Bo Mya: In His Own Words
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Wednesday, July 17, 2024
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Bo Mya: In His Own Words


By Aung Zaw JUNE, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.5


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The recently published memoirs of former Karen leader Gen Bo Mya offer a glimpse into the inner workings of Burma’s longest-running insurgent struggle. Gen Bo Mya is known as a no-nonsense Karen freedom fighter. His straightforwardness and ruthlessness have earned him both respect and fear among Karen soldiers and leaders alike. With more than 40 years of battle experience under his belt, fighting against a host of foes—the Japanese, the British and later the Burmese—the 75-year-old Karen leader has also won the respect of many Burman leaders now taking refuge in exile. These days, Bo Mya is able to give speeches and interviews in Burmese, the language of his enemies. According to his aides, he learned how to lash out at the Rangoon generals in their own language from democracy activists who fled the country after 1988. Now, Bo Mya has written a book to detail his memorable career as Asia’s longest-serving rebel leader, entitled simply, "Memoirs on [sic] my true past experiences that I wish to disclose". One would expect a book on a career that has spanned more than half a century to be quite lengthy; but this one is a mere 137 pages in the English edition. (The book has also been published in Karen and Burmese.) But this does not prevent the former leader of the Karen National Union (KNU), possibly the world’s oldest surviving insurgent group, from offering an intriguing, if one-sided, glimpse into the history of the Karen struggle. Like many who have opposed successive Burmese regimes over the years, Bo Mya does not hesitate to blame the rulers in Rangoon for just about everything that’s wrong with Burma. But in some revealing passages, he also targets some of his own people. His anger towards members of the KNU’s Central Committee is particularly strong. A Test of Wills Born in the village of Htee Moo Kee in Papun District in 1927, Bo Mya has witnessed—and participated in—many of modern Burma’s conflicts. Prior to independence in 1948, Bo Mya served under both the Japanese and the British authorities ruling Burma at different times. Before joining the Karen struggle, he also enlisted in the Union Military Police (UMP), formed by the post-independence ruling party, the Anti-Fascist Peoples’ Freedom League (AFPFL). Later, however, he came to believe that the Karen people had been abandoned, and laments that although his people helped the British with "all our hearts and souls, … we Karens simply do not expect anything for the future of Karen people." When civil war broke out in Burma soon after independence, Bo Mya joined the rebel Salween Battalion in Nyaunglebin District. He became a Karen revolutionary fighter. He defined revolution in very simple terms: "I understand that a revolution means opposing the wrong and constructing the right thing…. Our revolution is one that must fight against evil and all the wrongs. We must never go against the masses of the country." As with any revolution, however, a large part of the struggle involved dealing with "the enemy within". This he did with an unflinching sense of righteousness: "I took serious firm and effective action against those who trespass upon the law and harm the people. If I should execute and give them capital punishment, I did it." Bo Mya’s clear-cut sense of right and wrong made any compromise extremely unlikely. However, on one occasion in 1953, he briefly crossed the enemy lines to join the "legal fold", only to reverse his stance after a test of wills. At the time, a number of Karen rebels had surrendered to advancing Burmese troops and joined them in the fight against the anti-Rangoon forces. A Burmese commander, sensing that he had the upper hand, invited Bo Mya to cooperate with the government forces. The Burmese commander wrote in a letter to Bo Mya, "Now the Karen State has been granted. However, there exist no troops to guard and protect the State. Please therefore come back and cooperate with us and we shall give you the responsibility to take charge of the security of the State." Bo Mya and his soldiers decided to take the Burmese commander up on his offer, but only, according to his account, to test the enemy’s honesty. The Burmese army officers were surprised to see Bo Mya and more than 150 of his men show up at their camp. To mark the occasion, they urged him to take part in a surrendering ceremony. When Bo Mya refused, an officer pleaded with him to cooperate, insisting it would only be a photo opportunity. "After that we shall return your weapons," the officer explained. Bo Mya eventually complied, and gave a speech that pleased the Burmese military officers. But a few days later, he was back in the jungle, more convinced than ever that he could not trust the Burmese. A Man of Many Enemies Not surprisingly, Bo Mya has been the target of assassination attempts by his enemies in Rangoon.


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