Bao Youxiang (born 1949)

Alexander Zimmermann


Bao Youxiang (鲍有祥), also known under his Myanmar name Pau Yu Chang and his Wa name Tax Log Pang (Chinese Wa: Dax Lōug Bang), receives little attention in Myanmar’s political history literature alongside Khun Sa and Lo Hsing Han as one of the „kings“ of the opium trade in the Golden Triangle.

Often, his name is only a footnote related to the Communist Party of Burma as well as the ‘Wa’ Self-Administered Division1 in the Shan State. But while Khun Sa and Lo Hsing Han have long withdrawn from the political stage, this is not the case with „Chairman Bao“.

Although Bao Youxiang has not attracted the same media attention as the notorious Khun Sa, he can still be considered one of the most powerful war lords in Southeast Asia. He has become the head of a de facto independent Wa nation-state that is not officially recognised by any other country and envied by the leaders of other ethnic groups in Myanmar that fight for greater autonomy from the central government.

How it came to the development and the connection between him, the drug trafficking and the minority conflicts in the Shan State will be explained in this short biography.


Bao Youxiang (鲍有祥) was born in 1949 as the son of a Wa clan Chieftain in the village called Kunma in the Wa Region, located in the northern part of Myanmar’s Shan State and directly bordering the southern Chinese province of Yunnan (云南). The region is populated by a variety of minorities, such as the Bamar and Karen, as well as many Burmese Chinese and various smaller tribes. Although Bao Youxiang belongs to the Wa minority, his name is Chinese. This among other reasons is due to the geographic proximity to China and the close economic ties to the neighbouring country. As a consequence, Chinese is widely spoken here the lingua franca in addition to the many minority languages across the Wa Region.

The early youth of young Bao Youxiang was rather unspectacular. He was the second youngest of a total of 8 brothers and had – according to his own account – never left his home village Kunma in his youth. Nevertheless, as a member of the Wa minority, he remembers having felt the pressure of the central government, which sought to oppress independence movements and calls for autonomy in the Shan State after the military coup of March 1962.

Already at the age of 17, Bao Youxiang together with his older brother Bao Youyi and his uncle Bao Sanban founded a guerrilla group in Kunma, making a name for themselves with the force of the gun. In order to finance the resistance against the Burmese government, Bao Youxiang like many other smaller warlords got involved in opium smuggling. Due to its strategically favourable location, the Shan State borders to southern China, Thailand and Laos, making this area an important hub for smuggling within the Golden Triangle. Adding to that, the wild mountains and forests as well as the lack of control by the central government helped to make smuggling a lucrative business, through which several armed groups financed themselves throughout the decades.

Despite his success as a rebel leader, Bao Youxiang can only be seen as one of the countless little warlords and drug smugglers during this episode of his life. It was only when he joined the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1969 that Bao Youxiang began his political career.

As a means to unite the Wa Region under one leadership, Bao Youxiang and other rebel leaders like Zhai Nilai, Lu Xingguo and Ai Ken joined the CPB.

He worked in the military party wing where he first served as battalion commander for his home village in Kunma, but rose swiftly to the rank of a brigade commander. Together with Li Ziru from the Chinese Communist Party, he led the 683 Brigade near the border between Thailand and Myanmar. At the 3rd Party Congress in 1985 held in Panghsang (Pankham)2 he also became a member of the Central Committee of the CPB.

Despite his merits and steep rise within the party, Bao Youxiang, like many of his Wa compatriots, saw the CPB merely as the means to the end of procuring weapons and resources for the Wa troops and to fight the Burmese government. This was due to the reality, that the majority of the members of the Politburo was comprised of ethnic Burmans. Accordingly, a few years later, Bao Youxiang’s true loyalty was revealed.

In 1988/89 several groups within the communist party started to question the inner leadership and even went as far as to openly defy the party. Many armed groups under the CPB, such as Kokang and Wa, were dissatisfied with the leaders of the CPB. The positions of the party’s leadership was considered too unrealistic and dogmatic. There was also the accusation that ethnic Kokang and Wa soldiers were being used as cannon fodder in a political conflict between ethnic Burmans instead of advocating for the interests of all ethnic groups.

The infighting resulted in the internal uprising of 1989 by the ethnic minorities against the CPB’s leadership, that was driven out to China, resulting in the dissolution of the CPB and its army.3 In its stead several new factions were formed along ethnic lines. As a result of the fragmentation of the CPB, Myanmar’s government began negotiations with various Wa rebel leaders such as Bao Youxiang, Peng Jiasheng and Zhao Nyi lai. On April 17, 1989, the Wa Region broke away from the CPB and formed the United Wa State Party (UWSP). Bao Youxiang was first commander of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which formed the armed wing of the UWSP and at the time of its creation comprised about 10 000 men. Current estimates, however, assume an army strength of approximately 20,000 to 30,000 men and thus the strongest of all armed groups contesting the Tatmadaw, the army of the Myanmar state.

A few years later in 1995, Bao Youxiang also took over the UWSP leadership as Chairman Bao, thus replacing his predecessor Zhao Nyi Lai (1939-2009) who had to resign for health reasons as a result of a stroke. Since then, Bao Youxiang has taken the position of the military and political head of a quasi-autonomous Wa State in eastern Myanmar.

Due to health problems, Bao Youxiang resigned as party chairman in 2005 to his youngest brother, Bao Youyi. However, Bao Youxiang has not withdrawn completely from the political scene and has remained the leader of the UWSA.

Striving for an independent Wa State

In the ceasefire agreement signed on May 18th, 1989 with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)4, the UWSP formally recognized the government in Myanmar as sovereign, and in return was awarded a self-administrative status in the northern part of the Shan state. Since then the Wa Region has been led by the UWSP from Panghsang as its capital like an autonomous state and later officially dubbed “Wa-State” by Bao Youxiang. With the ceasefire agreement of 1989, the UWSP had in principle accepted its place as part of the state of Myanmar. According to UWSP’s Chairman Bao Youxiang: “Wa State is an indivisible part of the Union of Myanmar. As a minority autonomous region, we only ask the government to grant us more power in self-administration.” This status had later been officially acknowledged within Myanmar’s constitution from 2008, which recognized six townships in the Wa-Region as the ‘Wa’ Self-Administrative Region.5

Although the ceasefire agreement had created a relative stability, it had failed to resolve the issue of economic sustainability. The access to legal trade and business with other parts of Myanmar was restricted. The relative autonomy of the UWSP in the Special Region 2 combined with that of the ceasefire thus constituted an indirect toleration of all drug trafficking and even led to its expansion. The lack of economic alternatives, as well as the historically evolved structures, led to a consolidation of the cultivation, trading and smuggling of opium as a major economic branch within the Wa State. Thus, after 1989, opium production increased significantly.

Drug trafficking reached such proportions in the early 1990s that Bao Youxiang, along with many other leaders in the Wa area, were also wanted by the Chinese police for their involvement in drug trafficking. As a consequence of this development, Bao Youxiang and Zhao Nyi Lai had signed the Cangyuan Agreement (沧源合同) with local officials in the Cangyuan Va Autonomous Region (沧源佤族自治县) in China, agreeing: „No drug goes into international society (from Wa State); no drug goes into China (from Wa State); no drug goes into Burmese government-controlled-area (from Wa State).“

However, a noticeable change did not seem to appear until Bao Youxiang took over the UWSP leadership in 1995 as „Chairman Bao“. With Bao Youxiang’s takeover, the UWSP took further action against the drug trade and announced in 1997 the official goal to make Wa State opium free by the end of 2005. Following this announcement, Bao Youxiang ordered the reallocation of tens of thousands of villagers in 1999. For this purpose, poppy farmers and impoverished villagers in the Wa Region were resettled from their mountainous homelands in the north to the more fertile southern valleys of the southern Shan state, where they were able to grow other crops. In this context, the previous residents from other than the Wa ethnic groups – Shan, Lahu and Akha – were expelled, and their land was often confiscated without compensation.

Measures of the UWSP’s anti opium policy culminated in the official prohibition of opium cultivation, which was announced in 2005. Since drug cultivation had been the main source of income for most farmers, the UWSP, with the help of the United Nations and the Chinese government, sought to create new alternatives. Attempts were made to incentivise Chinese investments in rubber, tea and sugar cultivation. However, these measures were insufficient to present a sustainable alternative.

Bao Youxiang had hoped to turn the Wa region into a tourism hub and economic zone through the introduction of the opium ban. Even though there had been no major changes at first, some minor successes were achieved over the years. In 2004, UWSP announced the completion of 1,800 kilometres of road in the north of the Wa Region and another 600 kilometres in the southern command centre of the UWSP near the Thai border. In addition, according to the UWSP seven power plants were built and further urbanization projects started with the help of the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drug Crimes). In addition, a small industry of its own started to emerge in the Wa area with the construction of a cigarette and paper factory in Panghsang, as well as a lighter factory, mineral water factory and beer brewery. The construction of larger casinos in the Wa Region however has become a particular important source of income as they attract investments from China.

Investments and ventures outside the Wa state were other means through which Bao Youxiang and several leading members of the UWSP tried to generate new revenue sources. For example, Bao Youxiang’s son-in-law, Ho Chun Ting, who holds the majority of shares in Yangon Airways and is also the chairman of Tetkham Co Ltd, which operates a hotel chain.

As a military leader, Bao Youxiang continued to play an important role in the country’s development and the relations to the ‘big neighbours’ of the Wa region, China and Myanmar. His main aim seems to keep both at a distance in order to maintain as much autonomy for the Wa people as possible. The UWSA however still maintains a close relationship with China. This was recently publicly demonstrated when China’s Special Representative Sun Guoxiang (孙国祥) met with Bao Youxiang in 2019 for the 30th anniversary of autonomy in the Wa Region to attend the ceremony. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary and the visit of Chinas Special Envoy, Bao Youxiang was quoted as having proclaimed:

What we need is ethnic equality, ethnic dignity, ethnic autonomy, and we ask the government to give the Wa an autonomous ethnic state; then we will fight for our lives. Until our political demands are realized, we will hold high the banner of peace and democracy on one hand, and armed self-defence on the other, and maintain the status quo.6

Bao Youxiang and Sun Guoxiang at the 2019 ceremony (Photo: Frontier Myanmar)

Bao Youyi (2nd from left) together with the chairman of the KIA (left) and two representatives of the USDDP and the NLD in May 2017 (Photo: Reuters)

Bao Youxiang furthermore proclaimed during his speech that “The Wa people are masters of their own destiny,“ and that his 600,000 “war-tested” people would never accept a role as pawns in a proxy war.7

On April 19th, 2017, Bao Youxiang became chairmen of the newly founded Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) formed in Panghsang by seven armed groups that did not sign the National Ceasefire Agreement with the Myanmar government in October 2015.8 This was seen as an alternative to the peace conferences organised by the Myanmar government entitled the 21th Century Panglong Conference. Chinas Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang (孙国祥) who regularly meets with UWSA’s leadership to discuss the peace process in the region bordering China, attended the ceremony. On the other hand, the UWSA was invited to attend the Panglong Conference and Bao Youxiang’s brother attended the meeting that took place in Naypyidaw in May 2017 shortly after the anniversary celebrated in the Wa State. However, there are no indications that the Wa leaders will make contributions towards a breakthrough that might lead to and end of the “stable limbo” existing for many years in Eastern Shan State and elsewhere on Myanmar soil.

Bao Youxiang is thus a key figure in the peace-building process with the government of the Union of Myanmar and makes use of the special location between Myanmar and China as well its close ties with other rebel groups operating in the north-eastern parts of Myanmar.


Today the opinion on Bao Youxiang is divided. As leader of the UWSA, he is regarded as a warlord and responsible for drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle by many members of the international community. In 2005, the US Department of Justice charged Chairman Bao Youxiang among with several other UWSP leaders with trading in heroin and methamphetamines. It denounced the UWSA as „one of the largest heroin-producing and trafficking groups in the world.”9

Adding to that, several various human rights violations can be attributed to Bao Youxiang, such as the use of child soldiers and the violent expulsion of minorities from Wa areas. This lets appear Bao Youxiang as an unscrupulous War Lord.

However, the use of drug trafficking as well as some other crimes cannot all directly be attributed to him, since many resistance groups had financed themselves via drug trafficking before and after 1989. Furthermore, it must also be noted that in the wake of the fragmentation of the CPB, the UWSP was still involved in combat operations with the drug kingpin Khun Sa until 1996.

It was also with Bao Youxiang’s takeover of the party´s chairmanship in 1995, that a change in the UWSP’s drug policy was initiated to make the Wa Region opium free until 2005. During this time, a number of concrete measures were undertaken to combat opium cultivation. It could therefore be argued that Bao Youxiang himself sees the opium trade as a problem and seeks to rid his people from it on the long run by creating long-term alternatives. These however make the Wa State more dependent on investments and goodwill of other actors such as China.

Despite of the anti-drug measures implemented since 1995, the Wa Region continues to be a region heavily dependent on smuggling and drug trafficking, raising the question of the sincerity of Bao Youxiang’s actions. For example, crystal methamphetamines are now being manufactured for export.

However, the slow development of the Wa Region and the failure of the Wa leadership’s anti-drug policy cannot only be blamed on an assumed unwillingness of the leadership to really change its ways. The Wa leadership still faces a lot of barriers put in place by Myanmar’s government. The approval of new companies and products by the administration of Myanmar is complex and long-winded. Furthermore, the central government had put restrictions in place not allowing companies in the Wa Region to send their products to Central Myanmar. Also, the export to international markets is restricted and only possible through certain border checkpoints controlled by the central government in Myanmar. The export of own products from the Wa Region is therefore often hampered by corruption and bureaucratic obstacles. This partly serves to regulate official trade with China, but had also served as a strategy of the Burmese government to weaken the ceasefire groups. It is therefore all the more understandable that Bao Youxiang is seeking out China as his strategic partner to develop the Wa Region in a semi-legal fashion.

As one of the central figures in the Wa Region, Bao Youxiang has managed to create an autonomous area in the Shan State, where the Wa minority can manage its own affairs. This has even been recognized in Myanmar’s Constitution of 2008, where in Art. 56f it officially defined the townships of Hopang, Mongma, Panwai, Nahpan, Metman and Pangsang (Pankham) as the ‘Wa’ Self-Administered Division.

It can be speculated that Bao Youxiang himself, as a member of the Wa minority, has been guided by his own national feeling and wish to fight for the rights of his people in creating an independent state. However, today his legacy is overshadowed by the discussion of drug trafficking, corruption and smuggling. The choice of Bao Youxiang’s methods led many of his critics to accuse him of selling out the Wa area resources and enriching himself at the expense of his people. Like so many drug traffickers who have become wealthy warlords, Bao Youxiang has also accumulated a lot of capital and invested it in various corporate groups in Myanmar, such as the Myanmar May Flower Group.

Thus, no conclusive judgment can be made. Bao Youxiang continues to be the de facto president of the Wa Region, shaping many decisions of the leadership in the Wa Region. His legacy will therefore depend on his ability to create more legal alternatives and further the economic development of the Wa Region through Chinese support.


1 This is the name used in the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar. The area was known before as the Wa Special Region 2.

2The town can be regarded as the capital of the Wa State and is the headquarter of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and its precedents.

3 The internal purges in the CPB during the Cultural Revolution combined with the failure to use the 1988 demonstrations as an opportunity served as the last straw that led to the uprising of the different minor armed groups against the CPB (Kramer, 2019: p.11-44).

4 Subsequent to 1988 demonstrations, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) led by the general Saw Maung had replaced the previous socialist government BSPP (Burma Socialist Programme Party). (Kramer, 2019: p.9)

5 According to Art. 56f of Myanmar’s Constitution the townships Hopang, Mongma, Panwai, Nahpan, Metman and Pangsang (Pankham) were forged into the ‘Wa’ Self-Administered Division.

6 The Irrawaddy, 17.4.2019 (; accessed 13.3.2019)

7 Mratt (2019)

8 In April 2017 the Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), Shan State East National Democratic Alliance Association (NDAA) and United Wa State Army (UWSA) jointly formed the FPNCC. (Tønnesson 2019, S.1)

9 Justice Department (2005)


Justice Department (January 24, 2005): Justice Department Charges Eight in Burma with Drug Trafficking (Long-term international effort targeted leaders of United Wa State Army) (2060). Distributed by the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State. Web. (26.02.2020)

Ko-lin, Chin (January 14, 2009): The Golden Triangle: Inside Southeast Asia’s Drug Trade. Auflage: 1. Cornell University Press.

Kramer, Tom (July 2019): NEITHER WAR NOR PEACE. THE FUTURE OF THE CEASE – FIRE. Drukkerij Primavera Quint. Amsterdam

Liu, Yun (2017): Building Peace in Myanmar: Birth of the FPNCC. (29.02.2020)

Mratt, Kyaw Thu; AFP (April 17, 2019): ‘Armed self-defence’ needed till demands are met, says Wa leader. In: Myanmar Frontier. Web. (29.02.2020)

Ministry of Information (Sept. 2008): Constitution oft he Republic of The Union of Myanmar (2008). In: Nay Pyi Taw

Sai, Wansai (February 07, 2019): Shan State re-emerges as illicit narcotics production center. In: BNI Multimedia Group. Web. (20.10.2019)

Sandford, Steve (May 15, 2019): Relative Stability Brings Progress to Myanmar Region. In: VOICE OF AMERICA. Web. (20.10.2019)

The Irrawaddy (17 April 2019): UWSA Leader Repeats Demands for Autonomous Wa State on 30th Anniversary. Web. (15.03.2020)

Tønnesson, Stein; Aung, Ne Lynn; Nilsen, Marte (2019): Will Myanmar’s Northern Alliance

Join the Peace Process? PRIO POLICY BRIEF 02.2019. Peace Research Institute Oslo (PRIO).

Weng, Lawi (May 5, 2015): We Have Been Subjected to International Pressure. Web. (20.10.2019)

Xiaoning (August 24, 2005): Bao Youxiang, seigneur de la drogue. In: Courrier international. Web. (20.10.2019)

Yimou Lee (DECEMBER 29, 2016): Through reclusive Wa, China’s reach extends into Suu Kyi’s Myanmar. In: Reuters. Web. (20.10.2019)

U Thuzana (1948-2018)

Hans-Bernd Zöllner

Burmese version of this article

Introduction – Difficulties in Properly Approaching a Monk’s Life

U Thuzana made headlines because of his role in the split of the Kayin National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the foundation of the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Army (DKBA) in late 1994.1 He is one of the many so-called “political monks” who have become famous as well as infamous in Burma’s recent political history. Describing his career can contribute to understanding the complex relationship of the mundane and the spiritual spheres in Myanmar’s society.

The western biographer, however, faces some special challenges in finding and evaluating the data of a monk’s life. In the eyes of the laypeople he is regarded a “son of the Buddha”. The life of the Buddha is thus the yardstick to measure a monk’s lifetime achievement. An individual monk’s level of enlightenment as assessed by his lay followers determines the spiritual value of the material support given to him. The more merit the layperson achieves through a gift to a member of the community, the Sangha, the greater is her or his chance of progressing towards the ultimate goal of life, the escape from all suffering in saṃsāra, the cycles of rebirth.

Therefore, the ‘biography’ of a monk written by one of his followers tends to be a hagiography. It makes no sense to write about a monk who failed, because he missed his vocation and must be classified as a pretender. In other words, from a consistent Buddhist perspective the term “political monk” is a self-contradiction, since politics belong to the mundane sphere of loka, but a monk to the supra-mundane sphere, lokuttara.2

This attitude is expressed in one of the epithets conferred on U Thuzana by his followers on the occasion of his cremation in late 2018: “sainted grandfather”.3 Such a saint cannot be “controversial”, another frequent attribute used to characterise U Thuzana. A headline like “A Saint in Command”, used by a western observer4 to describe his role, is a contradiction that is rooted in the different world-views of Buddhists and non-Buddhists, with their different understandings of a term like “politics”.

As a result of these cardinal problems in depicting a revered monk’s life, a “neutral narration” of U Thuzana’s life is almost impossible. As with many other prominent Buddhist monks, the data available are meagre and almost buried under the many and mostly controversial appraisals of the various manifestations emanating from his words and actions.

Until now, only one text exists that can be termed a biography of U Thuzana. It was written by one of his close followers who describes it as “no biography” but a “personal record of Sayadaw’s life experiences”.5 The foreword indicates that the book comes close to an autobiography of the monk written down by a “bosom friend”6 of his.7 Most western authors who try to make sense of the monk’s life make use of the work, published in 1999, that contains a number of documents, most related to the events of 1994 and 1995 and dealing with the conflict between Buddhist and Christian members of Kayin organisations that resulted in the split of the KNLA. For the monk’s life after 1999 comparatively few reports about his activities exist, many of them just mentioning his name in connection with descriptions of misdeeds by the DKBA and his initiatives of building pagodas in compounds of religious buildings of Christian and Muslim communities.

As a consequence, the following biographical sketch, based on sources that mostly must be regarded as biased in favour or against the monk, can just offer facts about U Thuzana’s life that cannot be neatly separated from the various interpretations connected to them. U Thuzana’s life story oscillates between often contradicting poles – and thus is rather typical for the recent history of Buddhist Myanmar.

Biographical Sketch

The future U Thuzana was born on August 1, 1948,8 in a village situated at the eastern bank of the Thanlwin (Salween) river as the eighth of twelve children. The village, located some 70 km north of Hpa-an, today’s capital of Kayin State, is not far from Myaing Gyi Ngu, the centre of the monk’s later activities. He was given the name of Than Sein. He attended an elementary school and at the age of eight became a novice at a nearby monastery. After finishing elementary school he continued his monastic education in Mawlamyine, Thaton and Mudon (all in Mon State). Here he received his Pali monk name U Thuzana (meaning virtuous and upright) and passed the lowest examination within the system. Around the age of 17 he left the monastery and on the advice of his abbot became Than Sein again because his father and his younger brother fell ill. He worked in the family’s rice fields for some time before being called to do military service for theKaren National Liberation Army ( KNLA )as a courier. According to his biography, on his travels through Kayin land he saw ruins of many Buddhist religious buildings and got the idea of rebuilding them.9

After the end of his military service and of the health and economic problems of his family, U Thuzana was ordained as a monk at the age of 20 on April 5, 1968.10 After that he continued his religious studies in Mudon, but soon turned to practise Vipassana meditation, thus following the emphasis of the leading monk on patipatti, practising the Buddha’s teaching instead of studying the theory (pariyatti). After practising meditation for some time and consulting his teacher, he decided to become a forest monk. At the age of 24 he went to the Myaing Gyi Ngu hill near his birthplace to settle down there. He met a hermit, an experienced practitioner of meditation, learned from him and – as was handed down – resisted the temptation of lust, survived the encounter with a boa constrictor and was cured from arthritis , which had not been cured before even by use of traditional methods.“

However, other health problems continued to afflict him.

After these experiences, clearly modelled on the story of the Buddha’s enlightenment in his biography, he set out on the next stage of following the Buddha’s path. He untertook a journey through the wilderness of Kayin country before starting to renovate the ruined pagoda of Myaing Gyi Ngu with the assistance of a number of followers. The foundation stone was laid in November 1975, the umbrella (hti) was hoisted half a year later on Thingyan, Burmese New Year. Reportedly 20,000 people attended the ceremony.11 From now on U Thuzana became known as the Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw (abbot) and his career as a pagoda builder started, albeit not immediately.

Myaing Gyi Ngu Pagoda (Photo G. Baumgard, 2004)

The biography records that between 1982 and 1984 seven pagodas were built on his initiative12 and that the number increased to 53, plus 28 ordination halls, by 1990.13 One of these caused problems because it was located at a strategically important place some 40 km away from Manerplaw, the headquarters of the KNU on the confluence of the Thanlwin and Moei rivers. The KNU leadership argued that the construction of the building might negatively effect the security of the opposition’s headquarters. The long controversy about the construction work finally contributed to the foundation of the Democratic Kayin Buddhist Association (DKBA) by a number of Buddhist soldiers.14 The Association was formed as the civil authority under which its armed wing known under the same acronym – ‚Association‘ replaced by ‚ Army‘ – performed its activities. The soldies had before been under the command of the KNLA in which the future U Thuzana had served for some time, the army of the Karen National Union (KNU). The split within the KNLA that had started fighting the Burmese army in 1949 happened in late 1994. Most observers agree that a long- standing dissatisfaction among the Buddhist rank and file of the army and the Christian leadership played a crucial role. Personal talks between KNU leader Bo Mya and U Thuzana about the pagoda building issue did not lead to a compromise.

KNU Heaquarters at Manerplw around 1992 (Phto: Richard Humphries)

In early 1995 U Thuzana became the most prominent patron of the new organisation as one of six Sayadaws. From then on he was regarded as controversial because he was regarded as leading a Karen „Buddhist army“ and was protected by it. His followers stress his main aim of promoting Buddhism; his critics regard him as a pawn of the military junta in its fight against the KNU and KNLA.

Myaing Gyi Ngu, Founding Stone Ceremony at the Basic Education High School in 2004 (Photo: G. Baumgard)

After 1995 not much biographical information exists about U Thuzana. He is generally called “chairman” or “leader” of the DKBA without any further specification. Most likely the monk concentrated on supervising the community that had assembled at Myaing Gyi Ngu, many of them being people who had fled their homes to avoid the fighting between the KNU, the Burmese army and other armed groups, among them the DKBA. Furthermore, the monk had invited refugees living in Thailand to return. A set of strict rules was proclaimed that made the “camp” a place in which a peaceful and just order based on Buddhist principles as articulated by the abbot was practised.15 Religious as well as political diversity was thus excluded.

Besides such actions, the monk gave sermons based on the Buddhist scriptures, like other monks, that were recorded and distributed to the public free of charge. One such sermon, explaining the often recited Mangala Sutta dealing with the prerequisites for a good and blessed life, was even translated into English. This is in a question-and-answer style and gives a completely orthodox interpretation of the text.

According to a report of the German NGO “People In Need, Gerhard Baumgard Stiftung” which supported the settlement under the governance of the monk, some 20,000 people (4,000 families) lived in the Myaing Gyi Ngu area in 2004. The report illustrates the connections of the settlement, which was at the same time regarded as the headquarter of the DKBA by the military government. A Government Basic Education High School (BEHS) had been founded in 1996, attended by about 1500 to 1700 students. While the primary school students came mostly from the village itself, the middle and high school students had to travel long hours to get to the school. Therefore a boarding house was needed that was to be constructed with the financial assistance of the NGO in the absence of other support.16 The school was just one of many projects to develop the region under the monk’s supervision with the support of the Buddhist Kayin and the leadership of the Burmese army. The ‘town’ had a power station and a hospital as well.

As a later report of the German NGO shows, the monk enjoyed the special patronage of Khin Nyunt, the long-time Secretary No. 1 of the ruling junta and Prime Minister between 2003 and his fall from power in 2004.17 The former leading official of the junta visited the place quite often and was depicted on murals in the position of paying respect to U Thuzana. He further attended the funeral ceremonies of the monk in 2018. U Thuzana’s followers were issued special documents allowing them to move in areas controlled by the Myanmar military without being forced to serve as porters. On the other hand, the monk refused to accept rewards for his religious activities offered to him by the military government.18

Khin Nyunt at the funeral of U Thuzana (Photos: Mikael Gravers)

From 1995 on, it is reported that the DKBA on order or with the consent of U Thuzana attacked Christian and Muslim settlements and constructed pagodas on the compounds of the other religious communities.19

The support of the government helped the settlement to perform a number of ecenomic activities. A licence was given to transport goods and people from Hpa-an to Yangon. A specially built road connected the Special Zone with Tailand. Teak, gems and other commodities could be exported and other goods could be custom-free imported. Furthermore, the DKBa as the KNU collected custom duties at the borders of the areas controlled by them and colleted road charges.

In 2010 the political environment changed again. In order to bring the armed rebel groups in Myanmar under the control of the military of the state, the government requested that they become Border Guard Forces (BGFs). Thus the armed groups could retain a certain degree of self-administration, but were formally made part of the government’s security forces. A majority of the DKBA units, among them those controlling Myaing Gyi Ngu, accepted the offer, while others did not. A commander of a new army called Democratic Kayin Benevolent Army summarised the difference between the two groups thus: “If you stand for your religion, join the BGF, if for your nation, like the KNLA, then join with us.”20 The splits caused new fights between the different factions, resulting in the emergence of new camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) close to Myaing Gyi Ngu that were supported by U Thuzana.21

For some years, U Thuzana did not attract much public attention. From 2015 on, however, the building of pagodas on Christian and Muslim compounds initiated by him made headlines. Interventions from different organisations to stop the construction failed because U Thuzana claimed that the pagodas were built on sites where formerly Buddhist religious buildings had existed and that it was necessary to protect the ancient Buddhist heritage.

During the last years, U Thuzana’s voice was less often to be heard. He had suffered from a lung problem and breathing difficulties for a long time. When travelling he carried an oxygen tank. Before he died on October 13, 2018, in a Bangkok hospital he had spent 10 months there. From the beginning of his career he had had many followers in Thailand who supported his activities.

Aims and Objectives

There is no doubt that U Thuzana’s eagerness to build pagodas contributed to the split of the KNLA and the fall of Manerplaw, the headquarters of the KNU administration and its multi-ethnic allies that were determined to crush the military junta that took ober power in September 1988. But it seems clear as well that this was not the only reason. The question of whether the monk intentionally supported the formation of the Buddhist Kayin army remains a matter of controversy. But the victory of the forces of the Burmese Tatmadaw and their new ally, the DKBA, was a milestone in the junta’s first aim of restoring law and order in the country before concentrating on promoting peace and development, as indicated by the name change from SLORC to SPDC in late 1997. Aung San Suu Kyi was released some months after the conquest of the opposition’s capital, which had forced the “alternative government” National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), formed in December 1990 in Manerplaw and headed by her cousin Sein Win, to become a “government in exile”, no longer residing on Burmese soil but in the United States.

U Thuzana’s biography stresses his determination to stay aloof from politics.22 However, he is described as a Kayin “nationalist” who – like the political and military leader Bo Mya – wanted “peace” for the Kayin people.23 Their means, however, were different and led to a rivalry between the two. The biography explains U Thuzana’s position thus:

He is free and stays away from politics. Sayadaw’s main thing in life is to propagate and perpetuate Buddha Sasana. In truth Sayadaw is imbued with nationalism. His nationalism is not what they say. His nationalism is that Kayin national were once a highly cultured people. They built zedis, stupas, shrines and pagodas in the wildernesses of the State. These religious edifices were now ruined in the wildernesses. Sayadaw has to shine the Light which had been flickered or extinguished in the past. In present, there should be a Light that flames, and in future there will be a Light which will shine all over Kayin State. – This is Myaing-Gwe: Ngu’s nationalism.

This is a program of a religious-cultural revival that aims at bringing back the glory of the past, overgrown in the course of time by – natural and cultural – “wildernesses”. One effect of this process of decline was the loss of a Kayin script which the monk re-invented24 – as an indigenous alternative to the letters borrowed from the Burmese language used by the Christian missionaries to give the Kayin back the ability to read, that according to a Kayin myth was once lost. This detail accents the cultural-religious focus of the monk’s controversy with the Christian KNU leader Bo Mya. This fills most of the space in the second part of the quoted biography, supporting the biographer’s point of view with documents from followers who took over posts in the new army.

Due to the controversies overshadowing almost all aspeczs of Myanmar politics, U Thuzana’s „pro-Buddhist“ stance and his role as the patron of the DKBA (the association and the army) were interpreted as being anti-Christian and anti-Muslim, too. Such judgement might not quite meet the monk’s attitude. It is reported that a number of soldiers of the DKBA were Christian and even held high positions. At the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding with a German based NGO, Christens from Hpa-an, the capital of Kayin State were present, among them a Baptist pastor in full Kayin vestment.

Buddhist and Christians at Myaing Gyi Ngu Pagoda, including a Baptist pastor in his priestly garb to the right. The man wearing the red-shirt Karen shirt is Thar Htoo Kyaw, the then leader of the DKBA – not wearing hi militaryy uniform on the occasion of the signing of the MoU with the German NGO (Photo G. Baumgard, 2004))

The Myaing Gyi Ngu settlement was reserved for Buddhists. Members of other religions as well as “kalas”, people of Indian descent, were not allowed to live their according to signposts set at the entrance of U Thuyana’s realm. With regard to U Thuzana’s actions towards non-Buddhists living in the so-called “Myaing Gyi Ngu Special Zone”, a letter he wrote to a Muslim community living nearby is telling.25 The monk explains the reasons he ordered the Muslims to move to another place: their habits of eating fish and meat and slaughtering cows. One mportant reason to reserve the Myaing Gyi Ngu settlement was reserved for Buddhist was the necessity to make sure that one of the five Buddhist precepts – not to kill any living being – could be practiced. It had to be assured that a vegetarian diet could be guaranteed for all people living under the supervision of U Thuzana.

After informing them about the reasons for his decision, the monk writes to the “Mosque leaders and villagers”:

You and I as religious leaders know each other personally very well. Although we have mutual understanding and forgiveness, our respective youth and our followers are bound to come into conflict with one another in due course.

That’s why you should relocate peacefully and without resistance to the new designated place where you build a village which will be named „Nyinyar Aye Chan“ (Unity and Peace) and live accordingly peacefully.

Near Ta Khwet Hpoe Village, Buddhists will move in and build a new village named Nan Hay Myaing. This is a win-win situation.

During the immediate period of relocation you will hold resentment towards me, the Abbot. In due course, you will come to appreciate my good intentions.

Out of compassion, I am donating to your relocation efforts, out of my meagre savings, the amount of 20,000,000 Kyat (500,000 is earmarked for the building a mosque and the rest is for the villagers).

I heard some of your villagers thought it was too little a compensation and they wanted to refuse the offer. If that is the case, I will happily rescind the offer.

I am not a narrow-minded bigot. If I were, I would have barred Kalars from walking on any road that I paved, by erecting „no Kalars may walk on this road“ signs.

I extend my metta to all. In this life we are different peoples as Kalar, Bama, Kayin, etc. But in the cycle of lives we are all relatives! I hope that you will understand me and that you will forgive me for this action.

With much loving kindness for all, …

The language of the letter clearly shows that U Thuzana regards himself as the highest authority of the “special zone” built up under his patronage since he took his residence there. In his eyes, the “Shining Light of the Dhamma” has to be employed as the fundamental principle governing the coexistence of the people. To secure peace, measures must be taken to separate the communities, a measure for which the abbot pays some money following the traditional supreme virtue of a traditional Buddhist ruler, practising generosity (dāna).

In this “dhammacracy”, the teaching of the Buddha, the dhamma, is placed above all other laws and the monk who ignites this supreme illumination for a particular community tops the mundane hierarchy under his supervision. The religious leaders of the Muslim community will be able to understand this and will accept the decision as a “win-win situation”. According to the law of kamma, the different status of people of different ethnic and religious affiliation cannot be changed immediately. Only when the cycle of rebirths is considered are all people relatives. For the time being hierarchies exist and must be handled wisely and with good intentions.

The role of U Thuzana in the “special zone” of Myaing Gyi Ngu was that of a patron whose authority was respected in such a way that he did not exercise any executive power to implement what he regarded to be appropriate. The contract between the German NGO and the monastery was concluded between the monk and the chairman of the foreign organisation; it was, however, signed by an executive administrating the special zone. The principle of traditional Buddhist practice that a monk must stay away from getting directly involved in financial affairs was thus observed.

Seen in this perspective, the building of pagodas on the compounds of other religious communities could be seen not an attempt to replace the church or mosque or even to extinguish the “other” community, but as an attempt to remind the people of what the monk regarded to be the historically justified priority of a Buddhist-Kayin culture in this region. Such a view, however, severely contradicts norms that are generally supposed to govern the co-existence of different communities.


These basics of a benevolent Kayin Buddhist nationalism do not meet the principles laid down in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights and contradict the Western understanding of democracy, where all people are regarded as equal before the law enacted by the consent of the people in a certain nation state. The “special zone” administered by U Thuzana was – and still is – a small state within the state of Myanmar and it is not the only one. Several other Buddhist saints established their “states within the state”26 that have interacted in various ways with the Burmese/Myanmar governmental institutions trying to administer the whole country. U Thuzana’s rival, Bo Mya, represents another type of leader of an ethnic-centred state-like entity that is still mushrooming in Myanmar, challenging the monopoly of the central government in terms of the use of force, cultural rights and other functions of a nation.

The challenge brought forward by U Thuzana was special because it was inextricably connected to his life story. It might be argued that he became a “political monk” only by accident. The wilderness of Kayin Land that he discovered on his way to become a forest monk made him discover relicts that he regarded as testimonies of an old Kayin civilisation based on Buddhist spirituality. The many pagodas, ordination halls and other religious edifices he restored or built with the assistance of his followers, as well as his activities to better the lives of his Buddhist fellow-Kayins, were just material results of his vision to revive this civilisation by building up an “imagined community” (Benedict Anderson). The high value ascribed to vegetarian food, even for the dogs, is an example of the logical execution of the Buddhist precept not to kill any living being within the borders of a model Buddhist community.

Such a community depends on the spiritual qualities ascribed to its leader by the people who follow him. Therefore, the death of the founder might be the beginning of the community’s end as a place of sanctity since this sainthood depends on the living saint. Religious as well as political charisma cannot be institutionalised.

What might be telling for the future of the Myaing Gyi Ngu “special zone” is the career of the Thamanya Sayadaw (1912-2003) under whose guidance another Buddhist “model community” was established around another hill in Kayin State.27 Here, donations of pilgrims visiting the site were the economic base of the settlement. After the death of the monk, his four monk-disciples could not agree on a successor and the government took back some of the privileges enjoyed by the people who had settled on the “holy place”. The example is also instructive for the variety of assessments of the work of socially engaged monks. The Thamanya Sayadaw was lauded as “progressive” because he was visited by Aung San Suu Kyi and thus seen as an opponent of the military regime. In fact, he tried to keep the same distance from the state authorities as U Thuzana did.28

Both U Thuzana as well as the Thamanya Sayadaw can be called “socially engaged monks” – albeit in a different sense than the usual cosmopolitan understanding of the term – who were drawn into the controversies of Myanmar politics and thus were assigned the status of “political monks”. This somewhat arbitrary labelling can be further illustrated by a comparison with the Sitagu Sayadaw, who for some time was perceived as one of the most respected religious leaders in Myanmar because of his teaching and philanthropic work, which included the establishment of a Buddhist University in Sagaing. After a sermon given at a military training school in Kayin State in September 2017 he became “controversial”, too. His talk, televised nationwide, was interpreted as a justification for the killing of people from other faiths by Buddhist soldiers.29 In June 1999 the monk gave a talk at Nyaing Gyi Ngu entitled “The River of Peace”.30 U Thuzana advertised the sermon as ”suitable for the DKBA and return to the legal fold to take an example”. The guest speaker stated in the foreword to the publication of his speech that he “had long been desirous to make a Dhamma trip to Myaing Gyi Ngu.”

The cover of the book documenting the visit of the Sitagu Sayadaw and some pictures

The episode shows that U Thuzana can be regarded as a representative of the Sangha in Myanmar whose publicity exceeded the local sphere. He stood not just for a narrow Kayin Buddhist-cultural nationalism but for a “Buddhist ecumene” that transcended ethnic boundaries. However, such a concept contradicts enlightened “modern” political thought. To this extent U Thuzana is a personification of Myanmar’s uneasy relationship with the international community.


Equality Myanmar 2016 Situation of Freedom of Religion and Belief in Myanmar. (; accessed 25.9.2019)

Gravers, Mikael 2015 Religious Imaginary as an Alternative Social and Moral Order – Kayin Buddhism across the Thai-Burma Border. Jung, Jin-Heong and Alexander Horstmann (eds.) 2015 Building Noah’s Ark for Migrants, Refugees and Religious Communities. New York, Palgrave McMillan: 45-67.

– 2018 A Saint in Command? Spiritual protection, justice, and religious tensions in the Kayin State. Independent Journal of Burmese Scholarship 1, 2: 87-119 (; accessed 259.2019).

Jolliffe, Kim 2016 Ceasefire, Governance, Development: The Kayin National Union in Times of Change. The Asia Foundation.

Keenan, Paul 2016 The Formation of the DKBA. (; accessed 18.4.2019).

Myaing Gyi Ngu Sayadaw 2002 Questions and Answers on Mingala Sutta. English version by U Than Htun,(Shwebo). Published by Mann Ba Nyu Pe, Myaing Gyi Ngu Special Region.

Myaing Nan Swe 1999 Myaing Gye: Ngu Sayadaw. A Jahan who Shines the light of Dhamma. Translated by Shin Khay Meinda. (’s_Book-red.pdf; accessed 29.5.2019).

People in Need – Gerhard-Baumgard Stiftung 2004 Report on the Foundation, December 1004 (; accessed 28.5.2019).

Rozenberg, Guillaume 2010 Renunciation and Power. The Quest for Sainthood in Contemporary Burma. New Haven, Ct. Yale Southeast Asian Studies.

Thitagu Sayadaw Phaya 2001 The Sermon on “The River of Peace”. (A Journey of Dhamma to Myaing Gyi Ngu). Recorded by Myaing Nann Swe. English translation by U Than Hzun (Shwebo). Published by Mann Ba Nyu Pe, Myaing Gyi Ngu Special Region.

Toza, Keiko 2009 The Cult of Thamanya Sayadaw. The Social Dimension of a Formulating Pilgramage Site. Asian Ethnology 68,2: 230-264 (; accessed 25.9.2019)

The author thanks Gerhard Baumgard for the information provided by him.


1Like most other groups involved in Myanmar’s civil war, the new Buddhist organisations emerging in late 1994 distinguished between a political organisation and its armed wing. The acronym DKBA first designated a political “association” that however was closely tied to the “army”. The political significance of the movement is denoted by the acronym DKBO – O standing for “organisation”.

2 For further reading: Mathew J. Walton: Buddhism, Politics and Political Thought in Myanmar, Cambridge University Press, 2016.

3 (accessed 15.3.2019).

4Gravers 2018.

5Myaing Nan Swe 1999: 1.

6Ibid.: 2.

7To write an autobiography in the third person is not unusual for a Buddhist author. The autobiography of U Nu (“Saturday’s Son” published in 1976) is written in the third person. This style allowing avoidance of the word “I” is in line with the Buddhist principle of anatta, no-self.

812th waning day of Second Waso 1310 BE.

9Myaing Nan Swe 1999: 15.

10Burmese calendar: 8th day of the waxing moon 1330 BE.

11Myaing Nan Swe 1999: 62.

12Ibid.: 73.

13Ibid.: 109.

14According to various reports, the number might have been between 200 and 300. – The Association is better Known in the western literature as DKBO – Democratic Karen Buddhist Organisation).

15The rules were: “To remain vegetarian forever inside and outside the camp. – No one is to argue or to cause trouble outside the camp. – There is to be no division between races. – Everybody must keep the 5th Commandment of the Gautama Buddha (Do not kill). – Do not gossip or use slander that will cause harm to anybody in the compound. – No political discussions or arguments are allowed to disturb the people in the compound. – No religion apart from Buddhism is allowed to be discussed in the compound.” (Keenan 2016). According to a report of a German foundation building a school in Myaing Gyi Ngu, the vegetarian policy of the place even included the dogs that lived there. They were fed rice and vegetables (People in Need 2004: 5).


17The support of the NGO came to an end after Khin Nyunt lost his post in October 2004. The boarding house for 200 students was finished on a smaller scale than originally planned ( 11; accessed 28.5.2019).

18Rozenberg 2010: 136.

19A report of the Bangkok Post of March 1996 reports about attacks on villages inhabited by Seventh Day Adventists, the religious community to which the leader of the KNU Bo Mya (1927-2006) belonged.

20Jolliffe 2016: 7.

21For a report on the situation in 2016 see (accessed 30.5.2019).

22Myaing Nan Swe 1999: 133; 136; 137.

23Ibid.: 109-113.

24Gravers 2015: 60.

25 (accessed 30.5.2019): Annex 8 (pp. 68 and 69). The letter is included in a documentation of a “Permanent Peoples’ Tribunal” on “State Crimes Allegedly Committed in Myanmar” held in 2017 in Kuala Lumpur.

26See Rozenberg 2010.

27For details see Tosa 2009. The Thamanya Hill is located south-east of Hpa-An near the road linking the capital of Kayin State to the border town Myawaddi.

28Rozenberg 2010: 135-147.

29 (accessed 30.8.2019).

30Thitagu Sayadaw Phaya 1999.

Saw Ba U Gyi (1905-1950)

Laura Hornig

Burmese version of this article

(I use “Karen State” and “Burma“ since many of the events addressed here took place before the renaming).


Researchers, journalists, and aid workers who met the Karen communities along the Thai-Myanmar border have surely encountered his face a dozen times at least – on posters in people’s houses or on banners during the annual Karen martyr’s day celebrations. Saw Ba U Gyi, up to today, is the face of the Karen rebellion. He is best known as the founder of the Karen National Union (KNU). Ba U Gyi was a committed politician, who repeatedly voiced the Karen cause in negotiations with the British and the post-independence Burma government, and eventually resorted to an armed struggle. This article aims to explore the life and legacy of this Christian Sgaw Karen man, born in a village far away from later Karen State, who in the years prior to the civil war lived in London to study law, married an English woman, and became a father of three. Saw Ba U Gyi was murdered in 1950, at 47 years of age. He remains of symbolic importance for the Karen National Union as an organization, which remains active and influential, and for many Karen who have been directly or indirectly affected by the violent conflicts in Eastern Myanmar.

Biographical sketch

Saw Ba U Gyi was born in October 1903, in a village near Bassein (now: Pathein), the capital of Irrawaddy Division. Ba U Gyi’s father was a landowner, and he was also the headman of the village, facts that made him relatively wealthy and influential. The British had ruled Burma for several decades by that time, and they had turned the Irrawaddy Delta region from a laid-back and scarcely populated part of the country into the country’s main rice producing area. In this process, thousands of migrants came from upper Burma and from India, to turn swamps and jungles into rice fields for large-scale cultivation. This endeavour brought about vast changes for the Karen and Burman people in the region who had previously mainly practised subsistence farming and fishing. Many of the Karen people had adopted Christianity as well as ideas of the importance of formal education. People increasingly moved to towns, and livelihood patterns changed. What is known about Saw Ba U Gyi’s life has thankfully been published by his grandson, Paul Sztumpf (2011) in order to enable both, Karen and non-Karen to understand more about what he and his family had experienced. Ba U Gyi’s father belonged to a family of Christian Sgaw Karen. In his village, however, there was also a sizable Burman Buddhist population. According to reports, both groups lived in peaceful coexistence, but inhabited separate parts of the village and contact between them remained limited. Community life in each part of the village was centred around the church and monastery respectively. Village life was generally marked by the seasons, by agriculture and by the cycle of traditional festivals. Ba U Gyi’s father, as village headmen, was responsible to care for all people’s concerns. He supported community projects such as Bassein Sgaw Karen High School named Ko Tha Byu. The Ko Tha Byu Church and the Theological Seminary remain the center of the Sgaw community of Pathein up to today.

Not much is known about Ba U Gyi’s mother, who he grew up with, together with his two older, and two younger sisters. What we do know is that Saw Ba U Gyi went to a Baptist high school where he was taught by foreign missionary teachers. Saw Ba U Gyi grew up with the awareness of being Karen and Christian, and thus belonging to an ethnic and religious minority. Increasingly, and not least because of British policy, hostilities emerged between Karen Christians and Burman Buddhists. The British had recruited many Karen into the police and the armed forces. While among Burman nationalists the wish for independence grew, in the eyes of some Karen leaders British rule seemed to grant some degree of protection and privileges to the Karen. Difference in loyalties should become one of the major dividing lines of an emerging conflict that would shape the fate of the Karen people for decades to come.

After completing high school, Ba U Gyi was sent to London to study law and train as a barrister, together with his cousin. He arrived in London aged 18, and he would stay for eight years. While studying in London, he met Renee Rose Kemp, an English woman, a talented seamstress, who worked as a shop window dresser in one of London’s main shopping areas. The couple started dating, went for dinner, to the cinema, and dancing to Charleston. They married in 1926, and a year later their son Michael Theodore was born. After finishing his degree in law in 1926, Ba U Gyi had to be trained in a lawyer’s association, until he could finally call himself a barrister three years later. In 1929 Ba U Gyi finished his training, and became father of a second child, a girl named Thelma Resa. By the end of the same year, the whole family boarded a ship to Burma. Saw Ba U Gyi was now 26 years old (see Sztumpf, 2011).

Saw Ba U Gyi and his family set up their home first in Pathein, and later in Myaungmya, a nearby town which is home to a large Karen population until today. Pathein and Myaungmya had now for many years marked by to commerce. They were urban centres with mostly Burmese, but also Karen, British, Indian, and Chinese inhabitants. Respectively, a variety of food, music, movies and products was available. The family lived here for several years, and Saw Ba U Gyi run his office as a lawyer. He spent his free time exchanging ideas with students and teachers from the Karen High School, and playing football and golf. Photos of those days show him wearing a western-style suit and driving a Ford V-8RD.484. In court, he would wear a gown, like a British barrister. Renee adapted to the new life in Burma. She had a friend in a fellow foreign Lady in town, the Scottish wife of Ba U Gyi’s cousin, who had also spent his student years in London.

Saw Ba U Gyi and his car (Courtesy of Paul Sztumpf)

Before long, circumstances became more challenging. The Great Depression had taken a toll on Burma. Farmers in the Irrawaddy Delta were highly indebted to moneylenders or absent landowners. Economic struggles led to intensifying tensions in the country’s population and fostered nationalism and hostility toward immigrants and ethnic minorities. Indians and Chinese in particular were targeted and at times they became victims of violent attacks. Furthermore, the British, too, made more and more use of violent suppression. Recruiting members of ethnic minorities into their army fostered divisions. In 1930 the Saya San uprising was answered with a major military act by the British, with many of the 10.000 involved soldiers being Karen. Within the political realm, a Burmese elite started to emerge around Aung San and his companions, who attempted to lead the country toward independence.

When the war reached Burma, Saw Ba U Gyi left to his native village and four years should pass until he could see his family again. By April 1942 large parts of Burma were under Japanese control. What was left of the British army as well as hundreds of thousands of Indians fled toward Arakan under horrendous conditions. Among the masses of refugees were Ba U Gyi’s wife Renee and their two children. Upon his return, Saw Ba U Gyi found his house empty. With luck and the help of influential friends his wife and children could leave Indian exile to return to London, on a weeks-long journey from Bombay by ship.

In Burma, violence between Karen and Burman groups erupted in several parts of the country. Many Karen were branded traitors, having fought for the British. Burman nationalists had managed to set up the Burma Independence Army (BIA). Saw Bah U Gyi’s cousin and lifelong friend Pe Tha was killed alongside his Scottish wife and their children, as were countless others (Karen as well as Burmans) in the area around Myaungmya, a Karen stronghold. It is those traumatic events that arguably constituted the root of Saw Ba U Gyi’s evolving political agenda, and his four principles that the Karen National Union (KNU) upholds until today (see below).

Saw Ba U Gyi initially worked together with General Aung San to prevent violence and support reconciliation between and within communities. Living in Yangon now, he formed the Karen Central Organization (KCO). The KCO was recognized as an official body representing the interests of the Karen by the ruling political powers. Having been in contact with the Japanese, Saw Ba U Gyi at one point even went to Japan for a visit. In 1944, the British were ready to reinvade Burma. They had planned this undertaking carefully, having trained thousands of Karen as soldiers. Some of them would later become leading figures in the KNU. A growing Karen ethno-nationalism fuelled the conflict, depicting the Burmans as the enemy. General Aung San tried to keep a balanced position between the various political interests, but now oriented more strongly towards the Allies that after the victorious battle of Imphal (India) in July 1944 could be expected to drive the Japanese out of Burma. The Japanese surrendered in September 1945. Only a few weeks later, a delegation of seven young leaders from Burma was invited to Ceylon, to start negotiations. Aung San went, and with him Saw Ba U Gyi, to represent the Karen. The responsible British commander to lead the negotiations had a liberal orientation. He promised Aung San Burma’s independence within three years. However, the country’s infrastructure had suffered, the economy was set back. Several different groups with competing interests started to participate in the race to shape the new Burma, and a number of these groups set up their own armies.

The KCO made official demands to the British for a Karen state, either as a separate state or as an equal partner in a federal dominion. It was also Saw Ba U Gyi who used the word “Kawthoolei“ for this state (which translates to “a land without evil“), a term that is still in use among Karen communities today (Keenan, 2008, 3). However, ultimately none of the demands for such a state were answered. The Karen leaders envisioned equality for their people, a chance to shape their own destiny without having to live as second-class citizens. In August 1946, a delegation of Karen, led by Saw Ba U Gyi, reached London to present their cause. Arriving at the docks, he was reunited with his family. Saw Ba U Gyi soon realized that his mission would not succeed. While the Karen leaders received recognition for their past services, no one supported them in their demand for a state of their own, regardless of promises that might have been uttered in the past. These demands were basically ignored. Saw Ba U Gyi returned to Burma, disappointed and without his family. He and his wife decided to divorce (Sztumpf, 2011).

While Aung San continued to negotiate details on Burma’s independence, Saw Ba U Gyi reorganized the KCO, and formed the Karen National Union (KNU), with the idea to unite Karen of several religions with a shared hope for a separate state. However, other organized Karen groups had been established in the meantime, and not everyone was agreeing on specific demands. There were differing views, for instance, on the areas that a Karen state should encompass. Saw Ba U Gyi soon resigned from Aung San’s cabinet as a sign of protest. It remains unknown whether Aung San’s attempts to overcome tensions and conflicts between different ethnic groups could have been successful. He was assassinated in July 1947, together with other members of his cabinet. A few months later, in January 1948, Burma officially gained independence. The British left, but the “Karen conflict” remained unsolved.

Negotiations with the new government under U Nu took place, but for Saw Ba U Gyi, the offers by the leading party did not leave enough room for Karen rule. Consequently, they were rejected by Karen representatives. Decades of divide-and-rule had imposed distrust. When the talks went silent, the Karen under Saw Ba U Gyi resorted to direct action. A period of unrest and violence started, not only between Karen and Burmans but also on other fronts. On February 11, 1948 Karen people started demonstrating in different parts of the country. In the violent incidences of the following weeks, many Karen soldiers as well as parts of the Burmese army acted independently from their leaders. Karen villages were attacked but the Karen army seized the township of Insein which it held for 100 days. The Burmese army could eventually claim it back, and the KNDO (Karen National Defence Organization) had to resort first to Toungoo, and after long fighting, further back into the mountains of Karen country. U Nu and Saw Ba U Gyi attempted to negotiate, but no solution could be reached. In 1950, a KNU congress under Saw Ba U Gyi was organized, and the organization specified its demands. In this context, Saw Ba U Gyi formulated his famous four principles that are uphold by the KNU up to today:

1. For us surrender is out of the question, 2. The recognition of Karen state must be complete, 3. We shall retain our arms, 4. We shall decide our own political destiny.

The post-independence period saw widespread insurgencies in different parts of the country, of which the Karen rebellion was one. Martin Smith estimated that around 60.000 people died in Burma within the first two years of resurrections alone (Smith, 1991, 119). On the 12th of August 1950 Saw Ba U Gyi was travelling through Papun district in today’s Karen State that was created in 1952 with nine of his colleagues. They had no guards. The group had been staying in Karen villages, in one of which their trust was eventually betrayed on that day. Saw Ba U Gyi and his colleagues were attacked and killed by government troops. Ba U Gyi’s body was taken to Moulmein, where it was thrown overboard near the coast, to ensure that no Marty’s grave could be set up.

Up to today, the 12th of August is celebrated as Martyr’s day in Karen State.

A statue of Saw Ba U Gyi was built in Yangon with the cooperation of KNU (Karen National Union) and Karen civil society organisations. The Myanmar authorities did not allow it to bring it to a compound of a KNU Brigade in Kren State (Myanmar Times)

Aims, Achievement, Legacy

While we have some information, many details about Saw Ba U Gyi‘s role in the turbulent times during the Second World War and after independence remain unclear. Why did he fail in the negotiations? Did he overestimate the loyalty of the British, and the unity among Karen? What drove him to ultimately resort to an armed struggle? Who were his close allies? Who betrayed him? Today, he is often presented as a unifying Karen leader, famous for his four principles and his persistence to achieve the goal of a Karen state. However, several people remember him personally as someone who would clearly have preferred to solve things peacefully. As a passionate lawyer who respected regulations, someone who was open to compromise, and certainly not a hardliner (Thawnghmung, 2012, 47–49). However, Saw Ba U Gyi was also greatly disappointed by the British and the newly set up Burmese government alike, both of which largely ignored the demands of the Karen he represented. He had witnessed the horrendous deaths of many friends and fellow Karen in the 1942 Myaungmya incident, and he was under pressure to bring forward the wishes of many who feared repression and revenge by Burmans more generally and the Burmese military more specifically.

These people’s fears were not unfounded. The “Karen conflict“ should develop into a decade-long brutal war. The Tatmadaw attacked the KNU controlled areas viciously, killing thousands and displacing even more. Entire communities were forced to hide in the jungles. At times more than 120.000 lived in refugee camps in Thailand, and tens of thousands still do. For a long period, the Karen National Union held large parts of the country’s Karen state under its control. Financed mainly through cross-border trade and taxation, the KNU managed to set up state-like structures, including an elected leadership, a strong army and several civil organizations, such as a women’s groups and a youth group. However, the KNU, despite being one of the most influential ethnic armed groups in Myanmar, is far from representing all Karen. Many sub-groups have emerged and there is a high degree of fragmentation among the Karen. Moreover, the majority of the Karen people do not live in Karen state, and thus far away from the KNU controlled territories. And while most Karen are Buddhists, the KNU has from the very beginning been dominated by an educated Christian Sgaw Karen elite. Internal conflicts and fragmentation within the KNU have led to the foundation of several armed splinter groups, such as the Buddhist-led DKBA in 1994. Conflicts between different armed Karen groups, shifting loyalties, and repeated attacks by the Tatmadaw have weakened the organisation over the years. Nevertheless, identification with the KNU remains strong in the refugee camps on Thai ground and probably among many communities living in Karen state, not least because these were directly affected by violent conflicts in past decades. The KNU remains one of the most important non-state parties in peace process negotiations. Its current leader Saw Mutu Say Poe has signed a ceasefire with the Burmese government in 2012. However, new clashes have occurred since then and the conflict seems far from over. Karen leaders have repeatedly emphasized that their struggle does not aim for an independent state, but for a life in peace and without fear, for being able to preserve their culture and language, for a Karen area under Karen leaders. Its founder’s role today is a symbolic one. For many, Saw Ba u Gyi remains the face of the Karen struggle. His photo is omnipresent in KNU-influenced areas (including refugee camps) in people’s homes and in public buildings, and especially during celebrations, where as a symbol, it serves the reproduction and performance of “Karen-ness“. As always, collective ethnic identity is also defined in distinction to “the other“, in this case mostly the Bamar. Keeping the struggle alive is thus also a continuing manifestation of differences, in ethnicity and religion, long fostered and instrumentalized by different sides, during the rule of Burmese Kings, during colonial time, during military years. For most Karen people on the ground the struggle has first and foremost been about hopes for safety, respect, and the freedom to keep and perform their ethnic identity.

I want to thank Paul Sztumpf, the grandson of Saw Ba U Gyi, for sharing information and his views with me in an email correspondence.


Keenan, Paul (2008). Saw Ba U Gyi. Voices of the Revolution. KHCPS paper.

Smith, Martin (1991): Burma. Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. Zed books.

Sztumpf, Paul (2011): The life and times of Saw Ba U Gyi. E-booklet.

South, Ashley (2011): Burma’s longest war. Anatomy of the Karen conflict. Transnational Institute Burma Center Netherlands.

South, Ashley (2008): Ethnic Politics in Burma: States of Conflict. Routledge.

Thawnghmung, Ardeth Maung (2012): The „Other“ Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities And The Struggle Without Arms. Lexington Books.

Saw Phar Dae (born 1945) – Portrait of a KNU Fighter

by Georg Winterberger

Burmese version of this article


Saw Phar Dae is the focus of this contribution not because he is a famous or especially important figure. He was a KNU fighter in the 1970s to 1990s. The KNU (Karen National Union) is one of the – if not „the“ – political organization(s) of the Karen,1 the second largest ethnic group in Myanmar. Demographic figures range widely (from 2.5 to 7 million). They live in different regions of Lower Myanmar and consist of more than twenty subgroups. Native speakers can be divided into Sa’gaw and Pwo speakers, the former living in the Ayeyarwady delta, the latter in the eastern parts of Myanmar close to the Thai border. The majority are Buddhists.2 However, the Karen are often seen as mainly Christian since their political orientation was (and still is, to a certain extent) strongly influenced by the KNU, which is led by a Christian elite (Gravers 2014: 175).

Saw Phar Dae is not famous or important as a political leader; neither was he an outstanding fighter, but one of a group around one of the sub-leaders of the Karen. But my interest was awakened by this ordinariness of his career. I wanted to offer a portrait that may shed some light on not well-known persons — on the majority.* I hope it might provide insight and an understanding of everyday people in portraying an unexceptional career, like the one of Saw Phar Dae. Without people like him, nobody would be interested in writing a biography about so-called „important“ people.

I heard of him the first time from one of my key informants in my long time of field research in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State, Myanmar (Winterberger 2017: 10-12). Saw Phar Dae is this person’s uncle. Initially he was not relevant for me, because my research focus lay neither in the Karen region nor in biographies of KNU fighters. But I reactivated my connections when it came to this biography project. My contact was supportive and he was interested himself in the stories of his uncle. To determine if his uncle was willing to share his story, he brought him to Mawlamyine. This was not that easy, because Saw Phar Dae had not visited the town for 43 years. He was told by his nephew that there was a commemorative ceremony for his late mother – as a pretext. When Saw Phar Dae arrived in Mawlamyine without any ceremony taking place, he wanted to leave the city right away. He returned to his beloved village two days later. This invitation had been a test for my key informant: Would his uncle come to Mawlamyine for the interview with me? Now it was clear that he would not.

Even though I didn’t meet Saw Phar Dae at that time, this was actually good for me and my project. I got the chance to interview him in his everyday life and daily routine in his village. However, the journey to Htee Phar Htaw village was strenuous and difficult. My contact led me by motorbike to the area which is still controlled by the KNU. We had to bypass Anankwin village with its (inofficial) border between the area controlled by the Tatmadaw (the Burmese Army) and the KNU area, in order to avoid any checkpoint. The route was still muddy from the rainy season, yet in good condition compared to the “road” we had to take to reach Htee Phar Htaw village after entering the KNU-controlled area. Nevertheless, I was thankful to my guide and informant for leading me to all the villages which were important places in Saw Phar Dae’s life – like Win Kha Na and Thanbaya. In addition to that, I had the opportunity to get to know the family of Dawle, the former KNU sub-leader and friend of Saw Phar Dae.

I decided to use the method of the oral history interview, because it allowed me to give Saw Phar Dae the role of the subject of his own history. Oral history can tell us more about the past and democratises the study of history (Perks and Thomson 1998: 360), since the persons in focus are able themselves to articulate and to contribute to their history, too. On the other hand, we have to be aware of the fact that memory is not a static resource. The oral historian has to deal with a subjective version of history, which in addition is embedded in the present notions, feelings, and situation of the interviewee (Perks and Thomson 1998: 270).

When I met Saw Phar Dae, I already knew some of his background from his nephew. I started with everyday conversation and let some time pass to let him become comfortable with the situation of being asked many questions about his life. This is seldom done in the society Saw Phar Dae is living in, as my guide told me. He himself did not know much of his uncle’s life history up to the time of my interview. He was helping me as a translator. The interview was carried out in Karen language with immediate translation into English. I tried to give Saw Phar Dae a lot of space in the interview – as suggested by oral historians (Morrissey 1998; Slim and Thompson 1998). I wanted him to follow his own train of thought in order to find out more about his view of the history of the Karen. Subsequently I put it in a more or less chronological order. Before I present Saw Phar Dae’s personal history, an overview of the Karen in Myanmar and their history is given as background to Saw Phar Dae’s life.

The Karen

The civil war between the Karen and the military of Myanmar is often titled as The longest struggle or as The world’s longest civil war (Gravers 2014: 173). The roots of this conflict can be traced back to colonial times. The civil war between the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) and the Burmese army broke out in January 1949, just one year after Burma attained its independence from Britain. There was never a kind of Karen State in the modern sense of the word, but in the course of the colonial period a strong sense of Karen identity emerged. For that, two overlapping antagonistic factors can be identified that strongly shaped the personal life of Saw Phae Dae as well: the political tensions between the Burmese and the Karen, and the religious divide betweehe Buddhist and Christian Karen. American Baptist missionaries started their successful missionary work some years after the end of the first Anglo-Burmese War (1824-1826), after the first and still very famous missionary Adoniram Judson had come to Burma in 1813. His attempts to convert Burmese Buddhists were not effective in terms of the number of converts. Missionary work among the animist Karen was providing them with a written language through translation of the Bible. The missionaries introduced the sense of being an ethnic group. In 1881, the Karen National Association (KNA) was formed by Christian Karen with the help of missionaries. In the Burmese rebellions following the Third Anglo-Burmese War of 1885, which resulted in the end of the Burmese monarchy and the integration of the whole of Burma into the British empire, Christian Karen were reported to be vigorously helping to support the British troops in their fight against the Burmese Buddhist rebels. In 1929, a Karen leader wrote a book in which he stated that the Burmese and the Karen could not be governed together because of the cultural differences (San C. Po 2001). The ideas developed in the book can be seen as the beginning of the Karen demand for a separate state as a reward for their loyalty to the British. During World War II Karen soldiers served in the British army, fighting the Japanese and their allies, the Burma Independent Army (BIA) under the leadership of Aung San. In 1942 violent clashes took place between the BIA and the Karen in the delta region. This shared experience is a crucial part of the social memory of the Karen – both Christian and Buddhist (Gravers 2007; 2014: 180-182).

In 1947, the Karen National Union (KNU) was formed from the KNA. The leadership consisted – and still consists – of wealthy Christian elite of Karen. The KNU demanded a state consisting of all regions where the Karen were the majority. The majority of the rank and file of the KNLA were Buddhist Karen, while the leadership was Christian. This led to tensions. The Buddhist Karen felt that they were exploited by the Christian leaders. As a result, the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) was formed in 1994 under the patronage of U Thuzana, a charismatic Karen Buddhist monk. As a consequence, the headquarters of the KNU and other opposition groups located at the Thai border were lost in early 1995 to the military junta that ruled Myanmar after 1988. Therefore we hardly can speak of THE Karen people as a united entity. We have to differentiate between various groups of Karen with particular interests and organization – e.g. the refugees, the Karen diaspora, the internally displaced Karen, and the great number of the “other” Karen, as Thawnghmung calls them (2013). The latter are often victims who suffer because of the Karen struggle for autonomy and the clashes with the Burmese army. Most of what has been retold here was not known to Saw Phae Dae. He belonged to the group of Karen living in the east of the country close to the Thai border and was just dragged into the conflicts between the Karen and the Burmese as well as into the Buddhist-Christian divide.

Saw Phar Dae

Saw Phar Dae (*1945) grew up in Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State. He was the first born child of U Shwe Tun and Daw Shwe, who both were Sa’gaw Karen. The family occasionally lived on Bilu Island, just offshore from Mawlamyine. Bilu Island was the place of origin of Daw Shwe, his mother. His father, U Shwe Tun, was from a Karen town south of Mawlamyine, Kyainseikgyi. Both of them, U Shwe Tun and Daw Shwe, went to different schools near their homes. These schools were responsible for the conversion of U Shwe Tun and Daw Shwe to the Baptist branch of Christianity, which is the biggest Christian community in Myanmar. It was the school organisation, too, which arranged the marriage later. All this happened in the 1940s, at the time of the Japanese conquest of Burma. Saw Phar Dae has two younger siblings born in the early 1950s. He remembers his school time as a time he did not like. He made it up to standard five and tried to pass standard six for some years. But neither the school nor his family thrilled him. When he was fourteen years old, he left home and joined a group of Karen youngsters who roamed the woods. It was at this time that he met many of the later KNU members and leaders – Dawle was one of them.


In Saw Phar Dae’s memory he might have been around 26 years old when he was introduced to a gemstone trader. This trader was Karen as well and was used to traveling between Kachin State in the north of the country, which is rich in gemstones, and the trading town of Mawlamyine. Soon after meeting the trader, Saw Phar Dae started to engage in illegal gemstone trade with Thailand. He took stones from the trader in Mawlamyine and went by boat to Kyainseikgyi. A wearing and daring hike followed, which took him about two days through the dense forest of Karen State. This was the time when Saw Phar Dae became familiar with the rough landscape of his ancestors. Another three-hour boat ride brought him finally to Mae Sot in Thailand. Since the Karen are living both in Burma and Thailand, it was possible for traders and couriers like Saw Phar Dae to easily pass the border illegally. Usually, his journey ended in Mae Sot, but once he even went to Bangkok – without any immigration paper. Usually upon reaching Mae Sot he had to hand over his trading goods, the gemstones, to another courier on the Thai side. In return, Saw Phar Dae later got money from this courier, which he again brought to the trader in Mawlamyine. This was the routine procedure and it worked quite well. He brought gemstones to Thailand every three to five months. It was quite a lucrative job, since the gemstones were precious.

In the second year of his courier job, Saw Phar Dae was cheated by the Thai courier. Saw Phar Dae brought an exceptionally big and pure ruby from Mawlamyine. After he handed it over to the Thai courier, he never saw him again – nor the money, which he was obliged to hand over to the Karen trader in Mawlamyine. He became afraid of returning home, since he had no money to pay to the Karen trader. He stayed in the villages of the hinterland of Karen State. At that time he did not realise that he would only return to Mawlamyine 43 years later, that he would not see his mother again, and that his decision had a fateful consequence for his whole family in Mawlamyine – as he learned much later. Only his brother visited him from time to time on his travels through the region – but he never said anything about the consequences for his family.

Saw Phar Dae stayed in Win Kha Na village and joined the group of Dawle, whom he knew from his younger days. Dawle was a local KNU leader in the meantime; he controlled Win Ywa Township, which was one of four parts of the KNU region no. 6. This region was (and is still) controlled by the KNU and not by the Tatmadaw. Small groups of twenty to thirty patrolled their region – and Saw Phar Dae was one of them. From time to time, he served as a teacher in one of the village schools when there was a shortage of teachers. He has good memories of his time as a member of Dawle’s group. He loved the freedom of wandering through the forest area, which he fell in love with. Admittedly the expeditions were demanding too, but he would pursue one of his favourite activities: hunting. When the group needed food while patrolling the area, the leader always turned to Saw Phar Dae because he was the best marksman and he always hit his targets.

The surroundings of Saw Phar Dae’s village (Photos: Winterberger)

It was on one of these patrols when he met a local Karen girl, Se Wa, who lived in Thanbaya, one of the villages they controlled. They met from time to time over a period of three years before they asked Dawle for permission to marry. After the wedding in Win Kha Na village – Saw Phar Dae was nearly 30 years old – he and Se Wa went to Thanbaya village to live there. They raised three children – a girl and two boys. Nevertheless Saw Phar Dae still joined Dawle on his patrols through the KNU region. Since the KNU is the political wing of the Karen movement, the KNU “fighters” were not trained soldiers – the regular soldiers were united in the KNLA. Nevertheless, the KNU fighters had clashes with the Tatmadaw. Usually Dawle and his group with Saw Phar Dae tried to avoid making contact with the Burmese Army. If Burmese soldiers appeared – often using Karen villagers and porters as human shields – the KNU fighters hid in the forest. Nevertheless they were ambushed by the Tatmadaw two times during Saw Phar Dae’s time as a KNU fighter. Up to five KNU fighters died in one clash, but in these fights there were no casualties on the Burmese side.

Saw Phar Dae had a happy marriage, except for one thing: his wife Se Wa descends from a Buddhist family. From the beginning, his parents-in-law wanted him to convert to Buddhism. He always refused, since he was raised as a Baptist. The fact of different religions within this marriage became a problem over the years, until Saw Phar Dae and Se Wa decided to divorce after more than 10 years of marriage. Saw Phar Dae says today that he doesn’t like religions, neither Baptism nor Buddhism. He never again saw one of his children after the divorce. But he remained true to Dawle and roamed the region. He loved the freedom and nature, “to be free and to do what I want” is the sentence he uses today in describing this time of his life.

This time came to an abrupt end. His commitment as a KNU fighter was closely connected to his leader. When Dawle was assassinated in an underhand manner, Saw Phar Dae decided to leave the group and the KNU after more than 20 years as a fighter. As a 50-year-old man he retired to Htee Phar Htaw village, which he always loved because of its pure nature and the freedom he felt there. He had (and has) a lot of friends there from his time when he patrolled the region. Although he stil owns no house, he is always welcome in one of his friends‘ houses. Saw Phar Dae was making his living by hunting animals – mainly birds with an airgun – and selling them in the village.

The Burmese army paid visits to Htee Phar Htaw village from time to time. They were looking for Karen soldiers, army facilities, or strong Karen men whom they took as porters or forced labourers. Saw Phar Dae always hid himself in the forest as the other villagers did. He decided later to flee to Thailand – as others did. He lived for around two years in the Hwe Malei refugee camp in Thailand. It was safe there and a lot of his friends and Karen acquaintances were living there, too. But he couldn’t be happy there; he had nothing to do and the camp live was regulated by Thai authorities. He missed the freedom and landscape of his beloved village. Despite the danger, he returned home on a three-day walk. Back in Htee Phar Htaw village, he lived a happy life. However, it was not without hazards. The villagers still had to hide from the Burmese army from time to time, but it was (and still is) a life in freedom. And today the Burmese soldiers are not coming any more.

Saw Phar Dae’s youngest son lives nearby and they meet often. His brother visits him from time to time on his travels through the region. Some years ago Saw Phar Dae found out that his mother had died in the meantime in Mawlamyine. He also found out about what had happened decades ago, when he did not return to Mawlamyine after being cheated by the Thai courier. When the Karen trader in Mawlamyine could not obtain the money from Saw Phar Dae, he contacted the family. His mother paid out the trader by selling part of her land. If Saw Phar Dae had known then, he would have gone back to Mawlamyine to stand for his debts. But so many years later, at the age of nearly 60 years and penniless, he saw no reason for returning to Mawlamyine. He only did it years later because his nephew insisted. Saw Phar Dae lived his life as a hunter until his eyes became weaker and he had problems hitting the target. He was then 70. He decided to sell his beloved gun. For four years now he is making a living by selling Thai lottery in the village. He is worried about his future. Although he is still able to take care of himself, nobody knows for how long. He doesn’t know what will happen then and who will take care of him.


To describe Saw Phar Dae as an idealistic person fighting for his fatherland would not be correct. He rather accidently joined the KNU. But more important is that he overcame all difficulties and hazards in his life. Saw Phar Dae seems to make his own decisions in his life. In his youth he loved to range the woods with friends. At this time the KNU had only recently been founded – some ten to fifteen years before. It was growing and on the way to being a powerful and influential organisation. It became attractive for the commitment of the youth. But this was not the case for Saw Phar Dae. He joined the KNU for other reasons, On the one hand, he was good friends with Dawle since his younger years. In the meantime, Dawle had become one of the sub-leaders of KNU region no. 6. Saw Phar Dae joined Dawle’s group because of his deep friendship and his wish to support his friend. On the other hand, Saw Phar Dae was afraid of returning to his hometown because the cheating Thai gemstone courier left him in a precarious situation and without money. Saw Phar Dae was in a situation of not knowing what to do next. His decision was based on a mixture of reasons. Only the fact that Saw Phar Dae left the KNU soon after Dawle was murdered supports the assumption that it was mainly the close relationship with his friend that made him a Karen fighter. Saw Phar Dae himself does not think about the reasons behind his commitment. He points out that he was satisfied with the situation of his life after he joined the group of Dawle.

Freedom, love towards his homeland, and independence from social or materialistic constraints are some of the key words that seem to run through Saw Phar Dae’s life. Nevertheless, he could not avoid one strong influence of his social milieu. The tensions between Buddhist and Christian Karen that led to the formation of the DKBA in 1994 affected Saw Phae Dae personally. The more or less hidden tension between his Buddhist parents-in-law and himself came to the surface. His parents-in-law finally faced him with the choice between becoming Buddhist or divorcing his wife. He decided to divorce. Was it because of religion? Saw Phar Dae says no — he doesn’t like religions. Was it because of tradition or the habits of his life? He doesn’t know for sure. But freedom and self-determination surely played a key role in this decision.

And this is how Saw Phar Dae has lived his life up to today. When his eyes were getting worse, he made his own decision and looked for other work. He didn’t rail against his fate, but sold the gun which he had used so many years – and he started a new life at the age of seventy!


Gravers, Mikael. 2007. “Conversion and Identity: Religion and the Formation of Karen Ethnic Identity in Burma.” In Exploring Ethnic Diversity in Burma, edited by Mikael Gravers: 227-258. Kopenhagen: NIAS Press.

Gravers, Mikael. 2014. “Ethno-nationalism and violence in Burma/Myanmar – the long Karen struggle for autonomy.” In Burma/Myanmar-Where Now? edited by Mikael Gravers and Flemming Ytzen: 173-197. Copenhagen: NIAS Press.

Morrissey. 1998. “On oral history interviewing.” In The oral history reader, edited by Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson: 107-113. London and New York: Routledge.

Perks, Robert and Alistair Thomson (ed.). 1998. The oral history reader. London and New York: Routledge.

San C. Po. 2001. Burma and the Karens. Bangkok: White Lotus Press.

Slim and Thompson. 1998. “Ways of listening.” In The oral history reader, edited by Robert Perks and Alistair Thomson: 107-113. London and New York: Routledge.

Thawnghmung, Ardeth Maung. 2013. The “other” Karen in Myanmar. Ethnic minorities and the struggle without arms. Lanham: Lexington Books.

Winterberger, Georg. 2017. Myanmar. Durch die Linse der Menschen. Through the lens of people. Petersberg: Michael Imhof Verlag.


1 The Burmese name for ‘Karen’ is ‘Kayin’. This text uses the English word which is used by many Karen/Kayin when they talk about themselves to foreigners.

2 No exact numbers exist, but the percentage of Christian Karen is estimated to be 25% (Gravers 2014: 175).

* The field trip for visiting Saw Phar Dae and this publication was financially supported by the Foundation for Research in Science and the Humanities at the University of Zurich (No. STWF-17-021).

Claribel Ba Maung Chain (Irene Po) (1905-1994)

Getrud Wellmann-Hofmeier

1 Introduction

San C. Po

Claribel Ba Maung Chain (called Irene Po as well) was the daughter of the Kayin physician and politician San C. Po who in a book published in 1928 had advocated a separate administrations for Burmans and Karens. [ After independence, she held a political office for a short time as a minister in one of U Nu’s cabinet. She was the first and only female cabinet member until 2012 after a formally civil government under ex-general Thein Sein had taken over the government from the previous military junta.[1] Her main interest, however, was to promote education and social services. Being a Christian, she used the organisation of the Young Women Christian Association (YWCA) to accomplish these objectives and to represent Burma internationally. She is a representative of the Anglophile Christian Karen elite of the country and the attempts of members of this elite to hold the country together.

2 Biographical Sketch

Claribel Ba Maung Chain was born on 1 June 1905 in Pathein. Both her parents were members of the Kayin elite and had studied in the United States and England respectively. Her mother was the daughter of a co-founder of the Karen National Association that in 1884 became the first native political organisation in Burma. Like her father, she wanted to studied medicine, but was not able to do so because of poor health. After studying English literature at Rangoon University and the Judson college, she worked as a teacher in her home town from 1928 until her marriage in 1935 to an engineer who had studied in England. The couple moved to Rangoon. She gave birth to two daughters. Both of them studied medicine.
After the war and the beginning of the civil war, she was part of a delegation of the government trying to negotiate a peace settlement with the Karen National Union (KNU). In 1951, she was part of a committee working on a bill to create a separate Karen State within the Union of Burma. Before the elections held in 1951/52, she joined one of the Kayin parties, the Union Karen League that had decided to join the AFPFL and was elected as a member of parliament in Hanthawaddy District. After a Ministry for Karen Affairs was established in 1952, she became the first head of the new ministry and was sworn in on March 18, 1952. One of her main initiatives was to persuade young rebel soldiers to stop fighting the government and start a civilian career. She resigned from her post on March 4, 1953 after having participated in a parliamentary delegation to Britain in 1952. Later, she was offered the post of ambassador to England but declined, allegedly because of objection of her husband.
Already in 1951, she had become the first native President of the YWCA and a member of the Executive Committee of the world’s YWCA. In the following years, she became the association’s Vice President for Asia and was responsible for one of the “Y#s” committees. She was re-elected in 1959. She travelled widely and represented her country at various conferences and church meetings around the world. Her last reported participation in such a meeting took place in 1961 at a conference of the World Council of Churches in New Delhi. In the same year, she became president of the Burma Council of Churches.
Nothing is known about her last years. She died on February 24, 1994.

Birmas Kabinett von 1952

3 Aims and Objectives

Claribel Ba Maung Chain has not written any book and none of her many speeches that she must have delivered has been recorded. It is however quite clear from her biography that she was dedicated to serve the “social gospel” emphasising the practical dimension of the Christian faith. She was thus rooted in the tradition of what many Karen women were renowned for serving others in the field of education and medicine. In this way, she was a “minister”, a servant in the literal sense of the word, but never a politician. “Politics is a dirty job – but can be made clean” she is reported to have said. She tried to perform “clean politics” during her short time as a politician, a task she had taken over because she had been asked by members of the Karen community and Premier Nu.
In an interview given to an American journalist in 1952 after her appointment as minister, she explained about pragmatic attitudes towards those parts of the Karen community fighting the government. “One hope we have is that the Karen parents are getting tired of their children missing education just as they did under the Japs [Japanese]. They want peace, we think.” She further went to the edges of the regions held by the rebels and talked to some leaders and helped to severe ties between the rebels and British supporters that had been established during the fight against the Japanese.3 Ain a newspaper report, she she was quoted thus: “Since we have rooted out a certain Seven Day Adventist missionary, a London newspaperman and a British major who kept a rebel headquarters at Calcutta, we feel that the British are staying out of the Karen troubles.”4 Accordings to the same article, she added that she was worried about a possible communist influence on Kayin leadership.
Another anecdote shows that she was not just critical to direct foreign interference in Burmese affairs but to other impacts of the West as well. She told another journalist about a conversation with a young Karen rebel fighter shortly before her resignation whom she had asked: “Why must you carry on this senseless fight? What is the future of us Karens if young men like you never go to school, never learn anything how to use a gun?” The answer: “You don’t need education to be successful. Look at Henry Ford.”5
Claribel Ba Maung Chain was in no way an “ethno-nationalist” but somebody who – differently from her father – believed in the cooperation between the Burmese and Kayin people to establish an independent nation of Burma. Furthermore, she sregarded education as a key to make the Burma a peaceful place.
One might suspect that her experiences as an “amateur” politician trying to help solving political problems at the grassroots level were frustrating and she thought it more rewarding to use her talents to help the people of her country as a community worker and somebody establishing ties between Burma and the world. Her “second love” as she called the YWCA – second after her husband – provided this opportunity.

4 Assessment

Claribel Ba Maung Chain is one of the many Burmese persons about whom we know too little to assess their contribution to the society of her country in an adequate way. She grew up in a multicultural Karen-Christian-Anglicised context strongly influence by the missionaries’ emphasis on medical care and education.
Her to speak many languages and thus be qualified to mediate between different cultures. She possessed all these qualities and was therefore chosen to represent the people of Burma in a variety of national and international contexts.
Her function as the first and for a very long time the only female minister of Burma is almost stereotypically repeated both by western and Burmese media. Such highlighting stresses the lack of representation of women in Burmese politics and tends to downplay her achievements as an “ordinary citizen” of Burma. Such way of looking at things concentrates on the quantity of women known as political and societal leaders and neglects the quality of women’s contributions to uplift the welfare of the people. As a consequence, Claribel Ba Maung Chain might be regarded as a representative of the many Burmese women who worked in certain sectors of Burmese society in order to maintain the social balance despite the many catastrophes happening in Burma/Myanmar in recent history. She was a very responsible person but at the same time a very independent one. She followed her father in getting engaged in the political affairs of the country but quit office after she had realised that she could serve the people better in other ways. She was educated as a member of a Christian-Karen elite, but was highly critical of any attempt top play off the different ethnic groups in Burma against each other.
On this background, Claribel Ba Maung Chain’s life might be seen as an indication that the course of Myanmar history would have been different if the pragmatic approach taken by her and many other women to serve their country would prevail. The few quotations recorded from her demonstrate that she was an intelligent and witty speaker whose assessments were based on a down-to earth analysis of the situation. She was thus a good ambassador for her country as well of the Kayin community she represented without carrying an official title. She did a lot of networking as well as inspiring other women to follow her footsteps. One of her granddaughters is stepping into her shoes by working as an YWCA executive.

5 Sources

This text is based on the short biography written by Saw Nathanayla for a collection of  life stories of Burmese Protestant Christians.6 Besides a number of internet sources, the following publications were consulted as well:
Tinker, Hugh 1957 The Union of Burma. A Study of the First Years of Independence. Oxford, Oxford University Press.
Who’s Who in Burma 1961 Rangoon, People‘s Literature Committee and House.

[1] Myat Myat Ohn Khin was appointed as Minister for Social Welfare in September 2012.

Editing: Hans-Bernd Zöllner