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Gen. Saw Lah Pwe, the former leader of the ethnic armed group the Democratic Karen Benevolent Army (DKBA), died on Sunday at the age of 53 after a long battle with throat cancer.
Known as “General Moustache” for his iconic tuft of facial hair, he was first diagnosed with the disease after falling ill at the end of 2013.
Zaw Latt, a member of the former rebel leader’s family, told DVB on Sunday that Saw Lah Pwe was rushed to the hospital after his health suddenly deteriorated earlier in the day. He died soon after, he said.
“He was just fine this morning when he entered the shower and then he began coughing up blood,” said Zaw Latt. “He was taken to a hospital in Pegu where he began choking on his own blood as it filled his lungs.”
Saw Lah Pwe first made headlines when he led a breakaway faction of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army that refused to join the then ruling junta’s Border Guard Force scheme, which aimed to assimilate ethnic armed groups ahead of elections in 2010.
As the commander of the rebel army’s Fifth Brigade, he led some 1,500 troops in opposing the decision of the group’s leaders to accede to the regime’s demands.
In an interview with DVB in 2010, Saw Hla Pwe said he rejected the arrangement because he saw it as contrary to the DKBA’s dream of Karen autonomy.
“The transformation will give us legitimacy, but we cannot look for just our own self-advantage,” he said at the time. “There is no positive outcome or freedom for the people and the Buddhist religion.”
(Saw Lah Pwe later rebranded the DKBA as a “benevolent army” in a bid to give it a more secular identity.)
As Burma went to the polls on 7 November 2010, Saw Lah Pwe’s group attacked government security forces and seized the Thai-Burma Friendship Bridge between Mae Sot, Thailand, and Myawaddy in Burma’s Karen State.
Later, however, it reached a preliminary bilateral ceasefire deal with the government, and last year it became a signatory to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement alongside seven other armed groups.
Despite eventually making his peace with the Burmese government, Saw Lah Pwe remained a wanted man in Thailand, where the government has sought his arrest since 2012 for his alleged involvement in illicit drug trafficking.
Faced with growing concerns about his health, Saw Lah Pwe handed over power to his deputy, Gen. Saw Moshe Myint, in March of last year. However, as recently as last December he appeared in public at an event to mark the 21st anniversary of the formation of the original DKBA.
Saw Myint continues to lead the DKBA, but has faced internal struggles. A breakaway group led by Maj. Saw San Aung has clashed repeatedly in recent months with government troops and Border Guard Forces.
Saw Lah Pwe’s body has been transported to the Karen State village of Sonseemyaing, where the DKBA’s headquarters are located. His funeral will take place on 19 March.