BANGKOK, Thailand -- A longtime leader of Burma's largest guerrilla group died early Sunday, a spokesman for the Karen National Union said.
Bo Mya, 79, who most recently held the title of defense minister in the rebel group, died after suffering a long illness, according to the group's spokesman David Thaw. He died in a private Thai hospital near the border with Burma.
Mr. Mya's body has been taken into Burma, and he was to be buried today.
"This is the big loss for the Karen and all [Burma] ethnic fighters," said Mahn Sha, the group's general secretary. "General Bo Mya has led the fight of the Karen for more than five decades."
The Karen National Union has fought for autonomy since Burma gained independence from Britain in 1948.
Once in control of large swaths of the Thai-Burma border, the KNU has seen its territory shrink to virtually nothing following the capture of its stronghold of Manerplaw in 1995.
Hundreds of thousands of people, 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 Burma regarded as sympathetic to the Karen National Union and other insurgent groups. These atrocities are denied by the junta.
Mr. Mya, who fought with the Allies against the Japanese in World War II, joined the cause in 1947 when he was a policeman and the country was under British rule.
Over the years, Mr. Mya essentially became the face of the movement, leading its fighters in the jungles of Burma, also known as Myanmar. But as defections mounted in the 1990s, there were demands to replace the domineering Mr. Mya with a younger leader.
He was forced out of the top leadership position of the KNU 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, Mr. Mya remained a key member of the resistance, even heading a Karen delegation in an unsuccessful bid in 2004 to sign a peace pact with the military government.
Those talks fell apart after General 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 alleging that a year-long offensive has displaced 27,000 civilians and killed dozens.
More recently, Mr. Mya had largely faded from the scene because of his poor health. He appeared at a Karen event in January in a wheelchair, his speech slurred by a stroke, his right hand trembling.
"Dad is my hero and the hero of all ethnic fighters," said one of Mr. Mya's sons, Ner Dah Mya, who is a top rebel commander. "My three brothers and I will continue to fight for the Karen people to fulfill the dream of our dad."
Mr. Mya leaves his wife, Naw Lar Pow; seven children; and 24 grandchildren.