Worth Their Weight In War

KimGooi Photojournalist                                                                 In the Pajau Hills with the Kachins Feb 1992

Worth Their Weight In War
First published in ‘The Nation Review’ Bangkok on August 26, 2002

“War determines life and death, the rise and fall of a state. It is therefore of vital importance that the art of war be studied with great care,” wrote Sun Tze about 2,500 years ago in his classic “The Art of War“.

Spies are very important, he emphasised, for their information or disinformation determines how a war should be conducted: “A commander should not be stingy in hiring spies and thereby prolong a war for years when information from spies might secure victory in a day.”

Among the five categories of spies Sun Tze mentions are “doomed spies”, whose purpose is to supply false information to the enemy and then be denounced by anonymous colleagues.

This calls to mind an incident in recent times.                                                  

                                                                       A day after the beheading the remaining spies spared were shown  to  journalists

On the afternoon of February 12, 1992, in the cold, barren hills of Pajau along the Sino-Burma border, 15 spies were executed by their fellow students of the All Burma Student Democratic Front (ABSD F) fighting to topple the Rangoon junta.

In front of the assembled students, the spies were made to dig their own graves and beheaded one by one. The blood-curdling event sent shockwaves far and wide; and was all the more shocking for having been committed by students! Its repercussions are still felt today, 10 years later.

An article condemning the perpetrators in the June issue of The Irrawaddy (a dissident Burmese magazine based in Chiang Mai), read: “The excesses of Burma’s military intelligence services are well known, but many observers question why Rangoon would send such a large number of spies to one place. A more likely theory is that the executions were a result of a power struggle within the ABSDF.”

Former ABSDF chairman Dr Naing Aung’s study at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government later this year has been deferred indefinitely after the university learned of his alleged role in the executions from protest letters sent by human rights activists and professed victims of the ABSDF’s crimes, the article said.

I arrived in the Pajau hills a day after the executions, after an arduous journey through the mountains of Yunnan province, and interviewed the students.

Doomed spies in the Pajau Hills, Sino-Burmese border Feb 1992

This was the story they told me: The first group of 200 Burmese students arrived in Pajau, Kachin State, at the end of September 1988. About 80 more came in November. Altogether, at the height of the student exodus there were about 800 students of both sexes based at the Kachin headquarters. Fifty found life too tough and returned home, said Aung Naing, the chairman of ABSDF (North). Eighty other students died in the battlefield, fighting the army of the Rangoon military junta. Some died of sickness.

The 401 ABSDF Battalion under Sai Than Lwin, Wein Thein and L Zau Naw in northern Shan State surrendered to Rangoon in December 1900. All the student leaders were spies. According to the ABSDF chairman, the students were 600 strong (in February 1992), divided into 7 branches in northern Burma, with 80 of them then in Pajau camp, and another 80 at the frontline.

They had begun receiving military training from the Kachin Independent Army (KIA), an ethnic group fighting for independence from Rangoon, in December 1988. The ABSDF army was under the command of Major Than Chaung, who later lost his left eye and right hand in December 1990 fighting Rangoon’s forces.

Suspicion that spies had infiltrated the camp was first aroused in April 1990 when one student was found and arrested with maps and a ciphered message. Before he could be interrogated, he feigned sickness. At the camp hospital he was given poison and died before he could talk.

Prior to this Rangoon scored its first espionage victory when they sent Than Tun Soe, 30, (of the National Intelligence Bureau) to infiltrate the ABSDF in Pajau in May 1989 together with a woman spy. “He told us he knew many students in Rangoon, so to please let him go back and organise the students,” Aung Naing told me.

“We gave him two video tapes which he took to Rangoon and gave to Aung San Suu Kyi. He went in June 1989 and came back to Pajau in July and left again for Rangoon. We were surprised at the ease he could travel back and forth. We thought he had great ability.”

On July 20, 1989 Aung San Suu Kyi was arrested by Rangoon and charged with collaborating with insurgents and rebels. The two ABSDF videotapes were produced as irrefutable evidence. At the same time Rangoon’s master spy, first secretary General Khin Nyunt, said over the radio that Than Thn Soe had been arrested.

The ABSDF only became aware that Pajau was heavily infiltrated with spies around July 1991. Some of the student leaders had been lead-poisoned. The spies were hoping to kill them slowly so that no one would suspect they had been poisoned.

“The first spy to be arrested was Soe Min Aung, an army man from Mandalay. He escaped and we caught him again at the Chinese border town of Rueli in August 1991,” Aung Naing said.

A sinister plot to assassinate Kachin leaders and student leaders was uncovered in the nick of time on August 6, 1991, two days before the “8888” (August 8, 1988 democracy uprising in Rangoon) celebrations. Explosives and guns were uncovered in the spies’ huts. On the same day Chinese security police arrested 10 Burmese spies, armed with rifles, pistols and explosives in Ying Jiang, across the border in China.

After the spy ring was exposed, 80 spies were rounded up from August to November, including three women and the former ABSDF chairman Tun Aung Gyaw. Nine of the 19 ABSDF central committee members turned out to be spies. Kachin intelligence agents must have played a role in exposing the nest of vipers. And the KIA paid a high price for welcoming the hordes of students into their headquarters in Pajau after the 1988 pro-democracy uprising in Rangoon. Soon after, Pajau was overrun and captured by Burmese government troops.

Insiders said that after the arrival of the students, every enemy artillery shell hit Pajau with pinpoint accuracy.

When I visited the Kachin HQ in 1992 it was an entirely new base, right on the border with half the camp in Chinese territory, to avoid further attacks from Rangoon forces. They still called it Pajau to give the illusion that they had not lost their capital. It was a big setback to the war-like Kachins, reputed to have the best-disciplined guerrilla army in Burma. It was a blow from which they never recovered and led to their giving up and signing a “peace treaty” with Rangoon soon after.

On the afternoon of February 12, 1992, 15 spies were beheaded in front of the assembled students.

“We cannot pardon them because their crimes were too serious and they have done us severe damage. There are specific international rules in war. We will set free POWs but not spies. This is an international practice,” argued Aung Naing.

“Their aim is to finish off the Kachins and ABSDF before 1993,” Aung Naing said.

Today, Rangoon has finished off not only the Kachins and ABSDF in the north, but the rest of the insurgent armies fighting for independence from Burmese brutality and oppressive rule. Notably spectacular were the capture of the Mannerplaw Karen HQ and the capitulation of Khun Sa’s Shan armies at the Thai border, two of the biggest insurgent armies in Burma.

For the first time in half a century Rangoon could control the whole country, thanks to its generous use of spies, made possible when thousands of students fled Rangoon to insurgent areas after the 8888 pro democracy massacre.
Two and a half millennia later the words of Sun Tze still ring true: “Only with good intelligence and the generous and clever employment of spies will success be assured.” Rangoon has certainly proved it so.

Related stories: How I got into Kachin Land   https://kimgooi.wordpress.com/2010/10/13/burmese-spies-and-into-kachin-land/#comment-150

Aung San Suu Kyi’s release from 1st house arrest   https://kimgooi.wordpress.com/2010/09/13/rebel-with-a-cause/

Author’s note: 
News of the beheading by Burmese students was despatched by Deutsch Presse Agentur (dpa) as an exclusive right after the event in 1992 and a feature version appeared as cover story in ‘Dateline Bangkok’. Ten  years after in 2002, the Nation Review published ‘Worth their weight in War’.

Unknown to many, beheading was not that uncommon in Burma. During the 888 (August 8, 1988) Pro Democracy uprising in Rangoon, some western journalists and photographers managed to fly into Rangoon by using fake visas made by skilled rubber-stamp shops in Bangkok. Time magazine photographer, Sandro Tucci whom I often worked with, showed me a series of gruesome human heads arranged neatly in the street admidst saffron-robed monks and huge crowd of demontrators.

 “Unfortunately Time magazine cannot use these photos because it’s too shocking!”  said Tucci. “The demonstrators caught these spies red-handed poisoning the drinking water and several demonstrators fell dead. The ‘people’s court’ presided by a senior monk passed the death sentence and the government spies were beheaded right in the street where they were apprehended,” Tucci recounted with a shiver.

 This was another example of the ‘doomed spies’ used by the Burmese military junta.  Taking the horror of the beheading as an excuse the military opened fire and bayonet charged into the massive crowd. Thousands were mowed down in the streets of  Rangoon on Aug 8, 1988.

The cruelty, cunning and atrocities of the Burmese military is legendary especially  among the victimised ethnic minorites, like the Karens, Shans and Kachins who constitute the three biggest rebellions among a dozen other small ethnic groups fighting for autonomy. Right after General Ne Win took power in 1962, Shan Princes, traditional rulers of Shan State’s municipaliies, were invited by the military for talks and vanished. Until today their dead bodies had not been returned to the grieving families.   

It is almost unknown for a country to demonetised its currency. It happend in Burma in 1988. Among the misrule, plundering and humanrights violations, demonetizing the biggest denomination kyat notes was the final spark that caused the massive pro democracy uprising in August that year. Overnight people who had worked and saved for years keeping the high denomination notes lost everything.

The 888 uprising saw the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi, Burma’s most famous pro democracy icon [see Rebel with a cause].She spent 15 of the past 22 years under house arrest. She was released in November 2010 by president Thein Sein who took power in March 2010. A retired general who became president after a sham military directed elections where the main opposition was barred from participating.

On January 13, 2012 the President released 651 political prisoners under an amnesty of the new government. 27,000 convicts were also freed since last May. The new President had also initiated discussion about legalising trade unions and loosening censorship, reported ‘The Irrawaddy’ Burmese news portal based in Chiang Mai. It said the government had also signed a peace treaty with the Karen National Union who had been fighting for autonomy for over 60 years. However, this was immediately denied by ‘The Karen News’ of the rebels.

Meanwhile heavy fighting is raging in Kachin State in the north, despite the president calling for a ceasefire. The Irrawaddy reported on January 12, a government helicopter ferrying troops to attack Kachins was forced down by Kachin ground troops. Like the rebels would say, “We cannot trust the Burmans, they say one thing and do another!”

With these developments, especially Aung San Suu Kyi participation in the coming by- election in April, is Burma on it’s way to genuine democratic reforms and ending oppressions of ethnic minorities? Or is it ‘old wine in new bottle’ out to hook-wink the world again. For a start Rangoon must allow independent observers and the world press into the country.

Burma is often potrayed as a tranquil land steeped in Buddhism. To understand the country, I would say George Orwells’s book “Burmese Days” explains best the cultural complexities and psyche of the majority native Burmans.                                                      

Burmese student leaders in the Pajau hills, February 1992                photos by Kim Gooi


Filed under The Nation (TH)

17 responses to “Worth Their Weight In War

  1. ST

    All government spy on one another, friendly or not, internal and external, to stay in power or enforce/plan their policies; no exceptions. Beheadings, a shot at the back of the head and tortures are uses by governments that want to send a message across. The winner is always right; also the freedom to write the history of the events until they are deposed or found out and the truths do come out eventually. History is a recording of man’s faults/frailties in its goodness and wickedness; thus the saying ‘History repeats itself.’


  2. Re: Rebels/Burmese days via email

    TO: Kim Gooi Wednesday, January 18, 2012 12:55 AM
    Thanks for the link – make wonderful reading! Keep it up!


    Kimgooi’s reply: Thanks Boon Keong for your encouragement!

  3. HT Tan

    How do you think Suu Kyi will feature in present day Myanmar’s politics now that she seems to receive headlines from the world’s press?

    HT Tan

    • The military junta has finally realized the status of Suu Kyi is internationally and internally unshakable. They could kill or imprison anyone with impunity, but not her because of her father who is the hero of Burma’s independence. A 180 degree about-turn, they are courting her now for PR and to endorse their regime. They have not conceded anything! Suu Kyi will stand for by-election in April and will wind, this will buy time for another five years or so until the next general elections. If Suu Kyi is still around, chances are she will win (like the first GE in 1992?) and be the next President.(if the military honour the result)

      After over 60 years of bloodshed real peace and progress will only be possible when the Burmans treat the ethnic minorities with justice and as equal, and the ‘Panglong Agreement’ brokered by colonial British government is honoured.

  4. Kong Hock

    Thanks. Good n enjoyed reading ……….

  5. Great story. Spies and beheadings, the perennial stuff of political intrigue. I have read Burmese Days by Orwell who, like you, was unrelenting in the search for the truth regardless of, or, in spite of, the hardships encountered while pursuing it. For example, one close call Orwell had with the Grim Reaper was in, miraculously, surviving a sniper’s bullet through his neck when he volunteered to serve in the side opposing the fascist dictator, General Franco, in the Spanish Civil War. His experiences there could be read in his book “Homage to Catalonia”. Orwell was no armchair critic or an unrepentant left-wing intellectual and in fact became disillusioned and skeptical of the communist ideology after his wartime stint in Spain. Orwell too felt that his many highly-educated peers in perfidious Albion, were gullible toffs who allowed themselves to be easily duped by the Soviets whom he thought did not scruple to resort to mendacious tactics to achieve their dubious aims. Elsewhere, to achieve credibility and veracity before he wrote, for example, his “Down and Out in Paris and London” he went amongst the hobos to experience what life was like at the lowest level of human existence. This also reminds me that your incarceration once-a-upon-a-time there in Burma strikes a parallel chord, in that, only by partaking in the lives of the marginalised and down-trodden wherever they may be and whom fate and misfortune (or political circumstances!) have placed them, and feeling their existential pain and agony, only then, I repeat, only then can we write with any conviction or authority. Kim, I am sure, now, that the heroic Aung San Suu Kyi (surely Asia’s Mandela) is to play a bigger role in that unhappy country of hers so as to bring about positive changes — long overdue! — for its people there, there now appears to be some light at the end of the bleak and dark tunnel. And I am sure all the good things which have been happening there recently is not only because of the indomitable spirit of Myanmar’s First Lady, but owes not a little to your past contribution as a reporter in that part of this region which helped stirred the conscience of the good and decent people of the world. Hopefully, someday and somewhere, someone would suggest that it’s time that the George Orwell’s Pursuit of the Truth Award be created and if it does, I am sure you would be its first recipient. And deservedly so.

  6. Aung Moe

    This is one version (probably the truest) of whatever happened in February 1992 at the ABSDF’s Pajau Camp at Laisen Hills on the China-Burma border.

    Lord of the Flies: ABSDF Student Army went brutally wild?


  7. From: “Jason Schoonover”
    Whew. Kim, that’s just about the most powerful article I’ve read. Even surpassing Al Dawson’s legendary one twenty years ago about the outcome of the Laos royal family.

    kimgooi: Jason, thanks for the great encouragement man!

  8. David Shiel

    Very painful and hard to read, but very well written. Thank you sir.

  9. Htein Lin

    Dear Kim, as one of the survivors of these atrocities, I would like to ask you to completely review your facts. I and over seventy of my colleagues were accused of being spies as part of a personal power struggle between some of the student leaders in Pajau camp. We ‘confessed’ to being spies when we saw that our friends were being beaten, electrocuted and having their limbs severed. We were not spies. It was a survival strategy. You can read a little about just one aspect of our torture and imprisonment here:
    For many years we did not speak about these events because we did not want to give the Burmese military a propaganda gift. But since 2012, which was the 20th anniversary of our friends execution, a number of us and the families of those who did not survivor have now written or spoken in Burmese and English about our experiences.
    I believe you should do more research, including contacting journalist Bertil Lintner, who covered both the events and the accounts which have emerged more recently, and present the true picture of what took place, rather than the one being spun by those who are seeking to find excuses for what was a murderous power struggle led by a few vicious individuals.Please do not contribute to blackening the name of Tun Aung Kyaw and our other fallen comrades, or myself and a number of the survivors, many of whom subsequently went on to sacrifice further as political prisoners because they continued To fight against dictatorship. Thank you. Artist Htein Lin

    • Please read Ang Moe’s comment (Jan 26, 2012). Be reminded that the first casualty of war is truth. The gist of my story is about Slorc’s dirty work i.e., to send in Doomed Spies and had them exposed, all Hell would break loose – the innocent and the guilty would be executed and eventually ABSDF breakup from within. Please check/verify the beheading presided by the monks in the street of Rangoon on 8888 (Sandro Tucci’s photos in story) and video tape given to Aung San Suu Kyi to nail her for collaborating with insurgents/rebels.
      Bertil Lintner is an old friend since the late 70s and has consulted me on some occasions, albeit on different story. Hitoshi Takase is the producer and presenter of the documentary and I was instrumental in bringing him to Pajau when the KIA invited me (Time magazine) and Yindee of the Nation Review (Bangkok) back in the 90s.

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