Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Burma in Limbo - Part 7


Turning round of the civil war to Burmese favor had occurred well before the Insein Battle was over. It started from the railhead town of Thazi where a handful of Burmese and Chin troops stood their ground against the combined Karen and Kachin onslaughts repeatedly and finally repelled them from the vicinity of the most important rail junction in Burma. This translated extract (edited) is from Myat Htan’s autobiography. He was then the 2IC of Sixth Burma Rifles in Pegu.

“I was ordered to search for my two companies last seen at Kalaw where they made last radio contact. I flew there and found out they’d left Kalaw for Thazi. So I got a car and followed them alone. When I reached Yinmabin near Thazi I was told that my troops were digging in at Thazi and clashing daily with the Karens now entrenched at Meikhtila.  

I reached Thazi and discovered not only my two companies from Sixth Burma Rifles but also the two companies of Third Chin Rifles there. They all were originally heading for Meikhtila as ordered but stranded in Thazi as Meikhtila had already fallen into Karen hands just ten days before the day they reached Thazi. And from that day they’d dug in there and been bombarded by enemy mortars every single day.

Now I had 2 companies of Sixth Burma, 2 companies of Third Chin, and 1 company of Gurkhas from Fourth Infantry Battalion, altogether 5 companies to hold Thazi. The whole town was deserted and totally destroyed and troops were in the bunkers placed tightly on the semi circle from the east through the south to the west on the town edge facing towards Meikhtila.”

What Myat Htan and his Burmese and Chin troops in Thazi didn’t know then was next two months there would be the most crucial period for their Union of Burma. But they stood their ground at Thazi and fought off the superior combined-force of Karens and Kachins there and turned the tide of Burmese civil war.

Battle of Thazi

By mid March 1949 the Government forces were just disorganized patches of armed troops controlling the important nerve centers and trying desperate to defend the Union. The railhead town of Thazi was one such patch. Mandalay on the North line, Rangoon on the South Line, Myingyan terminus on the West Line, and Shwe Nyaung terminus on the East line, Thazi was the most important railway junction of Burma.
Burma Railway Map.
Fortunately for the Government the troops in Thazi were accidentally sitting on the KNDO’s life line of Mandalay-Taungoo railway line. As long as Thazi was in Government’s hands the Karens couldn’t move thousands of their troops and tons of ammunition from Mandalay and Maymyo down to their KNDO Capital Taungoo. KNDO couldn’t reinforce their embattled forces in Insein too. The town was so crucial for KNDO the government troops blocking the line at Thazi were like a painful thorn in the collective heel of KNDO. This translated extract (edited) is from Myat Htan’s autobiography.  

“The whole town of Thazi was ruined and deserted as even the town center was like a cemetery and a few mongrels left in the town started behaving like wild dogs.

At dawns the Karens would start the day by shelling our bunkers 10 - 15 times with 3” mortars. Then quiet for about half an hour and then would start shelling again followed sometimes by heavy machine gun fires. The shelling would stop for a short time and then start again. That rhythm would last from sunrise to sunset everyday.

Instead of assaulting us head-on the enemy was waging a psychological war. Many of our troops were shell-shocked from the prolonged bombardment even though we had only few casualties.

We didn’t have to worry about food as we still had rice, dried-fish, and lentils and we also found a warehouse full of bags of wheat flour. But we didn’t have enough ammo for our guns and by knowing that the Karens even daringly approached very close to our line and yelling obscenities at the Burmese soldiers. They also tried to encourage the Chins and Gurkhas on our line to kill their Burmese comrades and join them Karens but to no avail.

After a few days of stand-still the Karens became frustrated with the siege of Thazi. For them we a handful of government troops at Thazi were annoyingly blocking their crucial plan of transporting hundreds and hundreds of interned Karen soldiers released in Maymyo and  also the tons and tons of captured weapons and ammunitions from the garrison town direct to their capital Taungoo by the railway.”

Finally in late March 1949 the famous Kachin Rebel leader Naw Sai himself came down from his stronghold Maymyo to take Thazi himself. He was totally unhappy with the Karens not being able to kick the Burmese and Chin troops out of Thazi. On the morning of one fine day he declared he would have lunch in Thazi that afternoon and launched his all-out frontal assault on Thazi. This translated extract (edited) is from Myat Htan’s autobiography. 

“I didn’t remember the exact date. It could be end of March or beginning of April in 1949. At dawn 3” mortar shells rained down on us like everyday but that day was a lot more intense than other days. Shells were exploding all around us and the ground was shaking.

Their machine guns followed the shelling and the loud-swearing Karens and Kachins were getting closer and closer to us. But we waited patiently till the enemy was well inside our killing field. We were at the bottom of the reverse slope and they had to come down the gradual-slope to get us and our plan was to fire once they were at the mid-slope.

Under the cover of mortar shelling and machine gun fires they slowly crawled down and we patiently counted their distance from us. 300 yards, 250 yards, and once they reached 200 yards from us we unleashed our concentrated fire on them. It only took not even a minute to wipe the attacking party right in front of our heavily-fortified bunkers.

That day they tried so many times to take our positions and each and every time we repelled them. We didn’t even have time for breakfast and lunch and their corpses piled up on the ground. At the nightfall they shelled us one last time and withdrew back two miles away from us. Only then we ate cold rice and roasted-dried-fish in the dark while whatever little left in the town behind was burning bright from the enemy shelling.

Next day they repeated again. They shelled our line and then machine gunned while they advanced onto the crest of the reverse slope. They then came crawling down to 200 yards from us. Then was our turn to fire at them and killed almost all of them and they had to withdraw.”

The causality on the side of Karens and Kachins were so heavy finally they stopped the daily offensive and started the encircling siege by positioning their troops in the trenches dug right near the defense line of government troops.  The month-long siege of Thazi had begun. This translated extract (edited) is from Myat Htan’s autobiography.

“Once they sent in a heavy tank along the main highway towards the town gate. But we had a six pounder canon with about 10 rounds. We waited till the tank was very near and fired one round and got a direct hit and destroyed the tank.

One night during the siege a jeep tried to drive through our line with high-beams on and guns blazing. Our Bren gunners stopped the jeep by killing the Karen officer and four men aboard. Their corpses smelt strongly of alcohol even from the distance. Enemy obviously was desperate. Not just them. We were having a lot of problems too. Food, bullets, water, cheroots, and medicine everything was running out.

Rice and dried-fish was gone and we had to eat wheat floor we discovered from the town. We kneaded the floor with water, made little round balls, baked in a fire, and ate them. Every single bullet was valuable and the only good well we could use by then was contaminated by the fallen corpse of one of our chin soldiers.

For drinking water we had to drain the rusty water out of the boilers of the locomotives stranded at the train station. Biggest trouble for most of us smokers was the cheroots as we had none left. So we fixed our radio and called the War Office in Rangoon. And they sent us a small plane a couple of times to drop food, ammunitions, and cheroots.

In the middle of these worsening situations the War Office called me back to Rangoon to report. So one day I slipped through the enemy lines to Heho. From Heho I caught a plane to Rangoon.”

After reporting to General Ne Win at the War Office Myat Htan (Major Tin Maung) was sent back to Thazi together with Major Khin Za Mone a Chin officer. Their instructions were to end the siege of Thazi and repel the Karens and Kachins from the area. This translated extract (edited) is from Myat Htan’s autobiography.

“From the War Office we brought back two Mark 19 wireless-radios with two signal men, plenty of ammunitions, a lot of cheroots, and a large barrel of army rum. We flew back to Heho and took a heavy truck down to Thazi. By then the insurgents had completely encircled Thazi and we couldn’t enter the town by vehicle as they had even blown up the road bridge by the town gate.

And we were forced to take refuge in the villages controlled by the PVO white band from Meikhtila. We were then able to establish the communication with both Rangoon and Thazi with our radios. Even though we were under the protection of the PVO leader there we had to move from village to village every two or three days to avoid the Karen and Kachin patrols continuously searching us once they intercepted our radio communications.

Since the PVOs were in an alliance with the CPB and one day the local Communist leader for that area paid a visit to us as expected. Fortunately he was one of my old mates from the First Batch of Mingaladon Military Academy. But he was also a committed Communist and as usual he tried to convert us by having a lot of political discussions. They even came to stay with us and wanted us to give them our radios and the ammunitions still on the truck but we refused.

Later we learned that the Communists even asked the PVOs to arrest us and transfer into their hands. But the PVO leader was loyal to us and refused to give in to their demands. Finally I reported our dangerously sticky situations to Rangoon and sent back the Chin Major with a request to give me a company of troops to fight into Thazi.

The deadly small pox was breaking out widely in the area and we had no medicine to protect.  Followed by the Communists and chased by the Karen and Kachin insurgents we were moving from village to village. I just kept on praying that Bogyoke Ne Win would send me a company.

Then I got a call from Rangoon that the company I was waiting for would be in Yinmabin next day. I didn’t even dare to tell that to our PVO host and I just lied to him that I wanted to go back up to Yinmabin for some other reason. Next day we went and found a company of Chin Rifles was waiting for us there. The date was April 5, 1949.

Not just a Chin Company was waiting. The UMP battalion from Heho was also there to wrestle back Thazi and Meikhtila from the Karens and Kachins. This translated extract (edited) is from Myat Htan’s autobiography.

“Together with PVO and the troops from Thazi we drew a detail plan to attack the enemy encircling Thazi from both inside and outside. On April 6 we marched down to a large village near Thazi and waited a night for the morning offensive.

At 8 in the night we heard and saw a locomotive approaching Thazi at high speed from the North. Once it reached the station it blew up and the huge fireball engulfed the abandoned station. We called Thazi and they replied that the Karens loaded the loco with explosives and blew it up at the station entrance with absolutely no effect on the defenders.

That was the last serious attack on Thazi as next day they didn’t even fight back our advance into the town. And the Karen and Kachin forces withdrew from the vicinity of Thazi that day. Nearly two-month-long siege of Thazi had cost them more than a thousand lives and wasted a mountain of their ammunitions.

Meanwhile a messenger from Meikhtila arrived with good news that the enemy had gone from there. So we sent all the Chin companies with us in Thazi to Meikhtila and they left immediately. Enemy was quickly collapsing from Middle Burma but still threatening to Pegu front close to Rangoon.

On April 8 I re-entered Meikhtila as a victor after leaving the town into the KNDO hands just 3 months ago. There I was surprisingly greeted by the Communist forces taking positions all over the town. KNDO left town in midday and by nightfall the government forces entered the town from the East while the Communist troops entered from the West.

But the Communists were in no mood to work with us in Meikhtila. First they sent in the patrols into town. Their forces then surrounded our compound and taken over our water supply. They then arrested all the Government civilian officials.

They basically had taken over the whole town while still maintaining uneasy cease-fire with us as politically the idea of Left-Unity-Alliance was still hanging in the air among the army top brass. So I went to their HQ at UMP compound and demanded to move their troops to the west part of the town and to immediately release the civilian officials they’d arrested. They said they would reply our demands next morning.

But came next morning they completely disappeared from town and Meikhtila was back again into the Government folds.”

During the Karen Crisis of 1949 and 1950 the CPB appeared to have no official policy on the Karen rebellion. But most Communist forces basically acted against the Karens or took a neutral stance by temporarily suspending the hostilities against the Burmese Army. As Myat Htan had so frequently mentioned in his book both army and communist forces then were mainly under the control of Burmese officers who were former brothers-in-arms from Aung San’s BNA. And my father Bo Htun Hla then the Divisional Commander of CPB’s Red Army in the Irrawaddy Delta often admitted that his forces had openly attacked the KNDO forces in the Delta without the specific orders from the Politburo. 

Myat Htan didn’t get to stay long in quiet Meikhtila. He was called back to his battalion in Pegu within a week. The Karen and Kachin forces he fought off in Thazi had regrouped in Taungoo. And now together with the KNDO forces there they were marching down to Pegu and already attacking the town of Daik-oo about 20 miles north of Pegu. The battle of Pegu had begun.

Battle of Pegu

While Insein Battle was raging other intensive battles between the Karens and Burmese were also breaking out all over Burma. This translated extract (edited) is from Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography on the CPB website.

“And two Karen Rifles, Second Karen from Prome and First Karen from Taungoo were also marching down to Rangoon and Twante Canal was blocked by the KNDO forces. Our Government was basically trapped in Rangoon as the only way in and out of Rangoon was Mingaladon Airport and the Western Press started calling our Government the Rangoon Government.

I brought back Third Burma Rifles from the Delta by boats via sea route and sent them up towards Prome. They met the Second Karen at the village of Wetkaw near the town of Nattalin and basically destroyed the Karens as their CO Lt. Colonel Saw Mya Maung was inferior to the CO of Third Burma Lt. Colonel Chit Myaing.

Apart from the KNDO forces at Insein the only serious threat left was the combined force of the First Karen and KNDO militia from the Karen stronghold of Taungoo. That force now was more than a thousand strong and they were on their way to Insein in a long convoy on the Rangoon Mandalay Highway. Our Sixth Burma Rifles together with two UMP battalions was waiting for them at Pegu which would become a major battleground”

Pegu Division Map.
The running battles along the Rangoon-Mandalay Highway were the most crucial battles of the Karen-Burmese war. If the Karens broke through Pegu line and reached Insein U Nu’s Rangoon Government would have fallen into the KNDO hands. This translated extract (edited) is from Myat Htan’s autobiography.

“The enemy forces attacking Daik-oo were nearly a thousand strong and well-armed and fully-equipped. Our troops in the town were one company from our Sixth Burma Rifles, a UMP battalion headed by Major Aye Ngwe, and a Sitwundan battalion led by Major Wai Lin. Total in-charge was Major Maung Aye.

I arrived there with one company from our Sixth, two companies from the Third Burma Rifles led by Lt. Colonel Chit Myaing, and one Gurkha company from Fourth Infantry Battalion. And we positioned our   forces on the Highway at the South of Daik-oo. Our plan that night was to hold the town and at dawn we would counter-attack the enemy from the left.

But just before dawn at four in the morning the Karens pushed heavily into the town and the troops couldn’t stand there anymore and had to withdraw. Once the front line was broken we at the back had to retreat too and Daik-oo fell at dawn. The date was April 24, 1949.

We pulled back into a large village called Shanzu between Daik-oo and Phaundawthi. While Lt. Col Chit Myaing placed his forward command post at just south of the village I took my position at Phaungdawthi with two 25-pounder cannons. The whole day Karens tested our new frontline so many times just to find out our positions and strength.

That area was a major breeding and supply centre of ducks to Rangoon and since the villages were deserted the ducks were wandering all over the place. That night we had duck curries and English brandy for our delicious dinner. We even invited Lt. Col Chit Myaing and his medical officer Captain Mon Htaw.

A rare Karen officer still serving in the army, Captain Mon Htaw and I were together back in Rangoon University before the big War. His wife Dorris and little daughter together with his mother and sister were then trapped in KNDO-controlled Taungoo and he specially requested to be here with us so that he would eventually be going to Taungoo when we marched to retake the capital of KNDO. He was killed by the KNDO Karens during the early morning attack the next day.

After the dinner I went to bed and was woken up by the arrival of a company from the Fifth Burma Rifles now fighting in the Insein Battle. They arrived in four big trucks and Col Kyaw Zaw had sent them to us as a rare reinforcement. I told them to continue on the highway and report to Lt. Col Chit Myaing at the Command Post a thousand yards ahead.

I then went to bed and again jolted out of the bed by the loud tat-tat-tats of machine gun fire. Time was close to 4 in the morning. Then we heard our sten gun fires from the command post only about a thousand yards away. When we tried to call them by telephone the contact was suddenly lost as if the enemy had cut the wire. Enemy was already between us and the Command Post and I had no infantry to protect the artillery. So I ordered the 6-pounders to retreat to Letkhokekwin Village down south.

Amidst the dazzling rain in the early dawn darkness I then saw a small group slowly walking towards us. They were Lt. Col Chit Myaing and 4-5 men. They then told me that Captain Mon Htaw and most of our troops had fallen. Lt. Col Chit Myaing also told me what happened exactly that morning.

The company sent from the Fifth Burma Rifles in Insein was placed as the reserve at the back of the Command Post to take a decent rest since they were tired from the long journey and the tough battles back in Insein. At 3:30 in the morning Karens started attacking the front line with just a small force while they sent their main force round the back. They overcame the reserve company with machine gun fire and quickly wiped them out by a brutal bayonet charge. The Command Post with headquarters platoon and mortar platoon were lost in a short time. More than 100 men including Captain Mon Htaw, Second Lt. Saw Lwin, and Second Lt. Ko Ko Lay were killed there and Kearens had executed all the wounded.”

All 100 odd casualties were from Third Burma Rifles and later a memorial pagoda for the fallen was built at the site near Shanzu Village. One private Hla Thaung who lost his life there by staying back and firing his Bren gun to the last bullet at the rapidly advancing Karens so that Lt. Col Chit Myaing and the rest could retreat to safety was awarded Aung-San-Thuria medal the highest honor for bravery in Burma. Army even established a cadet regiment in his name later in Mingaladon to train and educate the miscreant sons of army officers. I basically grew up in that Aung San Thuria Hla Thaung regiment.

Lt. Col Chit Myaing took a defensive position again at Phayagyi Village and Myat Htan placed his two 6-pounders at Letkhokekwin Village at farther down south. The Government strength was two companies of Third Burma, two companies of Sixth Burma, One Gurkha company, some UMPs, an old tank, and one artillery platoon with two 6-pounders. Lt. Col Chit Myaing and Major Tin Maung (Myat Htan) were IC and 2IC.

The Karens were at least four to five times stronger and they had plenty of ammunition while the Government forces were short of ammo especially the Sten bullets and the shells for two and three inch mortars. The battle field also was highly favorable to the attackers as it was a wide open plain of dried paddy fields with no natural obstacles such as rivers or creeks. The attacking side could move freely and be able to attack from whatever front they choose to assault the short defending line.

But the day and thus the Union of Burma were timely saved by the priceless military education Myat Htan had once received from the Imperial Japanese Army at the Zama Military Academy in Japan. Many selected graduates especially the Rangoon-university-educated from the Mingaladon Japanese Academy were sent to Zama for further study during the Second World War and Myat Htan was one of them. After the war they were stranded in Japan and treated as the POWs and later repatriated back to Burma.

And thus they were not influenced by the CPB or not even affected by the Communist ideology unlike other graduates from their old academy in Mingaladon during their fight against the Japanese Army. And Aung San together with the senior British army officers intentionally hand-picked them for that reason and also their higher education both civilian and military to receive the King’s Commissions when Burmese Army was reformed by the British in 1945 even though they had not fought a single battle against either British or Japanese army during the Second World War.

This translated extract (edited) is from Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography on the CPB website.

“I went up there myself to prepare the defense of Phayagyi Village. Our entrenchment position was an exact copy of a standard Japanese defensive position proposed by Major Tin Maung (Myat Htan) who had studied at the Zama Academy and came back from Japan in the last batch.

It was a Circle Defense unlike the traditional Line Defense we’ve been using against the Karens before. Inside the main defending circle with the trenches on the edge more small circles with platoon or section-sized troops were prepared so that even if the enemy was able to penetrate the main circle they still had to pass through other small defensive circles.

In a Line Defense enemy could quickly penetrate the line since the defenders were thinly spread along the long line. Also enemy could easily attack from the behind. But in a Circle Defense the defenders were facing all the directions and the circles could help each other and even if one circle was taken other circles could still defend and counter-attack.

As the circle had no front, back, left, or right direction the inherent weaknesses of a long defending line such as the collapse of the whole line when once penetrated at one point or more, and the collapse of front line when the rear was overwhelmed by the enemy attack from the behind, were completely eliminated. And it was the main advantage of the Circle Defense over the line Defense.

So we positioned half of our troops in three defense circles at Phayagyi Village and the rest in two defense circles at Letkhokekwin Village a 1000 yards south from Phayagyi. At Letkhokekwin one circle was at east of the Highway and other at the west. The two 6-pounders were in the East circle.

20mm Orlycon Naval Cannon.
On May 3 as before in Shanzu battle the KNDO main force attacked the East-Letkhoekwin at the rear of our positions and we withdrew our forces to West-Letkhoekwin and nearby One-be-inn. From there our artillery bombarded them while the heavy Orlygun from Phayagyi Village fired on them. We broke their back there and KNDO never recovered enough to attack the Government Forces again like they did before.”

This translated extract (edited) is what Myat Htan wrote of the battle at Phayagyi in his autobiography.

“The enemy used to rest for 4-5 days after a large battle and again that time they gave us at least four days to set up our new Circle Defense. During that time they wouldn’t let us rest by keeping on testing our positions days and nights. They even dropped 3 inch mortar shells and sometimes also bombarded our positions with their 6-pounder guns.

As expected they began their assault at 4:30 in the early morning of May 3, 1949 the fifth day after the Shanzu Battle. As usual they just used a token force to hold down our troops at Phayagyi while their main force came from behind and attacked East-Letkhokekwin Village where our two 6-pounders were.

As the Karens penetrated into the village we sent there our only tank but it was immediately destroyed by enemy’s concentrated fire on the way. As the battle progressed and the sun was slowly coming out we were worrying about what enemy would do in the day light. They could withdraw or keep on advancing through our defense circles.

We were praying that they would stay on and fight, for if they didn’t withdraw it would be our turn to give then a thorough beating in bright daylight. Finally sun came over the Eastern Ranges and Lt. Col Chit Myaing gave the order to our troops at East-Letkhokekwin to withdraw across the Highway to West-Letkhokekwin. By then our 6-pounders were withdrawn and already at One-be-inn ready to pound the enemy at East-Letkhokekwin.

Within few minutes after the strategic retreat of our troops from the East-Letkhokekwin I gave the order by the wireless to our 6-pounders to fire. The canons basically demolished the village together with the Karens inside. I also placed our heavy Orllygun on the railway line south of Phayagyi and they started firing at the enemy trying to cross the railway line.

Now the Karens inside East-Letkhokekwin were trapped between Rangoon-Mandalay Highway and the Railway line while being pounded by our 6-pounders and fired by our heavy and medium machine guns. They had no escape and the battle had turned into our favor.

At about midday we received jeep loads of pack-lunches sent from the people of Pegu and everybody took turn to eat. That afternoon four reinforcement platoons from the Third Burma Rifles arrived at West-Letkhikekwin Village and they immediately crossed the Highway and retook East-Letkhokekwin by a bayonet charge.

The battle of Pegu was over that day. We found 97 enemy corpses inside the village and captured over 100 of their Brens, Stens, and rifles. In the Bottlebrush-bushes east of the village by the railway line the Karen corpse were so numerous we couldn’t even count. The KNDO’s back was broken there and our Sixth and Third Burma Rifles were soon relieved by the Third Chin Battalion from the Insein as the Battle there was also nearly over.”

And very soon the Battle of Insein would be over too as no KNDO reinforcement had ever reached to their Karen brothers at besieged Insein on the doorsteps of Rangoon.

End of The Battle of Insein

On 4th April a temporary cease-fire was agreed between two warring sides. Saw Ba Oo Gyi and KNU/KNDO delegation came out of Insein to negotiate for a permanent cease-fire. Saw Ba Oo Gyi even stayed at U Nu’s house during the negotiations. But sadly the peace talks soon collapsed and the hostilities restarted again in the evening of 8th April. By the end of April the Burmese Air force was bombing the Karen strongholds while the naval ship May-yu was bombarding the KNDO positions in the riverside areas of Insein.

By then the First and Second Chin Rifles were slowly advancing southward from Mingaladon towards Insein and capturing Singu, Phaugan, and Aungsan the small towns on the Mingaladon-Insein Road. This translated extract (edited) is from Bo Taik Chun’s biography written by Tekatho Sein Tin.

“Just before Insein there was a T-shirt factory at Aung San Town on the Insein-Mingaladon Road. Karens had fortified the entrance of its brick-wall-compound with a thick iron gate and reinforced the gate with stacks of sandbags and ricebags directly behind the gate. They also placed their snipers and machine guns on the fortified tall-factory-building inside near the gate.

The whole ground around the factory fortress was cleared and there was no protection for the attacking troops and our First Chin Rifles got basically stuck there for days and finally I was ordered to launch a daring frontal attack as the T-shirt factory was a key point to take Insein back from the Karens.

We armored an army- jeep by welding thick steel plates around its body. Even the wheels and the petrol tank were covered with steel plates to bullet-proof. Windscreen was removed and a steel plate mounted instead. At the front a wide steel bar was welded and on it many sharpened steel spikes to attack the gate.

At 2 in the afternoon me and my sergeant began to attack the gate with our armored jeep. We drove towards the factory and as we were near the gate a heavy rain of bullets hit us. I sped to maximum and hit the steel gate with a brute force. But the door wouldn’t budge. So I reversed back and drove the jeep into the gate again. This time they even threw down hand-grenades but our jeep was indestructible and still the gate stood strong.

So we reversed, crashed into the gate, reversed again, crashed into the gate again, and after no less than ten repeats of that the huge gate finally collapsed. We drove over the broken gate into the factory compound, jumped out, and started shooting at the Karens everywhere. My company waiting nearby also rushed in and the enemy had to flee towards Insein.

Then was the last of the Battle of Insein for us the Chin Rifles. UMP battalions were coming in from the South and the Karens defending Insein were forced onto the banks of the Hlaing River. Finally they crossed the river and retreated towards the Delta. So the day after we took the T-shirt Factory our Government troops retook Insein from the Karens. That day was 22nd May 1949.”

Started by Ne Win a senior member of Aung San’s Thirty Comrades on 31st January 1949 the Battle of Insein was ended by Kyaw Zaw another senior member of Thirty Comrades on 22nd May 1949. According to the Government’s statistics no less than 6,000 Kraens were killed while Burmese lost more than 22,000. The Karen-Burmese relation would never be back to normal again as the battle had also created many, many thousands of hard men like our Senior General Than Shwe who would never stop seeing the Karens as their enemy.

While the KNDO was losing thousands and thousands of men and valuable arms and ammunitions in various battles all over the country Burmese Army had started receiving unexpected assistance from their former colonial master the Great Britain.

English Military Assistance

War was turning so fast even the English and American were now on the side of Burmese. Not only providing Burma with a lot of cheap money they also started selling Burmese Army much needed arms and crucial military hardware. This translated extract (edited) is from Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography on the CPB website.

“In July 1949, after the Insein Battle, General Ne Win went to Britain and USA with a military study commission. That study tour had hugely changed my life. Army Supply Department had prepared a wish list of arms and hardware to be purchased from England and when General Ne Win submitted the list to the English, to our surprise, England had agreed to provide everything on the list.

British Bren Carrier.
One of the most valuable hardware was 200 small all-terrain armored-carriers (tanks) each capable of carrying 6 soldiers. Basically similar to the rubber-wheeled Bren carriers but the tanks were chain-tracked and could be operated everywhere except on the mountains and the watery places. Our forces used the tanks to attack the enemy positions and finally the insurgents could not fight us back from the defensive positions and they were basically forced to reduce their tactics to just a guerilla warfare.

We basically put a steel-helmeted infantry company on 25 tanks, 5 on each tank, and used as the spearhead followed by the infantry against enemy strongholds. And finally the insurgents couldn’t hold the positions in the populated areas anymore and took to the jungles and mountains just to fight a jungle-based guerrilla war.

The civil war was no longer dangerously threatening as before and the main reason was politics but the English assistance was a major reason militarily. Nehru’s Government in India also gave us the guns as U Nu had requested. England was also lending a lot of money.

I was even forced to rethink about the situations in Burma. Previously my understanding was England was helping staunchly-pro-British Karens so that English could still control and influence Burma. Thus I saw Karen Rebellion as the doing of English colonialists and I was highly motivated to smash the Karens.

But in practice English had realized only the Burmese majority could rule Burma and thus they were willing to help the pro-British Burmese politicians who already had some influence over Burmese public. They were initially helping the Karens not for them to win the war but to force the Burmese Government to come crawling back to the British Government for help.”

The English money and English arms and equipment would help Burmese Army to slowly push the ethnic insurgents away from the population centers and into the thick jungles on the remote borderlands.

Towards Taungoo

Once the Insein Battle was truly over the hero of Burmese Civil War Bo Kyaw Zaw started planning to clear the KNDO forces off their stronghold Taungoo and reopen both Rangoon-Mandalay Higway and Railway. First he had to regain the Rangoon-Pegu sections of the Highway and the Railway. KNDO had fortified the junction village of Sarbutoun near Hlegu between Rangoon and Pegu and placed a large force at the village of Htonegyi north of Sarbutoun. This translated extract (edited) is what Myat Htan wrote of the battle of Htongyi in his autobiography.

“We prepared to recapture Htonegyi Village from KNDO. Colonel Kyaw Zaw himself was leading the offensive as the Battle of Insein was over by then. The significance of that battle was we started using the Chained-Bren-Carriers English had given us. Because of them Carriers the battle was over in a very short time with fewer casualties than before on our side.

Well before Htonegyi KNDO had taken position on a low hill and in a small forest just below the hill. The terrain around their defensive position was all wide open paddy fields. To approach the fortified hill we either approached through the forest or through the large open field. First we decided to attack the forest. Within first one or two hours we lost seven and many more were wounded.

Enemy was using manpower sparingly and they mainly used the snipers causing the dreadful casualties on us. So we stopped the attack on the wooded area and decided to boldly attack the fortified hill. For that we just had to cross the paddy fields. We also decided to deploy the Carriers first time with the support of artillery and heavy machine guns. The plan was one well-rested reserve company to assault the hill rapidly and capture it in half an hour.

At midday I ordered the attacking company to fall in and told them our plan and asked if they could do it. They all eagerly replied ‘YES’. They started out at 2 in that afternoon. With the armored Carriers at the front with the Bren guns blazing while our artillery unleashed on the hill the company rushed onto the hill with their bayonets flashing in the sun. They captured the hill within half an hour as we planned.

But we still had a large village to take before Htonegyi. KNDO was there and Col Kyaw Zaw wanted to take that village before the nightfall. So I chose another company to follow the Carriers attacking the village.  The village had a thick thorny-Bamboo fence around it. Our Carriers broke through the fence at many places and our troops just ran through the holes into the village and drove out the enemy.

We took a rest that night in the village and then at dawn we saw a large white flag now flying over the Htonegyi Village. Enemy had withdrawn and Htonegyi had fallen back into Government hands.”

After Htonegyi the Government forces had only the Sarbutoun Village left to retake before their march north to Taungoo. The large scale operation involved not only the armored carriers but also a Sherman tank and two Stuart tanks since all the approaches to the Sarbutown fortress were protected by large fields of Pangee sticks and walking through them was totally impossible. This translated extract (edited) is what Myat Htan wrote of the battle of Sarbutoun in his autobiography.

“Led by Col. Kyaw Zaw the operation had First Infantry Battalion led by Lt. Col Sein Win, Third Burma Rifles led by Lt. Col Chit Myaing and my Sixth Burma Rifles. My Sixth would lead the first attack and the Third and First Infantry would continually attack alternatively.

On 18 December 1949 we left Hlegu at sunrise towards Sarbutoun in a long line of tanks, armored-carriers and the infantry on a narrow unsealed-dirt road. At about 400 yards from the KNDO first defense line they fired heavily on us. As planned we spread the carriers onto the fields.

To our surprise the chain carriers immediately sunk into the mud. The fields beside the road were dried as rock yesterday but the Karens had diverted the water from the small creek nearby onto the fields last night. With chained-carriers being stuck in the mud and the infantry in the middle of Pangee fields under enemy’s heavy fire I was forced to change our plan.

I jumped down into the roadside-ditch and crawled up to the front and reached my troops stuck in the mud. Immediately I was told Lt. Hla Shwe was killed. He was formerly a very good sergeant from my battalion and was selected for the OTS (Officer Training School). He had just finished from OTS and been assigned into his old battalion again as an officer. Now he was dead in his first battle as an officer and I felt extremely bad.

I was forced to move the spearhead of attack to our right and defeated the enemy completely by the heavy support fire from our tanks and armored-carriers. After my battalion’s assault the First and Third Burma kept the pressure on the enemy and that evening KNDO had to abandon Sarbutoun Village known among us as the KNDO Fortress.”

We had cleared all the KNDO forces between Rangoon and Pegu. Apart from Taungoo all other major towns in the country were now retaken by the army and the Rangoon Government is back into business as the Government of Union of Burma.”

By then Burmese Army was expanding rapidly and many Infantry Battalions were quickly formed by absorbing the UMP battalions and the Sitwundan units. Myat Htan was promoted to Lt. Colonel and appointed the Commanding Officer of newly-established Fifth Infantry Battalion while still serving as the CO of Sixth Burma Rifles. Army was ready to retake Taungoo from the KNDO.

Battle of Pyuntanzar

The large scale operation to take Taungoo the KNDO Capital was called Operation Thunder. Led by the Divisional CO Brigadier General Kyaw Zaw himself the infantry battalions involved were First Chin Rifles, Third Chin Rifles, Third Burma Rifles, Sixth Burma Rifles, and Fifth Infantry Battalion. Artillery force of 25 pounder guns, a tank force comprising a Sherman, two Stuarts, and assorted Bren Carriers, engineering auxiliary, and Supply troops were also involved as the supporting forces.

The attacking division gathered at Daik-Oo and marched north towards Taungoo. They had to capture the town of Pyuntanzar before Taungoo as KNDO was entrenched there with their heavy weaponry including tanks, an armored-train, and 6-pounder guns. This translated extract (edited) is what Myat Htan wrote of the battle of Pyuntanzar in his autobiography.

“The heavy weapons of KNDO in Pyuntanzar was not that a serious problem for us as we could have captured the town eventually. But we would like to capture their heavy weaponry since if they escape from Pyuntanzar we would have to face them again and again at next steps of KNDO defense along all the way to Taungoo.

To capture them we needed to block their escape route by attacking from their rear and blocking both highway and railway between Pyuntanzar and Nyaunglaybin at north of Pyuntanzar. And that task was given to my Sixth Burma Rifles. For the operation my battalion had to practice for many days.

We trained the troops for night march, compass use, and defense positions. We even found a similar ground as the target and trained the troops for many possible situations there. Finally on February 24, 1950 at dusk all our four companies left Daik-Oo for Pyuntanzar. To my satisfaction the long line of 500 odd men hardly made any noise in the dark silence.

We marched north, crossed a wide stream, and reached directly west of the town. A company was left there in the paddy fields and my HQ and a company continued onto the Aye Village northwest of the town and reached there just before 3 in early morning. The two companies at the point of the column then turned east towards the town. One of the two went to the highway and railway and positioned there and other one took a blocking position on the east of town. The blocking of KNDO exits on west, north, and east was completed well before dawn.

At Aye village we blocked around the village and took the positions facing the town. At 4:30 we heard the artillery from Daik-Oo and then the starting sounds of our tanks and carriers. Operation Thunder had begun. As the day was breaking fast more and more gun fire could be heard from the town.

At day-break we heard and then saw the KNDO armored-train coming out of Pyuntanzar Station. The train was obviously running away to Nyaunglaybin. Then we heard the loud noise of explosion and saw the train abruptly stopped just before the railway bridge at north of the town. Our company there had blown up the bridge and captured the trapped train.

By then more and more gun fire could be heard from around the town and then right from inside the town. The enemy was resisting fiercely at first but their gun fire was slowly fading away as they started withdrawing from the town. As expected we saw at least 40 to 50 men retreating towards us in Aye Village. The retreating Karens were completely exposed in the open fields under the rising sun.

Once they were within our range we fired warning shots and called out to them to surrender but they refused and fired back at us. As we had no other alternatives we fired at them and within a short five minutes all of them were killed. Their corpses piled up on the blood-soaked ground of paddy fields.

At midday we entered the town and met up with Bogyoke Kyaw Zaw in the northern part of town. KNDO was hit hard there and we captured all their heavy weaponry. And next day my Sixth Burma Rifles entered Nyaunglaybin and found no KNDO’s resistance as the enemy had withdrawn from the town. 

The Sixth Burma Rifles was given a rest break for the rest of Operation Thunder and so the battalion just looked after the rear security of the marching column and maintained the communication line till the Taungoo was captured. Our warrior-author Myat Htan was also able to supervise the intensive training of his other battalion the newly-formed Fifth Infantry Battalion at the Pegu Airfield.

Phyu Massacre

On 5th March 1950 Burmese Army entered Phyu a small town 30 miles south of Taungoo. KNDO troops had been retreating along the highway without giving resistance against the advancing army since the fall of Pyuntanzar and now believed to be massing again in Phyu. Colonel Chit Myaing’s Third Burma Rifles was assigned to take Phyu and our writer Myat Htan was invited to observe the operation.

Instead of putting up a fight against the army the Kraens had slaughtered the whole town including women and children. And the gruesome scene of massacre was waiting for the army entering Phyu. This translated extract (edited) is what Myat Htan wrote of the Phyu Massacre in his autobiography.

“At two in the afternoon we reached the edge of town. Enemy hadn’t fire a single shot at us but our carriers cautiously rolled into town very slow. As soon as we were in the town we knew it was really strange. In every other town once the Tatmadaw entered the town the whole town even the babies came out and happily welcomed us with drinking water, fruits, and other food stuff. They would sing and dance in the streets and some even cried for they were so happy that the Karens were gone and Burmese Army was back in town.

But here in Phyu the whole town was dead quiet like a cemetery ground. Doors of all the houses were shut and not a single human being was seen on the streets. Bo Kyaw Zaw and Bo Chit Myain and I were looking at each other often as if we were asking each other what was going on here. Was the enemy still in the town? Were we entering their trap?

Once the army was well in the town our men started yelling out, “Bamar Tatmadaw is here, town folks please come out!” repeatedly but the town wouldn’t respond at all. We soon found out the reason. The town folks were not able to respond and even if they were able they wouldn’t dare. The whole town was slaughtered by the Karens well before they abandoned the dead town.

(Every house was entered and the occupants including the babies in cradles were killed with knifes. Nearly 1000 Burmese civilians were killed by the Karens there. Bo Kyaw Zaw himself recalled seeing 200 bodies at one place.)

Our men moved from door to door, corpse to corpse to find out if some were still alive. None found as everyone was dead and almost all of them had fatal knife wounds. We all were shocked and even Bogyoke Kyaw Zaw was severely affected. But he immediately ordered me and Colonel Chit Myaing to control our men not to respond in anger against any Karen encountered here or somewhere else.”

The ugly massacre in Phyu reminded the Burmese army to reach Taungoo much sooner than later as KNDO could commit the similar atrocities in Taungoo too. And the Karens also held many high-ranking army officers they captured from Meikhtila. Divisional CO of Northern Burma Brigadier Maung Maung and his staff were then in Taungoo Prison and to rescue them before they were killed was most important mission now for the army.

Recapture of Taungoo

Brigadier Kyaw Zaw and his army rapidly marched to Taungoo and on March 19, 1959 they took the town without a serious resistance from the KNDO. But it was too late as the Karens had withdrawn to nearby Thandaung and taken along all their prisoners. And it also took months and months of intensive operations and many casualties from the army to clear the KNDO from the vicinity of Taungoo. This translated extract (edited) is from Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography on the CPB website.

“We rested in Taungoo for a week and then I marched with Colonel Tin Maung’s Sixth Burma Rifles towards Thandaung. At Indaigong one of our tanks was hit by their artillery and men were trapped inside for hours. We sent more men to rescue them but had to give up as our dead and wounded mounted. Only one survivor came out alive from the tank and finally we withdrew back to Taungoo that night tired and exhausted.

To clear around Taungoo we needed to take Htandabin town and an operation was launched. We left Taungoo at dawn and reached a small stream near the village of Doethaung. Our engineers quickly built a temporary bridge and we crossed the stream to take the village. While we were attacking the village the enemy on a hillock nearby mortared us and wounded Captain Tin Aung the Engineering officer and me. I was standing just beside a tank and observing our attacks with my binoculars when a mortar shell exploded near the tank and a fragment hit my right thigh.

They put me and Captain Tin Aung on a Bren carrier and sent us back to Taungoo. The rest then pushed on and captured Htandabin Town that evening before sunset. Operation Thunder was over.”

But there was an interesting episode resulting from that series of battle to recapture Taungoo.  The eventual rescue of Brigadier Maung Maung from Karens’ captivity. In June 1951 a small commando force successfully rescued Bo Maung Maung from KNDO prison in Yethogyi Village of Karen State. But a large Karen force recaptured him on their way back to Burma Proper. Now he was in the Karen Prison at Bawgali and General Ne Win wanted Bo Kyaw Zaw to resuce him. This translated extract (edited) is from Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography on the CPB website.

“Bogyoke Ne Win explained me the situations and asked me to stage a rescue operation before Colonel Maung Maung was killed. So I called Yangon Ba Swe the commando leader to explain me the situations. And after studying the maps of the region I laid down a strategic plan for the rescue operation.

It was an indirect operation involving a faint large-scale operation against the Bawgali KNDO HQ which was only 40 to 50 miles west of the Prisoner camp. I was leading the pretend-attack together with the Airforce while Yangon Ba Swe led commandos were to rescue the prisoners.

We sent an Airforce plane to take aerial photographs of the KNDO HQ and also to drop many pamphlets announcing the KNDO troops that a large-scale attack was imminent and they should surrender. We also sent a large force to start attacking the small defensive camps around the main camp.

The enemy actually believed our faint attacks and concentrated only on defending their HQ position and neglected the prison camp. So it was easy for our commando force to attack the camp and rescued Colonel Maung Maung and his staff officers on August 21, 1951. As soon as they were rescued we stopped the pretend-attacks on the KNDO HQ.”

The rescue of Colonel Maung Maung was historically important for Burma as Bragadier Maung Maung later in 1958 was the originator, facilitator, and the well-known manager of Ne Win’s 2 years-long Caretaker Government which basically laid the solid foundation for the long military rule in Burma since March 1962 till today. Had Karens killed him while he was in their captivity our Burma could still be a democracy today.

KNDO Demise

Within a year once-formidable KNDO militia in the Delta was reduced to just a few hundreds surviving and struggling on the difficult terrains of marginal seaside townships only as the Burmese Army and the Socialist paramilitaries had successfully pushed them away from the major population centers of the Delta. And eventually the KNDO and KNU were totally wiped out from the Irrawaddy delta in the early 1970s.

KNDO leader and the first president of KNU Saw Ba Oo Gyi was also killed by a Burmese Army unit led by Major Sein Lwin, who would become a president of Union of Socialist republic of Burma in 1989, on 12th August 1950 near Thai border on his way to Bangkok. This extract is the August 14th Burmese newspaper report of his death.

“Saw Ba U Gyi, leader of the KNDO insurgents, was killed during an operation by Government forces against the KNDO north of Kawkareik, near the Burma-Siam border in Moulmein District. Saw Ba U Gyi had been reported in Thaton and Moulmein districts since the insurgents suffered a major defeat in Taungoo district.

According to an official source the insurgents suffered many casualties in the operation and the bodies of two Europeans – Captain David Vivian and a man named Baker – were found together with the bodies of other important insurgent leaders. Vivian and Baker were known to be working with the KNDOs. Vivian was jailed for the illegal disposal of arms, but escaped from the prison. (He was jailed for giving U Saw 200 Bren guns and later escaped from the Insein Prison during the battle of Insein.)

The death of Saw Ba Oo Gyi may quicken the final collapse of the KNDO uprising. The sporadic risings at present being reported in Henzada and other Delta districts indicate the ineffectiveness of further KNDO attempts at a mass movement.”

According to the Government a Karen villager reported to the nearby Burmese army battalion the arrival of Saw Ba Oo Gyi’s party at the Karen village of Taw Kaw Koe near the border towns of Myawaddy and Mae Sot. Army units surrounded the village and all of the KNDO party was killed in the firefight. Later the newspaper reporters discovered the truth that they were captured alive but executed by the army. Sein Lwin even showed off around Saw Ba Oo Gyi’s distinctive-ivory-handled pistol he’d kept as a souvenir since.

Their corpses were then transported by bullock-carts to Moulmein. After a brief public display Saw Ba U Gyi’s body was shipped four miles out to sea and thrown overboard ensuring there would be no martyr’s grave for the Karen revolutionary leader.

U Nu’s Victory

U Nu was the single most crucial figure in turning the tide of civil war and thus saving the Union of Burma from collapsing all together. He even explained the main reason for the Burmese Civil war for the benefits of his countrymen. This translated extracts is from his autobiography “The Saturday Born”.

“While our Government was winning the war slowly I remembered a related event. In 1949 the Chinese Communists were almost near the complete victory against Chiangkaishek’s Koumington when Stalin invited their leaders to Moscow. He basically ordered them to push Chiangkaishek only up to the Yangtse River and then let him stay on the South of Yangtse River.

Stalin’s guidance was not for the benefits of China. It was for the benefits of Russia. Stalin didn’t want the Chinese Communists and China to become too powerful by conquering and uniting the whole country and thus out of Russian influence.

But the Chinese Communists knew it very well too. In front of Stalin they didn’t say back a thing. Only when they were back in China they threw his advice into the toilet and kicked Chiangkaishek completely out of mainland China.

Also here in Burma the Russian guidance to the Burmese Communists through Zadanov to rebel was not for the benefits of Burma.

After the WW2 the Cold War broke out between English and Americans on one side and Russians on the other side. Stalin believed that after their independence the Congress Government in India and the AFPFL Government in Burma naturally would be on the side of English and Americans.

So his first purpose was to establish Communists governments in India and Burma so that India and Burma would be in Russian group. His second purpose was even if the first purpose was not achieved the governments of India and Burma would be so weak because of   Communist rebellions.

For these two evil purposes Stalin ordered Indian and Burmese Communists to rebel.

Had the Burmese Communists just threw Stalin’s advice through Zadanov into the toilet like Chinese Communists the Union wouldn’t have suffered that much like we had. They could have reorganized their party systematically and won the political power lawfully from the AFPFL in next elections. But by following Stalin’s order the Burmese Communist Party had been utterly destroyed.”

U Nu also outlined seven basic reasons for his success in saving the Union. This sad chapter of the beginning and the worst period of civil war should only be concluded by this translated extracts of U Nu’s own words from his autobiography “The Saturday Born”.

“Before closing this chapter I would like to ask an important question. From the end of March 1948 to the end of 1949 all the hostilities the Union of Burma faced were extremely dangerous. The Union could utterly collapse. But it didn’t, why? Following were the reasons. 

First, even though many from the army, police, military police, and Sitwundan betrayed us and joined the insurgents the rest were loyal and they sacrificed their lives in defending the Union so that the people of Burma would never be ruled by dictators.

Second, the most important in maintaining the integrity of the Union was the utmost loyalty and tremendous efforts of highlanders like Shans, Chins, Kachins, Kayahs.

Third, as I once publicly proclaimed that not more than 5% of all the Karens supported the KNU rebellion there were many Karens who supported our government (not as many as the rebel supporters) and the majority rest were on neither government nor KNU side.

Fourth, the efforts of the Socialists led by U Ba Swe, U Kyaw Nyein, and Thakhin Tin and the Yellow PVOs led by Bomhu Aung and Bo Sein Mhan were not inconsiderable. Without their considerable helps I could never have prevented the collapse of the Union.

Fifth, even though the newspapers were quite a disturbance sometimes for the Government we’d got a lot of help and cooperation from them in fighting the insurgents.

Sixth, as the people living in the insurgent-ruled regions started seeing the stark differences between the insurgents’ rule of guns and the Government’s rule of law they started complaining aloud about the loss of their rights and dignity and in a way that outpouring of complaints had helped us.

Seventh, the fact that some Karen Christian clergymen visited me often and prayed for me to get their God’s blessing and also telling their followers not to follow the ways of blood as it was against the teachings of Jesus Christ and I believed there were many of these clergy and priests all over the country. And also there were many Buddhist monks in the rebel’s area teaching the rebels not to kill, steal, or commit adultery. These efforts of religious leaders were also very important in maintaining the Union’s solidarity.

By mid June 1950 the civil war became almost manageable and the extremely religious U Nu basically left the Government and stayed at his favorite monastery for more than a month of intensive praying and meditation and nothing serious to disturb the Prime Minister of Burma had occurred during his absence.

Burma in Limbo - Part 1
Burma in Limbo - Part 8