The 12 August has a particular place in the hearts of many Karen as events are held all around the world to remember the sacrifices made by the Karen nationalist leader Saw Ba U Gyi, who was executed on this date in 1950, and all those who have laid down their lives for the Karen cause.
Saw Ba U Gyi was born in Bassein in 1905 to a wealthy land owning family. After completing his degree at Rangoon University in 1925, he went to London and became a lawyer where, two years later, he was called to the English Bar. After that, he returned to Burma where, in 1937, he joined the government of Ba Maw as Minister of Revenue. After the Japanese occupation and subsequent defeat, he joined the pre-independence cabinet and became Information Minister and later Transport and Communications Minister from February to April 1947.
Prior to his appointment on to the Burmese cabinet, Saw Ba U Gyi had begun to petition for Karen independence. In September 1945, he had been one of the main signatories, along with other leaders of the Karen Central Organisation (KCO), behind the first memorial to the British Government for a Karen land.
The KCO, formed a goodwill delegation and Saw Ba U Gyi and other members, arrived in London on 25 August 1946 to put forward their representations. However, their entreaties were ignored as the British Government of Clement Atlee decided, against the advice of Dorman-Smith, the British Governor of Burma, to deal directly with Aung San’s Anti-Fascist People’s Independence League (AFPIL), later the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL).
On 27 January 1947, the Aung San-Attlee agreement was finally inked giving Aung San and the AFPFL rule over Burma.
After the assassination of Aung San, the country deteriorated into numerous armed insurrections and the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO) the armed wing of the Karen National Union was formed. It was used against communist insurgents and to protect the lives of Karen citizens. However, the political situation continued to worsen and government led militias attacked Karen neighbourhoods resulting in little option but for the KNDO to openly rebel and take the Karen area of Insein among others around the country. The siege of Insein, by forces loyal to the government, led to a 112-day standoff before KNDO forces retreated and regrouped.
Saw Ba U Gyi decided to hold a new congress, to be attended by everyone including those Karen who had remained back in the delta, on the 19 July 1950. The results of the congress were broadcast on Free Karen Radio from 31 July to 2 August and the free Karen State of Kawthoolei was officially announced.
Saw Ba U Gyi (Photo: KHCPS)
It remains unclear what Saw Ba U Gyi had a mind to do after the congress. After what are reported as being his last words in which he had said that ‘He was now about to pull a political stunt.’ he, KNDO commander Saw Sankey and a small party of followers set off to what was believed to be a meeting. They headed towards the Thai-Burma border, the destination is still not known, what is known however is that they were not to reach it. Veteran journalist U Thaung, in his book ‘’A Journalist, A General and an Army in Burma,’’ covered the discovery of the Karen group.
‘It was a rainy day even at noon it was already dark. I specifically remember the date, 14August 1950. I will never forget that experience. At that time, I was only a young reporter, aged 24, covering the early part of Burma’s civil war which had started two years earlier. On that morning, the director of Information invited us to a press conference at which he announced important news about a remarkable victory by the government forces. Saw Ba U Gyi, leader of the Karen National Union and commander of the Karen National Defence Organisation, was killed in a battle two days ago’ he said. . . A press pool was organized to go and see the dead rebel leader. I was chosen to take pictures of the fallen renegade. We, ten journalists, four information officials and military officers, flew to Moulmein in a small plane. The military officers continued the press conference on the plane. Saw Ba U Gyi had been captured, dead, along with a high-ranking Karen rebel leader and an English major who was imprisoned for supplying arms, they claimed. The journalists succeeded in getting the true story after cross-examining them. The rebel chieftains were captured alive and killed even though they had surrendered. “They tried to run away when we arranged to take them to our nearest military camp. We couldn’t help it. There was no way we could save them in such a situation,” they said. We could not print the truth, but used the official version, “captured dead.”’
There is no concrete evidence to suggest that there was an informer in or around the area where Saw Ba U Gyi, Saw Sankey, a Caucasian– tentatively known as ‘Mr Baker’, and the small party of Karens found themselves staying that rainy night. Despite warnings from a village headman at Tahkreh village that they should remain with himuntil the rains stopped, they had pushed on and arrived near To KawKoe Village, Kawkareik, not far from Myawaddy and the Thai border town of Mae Sot.
On their arrival at the small village, they were given a small Bamboo hut to stay in until the rain slackened thus allowing them to more easily cross a nearby river which at that time was swollen andalmost bursting its banks. While the party were staying there that night it is believed a villager, on recognizing the Karen leader, was able to slip away and inform the nearby army battalion at Nabusakan. Early the next morning, 12 August 1950, Burmese army units commanded by a young lieutenant, Sein Lwin (later to be known as ‘the Butcher of Rangoon’), surrounded the village and demanded the group surrender, although there is some disagreement as to what happened next it is believed that the group refused and as such were killed in the fire fight. After the party was killed,their bodies were transported by cart to Moulmein. After a brief display of the body, Saw Ba U Gyi’s corpse was apparently transported four miles out to sea and thrown overboard thus ensuring there would be no martyr’s grave.
Dorman-Smith the ex-British Governor of Burma and one of the supporters of the Karen uprising remembered the ex-lawyer fondly, He wrote in ‘The Times’ on 23 August that year:
‘’Saw Ba U Gyi was no terrorist…I, for one, cannot picture him enjoying the miseries and hardships of rebellion. There must have been some deep impelling reason for his continued resistance.’’
However there were others who disagreed. Lord Listowel. a Labour minister, writing in the same newspaper two days later accused the late Karen leader of ‘obstinacy’ and gambling on the fighting qualities of the Karens’ and accused him of being unable to compromise. This point of view was quickly criticised by the prominent Lawyer and second Secretary at the Burmese Embassy in London, Maung Maung Ji, who in reply, on the 28th, in ‘The Times’ wrote;
‘Sir, Lord Listowel’s letter to ‘TheTimes’ of 25th August representsthe late Karen Leader, Saw Ba U Gyi, as a stupid man “Who could not see the other fellow’s point of view”. I am sure this statement is unwarranted. Lord Listowel’s main argument is based on the fact he was personally present at the negotiation. Unfortunately, his presence, the method adopted in tackling the problem, and the very fact that he went out to execute an Anglo-Burmese agreement to which the Karens then strongly objected were principally responsible for the failure in the Burmese-Karen negotiation. That is how Saw Ba U Gyi described the situation in a letter to me at the time.
The trouble began from the Aung San/Attlee Agreement between the British and the Burmese, whereby the former handed over the entire administration of the country to the latter, while the Karens were excluded even from the negotiation conference. The Karens felt they had been betrayed by the British Government. Many of us Burmese, too, felt that the Karens, who had valiantly fought against the Japanese during the war, had been badly let down. I acted as a counsel to two delegates, the former Prime Minister U Saw and Thakin Ba Sein, then minister of transport and Communications,at the Anglo-Burmese conference which culminated in the Aung San-Attlee Agreement. Because it was so unfair to the Karens that they were excluded from the conference, in spite of their repeated requests to participate in it, a memorandum was forwarded to the Prime Minister Mr. Attlee with the request that he should publish it. To our great surprise, this and other dissident memoranda were suppressed when the Aung San- Attlee Agreement was published.
The Karens felt frustrated and are still bitter over the episode. To aggravate the situation, Lord Listowel, the Secretary of State for Burma, was sent to Rangoon in his own phrase “to induce them” to accept certain arrangements. Ostensibly, it was a negotiation for agreement between the Karens and the Burmese, but final approval rested with the Burmese Govt. The Karens could not refer to outside authorities in a case of disagreement. Saw Ba U Gyi and his people, already suspicious of the British Govt’s intentions, hesitated to enter into any agreement. Even so, if a statesman with a practical knowledge of Burmese politics had been sent out at that time, I’m sure agreement would have been possible, and a lot of the troubles which my country is suffering, would have been avoided.
The secretary of State for Burma admittedly had no previous experience of Burmese politics and its ramifications; naturally, he was unaware of the complicated and special problems that lay beneath the surface. A complete breakdown of the negotiations was the result. This seems to me no reason for branding the late Karen leader and his friends as ‘Stupid People’, ‘intellectually extremely limited’ and ‘incapable of reaching an agreement’
The deaths of Saw Ba U Gyi and Saw Sankey were a serious blow to the revolution. With two of their main leaders goneit has been left to those remaining in the Karen National Union to reorganize and to plan a new strategy to ensure peace and equality for the Karen people. It is hoped, as ceasefire talks continue, the many sacrifices the Karen have made, over sixty years of conflict, will finally see peace come.
Paul Keenan is author of ‘By Force of Arms – Armed Ethnic Groups in Burma’ and co-founder of the Karen History and Culture Preservation Society (KHCPS).