Saturday, April 26, 2008

The White Chair -- Copyright Kyi May Kaung.

I had never known Pado Mahn Sha well, and had seen him only once or twice at international meetings about Burma. He was in the KNU or Karen National Union, a group that has been in armed rebellion against the central Burmese government since 1947. They are known as the longest running armed insurrection in the world, and their leader/founder General Saw Bo Mya died recently of complications from diabetes. He was big and obese, though apparently very strong. An art curator I spoke to thought that Bo Mya had died due to poison that the Burmese military junta had put in his shoes, when he went for ceasefire talks to Rangoon in 2004. But it wasn’t anything that exotic. It was just because Bo Mya had diabetes, and diabetics often lose their feet or toes. I wondered if Bo Mya had been careful about pedicures and manicures as I had read so long ago in an informational packet about diabetes. But maybe he had not been. After all he lived in a war zone, though he was hospitalized in Bangkok. The 2004 ceasefire talks failed because the Burmese junta violated the agreements within a few months, causing the KNU to take up arms again in self defense.

The Karen are an ethnic group called Kayin by the Burmese. The British during the colonial period from 1886 to the beginning of World War II and the Japanese Occupation, called them “the Karen.” The British declined to have the majority group, the Burmans, in their army, but had special troops composed of some of the supposed other “warlike races” such as the Karen, the Chin and the Kachin. It was the British policy of divide and rule.

Among the famous Karen leaders that my family knew was Saw Kya Doe, a former neighbor on Inya Road, who my mother always said, had been trained at Sandhurst, the famous military academy in England. Eventually, everyone became a dissident or an armed rebel, but Saw Kya Doe himself, after years in the jungle on the Thai-Burma border with former Prime Minister U Nu’s group, eventually came in from the cold in the late eighties and helped the military government proctor its 1990 elections, that it never honored.

Pado Mahn Sha was a generation younger than Saw Kya Doe. He was a straight-faced man whose demeanor and soft-spoken, modest nature, revealed him to be a man of few words but great intelligence and sincerity. I always thought of him as a man of peace.

I was shocked in early February of 2008, to see email notices start to come into my inbox from dissident Burmese groups, talking of him in the past tense. Those weeks were full of reported deaths, some of which were revealed in a few days as being perhaps part of the junta’s disinformation campaigns. Veteran journalist U Thaung was reported dead. So were famed writer Ludu Daw Ah Mar and pop singer May Sweet, who was reported by “AP?” to have died in a car accident in London. It turned out all three were pieces of junta disinformation, maybe to demoralize Burmese dissidents overseas. May Sweet is alive and well, and continuing with her overseas concert tours, but Ludu Daw Ah Mar and U Thaung succumbed to old age in a couple of weeks. I suppose the junta was just trying to “pop them off sooner” out of spite and hatred. They had both been outspoken in their courageous and outspoken criticism of the junta; U Thaung from his home in Florida, Ludu Da Ah Mar, amazingly, from her home in Mandalay, Burma. She once famously threw away a pen given to her by Lt. General Khin Nyunt, at that time the most powerful man in Burma.

The assassination of KNU leader Pado Mahn Sha at his home in Mae Sod, on the Thai-Burma border, was only too real. Why, here on the Internet was a photograph of Mahn Sha lying in state, with a striped red Karen blanket covering him from the chest down, looking as simple in death as he had been in life! He looked calm, as if he were sleeping. Here was the last known photograph of him, a few days before he was gunned down by two men, who are reported to have greeted him in the Karen language. “Uncle, how are you?” So they would have said, “Hpar htee, how are you?” And then shot him point blank.

He died on the spot.

And here is a photograph taken from inside the front door of his home, through large teak doors that stand open, onto a patch of impossibly bright green grass in Mae Sod. Places in that latitude in Burma such as Myawaddy (on the opposite bank of the Moei River from Mae Sod) and Moulmein have a high annual rainfall. On my very first visit to Moulmein from Rangoon in the fifties, I noticed from the window of the World War II Dakota that we flew in, how green the grass was – greener than I had ever seen before.

And here is a photograph of the narrow upstairs veranda where Mahn Sha fell, a large pool of red blood still there beside the white plastic chair on which he had been sitting.


Though “teak doors” may signal wealth to western readers, teak is quite common and used en bloc in the Border Areas and in Thailand. True, it is used in a most haphazard and wasteful way. In all the bed and breakfast places and three star hotels I stayed in, in Bangkok and Chiangmai between 2002 and 2008, I saw teak, teak, teak used in veneer form and in solid form everywhere. It virtually broke my heart. I had been married into a family which had worked in forest conservation, the teak trade and in the teak milling and export business since the pre-World War II days, and even against my will, it was not difficult for me to recognize expensive teak grain patterns such as “cathedrals” and stripes everywhere. The patterns depend on how the teak log is sliced or peeled off in wafer thin veneers, like unwrapping a spring roll of many layers.

The white plastic chair was like hundreds of cheap lawn furniture chairs I have seen in S.E. Asia and in America. I’ve seen them with their matching stools in street side food stalls in Bangkok and Chiangmai, in Angkor and Siem Reap in Cambodia and quite a few houses in the United States. They are stackable and obviously made from the same mold. I usually see them in the red version in Asia and in the white version in America.

Pado Mahn Sha was by no means rich. After his death, his son and daughter wrote a touching eulogy, in which his daughter wrote that their father “had not been able to give them wealth, but had given them an education.” I thought the eulogy was written in the most beautiful English, something a bit rare among Burmese dissidents. After Mahn Sha died, the poetry he had written, I think in Burmese, started to appear. A radio broadcaster who read them praised them highly as “So sensitive. Unbelievable!” Of course, there is no reason to suppose that someone is illiterate or insensitive, just because they have decided that there is no other recourse left but armed struggle. A case in point is the Black radical depicted in E. L. Doctorow’s novel Ragtime.

But I think, in his later years, Mahn Sha was focused mainly on forging links with the other ethnic groups of Burma and with the Burman dissident groups. The last photograph showed him returning from yet another political meeting, an expression of exhaustion and even exasperation on his face, a strand of grey hair falling on his cheek, dressed in a simple but beautiful hand woven cotton blanket robe of beige stripes on a cream colored background.

I heard of Mahn Sha’s death a few days before I set out for a trip to Chiangmai, and it alarmed my children greatly.

Chiangmai is the second biggest city in Thailand and is full of Burmese dissidents, migrant workers, foreign expatriates and long time residents, big Thai universities and hospitals and the non-profits that do work along the Burma-Thai border. Historically, Chiangmai was called Zinmè by the Burmese. It was a city state that was now part of Burma, now part of Siam. Now it is in Thailand, but feels, for us Burmese who can never go home, like Little Burma. Everything from the bright brick red soil, the orchids, including the famous blue vanda, to the Shan-Thai style food, reminds one of the Shan States in Burma, with which I and my family has had many connections over two generations.

I promised my children I would not go to the Border, and in fact I have never been. The Thai authorities control access to the refugee camps closely, and Mae Sod is said to be full of security cameras. Some non-profits don’t want their employees or course attendees to visit there, on the grounds that they will be seen as “doing politics” and this will violate the “won’t do any politics” memoranda of understanding that they have signed with the Thai government or organizations.

In Burma in the seventies before I left on a Fulbright scholarship, one had to send in written reports every time one went to a foreign embassy, for any reason. Usually, it was to see a movie. I never went to the U.S. Embassy except on the one occasion I went there to take an English test in connection with the scholarship. I didn’t understand the films that were shown at the Australian Embassy, partly because the pavilion had such poor acoustics, with all the sound pouring out of the four open sides. In the end I decided not going was the easiest thing to do, as permissions and then writing and submitting “He said, she said, I said” reports were so grueling and would just result in an unwelcome limelight focused on me.

My never going to Mae Sod was the result of a similar logic.

However, that did not mean I could not talk to people who did go.

In Chiangmai in February, I met again a woman who had worked for Amnesty International. She had been in Mae Sod when the assassination took place and was there until the day of the funeral service. Ellen (not her real name) told me that at first the entire Karen and Mae Sod dissident community was in shock. “But it did nothing except increase the traffic fines that the Thai Mae Sod police levy on the Burmese dissidents.” Apparently, the Mae Sod police had the habit of stopping cars and vans “for traffic violations” whenever they needed extra pocket money, and there was even a going rate for the “fine.” Now the police could cite “security reasons” for stopping cars more often and for being “more strict” so that the going bribe rate went up, and then did not come down again. “I’m sure the killers are in Burma by now,” Ellen told me.

Another Burma-born analyst I talked to (I will call him Min Saw) told me that he went to the funeral service, the very day Ellen came back to Chiangmai. I asked him to tell me about the funeral.

“Oh, it was so sad. Lots of crying. The immediate family was not there, due to fear. I did not get to see Hsé Hsé (Mahn Sha’s son).” Pado Mahn Sha was a Buddhist. The KNU is predominantly Baptist, hewing to the almost fundamentalist doctrines of one of the first Christian missionaries to come to Burma, in the 18th century, Adoniram Judson. He was an American and prepared and published the first Burmese-English dictionary. His own name he transliterated as Yuda Than – so we now have Y instead of J in the Burmese language transliterations. John is Johan, Jonathan is Yaw Da Than – as in Jonathan Livingston Seagull (Yaw Da Than Zin Yaw – in Burmese).

I think it’s a sign of Pado Mahn Sha’s greatness, even in death, as photographs of the funeral in the Bangkok newspapers showed a simple wooden cross being carried in front of the coffin. Min Saw told me that because Mahn Sha had been the primary bridge builder between the minority ethnic groups and the Burma groups, “For the SPDC (the Burmese junta) killing Mahn Sha was a big coup. He was the brains of the KNU.” SPDC (State Peace and Development Council) is the Orwellian name of the present junta. Min Saw said sadly that Mahn Sha probably lived too long in one place, was too open and accepting in his literal open door policy, and had no armed guards in Mae Sod. “That just made it easier for the assassins.” Min Saw told me.

The two killers came to the house in a black car with a bunch of flowers. They asked for Mahn Sha and went upstairs and killed him. The only witness was a neighbor woman who was still hysterical when the foreign reporters came.

Min Saw said that the KNU leaders had now moved back to the Liberated Areas – the no man’s lands along the Burma-Thai border, because there they could have a regular military camp and armed guards. The KNU had not had a border outpost since the fall of their headquarters, Manerplaw, in January 1995. I see it as a hardening of tensions.

About two weeks after Mahn Sha’s funeral, a Bangkok Newspaper published an editorial that the authorities should look into Mahn Sha’s death in more detail. The black van was found beside the river at the border, but the killers, of course, had fled.

This editorial stated that a few weeks before Mahn Sha’s death, he had been under extreme pressure from Thai business interests to allow logging and a dam in the Karen State regions controlled by the KNU. He had been adamantly saying “No.” But the dam was going ahead anyway. The KNU and many commentators in February thought that the DKBA (Democratic Karen Buddhist Association), a splinter group from the KNU, supported by the SPDC abd supposedly “Buddhist”, was behind the killing. Now, the well known Burmese dissident magazine Irrawaddy, based in Chiangmai, says that an infamous DKBA man named Sun Byoke (“Boiled Rice”) drove the car and was seen near Mahn Sha’s home at the time of the assassination. The Irrawaddy correspondent also wrote that the SPDC has already rewarded Boiled Rice.

At the same time we are seeing video on You Tube from September 2007 of Mahn Sha’s daughter, Zoya Phan, giving an eloquent and moving speech to the Conservative Party in the UK, at a Burma Campaign UK event. She is dressed in a hand woven white robe, that unmarried Karen women wear, and looks very like her father. She does not speak for the Karen alone but for everyone. Towards the end of her short presentation, she leaves the podium briefly and picks up a big clanking iron chain, that was smuggled out of Burma and describes the torture in Burma’s prisons in excruciating detail.

Mahn Sha’s simple chair is standing empty, but there are many people, including his daughter Zoya Phan, who can fill that chair and continue to speak for us.


April 25, 2008.