Mael Raynaud pays tribute to a bold, bridge-building Karen leader.
On Thursday, February 14, 2008, the Network for the Environment and Economic Development (NEED) organized a little party, more of a friendly dinner for two or three dozen friends, in the garden behind its offices in Chiang Mai, Thailand. NEED, as an organization promoting land rights, better farming practices, and environmental conservation, worked very closely with an entire ecosystem of civil society organizations that were based in Thailand but made up of activists from all across Myanmar, and that developed many of their activities, and certainly their research, in Myanmar itself. Indeed, those who attended that dinner came from all parts of Myanmar, and worked for any number of civil society organizations.
At that time, everyone who was familiar with this ecosystem simply called it “the border”. The border had a physical, geographic, aspect to it: the organizations that made up the border were based along the Thai-Burma border. But they worked inside Myanmar as much as they worked in Thailand, a country that was simply used as a base from where activities could be led inside Myanmar, in the refugee camps, and among migrant workers, and that allowed for easy communication with the world. Foreigners such as myself who visited organizations along the border, in Mae Hong Song, Mae Sariang, Mae Sot, Sangkhla Buri, or in Chiang Mai, and worked with them for a few months, for a few years, or for several decades, can be counted in the hundreds.
One of the key people in making the border what it was, was the Karen National Union’s General Secretary Padoh Mahn Shah. Indeed, the Karen leader is often credited with having understood before everyone else that the students fleeing Burma after the popular uprising of 1988 and the repression that followed it, were natural allies to the ethnic nationalities in their struggle against dictatorship and oppression. Not only did the KNU welcome the students, many of whom discovered the reality of life in the jungle, the violence of the Tatmadaw and the plight of ethnic nationalities all at the same time, but it helped them set up their own organizations. Some of them joined the KNU in actual fighting, most notably through the ABSDF, the All Burma Students Democratic Front. But many of them created NGOs that increasingly cooperated with one another, and with organizations that had been created, over time, by the various Ethnic Armed Organizations fighting the central government.
The Burmese Women’s Union (BWU) worked with the Karen Women’s Organization (KWO), the Mon Women’s Organization (MWO) or the Kachin Women’s Association in Thailand (KWAT). By 2008, the Women’s League of Burma (WLB), an “umbrella” organization, had about 15 member organizations. Exiled representatives of the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU) worked with the Karen Youth Organization (KYO), the Pa-O Youth Organization (PYO), the All Kachin Students and Youth Union (AKSYU). The Karen Environmental and Social Action Network (KESAN) worked with Shan Sapawa, Karenni Evergreen or the Kachin Development Networking Group. And, obviously, with NEED. The activity report on a round of one week long training courses on advocacy that I facilitated along the border in 2006 specifies: “The trainings were attended by 63 participants, coming from 41 offices of 37 different Community Based Organizations. 39 were women, 24 were men”.
Indeed, entire schools were dedicated to training members of such organizations, typically in their 20s. The EarthRights School, the Shan State School for Nationalities Youth, the legal training of the Burma Lawyers’ Council, the Journalism School, or the Foreign Affairs Training (FAT), together, had trained virtually all the staff in any given office one could visit along the border. FAT was the most prestigious of these schools, and I used to joke with some of its alumni that they could indicate “FAT” on their business cards, like scholars indicate “Ph D” on theirs. Along the border, having graduated from FAT really meant something.
The border, in this context, also had a more political and less physical aspect to it. The border may have existed on both sides of the Thai-Burma border, but it had its own political existence, outside national, and indeed continental, boundaries (if one considers that Burmese groups in the USA, Australia or Europe were very much a component of the border). The border was a world of its own. FAT, for instance, was a program of the National Coalition for the Union of Burma (NCUB), a grouping of political organizations created in 1991 in parallel to the National Coalition Government for the Union of Burma (NCGUB), a supposed government in exile whose members had all been elected MPs in the 1990 elections. While it seemed important that exiled MPs could claim the legitimacy associated with their having been democratically elected, organizations like the KNU that did not participate in the elections, were clearly some of the most powerful organizations in the movement. The solution of a double entity, NCUB/NCGUB, underlined the fact that two separate movements, one made up of ethnic nationalities, and one that started with the 1988 uprising and the 1990 elections, now were allied towards a common goal, democracy and federalism, supposedly embodied in the “Panglong Spirit”.
Democracy, federalism, Panglong Spirit, a web of organizations working on both sides of the Thai-Burma border, and their young members learning and leading projects together: in many ways, this was what the little party at NEED was all about. And very sadly, this could not have appeared more clearly than in the common shock that afflicted all the participants when the news came: earlier that day, Padoh Mahn Shah had been assassinated.
Two men, speaking Karen, had showed up at Mahn Shah’s house in Mae Sot, Thailand, and had shot and killed him.
While many activists blamed the military government in Nay Pyi Taw for the assassination, the expression I heard repeatedly during Mahn Shah’s funeral a couple of days later was that this had been a “Karen on Karen” crime, pointing, rather, to a competing faction in the Karen movement. I’ll leave it to people who know Karen history and politics better than I do to discuss the murder in itself and its consequences, and to write biographies of Mahn Shah. But as this all happened just over a year after the passing of another key figure in the Karen movement, Bo Mya, a few months after the Saffron Revolution, and only a couple of months before Cyclone Nargis and the referendum on the 2008 Constitution, it is safe to say that Mahn Shah was killed at a time when Myanmar, the KNU, and the border, were about to go through very deep changes.
Zoya Phan, a daughter of Padoh Mahn Shah and the author of the book Little Daughter, told DVB in a 2010 interview: “He had the ability to unite the Karen and also different ethnic groups. He was a bridge between the Karen and the democracy movement”.
That is, indeed, the man I interviewed several times, a man who seemed to deeply and sincerely care about his people, democracy, and a peaceful future. The funeral took place at KNU headquarters on that territory the Karen refer to as “Kawthoolei”, the land of the Karen, and which Mahn Shah called home. In their hundreds, mourners came to say their last goodbyes to Padoh Mahn Shah and listen to speeches by various leaders of the Karen movement and that border I described above. They watched KNU soldiers shoot their M-16s into the air to honor their leader, and the body of the deceased burn into flames.
All this was more than a little touching, and highly symbolic, needless to say. But to me, again, one thing stood apart; that day, one thing mattered to me directly. This movement Mahn Shah had played such a role in building, these young members of Community Based Organizations representing women and youth, protecting the environment, providing education, dreaming of a better future, they were there, at the funeral, too. Not a single CBO, it seemed, had failed to send a couple of representatives, with flowers, and words of love and respect. Dozens of young women and men I had worked with or taught classes to, spent that day talking to one another, escaping from speeches that clearly were too long, remembering that year spent together in that school, that advocacy trip to Geneva, that time when Mahn Shah had visited their organization or spoken at an event they attended, all these things that made the border what it was.
And what it still is, I must say. Just weeks ago, towards the end of 2017, the Burma Environmental Working Group (BEWG), a coalition made up of, among others, NEED, EarthRights International, KDNG, KESAN, Shan Sapawa, and PYO, released a new report in Yangon: “Resource Federalism: a roadmap for decentralized governance of Burma’s natural heritage”. The border remains an important and legitimate component of Myanmar’s civil society, one that is typically more radical politically and aligned with the views of many in the ethnic nationalities movement.
Yet, if some things, like the work and dedication of these civil society groups, have not changed, the situation today is very different from what it was ten years ago. The KNU entered into a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw in 2012, and signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) in 2015. Karen organizations, more or less connected to the KNU, such as the Karen Education Department, the Karen Women’s Organization and various groups providing medical services, can now work in a much safer environment, and often cooperate with agencies based in Nay Pyi Taw, which would have been unthinkable in 2008. Daw Aung San Suu Kyi has gone from being under house arrest to heading the government. Political prisoners have been freed, and now lead the opposition to that government.
The question, then, is what role can the border play today? How does it fit into Myanmar’s politics and peace process? And what is left of the dreams of Mahn Shah, and of those of Aung San?
I have written that Mahn Shah was a man who understood the need to work with the democracy movement, and those inside of it who happened to be Bamar. In the same way, Aung San had understood the need to work with ethnic nationalities.
In 2002, a coalition of ethnic organizations that included the KNU published a report, explaining what it was that ethnic nationalities wanted: it was titled “the new Panglong Initiative”. In naming the current phase of the peace process, a “21st century Panglong”, Daw Aung San Suu Kyi indicated that the dreams of her father and of men such as Mahn Shah were those she wanted to see realized.
After Nargis, efforts were made towards a “convergence” between civil society organizations based along the border and those based inside Myanmar. Great progress has been made in this regard, and many organizations “from the border” fully participate to the life of Myanmar’s civil society. The peace process overall, unfortunately, seems to be stuck in a difficult place at the moment. Yet, there are areas in which cooperation between agencies “from the border” and agencies based in Nay Pyi Taw has increased significantly, a very positive development indeed.
As I looked around me during Mahn Shah’s funeral in 2008, and walked around KNU headquarters, I could not help feeling frustration that I had come to Myanmar, and the border, too late to visit Manerplaw, the former headquarters of the KNU, where the NCUB and NCGUB had been formed, and where the border I had known for a few years had been born.
By allowing students fleeing the repression of 1988 into Manerplaw, Mahn Shah had managed to show them that the KNU were not the enemies most Bamar thought they were. Instead, they were people with whom the future could be dreamt, and built.
Turning your enemies into partners is what, ideally, peace processes are for. And showing to your own people that you will treat your enemies as partners is what makes great leaders. Padoh Mahn Shah was one such great leader, and nothing could have proved it better than seeing former students of the 1988 generation, members of civil society organizations representing all ethnic nationalities of Myanmar, and KNU soldiers mingling with one another at his funeral.
Mael Raynaud is an analyst with 15 years experience researching Myanmar politics, society, conflict, and economy. He lives in Yangon, and works as a consultant.