitution’].

At the third negotiation held from June 29 to July 2, 1996, the KNU pointed out that they could not accede to the clause in SLORC’s proposal about relinquishing the armed resistance course of action and returning to the legal fold. It seems that SLORC could not yield on this point and suggested that the KNU might substitute any phrase of assurance without losing the original essence. SLORC reiterated the objectionable clause among six counterproposals at the fourth negotiation held on November 21-23 1996, which KNU rejected in a letter to Sr. Gen. Than Shwe from president Gen. Saw Bo Mya on December 31, 1996.

On 31 January 1997, Peace Intermediaries from SLORC with members including former Professor Tun Aung Chain, Hanson Tah Daw and ex-Colonel Saw Bani, arrived at the KNU headquarters to present what the Burmese government had to say. In short, the message was: “No relinquishing of the armed resistance course of action and returning to the ‘legal fold’, No deal”.

What had transpired all along may boil down to this. The SLORC negotiation team led by Colonels Kyaw Win and Kyaw Thein of the military intelligence, the DDSI (Directorate of Defense Services Intelligence) apparently felt that it could not bend further than implying that by agreeing to, and declaration of, the clause “renouncing the armed resistance and returning to the ‘legal fold’” does not necessarily require the KNU to lay down their arms, but just to observe ‘cease-fire’ and attend the National Convention, and only when the Constitution has been drawn up, then to finally reject all arms and weapons, and form a lawful political party. The KNU leaders were, on the hand, felt that they had already been stung too many times by broken promises by the Burmese government that unless better safeguards could be offered, they had no choice but to continue their revolution.76

The KNU has continued to maintain its alliance with other resistance groups. At the third DAB CC (Democratic Alliance of Burma, Central Committee) meeting on 9-12 January 1996, Gen. Bo Mya was reaffirmed as chairman, Tin Maung Win as vice-chairman, and Myint Zaw of the DPNS (Democratic Party for a New Society) as acting general secretary, Dr. Naing Aung of the ABSDF as joint-secretary, and Moe Thee Zun of the breakaway faction(since reconciled?) of the ABSDF as assistant secretary of the DAB military committee. There were at least thirteen other alliance members.77

On 24-25 April 1996, the presidium of the NDF (National Democratic Front), the ethnic minority alliance formed 20 years earlier, met in Karenni State with representatives from the ALP (Arakan Liberation Party), the CNF (Chin National Front), the KNU, the KNPP(Karenni National Progressive Party), the PPLO (Pa-O People’s Liberation Organization), the PSLF (Palaung State Liberation Front), and the WNO (Wa National Organization). The leaders agreed that it was essential to hold firm to their basic principles of equality, self-determination and federalism.78

14 ethnic groups, represented by 111 delegates, met during 7-14 January 1997 at Mae Tha Raw Hta and agreed on a 10-point program to end military rule and restore democracy in Burma. Among the political aims of this Ethnic Nationalities Seminar to dismantle the SLORC and establish peace, a democratic political system, equality and self-determination for each and every nationality, and the establishment of a federal union. The signatories who signed the agreement included General Bo Mya of the KNU and the KIO’s Colonel Zau Seng, who was the young officer , decades ago (late 1949), left with the KNU by the Karen’s great friend, Naw Seng, before he headed north. Following the Ethnic Nationalities Seminar, the NDF held its Fourth Congress during February 7-15, 1997, to consolidate its organization and follow up on the previous month’s ethnic seminar. The NDF agreed to cooperate with the democratic forces led by Daw Aung San Suu Kyi to bring an end to the SLORC military dictatorship.79

Following on the footstep of the above conferences, a seminar on National Solidarity was successfully held on 12-14 December 1998, at Thoo Mwe Klo, attended by representatives of 23 anti-military dictatorship organizations. The representatives unanimously agreed that the contradiction between the military junta on one side and the oppressed people of all nationalities on the other, is the main inconsistency in Burma and that this thorny discrepancy is approaching a critical stage and thus causing national solidarity more and more vulnerable to disintegration. The representatives firmly believe that the abolishment of military dictatorship and the building of a future federal union can be accomplished only through consolidated national strength. All political parties and individuals, regardless of race, religion and political ideology, are called upon to work together, beginning from the lowest possible political step.80


The KNU struggle has now come to over the half century mark with the tragic loss of countless lives, those of truly selfless and well meaning leaders to poor peasants, old and decrepit folk to innocent babies, all valuable and irreplaceable. There have been torture, murder, rape and all forms of injustice committed throughout these years. As of now, there seems to be no end in sight.

From the beginning, the Karens did not seem to have forged a clear and well-defined goal and this was due mainly to the overriding animosity of some of their leaders against the Burmans, with doubtless reciprocation. The Burman leaders, perhaps for reasons best known to them, have never demonstrated any sincerity on their part. In the political field, they have almost invariably outfoxed the Karens. Of course the Karen leadership was anything but united. They seemed to have lost a good chance of fair settlement at one point. In October 1947, with the British still having some influence and persuasive power over Thakin Nu, the AFPFL Cabinet was prepared to offer the Karens a state that would embrace the Karenni State, the Mongpai substate, the Salween district and the Part II areas of the Thaton, Toungoo and Pyinmana hill tracts. A Karen Affairs Council was also planned for the Delta Karens to represent their interests.81 The Karen leadership at that point apparently did not see any advantage in negotiating with the wily and mercurial Burmans led by Thakin Nu. Even if that offer turned out to be sincere without British supervision, that might or might not have solved the Karen problem in Burma, although it did merit serious consideration by the KNU. Subsequently, the KNU simply demanded too much territory, even though it was meant as a starting point for negotiation.

After Ba U Gyi’s death in 1950, the KNU leadership was erratic, ranging at first from leftist proclivity, if not quite outright Communism, led by the intellectual but pragmatic Mahn Ba Zan, somewhat concomitantly with unsuccessful attempts to seek support from the west by the pedagogic and somewhat conservative Hunter Tha Hmwe, and subsequently to a rather simplistic and practical, perhaps out of necessity, policy of the martial Bo Mya. As of this writing, General Bo Mya has relinquished his KNU presidency and P’Doh Ba Thin Sein, formally the General Secretary, has been elected as President. The current General Secretary P’Doh Mahn Shalapan is quite assertive in promulgating the KNU policy, aim and course of action, hopefully not ignoring younger and presumably more brainy and educated Karen activists as well as far-sighted and mature overseas as well as domestic Karen advisors inside Burma proper. On the military side, there have been obvious setbacks due largely to the stronger and usually ruthless Burmese ‘Tatmadaw’, compounded by the collusion of greedy Thai government military leaders and their commercial partners, (the strength of the Burma Army as of the year 2002 being over 400,000; total armed forces, including Police Forces: 472,000).82

To continue with the revolution, the Karens should remember that while it is desirable and important to preserve their identity and ethnic purity, the main thrust should be for an autonomous state with full guarantees for the people, and fair representation for all the Karens living in the Delta and lowland areas outside the Karen state. Policies should be formulated toward that end. The current alliances with dissident organizations, including ethnic minorities as well as the myriad Burman political parties and resistance groups, might be kept alive and strengthened constantly. Pragmatism ought to be the key word, and it should be remembered that incessant mouthing of ‘democracy’ means nothing but a slogan. Democracy in its true sense of the term could well be a Utopia, actually a luxury that Burma can ill afford at this juncture, although one should not forget India, her neighbor, with the largest if at times shaky democracy in the world.

At one point, it was generally accepted, and it may still be true, about Burmans from Central Burma in the Shwebo-Mandaly-Pakokku-Myingyan-Taungdwingyi-Thazi area, being of purer stock, tend to be more sincere and honest; and it might also be noted that the great Bogyoke Aung San himself, the father of modern Burmese independence, came from the small town of Natmauk, near Taungdwingyi. Another observation would be about the Burmans, the majority ethnic people in the country, regardless of political persuasion, democratic, autocratic or dictatorial, will always opt for homogeneity, one people with one language group. Also not to be ignored is an underlying factor about the majority Burman, of which a good percentage would be an amalgamation of the former Pyu, Mon, Shan, Indian, Chinese, and perhaps even Karen, particularly in the Delta areas. And among the leadership there is, or could have been at one time or another, a strong Chinese bias, meaning the Sino-Burman bloodline. On this, a vehement denial from the Burmans is almost always forthcoming. Based on this mixed ancestry of the average Bamar, the trend of thought would be in striving to build a nation where minorities are slowly and surely assimilated and melded into one homogeneous group of people, hopefully leaving religion out of the picture. That homogeneity goal will always be difficult, if not impossible, to achieve. Witness the present-day Irish situation where even though a recent accord was signed (May, 1998), and trumpeted as a historic peace agreement that British PM Tony Blair helped to bring about, that might only mark a hopeful beginning.
The KNU, as far as can be ascertained, has never advocated and will not be demanding secession at all. The KNU would also do well to recognize the fact that Karen people come in several subgroups and different hues with varying and distinctive language coterie that would make it hard to forge a well-defined ethnic nationality. That is all the more reason to find a common ground with the majority Burman people, the dominant ethnic national of the country. From personal standpoint, democracy in the traditional definition does not really matter in Burma. Fact or fiction, the general Bamar/Burman mentality of assertiveness, a sort of predilection to individualism, especially true of the more educated and political professionals, plus the country’s various ethnic groups, would certainly call for a strong government, but definitely not the current deplorable SPDC, whose rule of law and peace efforts under a restrictive and stultifying atmosphere leave much to be desired. What Burma needs is a government of pluralism, and if the hitherto stubborn SPDC that takes pride in its ignorance of nearly every aspect of a competent ruling body, the glaring exception being expertise in the use of menace and might, can bend a little and cooperate with all dissident groups, including in the NLD, and will tone down their four-cuts policy, and not focussed on a-poke-tike or complete and forcible annihilation of the ethnic nationality movements and other opposition forces, and finally, if the peace offers to these groups are proffered with lesser condescending attitude and more of what can be ascertained as being honest and sincere, then there may still be hope for that so beautiful and comparatively resource-rich land with enormous potential.

Meanwhile, the aging KNU leaders and the upcoming younger generation may have to continue with rather limited options: to keep on engaging in military action against the ‘Tatmadaw’ forces of an oppressive government, while trying to avoid bloodshed as much as possible (a tall order), and whenever or wherever possible, cooperate and coordinate their efforts with other Burman and ethnic dissident groups. They might constantly work toward ‘stimulating’ their cause, in a manner of speech, to convince those, including sympathetic and concerned sources, who are helping them, that their goal is toward the principles of social equality and lasting peace with justice, and that they are not clannish, but can look beyond their ethnicity. And it is up to the enlightened Karens and other ethnic minorities, in active cooperation with dissident Bamar groups, outside and inside the country, to make every attempt to create, through peaceful means, a government of pluralism, that must still include intelligent, far-sighted and truly patriotic elements of the current SPDC who could acknowledge their own limitations, a government of authentic and fair representation, replete with freedom and opportunities for every citizen.


1. Dun, Gen. Smith, “Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel”, Cornell Univ., Ithaca, NY,
Data Paper # 113, May 1980, pp 3-4.
2. Arizona Daily Star, Tucson, AZ, Sept. 28 1998 page. 9 – quote of London Observer,
“Ethnics Can Be Averted, Journal Says”.
3. Dun, Gen. Smith, “Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel”, p.7
4. Dun, Gen. Smith, “Memoirs of the Four-foot Colonel”, p. 69.
5. Nu, U, “Saturday’s Son”, p. 173.
6. Aung Toe, Justice U, “National Convention Speech”, E-mail posting, Jan. 11 1993.
7. Burma Baptist Chronicle, Board of Publication, Burma Baptist Convention, Rangoon
Univ. Press, Rangoon, Burma, 1963. P. 36.
8. Historical Studies, New Country(in Burmese); Karen Historical Research Society,
Vol. 6, p.56.
9 Ibid. p.56
10. Ibid. p.57; also Dun, Gen. Smith, “ Memoirs of Four-Foot Colonel”, p.80.
11. Ibid. p.58.
12. Ibid. p.58
13. Maung Maung, U., “Burmese Nationalist Movements 1940-48”, Kiscadale Publications, Edinburgh, Scotland, 1989, p. 289.
14. Tha Noo Htoo Journal, (languages - Karen, Burmese, English), # 2, 1998, (in Karen) p.5.
15. Dun, Gen. Smith, “Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel”, pp. 84-85
16. Ibid. p. 83.
17. Ibid. pp. 88-89.
18. Dun, Gen. Smith, “Memoirs of the Four-foot Colonel”, (quoting Morrison,‘Grandfather Longlegs’), p.112.
19. Ibid. p. 68.
20. Klein, Harold E., “The Karens of Burma – Their Search for Freedom and Justice”,
Unpublished, ca. 1990, pp. 49-50.
21. Dun, Gen. Smith, “Memoirs of the Four-foot Colonel”, p. 68.
22. Historical Studies, New Country, Vol 6. Pp. 59-60.
23. Dun, Gen. Smith, “Memoirs of the Four-foot Colonel”, p. 69.
24. Nu, U, “Saturday’s Son”, p. 170.
25. Khin, BaSaw, “Three Months and Twenty-plus Days”, 1970, (the Insein Battle, the experience of a callow teenager.)
26. Dun, Gen. Smith, “Memoirs of the Four-foot Colonel”, pp. 77-78.
27. Ibid. p. 53.
28. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity”, Zed Books Ltd.,
London and New Jersey, 1991, p. 139.
29. Historical Studies, New Country, --- Vol. 2, p. 20.
30. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency ---“, p. 138.
31. Historical Studies, New Country, --- Vol 2, pp. 21-22.
32. Dun, Gen. Smith, “Memoirs of the Four-foot Colonel”, p. 55.
33. Ibid. P. 55.
34. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency ---“, p. 138.
35. Klein, Harold E., “The Karens of Burma ----- “, p. 51.
36. Miller, Saw, Personal Communication.
37. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency ---“, p. 140.
38. Ibid. p. 142.
39. Ibid. p. 256.
40. Ibid. p. 142.
41. Historical Studies, New Country, Vol. 2, p. 34
42. Ibid. p. 34-35.
43. Ibid. p. 35.
44. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency ---“, pp. 142-143.
45. Historical Studies, New Country, Vol. 2, p. 35.
46. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency ---“, p. 143.
47. Ibid. p. 143.
48. Historical Studies, New Country, Vol. 2, pp. 35-36.
49. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency ---“, pp. 36-38.
50. Ibid. p. 145.
51. Ibid. p. 185.
52. Ibid. p. 186.
53. Ibid. p. 213.
54. Ibid. p. 215.
55. Ibid. pp. 216-218.
56. FORWARD, “Independence Number” Jan., 1965, Vol. 3, # 10, Burma Govt. publication, the Directorate of Information, Rangoon, Burma. P. 29.
57. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency ---“, p. 290.
58. Maung Maung, U, “Burmese Nationalist Movements 1940-48”, p. 351.
59. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency ---“, p. 298.
60. Ibid. p. 299.
61. Ibid. pp. 390-91.
62. Ibid. p. 389.
63. Ibid. p. 497.
64. Ibid. p. 394.
65. Ibid. p. 395.
66. Ibid. pp. 258-262.
67. Soldier of Fortune, Vol. 9, # 6, June, 1984. Pp. 66-73.
68. Ibid.
69. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency ---“. p. 400.
70. Soldier of Fortune, Vol. 16, # 10, Oct. 1991. pp. 54-59.
71. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency ---“. pp. 396-397, 409.
72. Ibid. pp. 407-408.
73. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency ---“. pp. 409-410.
74. Historical Studies, New Country. Vol 6. pp. 102 – 126.
75. Soldier of Fortune, Vol. 20, # 7, July, 1995. pp. 48-51, 73-75.
76. Clarification Document Concerning Negotiations Between KNU and SLORC,
April 1998. 18 pp. (Unofficial translation; original KNU document published in Burmese, July 1997.)
77. Burma Alert, ADDB Inc. Publication, Feb 1996, Vol. 7, # 2. p. 2.
78. Ibid. May 1996, Vol. 7, # 5. p. 1.
79. Ibid. Feb 1997, Vol. 8, # 2. pp. 3-4.
80. E-mail Posting, mandalay@KSC.TH.COM, Tuesday, 15 Dec. 1998.
81. Smith, Martin, “BURMA, Insurgency ---“. Pp. 86-87.
82. Selth, Andrew, BURMA’S ARMED FORCES – Power Without Glory, 2002, EastBridge,
64 Wall Street, Norwalk, CT 06850, p. 296.


2005 Kwe Ka Lu team, friends in Mergui-Tavoy District and overseas Karen in California, USA • Email: ehnadoh@yahoo.com