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IMMORTALISED: A bust of the late General Bo Mya.
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ELDEST AND YOUNGEST: General Bo Mya’s eldest son Colonel Nerdah his sister Jennifer, the youngest, sing together at the late General Bo Mya’s memorial, on the occasion of his 82nd birthday.

General Bo Mya

(January 20, 1927 – December 24, 2006)


THE GENERAL was tired.

He walked with a slow, unsteady gait and heaved sighs as he settled into his chair.

General Bo Mya had been fighting against Burma’s military in all its forms for more than fifty years when we first met in 2000 and, if anything, he was farther than ever from achieving his goal.

Heart trouble and diabetes was getting the better of him and every now and then word would ripple through the ranks that the big man was dying.

Older people in the refugee camps who recalled the giant of their youths prayed for his health and would exhort the younger generation to do the same.

Until his death he commanded reverence.

A legend of international soldiering, he bristled with hatred for Burma’s military and as we spoke fingered a large hunting knife tucked into a scabbard hanging from his belt.

He was frustrated that now someone else wanted to talk about his war.

Where could he begin?

And what good was talk?

He had spent his lifetime at war and during that time talk had generally proven only to be a mandatory prelude to some form of treachery or deceit.

Burma’s generals had wanted to talk many times, if you could call it that.

The generals had wanted him to lay down his arms.

How can you lay down your arms during a war?

You cannot – for that would mean surrender.

...

Yesterday morning - January 20, 2009 - as the sun burned away morning mists, for an hour or so our surroundings of commercial agricultural flatlands were revealed.

We were at the summit of a hillock that offered a commanding view for kilometres around, gathered to pay our respects to Bo Mya little more than two years after his death.

By the time the second choir had completed a Karen folk song, smoke and heat haze had taken the place of the morning damp.

A middle-aged woman, previously lost in thought, lifted her head as the song ended, eyes moist perhaps from recollection, perhaps from the lyrics, perhaps from the soft, sweet voices of the future singing in harmony.

It was time for speakers and prayer.

A series of red-and-white striped tents had been erected for the occasion and plastic chairs set out for the casual congregation, some in ironed collars and their best shoes freshly polished, others in sandals and longyis.

Nerdah, General Bo Mya’s eldest son, welcomed everyone.

“There are, of course, two reasons why we are here today. The first is to remember our late father and all the good things he brought to his family and those around him, and the second is to give thanks for the New Year.”

And then he delivered a short message that once his father would have offered.

“On this family thanksgiving we must all praise the Lord that we are still alive, we wish you all the best – may you find prosperity, happiness and peace of mind in this coming year.”


...

Having weathered half a century of conflict, General Bo Mya remained adamant until his death that military defeat of Burma’s generals was possible.

It really came down to a matter of beliefs, tactics and hardware.

Of course any assistance in grinding down the generals was greatly appreciated, he said, and acknowledged that serious economic sanctions also hurt the generals and, by default, assisted his army.

He was also adamant that the illicit trade in drugs, predominantly methamphetamine and heroin, combined with foreign aid, was propping up the junta.

“They [countries engaging with the junta] are simply killing people, people are dying and the drugs keep coming. The country is poor but the military is not, the country is poor because the SPDC refuses to stop fighting. Serious sanctions by the international community can certainly help - already the Burmese have accumulated debts they cannot pay.”

He singled out countries and companies trading with the junta as giving the SPDC enough incentive to continue their war against the minorities, their stronghold on any business deal struck in any part of the country and a fast-track to personal enrichment.


...

Eight years after I first met Bo Mya I found myself sitting opposite the big man’s son, Nerdah, in August of last year. A couple of tiny candles gave my video camera just enough light to work with at a base camp inside Karen State.

“I am obligated to work for the struggle,” he said quietly.

“You know, my Dad told me when he got really sick, he told me: ‘All my life I have been calling for my people to fight for their freedom. They have died for it, they have sacrificed for it and you cannot go abroad and escape, you have to stand up and fight’, otherwise, my Dad said, I would just be betraying the people who have fought and died.

“And I told him ‘yes, I will carry on’,” and he thumped his fist on the table between us, not for dramatic effect, but rather as an indication of his resolve.

Then he stared across the balcony into the darkness and resumed the usual demure manner that encompasses him when the camera comes out.

“I remember my Dad would go out and get one deer and we would share it with all the households, we would share with everybody.

“We would call everyone, our friends, to come together, I can still remember those good days.

“When we were little, I remember friends coming together and talking and laughing and sharing, I remember those as good days.

“And I respect those strong family ties among the Karen people,” said the contemplative Colonel.

“It is good to preserve this kind of culture and loving one another.

“In the old days you know, we never sold things, my Dad would go out and get fish and we would share it with everybody. Everyone loved each other.”


...

Yesterday morning’s memorial found more than 150 of us gathered to reflect on the year past and to give thanks for the coming New Year, the Karen year of 2748.

Every single person there wanted the war to take its place on the shelves of history and gather dust.

But less than an hour’s drive from where we gathered between 300 and 400 men, three DKBA battalions and one SPDC battalion, had 100 KNLA soldiers surrounded at Wah Lay Kee, base camp of Sixth Brigade’s 201st battalion.

Regular patrols are now passing within 500m of the camp, and the main force is gradually edging its way forwards.

The same goes for 202 battalion, to Mae Sot’s north, but the KNLA’s enemy there is three battalions of SPDC, or about 300 men.

Mae Tawahwah, nearby but further inside, is also reportedly full of SPDC reinforcements.

They are moving into position, but they have not yet attacked.

101 battalion, consisting of about 160 KNLA soldiers and seven nurses, to the northwest of Mae La refugee camp, is involved in fighting daily.

And intense fighting has broken out in both Shan and Karenni states.

Nerdah bluntly says all this activity is a concerted push to quash insurgents before the 2010 “elections”.

The generals want calm, so the SPDC and its US public relations firms can manage a whitewash that will insitutionalise the military in the ‘democratic process’.


...

Of solutions to the world’s longest-running war, recently-elected Karen National Union vice president David Thackrabaw says the only way forwards is to defeat the “fascist” SPDC.

“Ever since the military came to power in 1962, the ultimate goal of the military establishment is to set up the fourth Burman empire.

“The fourth Burman empire - of course in this time and age, only fascists would think of setting up an empire in a multi-ethnic state like Burma.

“Because the non-Burman ethnic peoples will never accept that.

“In the empire, the non-Burman ethnic peoples would be just slaves like in the days of feudalism, Burman feudalism.

“Burman feudalism in the days before the British came was very unlighted feudalism, only the royalty and their close relatives enjoyed special privileges.

“The people, even including the Burman, had no status except the status of slaves.

“Forced labour, forced relocation, those were common things and ethnic women were forcibly taken for marriage for concubinage [under] the feudal laws - that was a common thing in the old days.

“Now in the first constitution, the second constitution, and in the coming constitution also, they took a large area and called it Burma proper and the administrative areas are called divisions, not states, so there is something like a discrimination against the ethnic peoples whose lands were called states.

“And the states don’t have any power, any political power, the power to legislate, the power to adjudicate, the power to manage, executive power, they don’t have any of that, all of the power is centralised in the hands of the majority Burman.

David said because of this centering of power, the Burman majority had all the economic power and the states were left with nothing.

“The ethnic people don’t have any rights, they don’t have economic rights, they don’t have human rights.

“They don’t have any political power, that is why many ethnic people, at one time, or the ethnic minorities as they are sometimes called, were fighting against the central government, the Burmans.

‘But that arrangement hasn’t changed, the regime in power, now known as the SPDC, they drafted a constitution, held a referendum and it was confirmed, or adopted, in that constitution also the ethnics, the non-Burman ethnics, will not have any power.

“It will be just like people in subject states, subject people.”

I asked David whether he really thought winning the war was really the only way forwards and whether the resistance forces would look to the US for support in their military campaign to force change in Burma.

“Well the US maybe, but I think perhaps they do not see much national interest in this case.

“And the Cold War has ended, in the case of Vietnam of course the Cold War was going on – Russia, China on the one side, America on the other. China and Russia were helping the insurgents, the communists, and in the case of Afghanistan also, the Cold War was still there.

“In the time of the Cold War, geopolitics was affecting our struggle, in the time of the Cold War actually the US was helping Ne Win’s regime [under the guise of drug eradication].

“Geopolitics affects, directly or indirectly, our struggle.”

...

I asked David if he thought the assistance to Ne Win was linked to the fact Ne Win’s regime was fighting communist forces.

“Yes because it was anti-communist [and] under the name of drug eradication, he was given 10 million, 12 million [US dollars] plus materiels like Huey helicopters and PC-7 airplanes and military training, some weapons, radar, they received radar, and anti-aircraft rockets.”

For the record, these weapons were used against the ethnic minorities.

I asked David whether there was any recognition of ethnicity in the new constitution.

“Well they say there are many races in Burma, but their imperial ideology calls for controlling the land and the people, they want to, if possible, eliminate the culture, the language of the ethnic people and the central government is to hold all the economic power.

“It’s a version of feudal power, that’s why I call them fascists, starting from Ne Win’s time up until now, the military regime, successive military regimes their ideology is facism, or Nazism.

“The word fascism has been misused in many cases, especially in the US, when people don’t like someone they call them fascists.

“By definition fascism is extreme racism, plus militarism and in the case of Burma there is the underpinning of feudalism.

“The new capital, Naypidaw, if the name is translated correctly, it means imperial city.

“And you find there statues of Burman warlords who founded the first Burman empire, second Burman empire, the third Burman empire, they were all warlords, and you find large statues of them and certainly the regime in power is worshipping these figures.

“So we may call their ideology feudal fascism because fascism can have slight variants, like a democracy, not all are the same, so with fascism also, one might be slightly different from another, but the basic ideology is extreme.

“You have racism, sometimes ultra nationalism, plus militarism, they don’t tolerate any dissent, they hate everyone who opposes these fascist overlords.

“They incarcerated Aung San Suu Kyi, some people think out of fear, it is not true, it is out of hatred, hatred for Aung San Suu Kyi, because Aung San Suu Kyi challenged their power, challenged their status and that is why they hate her.

“And they are making war against us, against the Karen people, not the KNU, it’s a scorched earth policy.

“It’s hatred, the policy is hatred against the Karen people, if possible they would wipe out the Karen as a people.”


...

We mark the late general’s 82nd birthday some 14 hours before Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States.  It is also just one day after Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Trumpet of Conscience Award, which marks the late Martin Luther King Jnr’s birthday, January 19. He would have been 80 this year.

After US Campaign for Burma’s executive director Aung Din accepted the award from Queen Noor of Jordan, he said he hoped Obama would uphold existing economic sanctions against Burma and lead a strong diplomatic effort to organise the international community to put pressure on the military junta.

Chief editor at the Jakarta Post, Endy M. Bayuni, writing in The New York Times this week suggested Obama’s four formative years in Jakarta (he was moved to Hawaii at age 10), from 1967 to 1971, when the country was adjusting to the harsh realities of the Sukarno era, will have served him well.

This is a US president who has lived under a brutal dictatorship and left a country in which “military control was widespread and . . . students attended indoctrination classes where they would profess their loyalty to the state. Dissent and criticism were not tolerated in public life. There was barely freedom of thought,” wrote Endy of those dark times.

Such comments invite comparisons among those hoping for change in today’s Burma, but it would be a reckless soul that saw any promise in such a coincidence of history.

The memorial also came less than a month (29 days precisely) after Abhisit Vejjajiva was sworn in as Thailand’s third prime minister in four months.

He pledged to chart a new course with Burma’s generals.

Abhisit may well chart a different course, but it will not involve winding back the Kingdom’s commitment to three mega-dams planned for Burma’s Salween River, nor reviews of natural gas deals stretching far into the future that in the long-term will be far more beneficial to Thailand than anyone in Burma, be they a general or not.

And India’s politicians are still slapping themselves on the back for securing a deal in September last year to construct two vast hydropower projects on the Chindwin River.

India’s state-owned National Hydroelectric Power Corporation will build the dam, a company The Irrawaddy last year quoted NGO sources as claiming had, even at home in India, used “terror tactics and armed staff to intimidate residents to leave dam development areas”.

And there is no incentive for either China or Russia to shift position on Burma and an array of economic reasons why they continue to scupper any motion brought before the United Nations Security Council.

And without agreement among the permanent five Security Council members, all with the power of veto, the United Nations is crippled when it comes to taking any action.

With that scenario laid out at UN level, unilateral intervention would then seem the choice Obama is cornered with when it comes to a definitive move to liberate Burma.

As a couple sang a duet in the distance, at the crowd’s fringe Nerdah said he hoped Obama might be able to do something, to make a significant contribution to change in Burma but: “How much he can do is another question.”

Asked for a message for the West from the frontlines of the world’s longest-running insurgency, Nerdah was blunt, an attitude drawn from years of war in which there is never enough time to waste.

“We must stop the tyranny, we can’t just sit and watch, otherwise more people will die.”


...

In total agreement with Nerdah’s sentiments is a close friend, Myat Thu.

He is an ethnic Burman and an exile of the 1988 student uprising during which thousands perished and the aftermath of which left thousands more mired in limbo.

Myat Thu grew up in Irrawaddy Division, Karen people were his friends, his neighbours, individuals of the collective oppressed who learned to be as agile in their approach to life as their circumstances demanded.

He too knew Bo Mya and was among the founders of the All Burma Students Democratic Front at fortress Mannerplaw.

The students pretty much had only the clothes on their back after fleeing Rangoon and being hunted by their own army all the way to the Thai border.

Bo Mya’s army took them in and trained them in the discipline of killing.

In the words of one exile, Win Cho: “I started in 1989, at that time I was fighting with the KNU.

“You know I have nothing but respect for the KNU, they helped us so much, until we met them we had nothing, no healthcare, one set of clothes, we had nothing.

“They taught me how to kill the enemy, discipline, how to stand, yes, this is the KNLA, discipline.

“The enemy is the enemy, but you must not forget their power, so they taught me how to kill the enemy.”

Win Cho was an ABSDF commander, but plays down such a vote of confidence from his peers.

“I was hardly a commander, in those days we were totally dependent on the Karen, we didn’t go out on operations by ourselves. We hadn’t learned how to survive out there ourselves at that point.”

Both Myat Thu and Win Cho spoke highly of Bo Mya and his no-nonsense, uncompromising attitude towards discipline.

Myat Thu, in particular, looks to the big man’s first son, Nerdah, 42, as a future leader not only of the Karen people, but Burma as a whole.

Myat Thu, as secretary, is the highest office bearer of the newly-formed 2009 Collective Action Committee, a gathering of representatives from the ethnic nationalities, the National League for Democracy and the monkhood, whose aim is to “impede the forthcoming bogus elections of 2010”.

The collective’s motto is drawn from a senior NLD leader, but could just have easily been uttered by Bo Mya himself: “Seek not to escape from this conflict – but rather to confront it and break through it.”

 

Daniel Pedersen

Journalist.
http://www.danielpedersen.org

Daniel Pedersen

We mark the late general’s 82nd birthday some 14 hours before Barack Obama is sworn in as the 44th President of the United States.  It is also just one day after Aung San Suu Kyi was awarded the Trumpet of Conscience Award, which marks the late Martin Luther King Jnr’s birthday, January 19. He would have been 80 this year.

After US Campaign for Burma’s executive director Aung Din accepted the award from Queen Noor of Jordan, he said he hoped Obama would uphold existing economic sanctions against Burma and lead a strong diplomatic effort to organise the international community to put pressure on the military junta.

Chief editor at the Jakarta Post, Endy M. Bayuni, writing in The New York Times this week suggested Obama’s four formative years in Jakarta (he was moved to Hawaii at age 10), from 1967 to 1971, when the country was adjusting to the harsh realities of the Sukarno era, will have served him well.

This is a US president who has lived under a brutal dictatorship and left a country in which “military control was widespread and . . . students attended indoctrination classes where they would profess their loyalty to the state. Dissent and criticism were not tolerated in public life. There was barely freedom of thought,” wrote Endy of those dark times.

Such comments invite comparisons among those hoping for change in today’s Burma, but it would be a reckless soul that saw any promise in such a coincidence of history.