Sunday, February 12, 2012

KIA’s Kachin Assassin

(Ba Kaung’s article from Irrawaddy Online Magazine September 2010.)

Zau Seng was groomed since youth to be a KIA commando, and in 1985 he carried out a rare assassination of a top Burmese military commander—who happened to be a fellow Kachin.

Laphai-Zau Seng (KIA Assassin).
Late on the evening of Oct. 16, 1985, Zau Seng and three other young Kachin men entered Myitkyina, the capital of Burma’s northern Kachin State, and staked out a location beside a church on Ledo Road in the western section of town. Each man was dressed in a sarong and disguised as a vendor. Each carried a bamboo basket concealing a Chinese-made AK-47 rifle.

The four men waited patiently for Brig-Gen Lazun-Kun Hpang—a fellow Kachin who at the time was the commander of the Burmese military’s Northern Command—to pass by on his way home from a nearby golf course. When L-Kun Hpang’s black Audi turned a corner near the church, they sprayed it with bullets.

“I first shot at the wheel of the car and then shot at both L-Kun Hpang and his driver, who was an army captain,” said Zau Seng, the leader of the assassination team. “My comrades took care of the bodyguards in the front car.”

When Zau Seng reached the appointed rendezvous site in a cemetery after the shootings, he discovered that one of his fellow assassins was missing. He ran back to retrieve his comrade and found the streets empty and the town silent.

“All the routes had been blocked,” Zau Seng recalled. “Then I ran into Burmese soldiers at a trishaw gate. They saw that my shirt was dirty with mud while my longyi was new. That’s how I was caught.”

L-Kun Hpang, who was 57 years old and the father of six children, was riddled with 28 bullets and died at the steps of the local hospital while reciting a prayer, his daughter L Khun Yi, a well known singer, told The Irrawaddy in a recent interview.

A short time later, the Burmese military sergeant assigned to guard Zau Seng on the way from Myitkyina to Mandalay prison asked why he killed L-Kun Hpang.

“You are doing your duty,” Zau Seng replied. “I did mine.”

KIA (Kachin Independence Army) Flag.
Zau Seng has continued to stoically carry out his duty to the KIA while languishing in prison for the last 25 years. In contrast, the KIA and its leaders, who recruited Zau Seng in his youth and trained him for the purpose of carrying out his deadly mission, never acknowledged responsibility for killing a fellow Kachin.

Zau Seng was originally sentenced to death by hanging, but after the 1988 uprising his sentence was reduced to 34 years, with an additional three years tacked on later. In early 2000, I met Zau Seng in Myingyan Prison, near Mandalay, while I was serving time as a political prisoner.

While recalling his past, Zau Seng never expressed either remorse or pride for his role in the assassination. He sat cross-legged and often clenched his fist when excited. All his movements were quick and decisive, and as he spoke it became apparent that his entire life since joining the KIA as a youth had been spent preparing for, carrying out and suffering the consequences of the singular event of L-Kun Hpang’s assassination.

Zau Seng was born in 1963 in Nawngmawn village, southwest of the famous Indawgyi Lake near Myitkyina. His parents, both ethnic Kachin and Christian Baptists, belonged to the Laphai clan—one of the five major Kachin clans—making his full name, according to Kachin custom, Laphai Zau Seng.

Two years before Zau Seng’s birth, a group of educated young Kachin men founded the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and went underground to fight for a free Kachin republic. Zau Seng’s uncle joined the KIA, and his parents aided the resistance, so when Burmese soldiers attacked their village the family was forced to flee.

“I remember the flames,” Zau Seng said. “I remember running with my parents when our village was set on fire by the Burmese troops.”

He later entered high school, but joined the KIA before completing his 10th standard. The militia’s political wing, the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), was engaged in peace talks with Ne Win’s regime at the time, but the talks broke down in 1981 and shortly afterward fighting between KIA and Burmese troops intensified.

In this combustive environment, Brig-Gen L-Kun Hpang—described as “brilliant” by Kachin sources—became the commander of Burma’s Northern Military Command. According to former Burmese civilian and military officials, L-Kun Hpang was appointed as the northern commander because Ne Win thought it would be easier to control the mostly Christian Kachin population with a leader from their own ranks.

“He was an educated man. He made impressive speeches during church gatherings,” said Awng Wah, the chairman of the Kachin Development Network Group, who lives in Myitkyina and still remembers hearing the gunshots that killed L-Kun Hpang.

KIA Recruits being trained.
Zau Seng began training to fire those fatal shots shortly after L-Kun Hpang was named head of the Northern Command. He first received military training at KIA bases in Kachin State, then traveled to Rangoon and obtained a black belt in kung fu under the well-known teacher Kung Fu Soe Myint.

After leaving Rangoon, Zau Seng was sent to China for commando training, and when he returned to Burma he was stationed at the former KIO/KIA headquarters in Pajau, where he spent time with Brang Seng, the former headmaster of the Baptist High School in Myitkyina who had become the chairman of the KIO.

Life had irreversibly changed for the Zau Seng—the future assassin was not even allowed to meet with his KIA friends at their jungle base. But there were perks that came with his new status as a KIA commando tasked with carrying out one of the rare assassinations of a high ranking Burmese military official.

“Whether money or logistical support, I got everything I wanted.” Zau Seng said.

Zau Seng claims the killing was orchestrated by KIA superiors and only a handful of people within the leadership knew about it. He said it was Zau Mai, then the KIO vice-chairman and the KIA chief of staff, who asked him to lead the operation.

But 25 years after L-Kun Hpang was murdered, there are still conflicting accounts of who ordered the killing. One of Zau Seng’s fellow assassins told sources it was KIO Chairman Brang Seng who ordered the operation and Zau Mai who carried it out. The second assassin also said that Maj Pan Awng, a senior KIA official who oversaw the assassination team’s commando training, was also involved in the plan.

KIA/KIO officials have consistently denied any role in L-Kun Hpang’s assassination .

“I asked Brang Seng about it, but he said he had no idea who was responsible for the killing. He just replied that he heard that one Kachin man was arrested in connection with the case,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former Burmese Communist fighter whose Kachin wife was a relative of Brang Seng.

Brang Seng died in 1994 and Zau Mai, who succeeded him as the KIO chairman but was later ousted in a coup by a KIA reformist faction in 2001, has also denied any involvement.

When contacted by The Irrawaddy, KIO officials based in Myitkyina refused to comment on the case. But Col James Lum Dau, who has been a KIA/KIO Central Committee member since the time of the assassination, suggested the KIA was not responsible for the death of L-Kun Hpang.

Brang Seng speaking with Zau Mai beside.
Some Kachin people have suggested the assassination was a Burmese government plot to create friction among the Kachin. “It’s impossible [that the KIA assassinated L-Kun Hpang]. It must have been a government agent,” said a middle-aged Kachin lawyer in Myitkyina.

L-Kun Hpang’s family, however, still believe that the KIA was responsible for his death. L Khun Yi would not directly identify the man she thought ordered her father’s killing, but she said, “My father was a schoolmate with a man who was a KIA leader at the time of the assassination. Their ideological differences brought them to different sides. We felt sad when we saw a photo of that man in the newspaper when the KIA reached a cease-fire agreement with the government.”

Observers say that the KIA’s refusal to acknowledge their role in L-Kun Hpang’s assassination is due to its desire to maintain the party line that “Kachins do not kill each other.”

But according to Laphai Naw Din, the editor of a Kachin news website based in Thailand, L-Kun Hpang’s assassination was not an isolated incident of Kachins targeting a fellow Kachin. He told The Irrawaddy, “Hundreds of Kachin people were killed by the KIA for being uncooperative. Even if someone was found speaking Burmese, he could be killed. After all, the KIA was trying to build its own nation at that time.”

Several internecine killings have allegedly taken place within the KIA leadership as well. Most prominent was the August 1975 execution of three KIA leaders, including its founder Zau Seng (not to be confused with the assassin), near Tam Ngob village northwest of Chiang Mai, Thailand. Afterwards, the soldiers in the regiment who carried out the assassinations were killed by the KIA, according to Naw Din.

After decades in prison, Zau Seng is now resigned to the fact that none of his superiors will ever claim responsibility for ordering the attack. Former prison friends of his fear that he will share the fate of North Korean commando Kang Min-chul, who attempted to assassinate the South Korean president when he visited Rangoon and later died after 25 years in Burma’s infamous Insein Prison without Pyongyang ever acknowledging his connection to them.

Thus far, however, Zau Seng has managed to remain alive, although he has faced some close brushes with death while in prison.

At the peak of the 1988 protests and uprising, riots broke out out in Mandalay Prison. Two of Zau Seng’s prison friends opened his cell, and when guards in the security tower saw him emerge wearing iron shackles on his legs, they opened fire. A bullet skimmed the top of his head and struck another prisoner, who was killed instantly.

“The bullet just missed me,” Zau Seng said, pointing at a small scar on his head. “At that time, I jumped out of the prison cell holding a Bible and that Bible saved my life.”

Later he was transferred to Myingyan, a prison that in the 1990s became notorious for torture and forced labor. One former political prisoner recounted how Zau Seng crawled up his cell wall, captured a pigeon and ate it raw.

“He tore apart the body of the pigeon and threw a piece into my cell,” the prisoner said. “It was all blood. I did not eat it.”

Zau Seng was fortunate to survive those dark days. He is now 47 years old with a healthy stock of gray hair—no longer the young commando who lay in wait to carry out one of the rare assassinations of a top Burmese military commander. But despite two-and-a-half decades in prison and seemingly no prospect of release for another 12 years, Zau Seng has a stout figure and a strong demeanor.

Even while facing his own struggles behind bars, Zau Seng’s thoughts are with the plight of the Kachin people outside. “I heard that the ever-flowing Mali Kha River has diverted its route five miles away from Bhamo [186 km south of Myitkyina] and that the forests between our Kachinland and China are now all barren. I also heard that my fellow Kachins are dying of HIV/AIDS,” he wrote in a 2006 letter to one of his former prison friends.

Zau Seng’s prison friends are his only companions these days. He receives only one family visit a year, in December, when his aging mother comes from Myitkyina. He did, however, receive one other memorable visit while in prison—from a very unexpected visitor.

L-Kun Phang' s daughter singer L-Kun Yi (2001).
Following the assassination of his father, one of L-Kun Hpang’s sons was arrested for drug use and jailed in Mandalay Prison. He requested that the prison authorities let him meet with the man who killed his father, and the authorities arranged for him to meet Zau Seng.

“I told L-Kun Hpang’s son that I did not kill his father because I hated him. I did it for the sake of Kachin people,” Zau Seng said. “His son just replied that it was God’s will.”

Whether the assassination of L-Kun Hpang was the will of God or of the KIA leadership remains unknown. But Zau Seng has paid the price, and since he assassinated L-Kun Hpang, the Burmese military has never appointed an ethnic Kachin to a top post.

In 1994, the KIO/KIA signed a cease-fire agreement with the Burmese junta. Asked to give his opinion on the ceasefire agreement, Zau Seng said, “I think the elders made decisions depending on the situation.”

If one believes Zau Seng’s story, those elders made another decision when Zau Seng was a very young man—the decision to pluck him out of his prime to serve their political ends. As so many young men in war time are asked to do, Zau Seng performed his duty without question. And as so many political and military leaders often do, the KIA let a young man carry out their dirty work and suffer his fate alone.