The man who carried out one of the world's earliest hijackings
- 27 June 2014
- From the section Magazine
Sixty years ago, a passenger plane was hijacked and forced to land on a deserted beach in Myanmar, also known as Burma. For many years the incident involving Karen rebels was hushed up - but now a film about it is being made.
In the comfort of his armchair, Saw Kyaw Aye clenches his hand into a fist, raises it to his face and mimes pulling a grenade pin out with his teeth.
Sixty years may have passed, but this is clearly a story the 87-year-old has been telling - or acting out - ever since.
He closes his eyes for a second. He's back in the moment. It's 1954 and he has just forced his way into the cockpit of a passenger plane.
This is the critical moment in an audacious plot to steal a Dakota DC-3 and use it to smuggle weapons. At that point he looks up and tells me he shouted at the British pilot - one Capt A E Hare: "I'm going to die for my Karen nation - what cause are you going to die for?"
Realising the danger, Capt Hare capitulated. He took the map the rebels had drawn and agreed to fly them to a rendezvous point near Myanmar's west coast.
At the time, the Karen controlled land both east and west of the then capital Rangoon, and the plan was to use the plane to link the two.
For the next three hours Saw Kyaw peered desperately at the ground below looking for the large piece of white paper that would show a prepared runway. But something had gone wrong.
Maybe none of his fellow rebels had actually believed the plan would work. Hijacking in the 1950s was almost unheard of and two of the most senior Karen commanders had rejected the scheme outright. One of them had even called him a fool.
Fool or not, Saw Kyaw was now in control of the plane with nowhere to go and with fuel running out. In desperation the pilot attempted to bring the plane down on a deserted beach. Twice the landing was aborted - before at the third try they came juddering down into the sand.
The passengers were allowed to disembark and the hijackers then discovered the plane was carrying some heavy metal chests. It was cash being transported between bank branches - 700,000 Burmese kyat. That's about $700 (£400) in today's money but worth an awful lot more back then.
"We figured it was enemy money so we took it," Saw Kyaw says with a smile. The passengers and crew were allowed back on and somehow the plane managed to take off, as the rebels slunk off into the bush.
It's a story worthy - almost - of Hollywood. But under Burma's strict censorship rules, for the last 50 years you had to do what I did and go to Saw Kyaw's house if you wanted to hear it. The generals didn't want people finding out about plucky rebels seizing government-owned planes.
But now, censorship of the printed word has been lifted and Saw Kyaw's story was published in a book last year.
The title - The World's First Hijacking - is somewhat misleading. A quick search of the internet shows there were at least four hijackings around the world before this one.
Undeterred, the final touches are now being put to a film, with the same slightly dodgy name. Cinema censorship is still alive and well here. Scripts have to be approved and then permission granted again when the film has been finished.
For the last 11 years Anthony, who goes by just one name, has been trying to make films that will get past the censors.
It's been frustrating - in the past any reference to rebel groups was an immediate no no. Even vague, sometimes imagined allusions were sniffed out.
Anthony tells me he wanted to call one of his films Don't Cry Mother, but it was vetoed as it might have been an oblique reference to pro-democracy campaigner Aung San Suu Kyi.
"There was a time when we only made comedies as they made good money and we knew they'd make it past the censors," he says.
But now there are signs the film censors are catching up with the country's reforms.
Anthony's hijacking script was approved. The Burmese army even loaned them a plane and some guns for filming.
"At last we can do some true stories from here... the world's waiting for a good film from Myanmar," Anthony tells me.
Saw Kyaw's hijacking is certainly quite a tale. Afterwards, he managed to avoid capture for several years before becoming a Baptist minister and then a go-between in talks between the government and the rebel leadership.
Incredibly, after more than 60 years, the Karen conflict is still unresolved.
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