By BosNewsLife Asia Service with BosNewsLife's Stefan J. Bos
YANGON, BURMA (BosNewsLife) -- The leader of a rebel group fighting for autonomy and more religious rights of Burma's predominantly Christian Karen community has died, a Christian humanitarian group confirmed Friday May 23.
Saw Ba Thin Sein, 82, chairman of the Karen National Union (KNU) died early early Thursday, May 22, apparently because of illness, said Christian Freedom International (CFI). Its chairman had been suffering from diabetes, asthma, and heart disease, CFI said. He leaves behind a wife and four children.
The KNU is linked to the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), the Karen's main military wing.
Throughout his life, Saw Ba Thin Sein stressed the need for unity among the Karen people, "particularly after the division that led to the formation of the Democratic Karen Buddhist Army," a KNU-breakaway group that eventually aligned itself with the ruling military junta," CFI said.
He did not see "the Karens' liberation", but will be remembered for his "brave leadership and unwavering dedication" to their 50-year-old struggle for independence, said CFI. He joined the KNU in 1949 and became chairman in 2000.
"[He] was a friend to me for the past ten years...he will be missed," said CFI president Jim Jacobson, who has personally delivered relief aid to reportedly persecuted Karen Christians in Burma since 1998.
In a published statement, the KNU said its vice-chairman Tamla Baw, a former chief commander of the KNLA, will succeed Saw Ba Thin Sein. CFI said his loss comes at a difficult time for the Karen community as its "ongoing struggle for survival continues in the recent aftermath of Cyclone Nargis." The ruling military has allegedly denied urgent relief aid into Karen-populated areas. Other Christians are also suffering, BosNewsLife learned.
Over 130.000 people are reportedly dead or missing and over two million are homeless in the aftermath of the cyclone.
On Friday, May 23, the junta said Friday it will allow emergency workers and civilian vessels into the cyclone-ravaged Irrawaddy Delta, but refused to relent on letting aid-laden American French and British warships dock.
The generals reportedly told United Nations Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon that foreign aid workers could enter the country as long as it was clear what they were doing and how long they would remain.
Some foreign Christian aid workers have already managed to get into Burma, also called Myanmar, BosNewsLife learned. Hungarian Baptist Aid said in a statement that two of its workers had helped survivors in Yangon, also known as Rangoon, the largest city and former capital of the country.
The Hungarian Ecumenical Charity, is reportedly waiting in Bangkok for an entry visa. Among others active in Burma are Christian medics, working among predominantly Christian Karens, CFI said.
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