The murky world of Burmese politics has long been ripe territory for conspiracy theorists and other assorted crackpots. From American tourist John Yettaw swimming across to Aung San Suu Kyi’s lakeside home on junta orders, to astrologers telling ruling generals to dress in women’s clothing to counter the Nobel laureate’s influence, there is no end to the weird and wonderful speculation.
And the country’s current brush with political reform has apparently done little to assuage such deeply-held suspicions, with a hardliner plot to disrupt Karen National Union (KNU) peace talks using a poisoned laptop among the latest bizarre beliefs doing the rounds.
Col Moe Phyu, a leading Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) officer and key member of the KNU peace team, died on May 11 shortly after a second round of negotiations with a Naypyidaw delegation.
According to his family, Moe Phyu was hospitalized when he suddenly suffered hypertension after using a laptop provided by the government. Although outsiders would consider such allegations ridiculous, many in the KNU leadership continue to harbor deep distrust.
And recently, some top KNU officials have confessed of fearing that they would be poisoned while dining with government representatives, such as President’s Office Minister Aung Min, during peace talks, after several rebel leaders passed away in recent months.
One hing-ranking military official, who asked to remain anonymous, confessed to fearing that he would be killed in this manner. “U Aung Min mentioned my name,” he told The Irrawaddy. “He said that he wanted me to come along with the KNU peace delegation for peace talks. But, I didn’t go.”
He explained his suspicions grew after Aung Min, the government’s chief peace negotiator with ethnic armed groups, also requested that some influential leaders of the KNLA, the KNU’s military wing, accompany the Karen peace team.
Aung Min apparently wanted to see Brig-Gen Baw Kyaw Heh, the commander of the KNLA Brigade 5, outgoing KNU Vice-Chairman David Takapaw and foreign-born Brig-Gen Hsar Gay, who served as the KNU’s political representative for Portugal and Spain as far back as 1995.
Rumors spread within the Karen community along the Thai-Burmese border that food prepared for the peace talks was contaminated with poisons that exacerbate diseases such as hypertension and diabetes. Many believe that the Burmese peace delegation consumed the same food at mealtimes but took medicine immediately afterwards to counter the affect of the poison.
Zipporah Sein, the newly-elected KNU vice-chairwoman, was recently hospitalized in the Thai border town of Mae Sot after suffered from acute high-blood pressure. She also has hypertension and diabetes. Some sources said that her health has worsened after returning from several rounds of peace talks.
While outsiders are quick to pour scorn on the paranoia apparently displayed by ethnic armed groups, others think that their bitter experiences during decades of civil war mean that such fears are understandable.
Some Karen people also suspect that the medical treatment provided to KNU peace leader David Taw, who passed away in Rangoon in October, might have contributed to his death. He was being treated by a military physician at Mingalardon military hospital at the time, with many Karen insisting that he would still be alive if instead treated by doctors in Thailand.
However, the 65-year-old had admittedly been suffering from lung disease and diabetes for three months before his death, and was even hospitalized several times in Chiang Mai, Thailand, prior to travelling to Rangoon.
Despite this continued distrust between the KNU and central government, the rebel group signed a historic ceasefire agreement on Jan. 12, 2012. The KNU was formed in 1947 and has been waging war for greater autonomy since 1949, with allegations of underhand tactics common during this time.
In 2006, there was even bizarre speculation about the death of the Gen Bo Mya, then-chairman of the KNU. Many in the Karen community reported that Bo Mya suffered a leg wound after wearing a pair of shoes presented by the Burmese government at his birthday party in Rangoon. The celebration followed ceasefire talks with ex-Prime Minister Khin Nyunt in 2004.
Then in February 2008, former general-secretary of the KNU, Mahn Sha Lah Phan was assassinated by two hired gunmen at his house in Mae Sot. The Burmese government and a breakaway Karen rebel were deemed responsible for the attack.
It remains to be seen if the memory of such acts, and the conspiracy fears that use them for support, will undermine the ongoing peace process.