People of 2006
covering burma and southeast asia
Monday, July 15, 2019


People of 2006

By The Irrawaddy DECEMBER, 2006 - VOLUME 14 NO.12

(Page 3 of 12)

As the Cold War reached its height in Southeast Asia in the 1960s and 70s, the left-leaning Karen nationalists suffered a series of defeats. Bo Mya rebuilt the Karen National Union in the eastern borderlands, with support from a series of right-wing Thai governments.

With income derived from taxing the black-market trade that thrived during the late dictator Gen Ne Win’s disastrous “Burmese Way to Socialism,” the KNU became the strongest ethnic insurgency in Burma. However, critics allege that under Bo Mya, the KNU became more concerned with defending lucrative trade routes—and, later, logging concessions—than taking the fight to the enemy. Bo Mya ruled the nationalist movement with an iron fist, suppressing dissent on political matters or any criticism of his increasingly personalized rule.

During the 1980s and 90s the KNU lost control of its liberated zones—precipitating a humanitarian crisis in the border area. As armed conflict continued to ravage the population, rank-and-file KNU soldiers became increasingly discontented, accusing Bo Mya and his cronies of suppressing the Karen Buddhist majority. The situation came to a head in December 1994 with the formation of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, which soon formed an alliance with the military government.

The fall of Bo Mya’s old headquarters, Manerplaw, to the DKBA and Tatmadaw (Burmese armed forces) in January 1995 signalled the beginning of the end of the old warlord’s control. In 2000, he was demoted to KNU vice-chairman. Today, as his health declines, Bo Mya is largely sidelined from the leadership.

However, for 40 years, Bo Mya was one of the most significant figures in Burma’s ethnic politics. From its formation in 1976, he dominated the National Democratic Front, an insurgent alliance that pioneered the struggle for a federal union. Then, following the 1988 pro-democracy uprising and 1990 election, Bo Mya and other veteran insurgents allied their struggle for ethnic self-determination with a new generation of urban-based democracy activists who fled to the border areas. In contrast, many of his former National Democratic Front allies made ceasefires with the regime.

As the Karen revolution approaches its 60th anniversary in 2009, voices in the nationalist community have questioned whether the Karen political movement should continue to follow the agenda of pro-democracy groups in exile. In part as a result of such frustrations, a number of attempts have been made to broker a ceasefire between the KNU and the regime. These include Bo Mya’s last gambit—the December 2003 “Gentleman’s Agreement” with deposed Prime Minister Gen Khin Nyunt. Three years later, a greatly weakened KNU seems poised to resume talks with the government.

For half a century, Bo Mya championed the Karen cause, winning admiration for his courage and simplicity (great Karen virtues), but also criticism for his uncompromising and often brutal rule. Without the unifying force of his personality, the KNU is in danger of losing its way and becoming marginalized within the diverse Karen community.

Ashley South is a writer and consultant who specializes in political and ethnic issues


Jackie Pollock

Empowering opinions

By Mary O’Kane

Jackie Pollock has been living and working for women’s and migrants’ rights in Southeast Asia for 20 years. For half of that time, her energies have been largely channeled through the MAP (Migrant Assistance Program) Foundation, which she established with other Chiang Mai-based activists.

Jackie will not feel comfortable about being singled out for her commitment to justice and the rights of migrant workers from Burma. Her way is to empower and promote the opinions and skills of each person with whom she works. She remains accountable to the communities with which she works and whose voices she carries to international and global forums. This is a reason for her effectiveness and it generates profound respect from those around her.

She possesses unusual sensitivity to nuanced changes in the social and political environment and a strong ethical belief that people facing problems must play central roles in designing appropriate policy responses. It is for this reason she has chosen to work with local NGOs.

Mary O’Kane is a researcher on Burma issues

Bo Kyi and Tate Naing

Voices for the silenced

By Donna Guest

Bo Kyi and Tate Naing founded the Assistance Association for Political Prisoners (Burma) after serving several years in prison in Burma and later fleeing to Thailand.

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