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In a suburb of the border town of Mae Sot one house is no longer a residence. It has, like many buildings in this town, been turned into an ad hoc sweatshop.
It could not be relived in because on the morning of the 14 February 2008 two men approached on the quiet road; out of their vehicle they carried bouquets of flowers.
They entered the gate of the two-storey suburban house and climbed the external stairs to the second storey balcony that looks over the road and the dusty patch of grass and shrub.
On the balcony was the Karen National Union (KNU) general secretary, Pado Mahn Shah. The revered leader was sitting reading the papers and would not have been particularly surprised to see people baring gifts or offerings.
He probably wasn’t surprised either when from within the offerings appeared the tools of his demise. He was shot several times in the chest; the last of many assassination attempts.
“For a long time the Burmese regime tried to kill my father,” says Mahn Shah’s daughter Zoya Phan, speaking to DVB from exile in London. “When I was 15 I survived three assassination attempts.”
“He had the ability to unite the Karen and also different ethnic groups. He was a bridge between the Karen and the democracy movement…they were so afraid of that”.
Perhaps the junta was afraid of the power that a people without division have against government; in particular with the Karen whose division has long been sewn by outsiders such as the Burmese and to an extent the British in their brief spell as colonial rulers.
Mahn Shah was significantly a non-Christian in a Christian-dominated orgainisation; the KNU. His roots were animist and this and his humanism gnawed at the junta’s assertion that the KNU was a sectarian organisation.
“He believed that anyone should be free to express their beliefs; he was a very open-minded person” says Zoya.
And today the logger heads of the Karen’s supposedly sectarian conflict continues; the toll of this has lead to a sad epitaph in this suburb.
If the Karen conflict has a victor at the moment it seems it will be those who are tapping the riches that can be made in this region. These riches include the bonanza that the cheap labour of those now working in Mahn Shah’s final resting place can produce for their “work owners”, as one knitter calls her employers.
Khin sits at her sewing table in the down stairs room of Mahn Shah’s old house. It is her lunch break and she is surrounded by dozens of unattended sewing machines that crowd the room. Khin is happy with the working conditions and pay. “It’s much better here than in Burma,” she says. We are informed that they get one day off a month, after pay day. On Sundays they can finish at 5pm and so do not have to return for the usual evening shift, which sees them work till about 10pm or 11pm depending on orders. They usually start at 7.30am.
Khin has been in Mae Sot for a number of years and has a permit but is no longer in possession of it. She explains that; “Work owners (employers) tend to keep the original stay documents of their workers because if the [original papers] were kept with the workers, then it will be easy for them [us] to find jobs in other places as well as updating [the papers]after they get to new work places.” As she is asked about why this irregular practice takes place her boss, a Thai man appears.
Confusion reigns. The reporter’s first thought for the scared looking knitter, her face like that of an animal in the head lights of an oncoming vehicle. The boss does not know Burmese, he is pacified by being told that the only investigation is about Pado Mahn Shah; “ok, as long as you don’t film my clothes”.
Cho Cho is from Bago division and manages to leave the factory for a few minutes in her lunch break for a chat. She has heard of Mahn Shah; “I only learnt about him after I arrived here.” She says….”I heard some people who are of the same ethnicity as him arrived in a car, came up to him and shot him in the chest. They said ‘good evening atee [uncle in Karen] before they shot him. His house maid noticed what had happened so she screamed. She only saw the attackers’ back so couldn’t identify them.”
She continues; “I knew that he was a man in the revolution/resistance”.
Cho Cho concludes with a dark twist of the gossip mill that as she was working on this day last year two men turned up with bouquets as they had the previous year. “We were scared and informed them that there was no one political here”.
And in Mae Sot on the anniversary members of NGO’s gathered to remember him at a ceremony organised by the Karen Women’s Organisation (KWO) and the Back Pack Health Workers.
Mahn Mahn, head of the Back Pack Health Workers (who deliver aid to deprived communities in Karen state, as their name suggests; on the backs of daring medical teams), told DVB that; “He [Mahn Shah] believed that without democracy, equal ethnic rights cannot be achieved”…”Members of the KWO also gave speeches to honour Pado Mahn Shah’s appreciation in the role of women in achieving equal ethnic rights and democracy and his effort to point that out.”
No one to this date has been tried for the murder of Mahn Shah. The KNU are increasingly being pressurised by the Thai government. Factories and Thai-Burma trade meanwhile continue to flourish as push factors for workers see no signs of abating. For Zoya Phan; “If these people could live well at their homes back in Burma, they wouldn’t have to come to Thailand to work so hard with little pay.”
Thai authorities recognise those that can facilitate and help them the most; at the moment the KNU’s enemies and a major suspect for the killing of Mahn Shah; the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA) who are considered essentially commercially driven.
The KNU are no longer able to offer the Thais so much, there are no communists for them to track for the Thai military and they can no longer stop the flourishing drug trade emanating from Burma.
If ever then there was a vision of how this could all end, it is here, from the balcony where an idealist fell to the assassin’s bullet. Drying in the sun beneath are now rows of red baby suites, the knitting of which is now an aspirational career choice for a young Burmese woman.
“Rebellion without truth is like spring in a bleak, arid desert.” – Khalil Gibran