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Released commando hopes for peace

Kachin rebel tastes freedom after 27 years in jail

Laphai Zau Seng says he plans to draw attention to the plight of Kachins and political prisoners (photo by Daniel Wynn) Laphai Zau Seng says he plans to draw attention to the plight of Kachins and political prisoners (photo by Daniel Wynn)
  • Daniel Wynn, Yangon
  • Myanmar
  • September 20, 2012
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Laphai Zau Seng, 50, is arguably one of the most striking symbols of Myanmar’s ongoing civil war, and of the extent to which reconciliation is underway in this fragmented, fast changing country.

On October 16, 1985, he killed a fellow Kachin and Christian, Brig-Gen L-Kun Hpang, the regional commander for northern Myanmar, which includes restive Kachin State.

He was following orders passed down by the leaders of the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), he says, a response to government airplanes bombing the insurgent headquarters in the Kachin town of Pajau.

“There was no personal issue between myself and L-Kun Hpang,” said Zau Seng. “There was no issue about religion or race. We were just working for different sides.”

Speaking in Yangon on Tuesday evening, a day after he was released from prison, Zau Seng was part of the latest amnesty signed off by reformist President Thein Sein, which saw a reported 89 political detainees freed on the same day.

Monday was the sixth such amnesty since Thein Sein took office in March last year. Close to 750 political detainees in total have been released.

Zau Seng was at first sentenced to death before authorities reduced his punishment to 27 years, following democratic uprisings which swept Myanmar in 1988. When freed, he had almost served his term in full.

In many ways, the timing of his release is surprising, he says. An elite commando, Zau Seng has been freed during a period in which fellow KIA soldiers have regularly clashed with government forces following the collapse of a 17-year ceasefire last year.

Political observers have wondered whether the government’s decision to free Zau Seng represents an effort to appease top KIA leaders, who are said to have privately appealed for his release as both sides look to negotiate a new ceasefire.

Freed unconditionally, he says it was difficult to decide whether to rejoin the insurgency in northern Myanmar, but he opted to head to Yangon.

“The reason I came down to Yangon is because I no longer wish to take up arms again,” said Zau Seng as he drank tea on Tuesday evening with a group of former political prisoners he had known during his many years behind bars.

Expressing no remorse, he says he wants to help his fellow Kachins in a way that doesn’t involve violence – by speaking up for their plight and for those political prisoners, perhaps as many as 700 people, who remain imprisoned across Myanmar.

“I have witnessed whole Kachin villages burned down by the Myanmar army and thousands of war refugees in the forests,” he said.

He adds that he hopes to meet with Myanmar’s most famous former political prisoner Aung San Suu Kyi to discuss solutions to the war in Kachin State, one of the many enduring problems which remain in Myanmar.

“I was tortured and starved in prison. I lived with an iron chain around my legs for four years. But with God’s help, I survived,” he said. “Now I will try to work for peace in Kachin State and in Myanmar.”

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