Chapter 3 - Context

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Context

A nationwide uprising calling for the restoration of democracy and human rights in Burma was launched on August 8, 1988. As in other parts of the country, protests were organized in cities and towns in Kachin State and the Sagaing Division of Upper Burma. Local students who studied at universities in Rangoon and Mandalay were the driving force behind most of the pro-democracy protests in Moe Nyin, Moe Kaung, Bamaw, and Myitkyina in Kachin State; and Wuntho and Tha Kha in Sagaing Division.


After the Burmese government army (the Tatmadaw) staged a coup on September 18, 1988, thousand of students fled to the areas nearest to them controlled by ethnic armed groups. With help from these groups, they began to set up small camps along Burma’s borders with Thailand, China, and India. The All Burma Students’ Democratic Front (ABSDF) was formed at Kawmooyar Camp on the Thailand-Burma border on November 1, 1988, to unite all students in one army.

The establishment of the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front –Kachin (ABSDF-K)

Student activists in Kachin State and Sagaing Division fled to the area near Laisin/Pajau, which was under the control of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and Kachin Independence Army (KIA).  The earliest groups of students and local youth to arrive came from five townships in Kachin State: Myitkyina, Moe Nyin, Moe Kaung, Pha Kant, and Bamaw. The first batch of students to arrive came to be known as Intake #1 and is believed to have numbered 100 persons. During that time, a committee was formed to maintain relations between the students and the KIA. The committee was comprised of student leaders representing five townships in Kachin State. That committee was known as the 5 – Man committee. The members were:
  1. Joe Phyu (aka) Ko Ko Naing (Moe Kaung)
  2. Kyaw Kyaw (aka) Kachin Kyaw Kyaw (Myitkyina)
  3. Saw Min Aung (aka) Bo Saw (Shwe Ku)
  4. Gabami (Bamaw)
  5. Than Chaung (Moe Nyin)

Since the students required military training to set up their camp, the KIA provided close supervision and support to Intake #1 in the first three months after their arrival.

During this time a smaller number of students and youth from the Sagaing Division also formed their own group with the aim of penetrating their home division. Calling their organization the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front- Sagaing, these students also enjoyed the support of KIA. They lived and trained together at the same camp as the Kachin students, although they maintained their own barrack. Although the groups lived and worked together, the TJC heard that there were some disagreements between ABSDF-Kachin and ABSDF-Sagaing over political strategy. According to reports told to the TJC, the Sagaing students wanted to develop a separate regional committee and focus on building resistance in Sagaing Division. The Kachin students believed that all the students based at the Laisin/Pajau Camp should work under the ABSDF - Kachin.

The training of Intake #1 took place over three months from October to December 1988. During this time, the Revolutionary Democratic Students Committee (Ad hoc) was formed by the students of the Intake # 1 on October 1988. Shortly afterwards the All Burma Students’ Democratic Front formed on the Thai-Burma border on November 1, 1988. Therefore, the name was officially changed to All Burma Students’ Democratic Front – Kachin.

After formally establishing themselves, the students created and elected a  structure to run the camp. They modeled their new governing body on that of their trainers, the KIA/KIO. The Politburo system focused on policy affairs and emphasized a top-down leadership style. At this time there was only one battalion (Battalion #701). The Military Affairs-in-charge, because he served as the Battalion Commander and oversaw all military activities, held a great amount of power. The Central Committee oversaw day-to-day management of the camp while the Politburo members provided political leadership.

Only students from Kachin State and Sagaing Division were allowed to take part in elections. The elected officials were the following:
Politburo   
  1. Hlwan Moe  
  2. Hla Htay   
  3. Nay Doon    

Central Committee
  1. Kyaw Kyaw (Chairperson)
  2. Than Chaung (Military Affairs In-Charge)
  3. Myo Win (General Secretary)
  4. Aung Gyi (Finance)
  5. Sein Aye (member)
  6. Zaw Win Chit (member)
  7. Tu Tu (member)
  8. Khin Maung Win (member)
  9. Aung Moe Kyaw (member)
  10. Saw Yin Htwe (member)
  11. Than Zaw    (Member)
  12. Maung Htwe (Aung Htwe)    Member

Transition to All Burma Students’ Democratic Front - Northern

With momentum building in the post-8888 movement and increased political suppression inside the country, more and more students and youth joined the ABSDF in 1989, 1990, and 1991. Instead of traveling to the ethnic army-controlled areas closest to them, many students now made their way to camps where they had political contacts. Like other camps, the ABSDF-Kachin Camp began to receive new members from across Burma.

Many of these new members made contact with ABSDF-Kachin through student activists in Mandalay and Upper Burma. The Association of Students and Youth National Politics, and the Graduates and Old Students’ Democratic Association (GOSDA) channeled public and political support. Under the patronage of Sayadaw Ashin U Yawata, Mandalay activists also formed an underground network to provide assistance to the camp.

The main tasks of this underground network were to engage with political forces inside Burma, deliver political statements and support letters to organizations on behalf of the ABSDF-Kachin, and to provide material support such as medicine, food, and funds to the camp. The network also provided directions and logistical support to students wishing to join the ABSDF-Kachin. Most took the train to Bamaw and made a five-day journey on foot to the ABSDF-Kachin Headquarters in Laisin/Pajau. A few came by car on the Shweli-Muse road and through China.

From December 1989 onwards many leading members of the underground network also followed this path and joined the ABSDF-Kachin. These included Htun Aung Kyaw, Ronald Aung Naing, and Soe Lin. The camp began to swell with new members from Mandalay, Rangoon, Bago and other parts of southern Burma.

By the time the ABSDF-Kachin began training Intake #5 in November 1989, the camp held an estimated 500 student soldiers from at least five different states and divisions. Beside Battalion #701 a new battalion called Battalion # 702 was formed. A battalion of fifteen students from ABSDF Headquarters (Battalion #501 Palaung Area) joined the camp in 1990. Centrally commanded by the main headquarters in Laisin/Pajau, these three battalions operated out of four smaller posts in Bamaw, Pha Kant, Moe Nyin and Shwe Ku, alongside KIA troops.

The dramatic increase in the size and influx of recruits from broader Burma lead to calls for the need to change the structure and title of ABSDF-Kachin. According to those who spoke with the TJC, it was not an easy process. There were many heated discussions. An Election Commission was established and given nearly five months (from February to June 1990) to come up with ways to restructure the organization. Representatives from five regions (Rangoon, Mandalay, Kachin, Shan and Sagaing) were nominated to serve on this Commission.

The Election Commission made fundamental changes. In order to decentralize leadership, the three-member Politburo was disbanded, and the Central Committee was put in charge of running the organization. The Central Committee Executive team held the greatest power and was comprised of seven people: one chairperson (the most senior leader in the camp), three vice chairpersons, a general secretary, and two joint secretaries.  The highest military position was the Chief of Staff. The holder of this position was also Vice Chairperson 1, giving him dual power. The Executive was supported by four Regional In Charges representing the four outposts – Bamaw, Moe Nyin, Sagaing, and Shwe Ku.

The Central Committee was expanded and new departments were created to support the Executive. These departments focused on political and logistical support and included finance, political organizing, information, and health. This expansion was intended to shift camp governance from a military-oriented, top-down leadership to a more consultative structure that prioritized balanced political affairs alongside military operations. 
  1. Tun Aung Kyaw (Chairperson)
  2. Than Chaung (Vice-chairperson 1)
  3. Kyaw Kyaw (Vice-chairperson 2)
  4. Than Lwin (Vice-chairperson 3)
  5. Aung Naing (General Secretary)
  6. Myo Win (Joint Secretary 1)
  7. La Seng (Joint Secretary 2)
  8. Nay Dun (Central Committee Member - Fundraising)
  9. Aung Gyi (Central Committee Member - Finance)
  10. Ar Seit / Tin Maung Aye (Central Committee Member - Information)
  11. U Sein (Central Committee Member-Justice)
  12. Soe Lin (Central Committee Member - Political)
  13. Myint Kyaw (Central Committee Member- Audit)
  14. Yan Naung Soe (Central Committee Member - Health)
  15. Kyaw Kyaw Ohn (Central Committee Member - Sagaing Region)
  16. Sein Aye (Central Committee Member - Kachin Region)
  17. Ye Lin (Central Committee Member - Yangon Region)
  18. Win Thein (Central Committee Member - Shan Region)
  19. Nyi Nyi  Kyaw (Central Committee Member - Mandalay Region)

Yet in reality the new structure also helped to further concentrate power in the hands of military leaders. Military leaders were appointed, not elected, so there was no change in leadership. There was only an increase in the number of military personnel (battalion commanders, training officers and regional in charges) to reflect the increase in number of battalions. The Chief of Staff oversaw all military operations, making it a powerful post. Under the revised structure the Chief of Staff (Than Chaung) was also able to run for and hold a Central Committee Executive position. This gave him dual roles and decision-making power over both military and political affairs. This dual role posed a structural risk to the overall authority of the Chairperson.

The Election Commission also expanded the Military intelligence Unit that was based at the Laisin/Pajau Camp. A Headquarters Security Unit was also formed to provide security of the camp.

One of the most important changes made by the Election Commission was to the elections process itself. It abolished the policy allowing only students from the Kachin area to hold leadership posts, and put procedures in place to ensure that students from all areas would be represented. The students were broken into smaller regional groups, each of which nominated several representatives to stand in the elections. Camp members cast their votes for this pool of nominees to determine who would take up Central Committee positions.  The top vote getters then met privately as a group to allocate positions amongst themselves.

Elected members from Sagaing Division and Lower Burma took up the majority of positions in the Central Committee’s new political departments. According to reports Myo Win, General Secretary of ABSDF-Kachin, received few votes in the election; but because of his previous position he was given the relatively senior position of Joint Secretary 1 to maintain good relations. According to reports, he later appointed himself as the Vice Chief of Staff when Than Chaung was injured on the frontline.

The transition appeared to be successful. In June 1990 ABSDF-Northern was at the peak of its achievement. The internal military and political structures worked well together, the alliance with the KIA was strong, and the organization enjoyed public support from groups inside Burma.  Yet behind the scenes tensions were rising and conditions were already forming that would set the stage for the events of late 1991 and early 1992.

July 1990- July 1991: Growing Tensions, Growing Suspicions

A number of events, factors and underlying influences in the environment contributed to creating a context where arrests, torture, ill treatment and extra-judicial killings took place in the ABSDF-Northern Camp starting in August 1991. Some were difficulties faced by all ABSDF camps while others were unique to the Northern context.

The Strict Military Culture of the ABSDF-Northern Camp

The ABSDF-Northern operated under strict military discipline. All of the people that the TJC interviewed spoke about it, many of them with pride. Following the example of their Kachin trainers and chief allies, ABSDF-Northern members adopted a camp culture that placed the highest value on respect for authority, regimented self-discipline, and following orders. Unlike other ABSDF camps at the time, there was less space for questioning decisions and little tolerance for those who were lax about camp rules.

Discipline was instilled from the beginning as part of training. Ronald Aung Naing told the Committee:

“We have a training department. The trainers were originally trained by the KIA with strict military rules. So when we made our own army we applied the same rules. I myself got slapped and punched during the training.

Hierarchy

The ABSDF-Northern Camp culture emphasized hierarchy and divisions between people in positions of authority and ordinary members. This manifested itself in a variety of ways. Relationships and communication styles were formal at all times. If a soldier of lower rank met a senior anywhere, they had to salute. Those who failed to salute could be punished. Central Committee members had their own barracks that were separated from the barracks of rank and file soldiers by a large field. CC Executive members had personal aides (other ABSDF members) who did their cooking and washing.

Strict Rules and Punishment

Those who broke camp codes were quickly and sometimes severely punished. Even minor transgressions such as failing to salute could earn someone a slap. Compared with other ABSDF camps, punishments were harsh. For instance one survivor recounted to the TJC how an ABSDF member was smacked thirty times for visiting another hill (area patrolled by another unit) without getting permission. In other ABSDF camps punishment for this offence normally entailed assigning the offender to cooking duty or giving them extra work such as collecting firewood.

Sometimes punishment was even more extreme. The execution of Hlwan Moe in April 1990 is a prime example of this. According to multiple witnesses and survivors who spoke with the TJC, Hlwan Moe, a founding Politburo Member of ABSDF-Kachin, was detained in April 1990. There was difference opinion among interviewees about the reasons for his arrest. Most said that it had to do with alleged misuse of ABSDF funds and corruption. A few said that he was detained on allegations that he was a spy for military intelligence. Whatever the charge, Hlwan Moe faced the harshest punishment. On April 6, he was interrogated and executed in front of the whole camp. 

Nang Aung Htwe Kyi described what happened:
“When we were at the assembly on the training ground they brought out Hlwan Moe with his hands tied behind his back. At that time we were all standing in a semi-circle and looking as they [the guards] were digging. At that time Than Chaung was very angry. I heard Than Chaung ask, ‘Are you military intelligence?’ Hlwan Moe answered: ‘Let me be intelligence for the Burmese Communist Party.’ That is all I heard. And then Than Chaung shot Hlwan Moe two times. It happened right before all of us while we were standing still.  Then his body was put into the  hole.” 

According to multiple eyewitnesses, Hlwan Moe was buried and ABSDF members were ordered to march over his grave.

The apparent lack of due process and brutal nature of the public execution set a precedent for how alleged rule breakers and spies would be treated in the camp. The fact that Hlwan Moe was one of the highest-ranking officers in the camp at the time also showed that no one was safe from execution or harsh punishment.

According to several reports, the execution raised concerns from the Kachin Independence Army. They advised ABSDF leadership not to repeat the action, noting that senior leaders should not be treated in that way. 

Lack of trust/factionalism

Despite the work of the Election Commission and the transition to the new structure of the ABSDF-Northern Camp, there was still a lack of trust between different groups of ABSDF members based on ethnicity, background, and position in camp. As suspicions grew, it was often along these fault lines.

Lack of trust between frontline soldiers and those based at Headquarters
With the formation of the ABSDF-Northern and an increasing number of people conducting political and logistical work, there were increased tensions between soldiers in frontline positions and those in more camp-based jobs at the Laizin/Parjau Headquarters.

As some witnesses and survivors told the TJC, many at the frontline felt that those working at Headquarters were not ‘real’ soldiers.  They were seen as lazy, lacking commitment, or unable to deal with the challenges of military life.

People based in political/non-military positions were also seen as complainers and even troublemakers for questioning the way things were done in the camp.

As Aung Swe Oo told the Committee:
“We were at the frontline.  We were fighting at least three times a month. If there was no offensive, then we launched an offensive. It was constant fighting.  Then we heard that there were protests at the HQ and we, as a troop in the battle, were angry to be honest.  We were trying very hard. On top of poor living conditions, sometimes we didn’t have anything to eat.  Why were they making trouble while they were living in stable conditions? Why couldn’t they stay peacefully? That is why the frontline troops were angry.”

Tensions between founding members and more recent arrivals

The rapid expansion of the camp from 100 to over 500 members, paired with an influx of students from different parts of the country also created tensions. Like most ABSDF camps, students from different ethnicities and geographical regions had little interaction or exposure to each other before entering the camp. This posed a challenge across ABSDF as students had to adapt to new styles of cooking, communicating and living together. In ABSDF-Northern, the founding members (predominantly from Kachin State) had to adapt to culture and communication styles of students from a variety of ethnic groups and cities across the country.

Some witnesses who spoke to the TJC told how earlier arrivals perceived the new students as having less discipline. Some felt that as a result the camp was becoming chaotic and harder to control. They became increasingly concerned that the camp was at risk of being compromised or attacked.

These suspicions increased with losses at the frontline in late 1990-1991. Several witnesses told the TJC that there was a sense at the time that government (Tatmadaw) troops always seemed to know what ABSDF-Northern soldiers were going to do. Frontline soldiers began to suspect that people within their ranks were supplying the Tatmadaw with information.

The arrival of new students also raised safety concerns among some at camp. With so many people coming from far away places, it was harder to verify a person’s family or political history. Existing ABSDF members closely watched how people arrived  and monitored their behavior as they settled into camp life.

Underlying tensions between students from Kachin State and those from Sagaing Division
According to what witnesses and survivors told the TJC, tensions between students from Kachin State and Sagaing Division continued even after their unification as ABSDF-Kachin and later ABSDF-Northern.

The TJC received a report from one witness about the killing of 2-3 ABSDF members from the Sagaing Division in December 1990. Although the TJC was not able to determine exactly what happened or who was responsible, it believes that there is a possibility that the killings were linked to ongoing tensions between members from Sagaing Division and others in ABSDF-Northern. 

Isolation and lack of awareness about human rights

Compared with other ABSDF camps, the ABSDF-Northern Camp was isolated. It lacked access to international NGOs, activists, and media that made frequent visits to the many camps closer to the Thailand-Burma border. As a result ABSDF-Northern soldiers did not receive the same exposure or access to human rights training that their colleagues in the South did.

Ongoing Repression from Burmese government

Government repression of political and armed groups was relentless after the September 18, 1988 crackdown. The ABSDF and students across the country were the main targets of government repression. Thousands of students and protesters were arrested and thrown into prison for extended sentences. Tatmadaw military intelligence operated a vast network of spies and informers that helped to capture underground cells and intercept students fleeing for the border. Fears of government spies and infiltration ran through all ABSDF camps in the early 1990s. In the Northern Camp rumors swirled and contributed to a climate of heightened fear and mistrust.

Increased Paranoia and Internal Spying

While most ABSDF camps had Military Intelligence Units, their role normally focused on gathering information about Tatmadaw troops. The ASBDF-Northern camp was different. In 1990-1991, its newly expanded Intelligence Unit  focused on internal investigations. With underlying mistrust and factionalism, and increasing fears about camp safety, Intelligence Unit members began to monitor an increasing number of people of all ranks, from Central Committee members to ordinary soldiers.

The Intelligence Unit also drew others into their activities. According to accounts given to the TJC, individuals were quietly asked to watch people close to them. This included monitoring their activities, relationships, and movements for any sign that they might be working with the enemy or other spies based within the camp. Those asked to spy included Central Committee members and rank and file soldiers. Internal spies were offered money for their work, providing extra incentive to keep tabs on one another. This high level of internal surveillance only heightened feelings of distrust in the camp. 

August 1991: Tensions explode

Tensions in the ABSDF-Northern Camp were running especially high in late July/early August 1991 in the run up to the third anniversary of the 8-8-88 uprising. The ABSDF-Northern camp planned a commemoration for the day and invited high-level political leaders, including officials from the KIA and KIO. As the anniversary edged closer, rumors began to swirl that Tatmadaw agents planned to infiltrate the event and poison guests. Fears about camp safety and the security of invited KIA/KIO guests was at an all time high.

It was during this time (the first week of August) that Soe Min Aung, a runner for the 501 Battalion Commander, deserted his post.  A new and reportedly uncommitted arrival at camp, Soe Min Aung had been avoiding starting military training that was compulsory for all ABSDF-Northern members. He had just been ordered to start when he fled. He was quickly recaptured and taken back to the Bamaw post where he was interrogated.

Soe Min Aung was tortured extensively during interrogation and died as a result. Before he was killed, a list of names began to form of other alleged spies around camp. By the end of August 1991 alone more than 60 ABSDF members were arrested with at least 6 of these killed during interrogation.

New ABSDF members, those with camp-based or political jobs, and students from Sagaing Division made up the vast majority of the victims.