“A lot of the action actually took place in Thailand, which became a refuge for thousands of exiles. Some major armed ethnic militias were based on or very close to the Thai border. Dozens of exile-led political, women’s rights, human rights, civil society, media and other types of organizations were based in Thailand, as were a number of NGOs established to assist the refugee community.
“There were sizable exile communities in Bangkok, Mae Sot, Chiang Mai, Mae Hong Son, Mae Sariang, Sangkhlaburi and other places in Thailand. Some exiles made frequent trips across the border for various reasons.
“The articles below are presented in their original form, except for small editing changes made for clarity. Some photos have never been published before.”
ABOUT 50 km south of Mae Sot at Kawthoolei, Karen State lies the headquarters of the newly established 201st battalion of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). The battalion is commanded by maverick Lieutenant Colonel Ner Dah Mya, who is a son of the Karen leader, General Saw Bo Mya.
Ner Dah studied in the United Sates and obtained a Bachelor’s degree in Liberal Arts from Pacific College in California. He returned to help his Karen people in 1994. At his age of 34 he is the most promising future Karen leader, following the path of his father.
Ner Dah is also the Karen National Union (KNU) foreign affairs secretary. He will relinquish this position after a suitable replacement is found and then devote all his efforts to developing the KNLA into an effective, formidable fighting force. He actually possesses all the talent and vigor to do so. In the span of only a few months he upgraded his battalion to be an elite KNLA force.
The motto of the 201st battalion is: “Enemy weapons are also our weapons.” Maybe this English translation of the Karen language slogan doesn’t sound quite right, but it sticks for obvious reasons. Only a few weeks ago the 201st battalion attacked a military camp of the SPDC and seized a large quantity of weapons and ammunition. In fact, the quantity was so large that the KNLA soldiers could hardly carry everything back to their base. Food and other materials had to be burned so that they wouldn’t fall back into the enemy’s hands.
Kawthoolei headquarters lies in a valley surrounded by a thick jungle, with most of the trails heavily mined. A stream running alongside the base supplies of drinking water and fish for the main dish of the troops.
Some sick KNLA soldiers rest in a field hospital. Almost all suffer from malaria. The supply of medicine is sufficient. Ner Dah often visits the sick and receives briefings on their condition from the KNLA medic.
All soldiers in the camp are well behaved, and this was not a show for the foreign TV crew that expected to be there the day after. “High morale and discipline must be maintained all the time,” assured Ner Dah.
The whole KNLA, including the 201st battalion is entirely dependent on their own resources. They must rely on themselves. The KNLA has got only moral support from many countries, but not financially or militarily, according to Ner Dah.
The KNLA is able to function thanks to the support given by Karen villagers and some private donations coming from individuals residing abroad. Anyone who visited the 201st battalion camp can clearly see how creative the KNLA soldiers can be, especially in the intelligence gathering activity against the enemy.
Ner Dah expressing his appreciation on behalf of all Karen people to the UNHCR and the Red Cross for their humanitarian assistance to the thousands of Karen refugees housed in the refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. “The internally displaced people are the worst affected, and they need help the most,” Ner Dah emphasized.
“The fight for a free Karen State has not been easy and it will never be easy,” Ner Dah said. “We have entered the 51st year in our fight. But nothing lasts forever. Time is running out for the SPDC.” He firmly believes that a change of luck for the Karen and other ethnic groups in Myanmar will come very soon.
He mainly emphasizes guerrilla warfare and hit and run tactics against the SPDC. The 250 soldiers under his command have been through a vigorous political and military training. “They must be motivated, well educated, disciplined, tough, and in top physical and mental condition,” Ner Dah said.
I was introduced to then Lt Colonel Ner Dah Mya in 1999 by his famous father at their house outside Mae Sot, a town on the Myanmar-Thai border. I later met with Ner Dah at various times at his house in Mae Sot, in the town or we saw each other in Bangkok.
This interview was done at the KNLA headquarters in Kawthoolei just inside Myanmar territory, reached by crossing a three-meter wide stream on a narrow wooden platform bridge with pigs wondering beneath on the banks.There was nothing to mark where Thailand ends and Myanmar starts. No signs, fence or passport controls…
The location of the base was carefully chosen. Myanmar soldiers couldn’t shoot over the hills to the valley because the shells could land on Thai territory. The KNLA soldiers and their dependents could cross over to Thailand within seconds if the Myanmar army mounted an attack.
The KNLA soldiers, mostly youngsters, showed their weapons, like a Chinese-made light machinegun weighing over 20 kilograms with full magazine, AK-47s, M-16 assault rifles, M72 rocket launchers and rocket-propelled grenades. The base consisted of several simple wooden houses and shacks scattered around. In one shack on the hill men and women were sitting on mats and assembling land mines that consisted of a small wooden platform, a short blue water pipe filled with crushed glass from bottles, nails, two AA batteries, a detonator and rubber bands. Except for the detonators, everything was easily obtainable in Mae Sot.
I was told that these hand-made mines placed around the base were designed not to kill but to injure enemy soldiers because the victims would have to be evacuated by other soldiers for medical treatment, and this would disrupt or even stop the attack. The KNLA guerrillas would then attack the retreating Myanmar soldiers. If the explosives devices killed enemy soldiers their comrades would continue the attack. For obvious reasons I couldn’t mention this in the original article.
The base also included a primitive field hospital where about 20 young men and few women were lying on wooden beds, some receiving drips. Almost all of them suffered from malaria.
Ner Dah took me to a big shop near the Friendship Bridge in Mae Sot that divides the two countries. The shop was selling all kind of military uniforms, boots, hats, helmets, torches, water bottles and other military accessories.
The shop owner said that business was very good. His customers were not only the KNLA but their DKBA enemies, and even Myanmar soldiers who crossed the river to do some shopping. The owner said that sometimes bitter adversaries would meet by accident in the shop.
When asked where the KNLA got their weapons and ammunition, Ner Dah said: “If you have cash you can buy stuff from arms dealers. They will come to us.” He wouldn’t disclose any more. I was left wondering how the weapons and ammunition could pass through all the checkpoints set up around Mae Sot.
I made a few visit to Ner Dah’s home. There were always many people inside. I met his father, the legendary General Saw Bo Mya. We also met later in Bangkok, where he went for a medical checkup. Afterward we lunched at The Landmark Bangkok Hotel on Sukhumvit Road. During one visit to his home he gave me his solid gold Rolex and asked me to service it in Bangkok. The General said the watch was a gift from a friend.
In memory of U Tin Maung Win
Everybody in the opposition movement mourned his death, and now, exactly one year later, they all realize how greatly his absence has affected the movement.
Mr Win devoted all his life to fighting for a free, independent and democratic Burma. He was a leader of the student uprising in 1962 and after its suppression by the military he went into exile. He became one of the leading members of the Burmese opposition and held numerous official positions in opposition organizations.
Mr Win also founded and published the dissident periodical NEJ. The newspaper continues to be published by his family. Mr Win was a workaholic who spent all his time in the fight for democracy. He had a rare ability to connect with people and solve conflicts because of his characteristic wisdom and patience. For these qualities he is missed the most. He was always there when anyone needed him. Mr Win devoted all his energy and wit to the noble cause. Ironically, this may have been the reason for his death.
My association with Mr Win began in early 1998 when he was one of the top exiles, holding important positions in the movement. He was also the publisher and director of NEJ, an opposition newspaper published in Bangkok. He knew all the main players in the exile community and introduced me to a number of them.
Mr Win also cooperated with Western intelligence services and was a valuable asset for them because he knew so many people in Thailand and in Myanmar. The arrangement was mutually beneficial. For his cooperation he and his family earned protection, and it helped smooth the way for NEJ staff, who were mostly illegally in Thailand. It also assured a flow of funds to publish the newspaper, cover living expenses him and his family, and allowed him to conduct other activities like attending various meetings around Thailand.
Once he invited me for lunch what was then the Monarch Lee Garden Hotel on Silom Road (now Pullman Bangkok Hotel G). After meeting in the lobby he suggested that I should meet his “foreign friends”. I refused and left the hotel.
Perhaps coincidentally or maybe not, this very hotel (then Sofitel) was also the place alleged Russian weapons dealer Viktor Bout was arrested by Thai police working with US Drug Enforcement Administration agents on March 6, 2008.
Mr Win died exactly three months to the day after the siege of the Myanmar embassy in Bangkok in October 1, 1999 by the Vigorous Burmese Student Warriors (VBSW). No one was killed or seriously injured during the siege, but there is compelling evidence that the siege contributed to Mr Win’s death. It is certain he knew nothing about the siege beforehand – he would never agree to anything like that. But it appears that he was sucked unwillingly into the chaos a few hours after the embassy was taken over by the Warriors.
Mr Win received a phone call on the day of the siege and was told to proceed to an embassy on Witthayu Road, and to tell no one. Once there, he was ordered to sort out piles of documents taken from the Myanmar embassy and separate them into stacks according to importance and classification. All this apparently transpired at one large diplomatic mission.
Mr Win was prevented for a time from leaving the embassy. His family was greatly concerned when he didn’t return home that night and called his friends, including myself, asking if they had any information on his whereabouts. It was a big relief when he finally returned home after few days. His daughter, Thuza, called me shortly after he came back home. I met with him not long afterward, but he was a completely different person, as if he had been abducted by aliens and returned to Earth.
One source claimed that during the siege the VBSW gunmen possibly opened a vault inside the ambassador’s office. Many documents were removed, some top secret – including some pertaining to drug-related issues, such as the identities of informants working for foreign countries and SPDC spies operating in Thailand. Whoever opened the vault knew the combination of the safe, said the source.
According to security sources, three white vans with tinted windows left the Myanmar embassy after midday on October 2 and proceeded down North Sathorn Road. The last van carried a large quantity of documents extracted from the embassy during the siege, packed in black rubbish bags. This van was driven to Witthayu Road and entered an embassy there.
The first two vans that transported hostages, Warriors and Thai officials stopped in an empty filed near field of the Armed Forces Preparatory School next to Lumpini Park, where a police helicopter was waiting. After foreign hostages were released the VBSW boarded the helicopter, joined by Deputy Foreign Minister Sukhumband Paribatra and Chaiyapruik Sawangcharoen, an official in charge of refugees in Thailand. Some of the hostages were wearing pro-democracy headbands, waving opposition flags and shouting slogans calling for freedom in Myanmar. Their overenthusiastic display led some to believe they were hired to be part of the show.
Mr Win didn’t tell me much about his stay at the embassy. A few days after his release we attended a program about Myanmar held at the Foreign Correspondents Club of Thailand. Mr Win became agitated when one Karen exile leader entered. The man came up to Mr Win, who said: “Why did you do it, for what? You damaged the whole movement,” referring to the embassy siege. The man denied involvement with the siege and left.
Security sources said that the man was involved in the siege of the embassy and worked closely with the VBSW and intelligence services. He was later granted asylum in the United States with his family.
I met Mr Win for the last time in late November after he had met three foreign intelligence officers, just three days before his sudden death, at the Hilton hotel coffee shop. He was very nervous and made emphatic gestures with his hands, causing him to overturn a glass of water on the table. I had never seen him in such distress.
“They wanted me to do something, but I told them that I am not going to do that,” Mr Win said during our 30-minute conversation. When I asked what they wanted he didn’t reply. However, it was clear that he was speaking of the three foreigners he’d met with earlier.
Shortly after that Mr Win was “ordered” to move the NEJ office to a “more secure” location, something he and his family didn’t want to do. They considered their current location off Ramindra Road very secure had no choice. Mr Win collapsed while carrying a desktop computer and died shortly after at Minburi hospital. Heart failure was given as the cause of death.
Mr Win’s sudden death shocked his family and everyone who knew him. Regrettably and strangely, no autopsy was conducted. There were rumors within the exile community that he was poisoned a few days before his death, causing his heart to fail. Someone claimed the poisoning took place during the meeting with the foreign agents. His family didn’t refute the rumors.
Among the many wreaths at his funeral at a Bangkok Buddhist temple was one delivered by a man on a motorcycle who quickly disappeared. The acronym on the wreath was clearly visible. The funeral was attended by hundreds of exiles and some intelligence agents. Some of them appeared photographed the crowd. Some agents were reportedly inside a white van taking photos as well.
I went to the funeral, but after observing what was going on, I left quickly. I photographed the VBSW wreath but can’t find the negative.
Funerals and weddings are always ideal opportunities to identify people who are normally hard to spot otherwise.