A Lesson from the Past: the fate of the Karen Revolutionary Council

A Lesson from the Past: the fate of the Karen Revolutionary Council

A year ago in April 2009 Burma’s military rulers proposed that all seventeen armed cease-fire groups transform their armies into Border Guard Forces (BGF) administered by the junta. Tension has increased in recent months between the Burmese military and the New Mon State Party (NMSP) and other ethnic resistance groups who have rejected the regime’s order to transform their armies into a border guard force.

According to local news, the armed wing of the New Mon State Party, the Mon National Liberation Army, has relocated all its ammunition and military hardware to a more secure area obviously in preparation for a conflict. Pressure from the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) to coerce the cease-fire groups into the BGF unavoidably means that the NMSP will be preparing for the worst.   Now is a timely reminder to look back on history.

The fate that the NMSP and other armed resistance groups have been facing in recent months is quite similar to what happened to the Karen Revolutionary Council (KRC) in 1965.  All the old memories of those days amazingly become new and fresh again in my mind as if it had happened yesterday. The pictures of Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe, president of KRC and General Saw Ohn Pe and Bo Lin Htin, the leaders of KRC, clearly appear in my memory.

Nai Pe Thein Zar (Federal University)

The current situation reminded me of the political developments after the Revolutionary Council led by General Ne Win seized the state power on 2nd March, 1962. As soon as it seized State power, the Revolutionary Council detained all the cabinet members of U Nu’s government, including Nai Aung Tun and most of the politicians throughout the country. On 7 July 1962 to show its might, the Revolutionary Council killed over 100 students from Rangoon University who peacefully staged a demonstration in the university compound. The next day, early in the morning of 8 July, 1962, RC ordered Major Sein Lwin to blow up the Students Union Building with dynamite. All the students, who were still sleeping inside the building, were killed. I was lucky to be a student at Moulmein College at the time. Following the death of the students, the sentiment of civilians against the Revolutionary Council grew bigger and bigger day by day.

On 11 June, 1963, to everyone’s amazement, the Revolutionary Council announced Peace-Talks with the armed resistance groups. It seemed to everyone that, as Revolutionary Council desperately needed to buy time during the early stages of the coup, calling the Peace-Talks was none other than to quell the dissident civilians and to stall its legitimacy.

Let me highlight the contrast between the Revolutionary Council Peace-Talks and thePeace-Offer launched by Gen. Khin Nyunt in 1992. During the 1963 Peace Talks every armed resistance group could freely take part and raise their political issues.  Above all these parties were treated respectably with equal consideration alongside the government representatives.

In contrast, the armed resistance groups which accepted the Peace-Offer in 1992 had no rights to raise political issues; instead they could only hope and bargain for some political rights and social assistance from the government.  In most cases the cease-fire groups could only accept the terms provided to them by the government. For instance, in 1995 the NMSP had no chance to raise any political issues such as the right of self-determination for Mon people. They were ordered to live in twelve designated places defined by the SPDC whilst the NMSP could only retain their arms within these areas. In addition, the NMSP received financial assistance and monthly rice quotas. Since then no further political discussion has taken place between the groups.

Now let us look back again to the 1963 Peace-Talks. Almost all of armed resistance organizations came to Rangoon, including the Burma Communist Party (BCP), Communist Party, Burma (CPB), Karen National United Party (KNUP), New Mon State Party (NMSP), Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and Karen Revolutionary Council (KRC) etc. Nearly all the prominent leaders of the armed resistance groups, such as Thakin Soe, General Secretary of CPB, Yeni Kyaw Win and Ma Ngwe San from CPB, Yabaw Htay, Bo Zeya, Bo Yan Aung, Bo Pu and Thakin Aung Gyi from BCP, Mahn Ba Zan of KNUP, Nai Shwe Kyin of NMSP and Saw Maw Rai of KNPP, came to Rangoon for the Peace-Talks. Media outlets had their photos appearing in all the major newspapers and periodicals.  This is still fresh in my mind and I remember clearly that Thakin Soe of CPB and Yebaw Htay (BCP) wore their party uniforms. Nai Shwe Kyin wore a white shirt and gray trousers.  The KNUP representatives Mahn Ba Zan, Sakaw Letaw, Bo Kyin Pe, Bogyouk Tanbala Paw, Saw Than Aung, and Padou San Lin wore full western attire while KNPP leaders Saw Maw Rai wore their Karenni’s national dress.

From the very beginning of military rule in Burma which began in 1962 there has been no sincerity on part of the government, the peace initiatives in 1963 collapsed without any fruitful result. The Revolutionary Council announced their failure on the 14th of November 1963 and in customary dictatorial fashion blamed the armed resistance groups for their intransigence and duly arrested politicians and student leaders that very same evening. Mon leaders, Nai Tun Thein, Nai Ngwe Thein, Nai Thein Maung, Nai Chan Mon, Nai Nonlar, Nai Kyaung, Nai Konbalai and Nai Tin Aung, from Mon People’s Front, were also arrested. All the armed resistance groups, including BCP, NMSP and KNUP were able to escape and return to their respective camps in the deep jungle again.
Student Unions, throughout the country, immediately staged a demonstration demanding that the RC immediately resume the Peace-Talks and release all political and student leaders.

Following the collapse of the Peace-Talks, to everyone’s surprise among the parties which took part in the peace-talks, only the Karen Revolutionary Council (KRC) led by Kawcasa Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe and Bo Lin Htin, reached a peace-agreement with Revolutionary Council.  According to the political agreement, the name of Karen State was changed into Kawthoolei State” and the KRC could remain peacefully in the areas Thaton District and had the right to retain their arms. As an outcome of the peace-agreement, the members of KRC enjoyed social assistance from the government such as rice and money. But as everyone predicted there was no further political discussions whatsoever between KRC and RC after 1963. Instead the only news heard was about Kawcasa Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe who was appointed as a Special Education Official while General Saw Ohn Pe was appointed as a government official.

To get a clear picture of KRC we need to go back a few decades to review the Karen revolution. Let me tell you a little bit about Bo Lin Htin. At the time of peace-agreement, he was the commander of 5th Brigade of KRC and was very popular during 1954-63 for his bravery in the battlefields. He was the one person who could not only humiliate the Burmese army but could at anytime derail the train which ran between Moulmein and Rangoon. The train was totally at the mercy of Bo Lin Htin in those days. He also humiliated the Thai’s authorities by burning the town of Maesot in Tak Province 1954-55. Since then his name was well-known among the civilians.

Then the KRC army split, one faction was led by Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe. In 1951 Karen Leaders led by Mahn Ba Zan adopted a new political strategy called the Second Path.  This was a guideline for KNU to seek self -determination Rights for the Karen People; however, apparently some Karen Leaders who were not happy with this new strategy. Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe and his colleagues had occasionally criticised the new Political Strategy as left-leaning on communist’s political ideology. In 1956 at the 2nd Kawthoolei Congress in line with the new political strategy, KNU changed their name to KNUP. On the 26th of May, 1956, at the Karen National Congress, eleven members of Karen Revolutionary Council were elected and led by Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe. Literally the KRC was functioning as an administrative body (government) while the KNUP stood as the Political Party.

On 20 April, 1963, the leaders of KNUP and the members of KRC held a joint meeting at Kasawa Camp. Ten members of KRC led by Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe were not satisfied with the new political strategy called the Second Path and openly broke away from KNUP. This is the background history of KRC in a nutshell and during the 1963 Peace-Talks, the KRC, led by Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe, separately negotiated with Revolutionary Council. The KRC got a peace deal with the Revolutionary Council, while KNUP and other armed resistance groups headed back to their camps in the deep jungle.

After the KRC signed the peace-agreement, to every one’s surprise, Bo Lin Htin was unusually respected by the Burmese Army Officers who provided him with a military helicopter for his own personal use.  By helicopter he went back and forth from Thaton to Rangoon and to everyone’s amazement he unexpectedly married a very famous young lady, Naw Louisa Benson, who was Miss Burma and a movie actress at the time.  Their wedding ceremony was a celebrity affair held in Rangoon in front of Gen. Ne Win and State Leaders with some observers saying that their wedding was like a state wedding ceremony. Politicians ventured to say that Bo Lin Htin was actually detained in Rangoon and that the marriage would enable Bo Lin Htin to forget all the Karen national interests and obligations except for his family affairs.

In reality, Bo Lin Htin never forgot his political obligations for the Karen people’s self-determination. He always spent time with his comrades in Thaton after his marriage and approached the Revolutionary Council many times for the political rights of the Karen people, but to no avail. He was pressured to transform his troops into a militia group or Kakwaeye, but came to realize that he could do nothing for his people according to his peace-agreement. Later he secretly set up an arrangement and organised to go back to the jungle again. But Gen. Ne Win soon detected his strategy and clandestinely planned to eliminate him before he could return. Before his dream came true in 1965, Bo Lin Htin was assassinated by the Military Intelligence (MI) soldiers in front of his comrades. But the newspaper headlines the next day read: “Bo Lin Htin was accidentally killed” which appeared in every daily newspaper, as I remember one paper reported: “The body guards of Bo Lin Htin opened fire on MI soldiers who had honestly came to see Bo Lin Htin to discuss some very important issues, and out of self-defence the soldiers of MI returned fire. During the cross-fire between the Karen soldiers and MI, a stray bullet hit Bo Lin Htin who was killed on the spot.”
This story was obviously made up and a far cry from what actually happened. As a result, the Karen Revolution Council was dismantled with their soldiers being either killed or detained, but some managed to escape to the jungle such as Naw Louisa Benson who fled to the Thai-Burma border areas.  Bo Hmu Win and Bo Hmu Phar Lu Kyaw, second commanders of KRC, were sent to the Moulmein Jail and student leaders of Moulmein Degree College, including me, were detained after the 1963 demonstration which urged the Revolutionary Council to resume Peace-Talks.

The fate of the KRC highlights the fragility of all the cease-fires with the Burmese Military Regime. When we consider the repercussions of the Border Guard proposal, this is a timely reminder that we must never forget our history.
Nai Pe Thein Zar
(Federal University)
April 9, 2010
Reference: Myanma Pyi Chit Kayin National Leaders/ Maung Sin Kyai

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