Saw Ba U Gyi (1905-1950)

Laura Hornig

Saw Ba U Cyi and KNU flag

(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

Georg Winterberger


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