Gen. Bo Mya, a longtime leader of Myanmar’s largest guerrilla group, died Sunday, a spokesman for the Karen National Union said. He was 79.
Bo Mya died at a private hospital in western Thailand near the Myanmar border, according to the group’s spokesman, David Thaw.
Thaw said Bo Mya had suffered various illnesses including diabetes and heart and lung ailments. He also had a stroke more than a year ago.
“This is the big loss for the Karen and all Myanmar ethnic fighters,” said Mahn Sha, the group’s general secretary. “Gen. Bo Mya has led the fight of the Karen for more than five decades.”
The Karen National Union has fought for autonomy since Myanmar -- formerly known as Burma -- gained independence from Britain in 1948. Once in control of large swaths of the Thai-Myanmar border, the organization has seen its territory shrink to virtually nothing since the capture of its stronghold of Manerplaw in 1995.
Hundreds of thousands, according to expert estimates, have died in a conflict largely hidden from the international spotlight. However, human rights groups have documented continuing killings, rapes, forced relocations and burning of villages as the military seeks to control areas of Myanmar regarded as sympathetic to the Karen National Union and other insurgent groups. These incidents are denied by the junta.
Bo Mya was born Jan. 20, 1927, in Htee Mu Khee village, the 10th of 12 children. As a teenager, he fought with the Allies against the Japanese in World War II and later joined the struggle for autonomy in 1947 when he was a policeman under British rule.
Over the years, Bo Mya essentially became the face of the movement, leading its fighters in the jungles of Myanmar.
A barrel-chested man, anti-communist and fervently Christian, Bo Mya inspired fear in friends and enemies and refused over the years to compromise over his dreams of greater rights for the Karen in Myanmar.
“I understand that a revolution means opposing the wrong and constructing the right thing,” he said in Irrawaddy, a respected online magazine put out by Myanmar journalists exiled in Thailand. “Our revolution is one that must fight against evil and all the wrongs. We must never go against the masses of the country.”
As the fight dragged on, Bo Mya survived numerous assassination attempts and defections from the group. With the organization splintering badly in the 1990s, he stepped down as military commander after the rebels lost their stronghold at Manerplaw -- a fortified jungle camp that was a hub of the Karen empire in the jungle at the Thai-Myanmar border.
He was forced out of the top leadership position of the group in 2000 after a disastrous terrorist raid on a Thai hospital by a Karen splinter group, during which 10 rebels were killed by Thai commandos to free hundreds of hostages.
Still, Bo Mya remained a key member of the resistance, even heading a Karen delegation in an unsuccessful attempt in 2004 to sign a peace agreement with the military government.
Those talks fell apart after Gen. Khin Nyunt was replaced in 2004 by more hard-line generals who have intensified the campaign against the rebellious Karen minority. The fighting has been especially fierce this year, with Human Rights Watch saying a yearlong offensive has displaced 27,000 civilians and killed dozens more.
On Friday, the U.N. General Assembly adopted a resolution denouncing human rights violations in Myanmar -- particularly atrocities in a campaign to suppress an insurgency among the Karen minority.
Bo Mya is survived by his wife, Naw Lar Pow; seven children; and 24 grandchildren.