In the weeks before he was murdered in February 2008, the Karen leader, Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan, in an interview with Phil Thornton, spoke about the importance of unity and why the ethnic struggle would survive the opportunistic greed of those prepared to “sell out the Karen revolution.”
Today marks the day nine years ago that the highly respected Karen leader, Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan was gunned down by two men at his home in Mae Sot, Thailand.
It is widely believed that Padoh Mahn Sha was killed on Thursday February 14, 2008 on the orders of Burma’s military regime, who feared that the Karen leader was capable of uniting the country’s divided armed groups into a coherent political force.
In the 2008 interview Padoh Mahn Sha said that Burma’s problems were not only a problem for its ASEAN neighbors, but also the international community needed to be concerned. Padoh Mahn Sha explained that under the military regime rule Burma had become the world’s number one narco-state, it had displaced 500,000 ethnic people, drove 140,000 ethnic people into refugee camps in Thailand and Malaysia, it allowed the trafficking of its people, while another two million people had left the country as economic refugees and the lack of an effective health infrastructure meant its disease controls were useless.
But what his opponents feared most about Padoh Mahn Sha was his proven ability to unite the country’s ethnic people, regardless of their politics or religion. Padoh Mahn Sha believed in youth and his ability to mentor, train and prepare future leaders for a role in politics was another reason his enemies wanted him gone. Padoh Mahn Sha said that his life was for his people and he fought, so all the people of Burma could live in a democratic society with justice, dignity, human rights and respect.
In the weeks leading up to his assassination in 2008, Padoh Mahn Sha spoke of the futility of the many UN human rights missions to appeal to Burma’s military regime.
“Gambari’s (the UN’s special rapporteur on Burma at the time) trip was a waste of time, let him visit the Karen, we can show him what’s really going on. To his credit Gambari did show his concern for the (recent) Burma Army attacks in Karen State. Karen villagers have started a petition to urge the UN to put a stop to the [Burma Army] attacks in Karen State (Brigades 3 and 2).
Despite the lack of any successful intervention by the international community that would stop the Burma Army attacks on the ethnic people Padoh Mahn Sha still took time to thank them.
“Our revolution is supported by international groups, they don’t give us material support, but that has always been the way – their morale support is enough.”
Padoh Mahn Sha said the military regime had identified and targeted a number of ethnic leaders as weak links in the political struggle.
“Individuals cause splits. These people lack any political conviction. They’re dangerous for the Karen people and the Karen people don’t accept the divisions created by a few selfish individuals. These individuals are working for their own private agendas and are prepared to sell our 58-year struggle for their own profit.”
Padoh Mahn Sha said the decade long struggle had taken its toll on the resolve of many and they now looked to their own immediate gain.
“We know they have tried to negotiate for their own ‘peace zone’ and have made development and businesses, factories and logging their priorities. But the regime is not stupid – they want a mandate that reflects the whole of the KNU. Many of these individuals are naïve, are not very political sophisticated, they don’t understand politics. They are tired of fighting and they want to do business.”
Padoh Mahn Sha pointed out that it was in the interests of the ethnic people to train their young people in politics.
“The regime has tried to divide our unity. We need all our brigade commanders to stay strong. The regime doesn’t think about the people, they only want to protect their interests and power. We Karen have to focus on our four principles of our revolution. We have seen many news articles saying the KNU is finished, but we are secure knowing our young people are becoming awake to politics and are getting involved.”
What Pado Mahn Sha identified in 2008 as a danger to the Karen National Union’s unity is is still an issue for the political organization in 2017.
“The regime wants to finish us but they can’t. It’s a concern for us that individuals within our organization are holding ‘so called peace talks’ without having any mandate from the people, it’s dangerous even if their intentions are well intended, it’s very dangerous as it could cause a split and weaken our struggle for freedom.”
Back in January 2008, Pado Mahn Sha identified that the military regime wanted to divide the KNU.
“It’s obvious the regime wants to talk to our army (KNLA) leaders, not the KNU, they want to divide our unity. We need all our leaders and all our people united behind the KNU. The KNU is their main target. The objective is to now divide us any way they can and a few individuals play into their hands – General Bo Mya said many times to enter the ‘legal fold’ is to surrender. You can say that these individuals are a disgrace to the memory and the name of General Bo Mya.”
Padoh Mahn Sha said that military regime was more interested in what the signing of a peace agreement, irrespective of who signed it as long as they were ethnic, would mean to international observers and investors.
“What it does give the regime is that it allows the regime to say they now have all the ethnic groups willing to sign a peace agreement. The regime wants this position so if they can say they are ready for democracy and they can also say they are engaging in talks with the KNU. In reality there is no peace talks. How can there be when we still have mass displacement in Eastern Burma.”
Padoh Mahn Sha spoke about the dams proposed to be built on the Salween River and predicted that they would be built on the back of human rights abuses and forced displacement.
“In Burma, ‘development project’ is shorthand for forced labor, forced relocation, extortion and land confiscation.”
Mahn Sha pointed out that it was not only the “Karen against the dams, but the Shan, Mon and Thai. By supporting the dams investors are supporting the regime. Our people are being killed and their lands destroyed, how can they say their investments are worth it.”
Mahn Sha says by focusing on mega dam projects the regime was only generating more trouble for the country.
“They’re not workable, they’re problematic, see what has happened in China. The people and countries downstream lose access to water, teak and other forests are destroyed, villages drowned, waterways polluted and fish stocks ruined.”
Padoh Mahn Sha was well aware from regional intelligence sources that his life and that of other leaders were under threat because of their political smarts and their organized opposition to the military regime.