Today, 7 January 2015, marks the 19th anniversary of the surrender of Khun Sa and his once mighty Mong Tai Army (MTA) in 1996.
At that time, the military government of Burma had declared that peace had been restored now that the Shan struggle was over. They couldn’t have been more wrong. The Shan struggle, as Khun Sa himself would admit, didn’t start with or because of him. Today the Restoration Council of Shan State/Shan State Army (RCSS/SSA) that grew out of the MTA remnants is a force to be reckoned with despite being less than half the size of the MTA, estimated at 23,000 at its peak in 1994.
The fact is that January (2 January, to be exact) also marks my departure from Homong, his headquarters in Mong Pan township, opposite Maehong Son.
On 29 December 1995, the two of us, Hsengzuen and myself, paid a visit to him at his Mongmai residence, south of Homong. After exchanging proper civilities, he informed us that one of Gen Khin Nyunt’s trusted lieutenant, Col San Pwint, was on his way to Homong and was due to arrive on the following day.
We were not surprised. Since the 6 June (1995) mutiny by Gun Yawd, which was followed by massive desertions, the MTA had been secretly negotiating with Rangoon for a “respectable deal” with the Burmese government before everything got out of hand. Our immediate problem however was about what he was planning to do with us two.
“Which means some of our troops, if not all, may be transformed into government militias while the rest are going home,” I responded. “Our teachers will continue teaching school and the doctors treating patients. But what are your plans about us who have (since 1984) been blasting away at the regime with our publications?”
To this, he came back with a forthright reply: “I would like both of you to move into Thailand and continue doing what you have been doing. As for your funds, I’ll see what I can do later.” (I’m happy to say we have never received any funds from him since.)
We were glad to hear this from him because we had decided to leave Homong sooner or later. And we preferred to do that sooner while all the border checkpoints where we planned to pass through were still under his control.
On the next day, upon learning that Col San Pwint would be putting up at my place where accommodations for guests were reasonably adequate, I left to stay at the marketplace where my wife had a cell phone service . (We were not able to leave Homong right away as Hsengzuen’s brother had just passed away and he had to organize a funeral on New Year’s Day.)
On 2 January, my wife who did not feel ready yet to leave thinking she would still be able to continue her business in Homong, asked: “If the Burmese ask me who my husband is, what do I say?”
I laughed and said, “Just tell them. I’m dead certain they won’t recognize it (since Khuensai is a word hard to pronounce for Burmans).”
But a few days afterward, she was back at our home on the Chiangmai-Shan State border bringing with her a letter from Khun Sa. “Sao Lao Tai (Khun Sa’s chief aide) gave this to me and said never to go back,” she reported.
Her explanation was that after I had left, San Pwint learned that I was the notorious “spokesman” and “foreign minister” for Khun Sa.
He summoned my wife and asked her angrily, “Why didn’t you say your husband was Khun Saing (the standard Burmese pronunciation)?” She said, “I did. That his name is Khuensai.”
“And where is he now?”
“He went back home to take care of our kids who are at school (in Thailand).”
Hearing this, the good colonel reportedly beat his palm with a fist and exclaimed, “Na de kwa!(What a painful loss!)” He then recovered himself and went to meet Khun Sa. The result was the letter from him and Lao Tai’s warning not to go back to Homong. (I haven’t been there since.)
The letter, to my surprise, gave a totally different message:
Col San Pwint has promised you both personal and financial security. Please return to Homong as soon as possible.
Of course, I didn’t, because I was not able to figure out how I could live in peace under a regime that I had fought against all my life. If I did, I knew a ghost would be following me wherever I went, making each day of my life a miserable one.
But the mystery of the whole affair: the letter telling me to go back and words saying not to has been in my mind for all these years.
Then on 19 November, I ran into Lao Tai at a wedding party hosted by our mutual friends in Chiangmai. It was there that he told me what happened.
“Sao Khun Sa decided he couldn’t refuse to do what San Pwint was asking,” he said. “At the same time, he didn’t want you and many others to go back. He said: The Shan struggle is far from over. It would therefore be a terrible mistake to force all of our people to surrender. If I let them go, then there’ll come a time I’ll be returning to the struggle again and they are already there.”
It was indeed wonderful to have the 19 year old riddle solved.
Khun Sa however did not make it back. He passed away under virtual house arrest in Rangoon on 25 October 2007, both spiritually and physically broken up.