It’s a Jungle Out There
covering burma and southeast asia
Tuesday, September 29, 2020
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SPECIAL REPORT

It’s a Jungle Out There


By Kyaw Zwa Moe, Naw Seng, and Ko Thet JUNE, 2002 - VOLUME 10 NO.5


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The "Kachin Massacre" was committed in northern Burma by members of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), an armed group fighting the military. February 12th is a date of great significance for Burma. On that historical day in 1947, national hero Aung San and ethnic nationalities leaders signed the Panglong Agreement, which granted equality and national self-determination for all the people of Burma, and the date has been commemorated ever since. But on the 45th anniversary of what is now known as Union Day, in the jungles of Kachin State, a group of Burmese democracy activists were murdered under shadowy circumstances in 1992. The "Kachin Massacre" was committed in northern Burma by members of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF), an armed group fighting the military regime from its bases along the border with China, Thailand and India. The victims? Not soldiers from the hated junta or their sympathizers; but 15 members of their own organization. Lawlessness in the jungle is not new to Burma’s struggle against military dictatorship. In the 1960s, communist party members who took up arms in the jungle to fight the central government committed several purges against their own members. But when an estimated fifteen ABSDF members were executed on charges of espionage in Pajau, Kachin State, it marked a new episode in Burma’s sometimes bitter internecine feuding. More than ten years later, many dissidents who still belong to the ABSDF are reluctant to discuss the crimes in the jungle for fear of opening old wounds as the incident has come back to haunt former ABSDF chairman, Dr Naing Aung. Poised to study at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government later this year, Dr Naing Aung’s scholarship was deferred indefinitely after Harvard learned of his alleged role in the executions from protest letters sent by human rights activists and professed victims of the ABSDF’s crimes. In recent years, three former prominent ABSDF members have been granted scholarships at Harvard. But questions over the judicial process and the guilt of the executed have resurfaced since the chairman was refused entry into the university. Dr Naing Aung, now the executive director of the Network for Development and Democracy (NDD), declined an interview with The Irrawaddy. A former ABSDF colleague now living in a Western country commented that Dr Naing Aung may not have ordered the killings but could be guilty of protecting the executioners. Aung Naing, who was then chairman of the northern ABSDF and is now a policy board member of the NDD, told The Irrawaddy that they executed 15 ABSDF members for working as spies for the military regime. He said about 80 members had been detained on similar espionage charges since mid-1991. The excesses of Burma’s military intelligence services are well known, but many observers question why Rangoon would send such a large number of spies to one place. A more likely theory, they say, is that the executions were a result of a power struggle within the ABSDF. Reports from those who escaped from execution and fled to the Thai border said it was possible that some of the 80 suspects may have been spies, but the majority of those detained were genuine democracy activists. Among those executed was Htun Aung Kyaw, chairman of the northern ABSDF until he was arrested for spying. During the 1988 democracy movement, he was a prominent student leader in Mandalay, Burma’s second largest city, and was a vice-chairman of the All Burma Federation of Students Unions (Upper Burma) before he left for Kachin State. Htun Aung Kyaw’s outraged relatives and other activists in Mandalay want to keep those who ordered and committed the executions out of the city. "They are not welcome here," said one prominent Mandalay dissident. However, the unsubstantiated evidence surrounding the executions has left the current ABSDF top brass in a messy and complex public relations imbroglio. "I don’t want to give any comment on that incident at the present time," said Than Khae, present chairman of the ABSDF. When pressed further, he added, "The event will be very controversial even when it is solved in the future." Aung Naing and other ABSDF members who were involved in the executions insist that they had substantial evidence and confessions to support their spy charges. Other members and leaders of the ABSDF, however, maintain those claims are false and have denounced the killings. Min Htay, a military trainer with the northern ABSDF at that time and currently a representative of the same group, said he was almost certain a few of the detainees were government moles, but knows of at least one woman arrested for espionage, Nan Saw, who was not a spy. Nan Saw and a large group of other suspected spies managed to escape execution. Many have since returned to Burma and others are now believed to be residing in western countries.


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