The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
It’s a Jungle Out There

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. Most could not be reached for comment. One prisoner who was not so lucky, however, was Maung Maung Kywe. He was first actively involved in the Basic Education Student Union (BESU), which was established in 1988, before later receiving military training with the ABSDF in Kachin State. Initially, Maung Maung Kywe joined the democracy movement to fight against the military regime, said his friend and former BESU colleague, Nay Lin, but was later executed with 14 others for being spies. But some believe that the internal purges actually claimed many more lives. Moreover, some have come out recently admitting that suspects were tortured in detention. A senior ABSDF member, who was an eyewitness to the event, said that besides the 15 who were executed about five to 10 people died due to torture during the interrogation, including U Sein. U Maung Maung Tate, who was a former political prisoner with U Sein in the 1970s, and is now the chairman of the ABSDF’s three-man central judiciary committee, said, "U Sein had very strong political beliefs in prison, so it is difficult for me to believe that he was a spy." Aung Naing said that U Sein died in detention from poor health, not torture. He did admit, however, that beatings and electric shocks were applied during the interrogation, but could not confirm how many died in detention. Labya Laseng, a member of the central committee of the ABSDF in 1992, said that three detainees committed suicide during the interrogations. Others have said that some detainees who later escaped—including women—were tortured and now suffer severe mental illnesses as a result. ABSDF leaders in Kachin State explained that they approached international organizations such as the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to accept the detainees, but these organizations could not take any responsibility, although Amnesty International issued a request to stop the executions. Aung Naing, who has close ties with the former chairman, told The Irrawaddy that Dr Naing Aung had nothing to do with the executions: "The capital punishment was ordered by the central committee of the northern ABSDF though we informed the ABSDF central headquarters," explained Aung Naing. "We had our own authority and the capital punishment was decided by eight members of the central committee of northern ABSDF, including Kyaw Kyaw, Than Chaung, Myo Win, Sein Aye, Aung Gyi, Nay Tun, Labya Laseng and myself." At the time of the executions in 1992, the ABSDF was already divided into two rival groups: one headed by Moe Thee Zun and the other by Dr Naing Aung. Aung Naing Oo, who served as spokesman of the foreign affairs department of the Moe Thee Zun group said, "We officially stated that we had no connection whatsoever with that incident and also denounced the atrocities." A few years later, more atrocities in the jungle would follow. In one instance in 1997, Myo Win, a senior ABSDF member, ordered the execution of Soe Win on charges of "leaking information". But Myo Win failed to inform the central committee, thus stirring up more discontent within the organization. Aung Naing Oo, who studied at Harvard’s Kennedy School a few years ago, said that he had had enough and resigned from the ABSDF in 1999. In a 1999 interview with The Irrawaddy, Dr Naing Aung said that "even though we have the death penalty, we try to avoid it as much as we can since we have been blamed by international organizations about our executions with the spies." When asked if he was comfortable with the decisions to execute former members, he said: "As the head of the organization, sometimes I’m not only worried, I’m afraid. Because in some situations [where] you have to take responsibility, you don’t really see what happened, and you have to rely on [others’] reports." Nevertheless, many dissidents still believe that the ABSDF’s ugly past will continue to haunt their former leaders. Some warn that Dr Naing Aung’s suspended admission to Harvard could be just the beginning of wider repercussions that will reach others in the dissident community who committed acts of injustice. Whether Harvard will continue its regular scholarship program with Burmese students is uncertain. Aung Naing blamed the ABSDF’s judicial quandary on Burma’s pervasive militarism and weak education system: "Although we talked about democracy and human rights, we didn’t thoroughly realize what democracy and human rights meant. Our education system did not prepare us to understand those concepts." For those who have fled Burma in opposition to the killing and persecution perpetrated by the military regime, some have been subjected to similar inhumanities on occasion within their own dissident groups during their 14-year struggle for democracy. Dr Naing Aung’s recent collegiate setback has brought dissident injustices back into the spotlight, but getting eyewitnesses and other involved parties to recount the events openly is a delicate matter. For now, however, full disclosure of the ABSDF’s executions depends on whether Burma’s pro-democracy activists value "truth" over "camaraderie".

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