Images from Karen State

Richard Humpheries

Traditional Dancing

(Black and White)

Jason Miller

Karen New Year 2003

 Shwe Koako, Karen State

Sylvia Murcfeld

Karen State


 Jean de La Tour


Richard Humphries


Version Date

June 2004


Website: Designed, Built and written  by Paul Keenan

The Politics of Pressure

The 1990's and the Fall of Manerplaw

The change in the ruling SLORC Junta's policy in the early nineties in opening up the commercial markets and encouraging trade and tourism would lend a fatal blow to the Karens' struggle for recognition of Kawthoolei. Burmese forces who had previously been held up fighting in Shan state found themselves concentrating on dislodging the Karen National Union from the border areas in an attempt to take advantage of the lucrative trade gates and logging potential that had financed the revolution, and to destroy the fast emerging pro-democracy movement which had been founded by the activists who had fled the '88 bloodshed and trained and supplied by the Karens.

 Fighting was extreme as Burmese troops pushed forward,  supported of certain figures in the Thai military[1] who allowed Burmese forces to cross into Thailand and advance from the rear, and were able to take bases including Phalu and Maw Pokay causing over 6000 Villagers and Burmese activists to flee to Thailand. In the Irrawaddy delta Karen forces engaged government troops near the town of Bogale with the SLORC retaliating with newly acquired Chinese aircraft and gunboats.

 By 1992 the SLORC decided to focus their efforts on removing the Karens from their headquarters, since 1975, at Manerplaw, which had by then become the home of not only the ethnic resistance but also the pro-democratic opposition including the National League for Democracy (NLD), the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS) and a number of other smaller groups who had setup office in the base.

The battle for Manerplaw was extremely bloody with the SLORC fielding hundreds of young, ill-trained, and often drugged, recruits who had been ordered to attack the base in human wave formations. Soldiers fell as they marched getting nowhere near the frontline defences, over 1000 were reported killed in the battle with a further 2000 wounded. After two months of heavy fighting, a strategic location; Sleeping Dog mountain, fell whilst air strikes and heavy artillery shelling continued to pound the Karen Headquarters. Yet by April 1992 the SLORC were forced to cancel the operation. Manerplaw still stood as the home of ethnic resistance and pro-democracy forces.

Foreign companies from all over the world eager to exploit the resource rich country continued to flock to the SLORC regardless of any ecological or political impact they were likely to cause. Total and Unocal announced an agreement with the regime that would build a gas pipeline from the Yadana gas field through Mon and Karen states and pump it to Thailand. Profit was to increasingly put pressure on the revolution as a number of vested business interests began to enter the scenario.

Manerplaw continued to house the ethnic nationality National Democratic Front (NDF), the National Coalition Government of the Union of Burma (NCGUB), the All Burma Students' Democratic Front (ABSDF), the Democratic Party for a New Society (DPNS) and a number of other smaller pro-democracy factions. But in late 94 a major catastrophe was brewing which would eventually split the Karens and bring about the demise of the opposition forces' headquarters.

 In December 1994 a row broke out between a number of Buddhist Karen soldiers and the leadership at Manerplaw over the building of a pagoda, known locally as Myit Zone Zedi which had been begun in 1989, in the nearby village of Thu Mweh Hta which stands at the conjuction of the Moei and Salween rivers.

Although General Bo Mya had initially agreed to the construction of the temple the leadership later objected to the building of the pagoda which was to be whitewashed and crowned with a zinc chedi, due to its close proximity to Manerplaw and the fact it could be used for targeting the Karen Headquarters.

The pagoda had been ordered by a revered Buddhist monk U Thuzana, also the cousin of KNU Forestry Minister Padoh Aung San[2], who had been elected onto the executive committee for Buddhist Monks in KNU controlled Karen State in 1975. Shortly after the election he was arrested by the Burmese military whilst traveling with another monk but for inexplicable reasons was released whilst his companion was further detained. He returned to KNU territory and set about the task of constructing pagoda throughout Karen State.

It was hoped that the Thu Mweh Hta pagoda would be built by 1990 however, due to a number of problems the final construction date was put back. Soon after its completion a number of houses sprang up and it became more of a Buddhist, vegetarian retreat with the monk and his followers being able to feed between 800 to 1000 adherents and pilgrims each month.  

The followers of the monk were given major privileges by the SLORC military. Villagers were not required to do porter service or conscription in the army, in addition, those with traveling papers from the monk were allowed to travel freely without harassment by Burmese soldiers. As part of the KNU's religious tolerance policy similar privileges were also given to them by the Karen National Liberation Army.

Problems began to arise however when it was believed that some of the Buddhist Karen soldiers wanted to leave the army and instead join the community in the village. In an attempt to prevent any desertions, headquarters appointed an officer to deal with the situation. The officer's heavy handling of the villagers; including their forced eviction in May 1993, lead to a number of protesters wishing to put their grievances forward to General Bo Mya. However the boat, headed by Bo Aye, was blocked and shots were fired eventually killing two people.  After consultation with U Thuzana, 400 soldiers demonstrated in front of the KNU President in Manerplaw.

The followers of the monk still desired to complete the pagoda with a Hti Tin (umbrella) and gathered there to complete the ceremony. It was reported that the KNLA commander who was assigned the task of security in the area badly treated the pilgrims including at one point threatening to shoot the dancers and forcibly making others, those without permits, lie face down on the ground where they were then beaten, a claim the officer in question later categorically denied.

The KNU leadership became more and more suspicious of U Thuzana. The preferential treatment given to his followers by SLORC forces and the fact that they believed he, U Thuzana, had purposely ignited a Buddhist rebellion against the pre-dominantly Christian KNU leadership led them to appoint officials, who were all Christians, to closely monitor the Karen soldiers in the area.

The situation was further exacerbated when the Column 4 commander of 102 Battalion, who was responsible for the pagoda area, was called to headquarters demoted and a replacement appointed. 

Tensions between the Buddhist Soldiers and Christian leadership continued to grow. In an attempt to placate the disgruntled Buddhists a meeting, called by the KNU leaders, was arranged to directly address the Buddhist issue. 102 Monks from Karen state were called, despite an invitation, U Thuzana, or any of his representatives, did not attend. A seven statement policy was agreed outlining the measures necessary for the building of religious structures and the attempts of those who would use religion to divide the revolution. Two days into the meeting U Thuzana sent a message stating his intention of relinquishing control, to the Buddhist Sangha, of all the pagodas he had built and his intention to take a 49 month vow, stating that he would not return to the area during that time.

The fact that U Thuzana was not at the meeting and had no intention of returning was interpreted by many of the Buddhist Soldiers as an attempt by General Bo Mya to control the Buddhists by appointing only Buddhist leaders who were loyal to him. At the same time a number of Tatmadaw radio intercepts began to be received further instigating the Buddhists to rebel against the leadership and join the SLORC.

After what was considered by many to be years of inequality perpetrated by the minority Christian Karen leadership against the majority Buddhist soldiers; army units began to abandon their positions. Moving towards Manerplaw, any KNLA personnel who refused to join them were disarmed. Some soldiers from 102 column were arrested others, reportedly unaware of what was happening or why, joined them in their march towards the headquarters. Villagers and monks from Papun joined them, whilst in Weh Koke Taw, in Kawkareik, two of the Buddhist soldiers approached the village elders and told them to prepare for the fight between Buddhists and Christians. The SLORC who had been closely monitoring the situation from Pa-an distributed the news via radio and newspapers.

 The response from Manerplaw was quick. A negotiating team, comprising Buddhists and Christians, was dispatched to Thu Mweh Hta to receive their demands. A former KNDO Sgt. Major, who had secretly been to see U Thuzana, now seemed to be involved in the planning of the rebellion and it was he who presented the demands. A meeting was arranged for the 7th December 1994 to discuss the issues facing the opposing factions.

 After the meeting, the KNU team was arrested and held whilst attempting to return to Manerplaw. Their followed a brief discussion some of the members were allowed to return to Headquarters but only to be called back as the situation in the village had deteriorated. One one of the Thu Mweh Hta groups had split and at one point executed two Christian prisoners who had been stopped whilst traveling up the Moei. The situation was descending into anarchy with random gunfire filling the air and monks wandering the pagoda compound carrying guns.

Monks from a monastery in Papun arrived to attend a meeting where over five hundred people had gathered. The monks addressed the crowd using political terminology which was more likely to be found in pro-SLORC propaganda than a temple. The meeting was convened with the monks demanding Gen. Bo Mya meet them. It was proposed, by the KNU, that the meeting take place in neutral territory on the Thai side of the Moei river, however the monks rejected this with one of them turning to those assembled and saying 'They are Christians and you know their crimes. If Bo Mya does not arrive by 9 am tomorrow you can take action against them as you wish.'[3]

About 50 or 60 of the rebel soldiers attempted to attack Manerplaw but were repelled by frontline defence troops, shortly after the headquarters shelled the perimeter of the village killing and wounding some villagers who had been in the surrounding jungle.

General Bo Mya wished to use more excessive force against the mutiny but due to the religious nature of the conflict, he claims that other members of the Central Committee disagreed and persuaded the Operations Commander not to open fire on the rebellious troops.[4] In an attempt to unify the opposing sides a further meeting was held and a five point agreement aimed at reconciliation was put forward by the KNU only to be rejected by the Buddhist troops.

 On the 21st December under the patronage of U Thuzana the Democratic Karen Buddhist Organisation (DKBO) was formed and a number of days later the armed wing Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA). The KNU issued an ultimatum for the DKBO to cease activities in Karen areas which they steadfastly refused to do, instead they prepared to assist SLORC forces in the capture of what had been the symbol of Karen resistance Manerplaw.

Manerplaw had consistently emerged unscathed in the continued onslaught against the Karen struggle. Its location, backing onto the Moei river and rugged mountainous terrain surrounding it made it near impossible to attack unless an assault from the Thai side was launched. With the split in the Karen resistance, which had been further exploited by the SLORC who had agreed to give the DKBA control over Karen State, the defences at Manerplaw had been weakened.

 The 400 strong DKBA knew how to penetrate the headquarters and lead Burmese troops through the defences. In January 1995 over 10,000 Tatmadaw troops joined the DKBA in preparing for the operation against Manerplaw. Operation Pyi Zanh (Hero of the Masses) consisted of troops from the 22nd, 33rd, 44th, and 66th Light Infantry Divisions. Yet, regardless of the overwhelming number of troops, Manerplaw was to fall not because of numbers, but because the DKBA lead them through the lines of defense.

The battle raged throughout January and with the help of the DKBA's radio broadcasts, which were transmitting originally on the same wavelengths as the KNLA's, the entire battle was reported in a major propaganda coup, in the daily  state run newspaper the 'New Light of Myanmar' as 'Whither KNU?' and attributed to 'A resident of Kayin State'.

The KNLA forces, on the 27th Janaury 1995, no longer able to hold the base decided to destroy what buildings remained and to withdraw. The SLORC maintained in the press, that the Karen struggle had fallen to the lack of unity amongst the Karen, that the had base fallen to the DKBA with very little support from the Tatmadaw.

With Manerplaw lost the outlook for the Karen struggle was bleak. The last major base standing was Kawmoora (New Wangha) which was some 80 km South-east of Manerplaw and 20 km North of the Thai town of Mae Sot. With Manerplaw fallen, the offensive moved to the last remaining base which was to fall less than a month later  bringing  with it a need for new tactics in the war against the SLORC

The KNLA switched to guerrilla tactics using mobile bases along the border areas to carry out attacks both against the SLORC and the DKBA who were working alongside and supplied by the Burmese military.  The DKBA began violently harassing Karen refugees in Thailand to return with them into their newly formed headquarters in Myaing Gyi Ngu (Kaw Thaw), in Pa-an.

Between January 1995 and April 1998 the DKBA usually with, if not controlled by, Burmese Soldiers, were responsible for over 152 cross-border incursions, injuring 192 refugees and villagers and causing the deaths of 70 others.[5]

Meanwhile the SLORC who were to change their name to the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) in 1997, entered into peace talks and a ceasefire with the KNU, in an attempt  to get them to enter the legal fold by laying down their weapons.

During the period of the peace talks the KNU was also involved in organizing an Ethnic Nationalities seminar, Mae Tha Raw Hta, which had agreed to work against the SPDC until they dismantled the military dictatorship. The SLORC angered by this, and the refusal of the KNU to withdraw from the meeting or cancel the statement, then used the ceasefire to consolidate its forces and by early 1997 the ceasefire was broken as the Tatmadaw launched a major offensive against all KNU areas.

Another group, led by 16th Battalion commander Col. Tha Mu Hei, split from the KNU in 6th Brigade and created yet another pro-Rangoon Karen group, the 'Karen Peace Force', at the same time a millennial sect, the God's Army which was also aimed at the destruction of the SPDC and supported by the KNU, sprang up in 4th Brigade where it was based around two young twin boys and consisting of a number of Soldiers and villagers.

A further blow was struck against the movement when Padoh Aung San, cousin of U Thuzana and the KNU Forestry minister, defected to the DKBA with 200 relatives and 48 soldiers, after allegations of corruption were leveled against him. It was alleged that he had manipulated the logging income, and attempted to form his own army. 

 The 1990's had seen the Karen resistance movement move from one of relative strength only to fall victim to religious conflict and allegations of corruption and discrimination, whether instigated by outside forces or not, they would tear the Karens hope for a free Kawthoolei apart, yet still undaunted the struggle would continue into the 21st Century

horizontal rule

[1] Thai Army Task Force 34 set up by Commander-in Chief  Chaovalit Yongchiyudh was actively supporting Burmese forces. Gen. Chaovalit had been the first person to visit the SLORC since it came to power after the 88' massacre and returned to Thailand with lucrative logging concessions.

[2] Padoh Aung San, who had been in the process of equipping his own private army, later fled to join the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army, 3 years after they split from the KNU.

[3] Personal Interview with Saw Htoo Htoo Lay, one of the Negotiating team.

[4] 'Memoirs on My True Past Experiences', Saw Bo Mya, Defense Dept., KNU

[5] 'A Question of Security', Images Asia and Borderline Video, May 1998