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Na Kham Mwe-Portrait of a Karen Warrior

March 22, 2011

Photo: Narciso Contreras


“My childhood dream was to be a soldier,” said the 49-year-old Karen guerrilla. Of course, at that time he had no idea that the sound of his name would strike fear into some, while motivating others to take up arms and join the cause.

Saw Lah Pwe was born on July 18, 1962 into a revolutionary family in a remote village of Pa-an District in southern Karen State. He joined the Karen resistance in 1976 when he was just 14 years of age.


Nowadays, more often known by his nickname “Mr Moustache,” he is the leader of the renegade Brigade 5 of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army (DKBA), the unit that arguable turned Burma’s 63-year-old civil war on its head.

He burst into the headlines on Nov. 8, the day after Burma’s general election, when he commanded his battalion into an assault on Burmese government bases in the town of Myawaddy at the Thai-Burmese border. In the wake of the surprise attack, some 20,000 Burmese refugees fled across the border to take refuge on Thai soil.

The Brigade 5 action realized for the first time what most insiders already knew—that the two-decades long cease-fire was effectively over; that the ethnic armies would never accept the terms of the border guard force (BGF) plan; and that even within the junta’s most loyal ethnic allies —the DKBA—there existed renegade units whose heartfelt loyalty was to the Karen people and not to the junta’s business connections.

Brig-Gen Saw Lah Pwe, the commander of Brigade 5, ordered his fighters to turns the barrels of their guns back toward the Tatmadaw, the Burmese army, reversing a controversial step the DKBA took in 1995 when it tuned its backs on the Karen National Union (KNU) and joined the Tatmadaw.

However, the other five DKBA brigades—with some 3,000 armed men—remained with the regime and joined the BGF under Burmese army command. The government forces have also been reinforced with troops from regional commands elsewhere in Burma.

Brigade 5, for its part, has formed an uneasy alliance with its previous enemy, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the militant wing of the KNU.

Saw Lah Pwe speaks disparagingly about the BGF proposal. He said he sees it as bringing about the end of the DKBA.

“The BGF plan is about disarming us,” he said. “We would lose our soldiers and our weapons. To me, it is totally unacceptable.”

His colleague, Col Saw San Aung, who recently led a Brigade 5 guerrilla unit at the front line, agreed, saying, “If we become a BGF, we will have no power. We do not want to be hit men for the junta.”

Saw Lah Pwe joined the DKBA after the fall of Manerplaw, the former headquarters of the KNU, in 1995.

Although he said he joined the DKBA with the aim of protecting Karen civilians in cease-fire zones, a former friend of his at the KNU claimed that Saw Lah Pwe joined the DKBA after an argument with a KNU executive committee member.

“As far as I know, it was neither because he fell out with the KNU nor because he sought a position at the DKBA. He was still young when he joined the DKBA and was not leadership material,” said Htee Moo, a DKBA member.
“It was my own decision to join the Karen rebels,” Saw Lah Pwe said. “Nobody forced me.

“I quit school in 1976 because the government troops attacked our village, and destroyed the schoolhouse. I could not study any longer,” he said. “I witnessed the Tatmadaw troops torturing and killing the villagers. I joined the Karen resistance to help free my people from this oppression.”

Saw Lah Pwe said that when he was very young, his father, Tun Tin, also a Karen guerrilla, was killed by the Burmese army. He said his mother told him that his father was arrested by junta troops at a hut in a paddy field and killed along with his two friends.

“We used to live in peace. But, they came and attacked us. Now we have to avenge the killings,” he said.

Among the local Karen populace Saw Lah Pwe is known as “Na Kham Mwe,” meaning Mr. Moustache, because of his wispy facial hair à la Che Guevara.

Stroking his goatee, Saw Lah Pwe said he believes he made a brave decision to split from DKBA, and he quickly had to move all his relatives, including his ex-wife, her children and his siblings, out of BGF zones and into liberated areas of Karen State.
He said the Burmese regime has phoned him and tried to entice him to join the BGF. Promises of sweet business concessions and straightforward bribes are the usual carrots, he said.

He said the Burmese authorities offered him 500 cars and other business opportunities. He said they pressured monk U Thuzana, a monk highly influential in the DKBA, to visit him and persuade him to join the BGF.  When all incentives failed, they launched an offensive against him, he said.

“When nobody could persuade us to join the BGF, the regime told us to leave Myawaddy. They said they don’t want to see us there any longer. But I told them we will not leave. This is our Karen land, so Karen people must live in it,” said Saw Lah Pwe.

He speaks passionately when speaking about Karen people. His gestures become more animated and his eyes blaze. Otherwise, his words are slow and measured, his body language relaxed. His teeth are stained reddish-brown from years of chewing betel, a common jungle tonic.

Kyaw Htin, a former Burmese underground activist who met Saw Lah Pwe at a KNU military camp in 1988, described Saw Lah Pwe as “a real fighter.”

“I guessed Saw Lah Pwe was about 25 or 26 when I met him,” he said. “He spoke short and straight—just like a real soldier. He likes chewing betel nut very much. His mouth is always red. He looks like a real fighter.

“I don’t think he is a tricky guy like Chit Thu [a DKBA commander who won several business deals from the junta in return for joining the BGF],” he said.

The KNLA may have good reason for being suspicious or for despising any DKBA cadres. However, a visit to the KNLA’s Brigade 5 headquarters compounds the fact that the KNLA leaders roundly respect Saw Lah Pwe and support what he has done.

For his part, Saw Lah Pwe has no regrets about walking out on the junta.

“The Burmese authorities were never sincere about the cease-fire agreement, “he said. “They are never honest with their people or the ethnic minorities. They only try to manipulate and eliminate us. Under their rules, we can barely breathe.”

He said he will change tactics when confronting the because he  has fewer fighters than the enemy.

“We will focus on guerrilla warfare tactics, “he said. “We also have back-up troops that will provide military assistance.”

After 35 years as a guerrilla warrior, Saw Lah Pwe said he still remembers his mother’s words of advice.

“She told me: ‘Never trust the Burmese regime. They are sneaky. Remember they killed your father.  Don’t ever expect anything from them. Just serve your people to the best of your ability,’” he said.

“I’m a soldier for my people,” he said, growing more animated again. “I can’t survive without my people. I’m the bone of my people. My blood is for my people.”



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