The Karenni and Pa-Oh: Revolution in Burma


The Karenni and Pa-oh (also spelled Pa-O) indigenous groups of Burma share a traditional heritage, but have distinct styles of dress, rituals, mores, languages, and diets. Although both are cultivators, the Pa-oh live on the highland plateaus and open land most suitable for intensive agriculture. Karenni country is a rugged, mountainous terrain with difficult, steep trails, and its people live on slash-and-burn (swidden) cultivation. The Pa-oh are industrious, diligent, and independent. Self-sufficient in all their needs, the only item they import is salt. As Buddhists they have a written language, and their monasteries, the centers of community life, accentuate group consciousness.

Post-Independence Turmoil

Under the British rule of justice, Karenni State was a protectorate state. The Karenni were independent, but were neglected by their feudal chiefs. Further north, the highland Pa-oh were incorporated in the federated Shan states. They were subjected to abuse, neglect, and misrule. The lowland Pa-oh in lower Burma, however, were given opportunities for advancement, although they did suffer discrimination by the more numerous neighboring Burmans and were looked down on as lowly peasants.

When the British gave Burma its independence in 1948, they allowed the Karenni to be incorporated into the independent Burma; this, however, was done without the consent of the Karenni people. When the Karenni refused to cooperate with the new independent Burma, Thakin Nu (U Nu, Burma's first prime minister) sent in his military police force to occupy their area. On 9 August 1948, the military police attacked the Karenni National Organization headquarters, which ignited a war between the Karenni and the Burmese government that continues to this day.

The Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO), a Karen tribal rebel force from Toungoo, rushed in to help defend the Karenni, and the Union Military Police, stationed in Shan State and composed mainly of Karens, Padaungs, and Pa-ohs, deserted their posts and returned to Karenni land to join the defense. (Both the Karenni and the Pa-oh are related to the Karen ethnic group.) The Pa-oh, under the command of Chan Zone, joined ranks with the Pa-oh guerrillas at Kyauk-ta-lone.

In 1949, on 31 January, Thakin Nu declared war on the entire Karen population. Although the majority of Karen are in lower Burma, the Karenni and Pa-oh are isolated in the north, occupied and holding all towns in Karenni (the Karenni State of Burma, also called Kayah State). In July 1951, from Toungoo, KNDO and Kachin troops seized Taunggyi, the capital of Shan State. This move was supposed to encourage the Shan chiefs to join in against the Burmese government. The Shan chiefs, believing that the Panglong Agreement would be binding, did not join KNDO. Their hopes were shattered when General Ne Win took over in 1962 and put them under arrest.

Fight Against Feudalism

Under the alien feudal authority, where there is no leader to stand up for the people, the Pa-oh continued to exist as a suppressed people. The only law over them was the law of the strongest.

Numerous public functions and festivals were organized to conduct public gambling, from which henchmen collected taxes and fees for their masters and took part for themselves. Opium cultivation was encouraged as a source of tax revenue. Every family was allowed to distill rice wine and whiskey for open sale. Gambling, drunkenness, and opium smoking were the roots of frequent and rampant robberies. Law and order as it existed under a democratic institution did not exist here.

The people lost all appreciation of social and moral values. Aimless and bewildered, they hoped for a better future and for social security for themselves. They wanted reform, but they needed leaders whom they could follow. The prime movers for reform were: Saya Daw U Thu Riya, the most influential abbot among the Burmese monks; Saya Daw U Htut Nandah, the noted scholar who recoined the Pa-oh written language; Saya Daw U Gandamah, the great national organizer and the torch bearer for the liberation from feudalism; and many reformists - lay people and monks alike-who joined the ranks in the fight against feudalism.

The Pa-oh set up a new headquarters at Kyauk-talone, where Pa-oh Hla Pe organized a new national organ, the Pa-oh National Liberation Organization (PNLO). An armed wing was formed. On 11 December 1949, PNLO declared war on the feudal lords of Nyaunghwe, Ban Yin, Hopon, Naung Mong, Ping Lone, Sanka, Mong Pong, Loi Lem, Mong Nai, and Mauk Mai.

Assisted by Phra Tan Nam Aw and Boh Chan Zone, Pa-oh Hla Pe, best known as Phra Bwah, soon rallied the people behind him. At first it was the Pa-oh against the feudal lords. In the early stages of the conflict, any PNLO member captured by the feudal levies was cruelly tortured and beheaded. The head was then displayed in the market for public view. This barbaric demonstration, instead of frightening the public, infuriated them. Soon all the peasants from the Shan, Taung Nyo, and In-tha ethnic groups joined the Pa-oh in the revolution.

Seeds of Discontent

The Burmese troops stationed in Shan State did not interfere in the fight between PNLO and the feudalists. They did, however, move south to fight the Karenni. With KNDO and mutinous Karen Rifles troops (formerly part of the Burmese Army) down from Maymyo in support, the Burmese enemy was defeated in the first two years. There was an esprit de corps among the defenders, many of them from lower Burma, until the enemy succeeded in infiltrating and sowing the seeds of discontent and suspicion through spreading a fifth columnist slogan that the "white Karen" were not wanted in the state. (Karenni is the Burmese appellation for "red Karen," and any Karen that is not red Karen is white Karen.) So KNDO and the Karen Rifles took leave of their posts and left Karenni State.

This disintegration of racial harmony was mainly due to the lack of responsibility and able leadership on the part of Saw Shwe, who was the chief of Karenni State and formerly of Kyet-po-gyi State. He was a weakling in spirit and very indecisive in principle. Richmond (KNDO), who had been with him from the start of the war, resigned from his commander post, and Boh Hla Win took over the military command.

As the relocation of troops and new defensive positions were set, a new military development occurred that upset Karenni stability. The Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang (KMT), which had "colonized" part of Shan State east of Salween, moved down in great numbers, each column containing an opium caravan of 200-300 animal transports. For a few months KMT occupied the Mawchi mines (massive tungsten and tin mines) and part of the Mawchi-Toungoo road as a token for taking over the defense of part of Karenni State. But when the Burmese Army in the north, from Kalaw, attacked Loikaw, the main town in Karenni State, these KMT deserted their positions and fled to Papun and southward to the Mon area. These KMT members for some years "colonized" Salween, the east sector of Shan State, right up to Laotian territory. They promoted opium trade and organized international markets. But as KMT strength decreased and their troops' morale grew low, gradually the Burmese government was able to control the whole country by 1956.

Saw Shwe and the Karenni stragglers, greatly diminished in number, retreated into the hills of Kyetpo-gyi State. Richmond (Tawplo), who had been exiled from Karenni, rejoined Saw Shwe. Once again dislocated persons were regrouped, a new military unit formed, and civil administration set up. During this period a group of KNDO remnants who had been fighting alongside PNLO rejoined Saw Shwe, who was also their chief. They were the Paku under Boh Special, elder brother of Tah Kaleh, presently chairman of the Shan State Nationalities Liberation Organization. This group brought down opium to open a market route through Kawthoolei. However, Saw Shwe and Richmond did not agree to this trade of opium in their jurisdiction, and a factional dispute developed into armed conflict.

In 1955 the enemy captured the Mawchi mines and for two years tried to reopen the Mawchi-Toungoo road. They did not succeed and the road is closed to this day, not due so much to the difficult terrain as the tenacity and determination of the people. Saw Shwe became ill with malaria and typhoid fever and died early in 1957. Richmond was made the head of Karenni State. Under him morale revived and the organization expanded among the other ethnics.

Brigadier Sein Win, commander of the Burmese Army in Toungoo, had some Karens trained in his military intelligence section. Two of these, Riki and Maw Taung Gyi, were dispatched to the Mawchi mines to lead the fifth column activity. Encouraged by the Burmese Army stationed in Mawchi, the two factions fought to control the area around the Mawchi mines. Richmond was assassinated one evening while resting on his portico talking to his family by a gunman hired by Maw Taung Gyi. In retaliation, Boh Special was killed in an ambush on the Mawchi-Pasaung road.

Then Saw Maw Reh, who had been captured in 1949, was released and rejoined Aung Than Lay. As a Karenni, Saw Maw Reh wanted to get in touch with his people and instill a progressive outlook. It was Aung Than Lay who rebuilt the fighting spirit of the people to continue the struggle against the enemy. This led to the formation of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP).

Political Illusions

Up north, in close proximity to Karenni, the Pa-oh feudal revolution raged on. The death toll inflicted on the Shan feudalists was high, but higher still was the toll suffered by the Burmese Army, which sided with the feudalists at their request.

A peace overture was arranged between the Burmese government and PNLO. Requirements were the abolition of feudalism in Shan State, and local administration for the Pa-oh people where the majority of inhabitants are Pa-oh. The two demands were found to be liberal and democratic; on the question of disposal of arms, however, a compromise was reached to avoid the term surrender. On this pretext an "exchange of arms for democracy" was agreed upon and a peace accord was made in December 1958. One year later, the Sao Bwas of Shan State surrendered their feudal authority to become common people, but to the Pa-oh people it was a compromised peace.

The reorganization of the Karenni mass moved forward as Saw Maw Reh asserted his leadership and was nominated president of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP). Although Aung Than Lay, being a Pwo Karen from the Delta, played second fiddle, he remains the prime mover in the Karenni armed forces to this day. Taking the cue from KNUP (the Karen National Union Party, a Karen rebel political group), KNPP adopted national democracy and made a covenant with KNUP, the latter being an elder brother of sorts.

When Ne Win seized full military power in 1962, all Pa-oh members of parliament were arrested and put in jail. Pa-oh Hle Pe was later arrested when he instigated a people's uprising in Mandalay. With nearly all the top-level leaders tucked away in jail, the junior leaders grew wary in their underground activities. The office of the United Pa-oh National Organization in Taunggyi stayed open, but this came to an end when Burmese colonel Aung Pe arrested the leaders in town during a meeting that he had convened. Boh San Thein, who was sick and did not attend the meeting, helped mastermind an escape to the jungles to start a new Pa-oh revolution from scratch.

In the reorganization of PNLO, Boh San Thein was handicapped when all the able leaders were arrested. He welcomed Sai Hla Mg, a Shan communist cadre who soon became friendly with Takaleh, a KNDO remnant from Karenni. Takaleh's prowess in military tactics lifted him to a position of military leader but made him vulnerable to political manipulation.

Then began a period of political illusion undermining Pa-oh national unity. Traditionally, the Pa-oh people have a strong attachment and a highly sentimental opinion toward the Karen, who in general aspect are their esteemed "big brothers." Right from the beginning these two tribal groups fought shoulder to shoulder in Nyaung Lay Bin and Diak-U (lower Burma), where together they occupied Taunggyi. After that, KNDO left the Pa-oh to fend independently. Alone and independent, they achieved victory over the feudalists and made peace with the Burmese government. When they could no longer tolerate the "Burmese Way to Socialism" (Ne Win's new economic system), they took arms and again fought the Burmese government separately from the Shan revolutionary groups, which had taken up arms against the Burmese Socialist Program Party (BSPP).

In the early 1970s, a split occurred between the Pa-oh nationalists and the leftists, and fighting broke out. Soon the more than 1,000 Pa-oh fighting force was divided to eliminate one another. This went on for two years, after which, at last, Takaleh's group, reduced to a minimum number, fled to Pang Sang to become a satellite of the Burma Communist Party (BCP), a large insurgent group.

Eventually, Takaleh, with 200 BCP troops, came back to Pa-oh area. The fighting continued until 1988, when Takaleh offered a cease-fire and promised to merge with the Pa-oh National Organization (PNO), which was organized when lowland Thaton area Pa-oh troops joined with the highland Pa-oh. This faction later deserted and surrendered to the enemy. When Pa-oh Hla Pe died, Aung Kam Hti succeeded him as president. Although they could contain BCP incursion and made some progress at the border in international contacts, they refused to collaborate with the Shan United Army (SUA) (Khun Sa's group, a militia involved in narcotics trafficking). In the mid-1980s, SUA attacked and occupied the Thai border area (which is suitable for heroin manufacturing), pushing out PNO.

The Will of the People

The history of Karenni resistance against the Burmese occupation of their tiny land is heroic when compared to the disparity and wide proportion of population. The Karenni population, not more than 300,000, is a plural community of several ethnics of hill Karen. They had very little encouragement under their own chiefs in the fields of social progress and economic development. For 40 years, however, they have stood together against Burmese occupation. Against such great odds, what binds them together is the singleness of will and the loyalty to the land they claim as their ancestral domain.

Within KNPP, a leftist faction - the young Turks, led by Thein Aung - prepared for a coup while Saw Maw Reh, a man with the ability to manipulate in times of crisis, managed to rise above the political turbulence and lead KNPP to a victory over the attempted coup. Within a week the young Turks were wiped out.

For many years KNPP made progress in financial income, but met with adversity due to lack of proper planning, never an easy task in wartime. It, however, has to pass through some years of depression, which is normal to every revolution.

In 1982 Saw Maw Reh relinquished his office and Phyar Reh took over as the new president. In any organization, when there is a change of leadership there is always a change of personality. This is true, too, with KNPP. There was more incentive taken in the field of foreign contact and an increase in communication with foreign sources with Phyar Reh's ascent.

The struggle of the people goes on relentlessly in spite of the world's indifference. The 40-year-old struggle against the Burmese occupation is long enough to subject the people to any unconditional surrender to the enemy. Only the unwavering will of the people continues, as they deny themselves personal comforts and undergo untold suffering in their temporary jungle settlements. In the civil war in Karenni State, thousands of porters are forcibly recruited and hundreds die yearly. The situation in 1989 is worse than ever; the mounting number of refugees, many fleeing to escape being recruited as porters, leaves families destitute, fields deserted, and cries unheard. The tribulations, the diseases, the deaths, the anguish, and the tears continue as the Karenni and Pa-oh people pray to God to end their suffering. All peace-loving nations are urgently called upon to make peace proposals, and to quote a verse from the Christian Bible: "Blessed are the peace makers."

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