Friday, May 13, 2011

Colonel Thet Oo - Chapter 2-1

(This is a concise translation of Col Thet Oo (a) Thaung Wai Oo’s Autobiography.)

Infantry Battalion IB-19 (Phar-pun)

Like my cadet days I always remember my first days of active field-duty as a brand new officer. My first posting was at the small town of Pharpun on the edge of Karen State. Pharpun then was the most remote town in the Karen State. Roads were difficult. Food was scarce and diseases like Malaria were rampant in that area.

Only I and Tet Htun from the First Barracks were posted together into the IB-19 (Kha-la-ya 19) in Pharpun Town.

We left OTS for Moulmein in the last week of January 1967. All 24 of us posted into the South Eastern Regional Command (Ya-ta-kha) took a train to Moulmein and stayed at the officers’ guest house.  During our stay the GSO-1 Lt. Col. Thi Hla and the staff officers explained us the enemy situation or Enemy Orbat (Order of Battle) in the Ya-ta-kha territory.

Our major enemy then were the KNU(Karen National Union) and the NMSP (New Mon Sate Party) insurgents. U Nu’s Exiles insurgency was not breaking out yet.

Only after meeting the CO Col. Maung Lwin we brand new officers were sent to our battalions. Everybody else had left but me and Tet Htun had to wait for the army convoy to Parpun as the poor security situations on the roads didn’t allow individual car travels.

Luckily the Command decided to send us by air and we two ended up on one Dakota plane of UBA (Union of Burma Airways) flying from Moulmein to Pharpun via Phar-an. And that was my very first time in an airplane.

The plane took only 15 minutes to Phar-an. But the trip took almost an hour from Moulmein to Pharpun. At Pahar-an I saw the famous Mount Zwegabin and on the way to Pharpun I was amazed by the vistas of dark-green Jungles below from air. The terrain of Karen and Mon States was starkly different from my birth place the dry middle Burma.

My very first day on an airplane was also extraordinary for me as the lone stewardess was really pretty with a sexy figure. She looked like she had Chinese blood for she was really fair with a black mole on her lips.

“Thet Oo, look our stewardess is real pretty. A good figure too!” Tet Htun whispered.
“Wait a sec, is she married or a bachelorette?” I asked.
“Son of a bitch, you’re really square. All stewardesses are bachelorette, once married they can not work as stewardess, OK?” 

But she wasn’t that friendly towards us two new second-lieutenants as a stewardess should be. Anyway we stared hungrily at her all the way to Pharpun.

Later I found out her name was Helen and she was a Chin and the most prettiest and sexiest of all the UBA stewardesses on the Moulmein-Pharpun route. Whenever she was on the plane landed at Pharpun Airport all the bachelor officers from Pharpun Battalion came out and grabbed an eyeful of her.

That day we hit Pharpun at midday and waiting for us were Battalion Adjutant Captain Saw Marbel and Battalion Intelligence Officer (IO) Lt. Tin Htun. We were taken to the Officers’ Mess which was basically an old house and given a late lunch. We then met the CO Lt. Col. Soe Myint. This was what he said to us that day.

“Our Pharpun is remote and transportation here is difficult. Insurgents are always nearby and regularly taking pot shots at us. Malaria is rife and food is scarce. So no one wants to station here. Serving here is self-sacrifice for all of us and you two have to be very careful in everything. Anyway the senior officers will teach you whatever you two need.”

After the meeting, as we saluted him and were about to leave he asked.

“Hey, are you guys married?”
“No, Sir.”
“Aye, aye, if you guys are bachelor and staying in this jungle, just do not marry any woman you ran into. Our battalion has so many idiots who married any attractive native girl they run into even though they are officers.”

Back then we didn’t take serious about what he said of that officer idiots and eventually I myself ended up marrying a local girl within my first year there.


Karen State Map (Pharpun is No.6).
Pharpun Town really then was just a large village. The battalion was about a mile from the southern end of the town. On the west of the battalion is Yunslin River and beyond the river is high Thit-da-bin range. Little town had about 300 to 400 households of mixed Shan and Karen population. Despite its small size the town had the township office, a high school, and a hospital like any other large towns.

It was a one street town and the street was the vehicular road from Ka-ma-maung and there was not a market in the town. The Yunslin River on the west of the town is flowing from north to south. In summer people cross the river by a temporary bamboo bridge, but in winter the torrents coming down from the mountains were tumbling rough and even the small boats couldn’t handle the fast flowing river. People had to use the flying ferry dangling down from the overhead cable across the river.

My very first Company in IB-19 was the Third Company and the Company CO was Captain Aung Khaing a Chin. Tet Htun was in the Second Company and his CO was Captain Htun Yee a Hindu. I also served under CO Captain Sein Phe in his First Company. But later I was moved to the Fourth Company in Ka-ma-maung Town. My CO then was Captain Aye Kyaw who later became the Information Minister Major-General Aye Kyaw.

During my time in IB-19 I had served under three successive Battalion Comanding Officers. First was Lt. Col. Soe Myint, the second Lt. Col. Aung Chain, and the third Lt. Col. Ba Thein who later became the Inspector General Brigadier-General Ba Thein.

When I first arrived in Pharpun in 1967-68 the enemy KNU insurgents were not that strong like later. (Only after Burma’s Socialist economy suddenly collapsed and the massive black economy rapidly expanded, the KNU prospered by the taxes collected from the goods smuggling across border from Thailand.) West of Paharpun was the territory of KNU First Brigade and the east KNU Seventh Brigade.

Since the enemy wasn’t that strong and active we army officers had an easier time back then in Pharpun. We all bachelor officers lived in the small guest house while the married officers had their own little houses in the battalion compound.

The deputy battalion CO was Major La-san Too a big Kachin and a good hunter and we young officers were more scared of him than the CO. But he had a bunch of pretty daughters and we eagerly watched them in the afternoons when they played badminton on the court near our house, I still remember.

After more than a year in Pharpun I was moved to the small town of Ka-ma-maung about 50 miles south of Pharpun. Ka-ma-maung on the bank of Salween River was at the end of vehicular road from Pharpun but the town was also accessible by Salween River from both Moulmein and Phar-an and the security situation there was much batter than in Pharpun.

So I was really happy to move there. And I got married while serving in the little town of Ka-ma-maung.

Little Burmese officer got married to a native Karen girl

For someone like me who wasn’t that handsome at all I had so many girlfriends. I dated the prettiest girls from my town when I was in high school and I also had a few girlfriends in university and while I was working as a primary school teacher. But I missed all of them and suddenly got married to an unexpected one.  The way it happened was quite funny too.

It began in one summer day of 1968 on the front line in war-torn Karen State. The whole Third Company including me (then a platoon commander) was at the Dead-dog Camp on the Pharpun-Kamamaung Road waiting for the Pay-convoy coming down from the Battalion HQ in Pharpun to receive our pays and supplies.

One private Aung Kyi was playing his mandolin and singing a popular Burmese song when the convoy drove into the camp. Adjutant Captain Saw Marble was with the convoy and he yelled out at me as soon as he saw me.

“Bo Thet Oo, a telegram for you!”
“Daw Than passed away. Come home quick. Htun Yan,” the telegram said.

Daw Than was my adopted mother, the elder sister of my father. She was my benefactor too as she had supported me through all my schoolings and university. Htun Yan was my father’s younger brother. When I last saw her just after my OTS training she was sick with hypertension and I tried to persuade her to come live with me so that she could get proper medical treatment in a military hospital as my mother and she basically agreed.

But she kept on postponing the trip so that she could finish building a small building in our town monastery. She had been building that as a good deed for her next lives before she died. Now she was dead and I was given a ten days leave by the battalion to attend the funeral.


Unfortunately I was late and couldn’t make it to her funeral in time. So I just went to her tomb and prayed for her. After that I tried to find my old girlfriend from way back. She wasn’t in the town. She was still a student in Mandalay University and so I followed her there.

Being a loner all my life I now really wanted to have my own little family. I was sick of coming back home from the dangerous field-operations to the battalion guest house to sleep on a dirty little bed. I wanted to get married. Being in the fighting army like Burmese Army I could be killed any day and I really wanted to have my own little family before I died.

But she wasn’t that eager to get married. She wanted to take care of her parents at least two three years after her graduation and she wanted me to wait for that long. Even the whole week of my persuasions in Mandalay couldn’t budge her. So I came back to Pharpun empty handed and seriously depressed.

My good friend Tet Htun knew that and to cure me of my lonely depression he said he would introduce me to a local Karen girl. And one fine day he took me to a little timber house on a large block of land just down below from our battalion hill.

“Oh, Captain, come in, come in,” a good looking Karen girl came out and invited us in.
“Hey, Naw Le War, this is my friend Lt. Thet Oo. He lives on the camp-hill and he doesn’t know anyone in the town. That’s why I brought him here to introduce you.”
“Thet Oo, Naw Le War here is preparing to take the Matriculation Exam in Pherpun High School this year. We know each other from playing basketball together.”
“Captain, if you get bored you can come visit me here. Nowadays I hardly go out. Exam is so close and I’ve been studying at home. I’ll be at home always,” Naw Le War openly invited me and I happily accepted her invitation.

I was looking for sweets and now I’d found honey.


After our first visit in the morning I went to Naw Le War’s house again in that evening right after the dinner. I found Naw Lw War happily greeting me again.

“Do you live alone? No one else at home?”
“No, I live with my brother’s family and both he and his wife work for the Cooperatives. But they both are away now and only Ah-phee at home.”
“Oh, Ah-phee is grandmother in Karen. This is her house.”

While we were in small talks Naw Le War started coughing a bit.

“Sorry Captain, I might have caught a cold yesterday. I’m coughing now.”
“Why don’t you take medicine?”
“I don’t really know what to take.”
“Oh, I could bring some medicine from the camp clinic.”

She said OK and I came back home thinking happily I had a solid excuse to visit her again tomorrow. Just to bring cough medicine for her.


Next day I went to her house again with a lot of stuff in my hands. Mainly Komithazine Cough Syrup and other woman stuff I’d brought back from my hometown as presents for potential girlfriends.

“Oh, thanks Captain, so much stuff for me!”
“I just came back from my leave in my hometown. Just three four days ago.”

Then we sat down and chat. One thing I noticed then was she kept on looking back inside the house. So I asked her.

“Who is inside? Is Ah-phee here?”
“Not Ah-phee. She is quite old and she goes to bed real early. I have a friend visiting me here in the bedroom. We’re studying together. She’s taking the matriculation exam this year too. I like to call her out here.”
“Okay, call her, we can chat.”

Naw Le War went inside and came back out holding the hand of another young Karen girl in tow. Fair-skinned, short black hair, and dressed in a blue sport shirt and black brocade sarong the girl rather looked like a pretty boy at first.

“Captain, this is my friend Mary from Taungoo. She’s taking her year 10 exam in Pharpun this year.”

Once introduced, she immediately shook my hand like a westerner. Her small hand was quite warm and that instance her warmness seemed to flow into my body. Wow, this girl is something, I thought to myself. As we three sat together I started the conversation.

“Mary, why do you have to come take the exam here in Pharpun?”
“I’ve already failed once in Tangoo. It is a big town and so many things to do and hardly anytime to study. So this year while visiting my relatives here I’m taking the exam here too.”
“That’s great. Now we meet each other and become friends.”
“That’s right. Are you also a university graduate, Captain?”
“I have an Arts Degree.”
“So, what did you do in the university? What are your hobbies?”
“I just studied and didn’t do much. I love to sing though.”
“Captain, Mary here is a good singer. She plays piano and she peaks English too. Ask her to sing,” Naw Le War cut us in.
“Okay, Mary, if you’re good at singing sing one song for us.”
“I don’t know Burmese songs that well.”
“How about English songs? Let’s listen.”

Mary immediately sung the famous songs Pretty Little Baby, More Than I can Say, and Underneath The Mango Tree, one song after another non-stop. It was a pleasure to listen her sing as her voice sounded like an English girl.

“Mary, your voice and your accent are really good. Congratulations, where did you study before?” I asked her.
“St. Philomena Convent in Moulmein. My teachers were from England.”
“That’s why your English is so good. I like it very much. For me, I came out of a vernacular school and the way we learned English was something like this.  S-P-A-R-R-O-W – Sar-ga-lay, B-U-F-F-A-L-O-W – Kywe-gyi, and B-O-X – Thit-tar. No way could I sing English songs like you.”

That was my joke and both girls heartily laughed at me. They also asked me to sing some Burmese songs. So I sung at least five Burmese songs there.

“Oh, our Captain knows so many Burmese songs,” Mary said and shook my hand again and I felt the same warmness in my body again. We sat and chatted for a while and mildly sick Naw le War finally excused for her frequent coughs and went to bed early. Even before then only Mary and I were mostly talking. Time was also after 10 in the night.

We were sitting outside on a wide bench and the full summer moon was hanging low on the sky. Except for the infrequent breeze gently shuffling the leaves of the nearby Padauk tree the night was pleasantly quiet.

“Is there anyone waiting to marry you?” Mary broke the pleasant silence and I slowly shook my head.
“If so….,” I didn’t let her finish as I kissed her on the cheek.

The automatic strong pull between opposite sexes had ignited us into a natural togetherness. That night she and I spent the whole night on that wide bench there.


Next day I slept over, but woken up by private Saw Tha Shwe from the Company HQ office. It was an emergency and I and Khin Maung Yin were to report ASAP to the Battalion HQ. The Adjutant Captain relayed us the urgent operational order from the Brigade HQ.

“Bo Khin Maung Yin and Bo Thet Oo, you two have to move with two companies to Ka-ma-maung. Prepare to move out tomorrow. That’s the order from 11th Brigade.”

I was thinking I just got a brand new girlfriend and now I had to travel. But I am a soldier and I couldn’t disobey as in the army the order is an order to follow without a question. That night I met Mary again in Naw Le War’s house.

“Mary, I have to leave tomorrow. Write to me. I’ll give you the address. Are you going back after the exam?”
“Yes, I’m going back Taungoo. I’ll write from there. I’ll also write from here before I go back too.”

We spent the whole night together again on that wide bench as Naw Le War went to bed early. Next morning I reluctantly left Pharpun for Ka-ma-maung.


Our two companies from IB-19 took over Ka-ma-maung from the IB-8 there. One company stayed at Ka-ma-maung for the town security and other company stayed at Ka-taing-ti and Ye-bu camps. I stayed at Ye-bu and looked out for Mary’s love letters coming with the regular convoys from Pharpun. After her matriculation exams she went back to Taungoo just before Thingyan water festivals. She sent a short letter before she went home.

          “Mary’s going back to Taungoo.
  I really love you. I’ll tell Ah-par
    and Ah-mar and I will marry you.”

This little Karen girl was real determined. Totally unlike my other girlfriend from Mandaly University. That Burmese girl wouldn’t let me hold her hand or let me kiss her cheek. Forget about the rest with her.

After a few months in Ye-bu I was moved to Ka-taing-ti Camp. Once there my health went downhill and I got stomach ulcers. I couldn’t eat well and started losing weight. I even wrote a letter to Mary as the battalion had allowed me to attend a base military hospital.

Soon one day, my friend forest-guard Saw Aung Din from Ka-taing-ti Forestry Office came to see me. He told me that one Naw Mu Mu had arrived at his house and wanted to see me. I didn’t know any Naw Mu Mu, but I went to his house together with my bat-man private Saw Hla Htoo. There Mary was waiting for me.

“Mary, why are you following me here?”
“I was worried about you. Don’t you have to go to a hospital? I’ll take care of you there. I came here as soon as I heard you were unwell.”
“I was wondering who Naw Mu Mu was?”
“Oh, Naw Mu Mu is my Karen name and Mary is my Christian name from the convent school.”
“Okay, since Mary is here I am going to the hospital. I am sending a radio message to send a substitute.”

Poor Mary had to wait at Saw Aung Din’s house for three more days. And once the substitute officer arrived we went down to Ka-ma-maung and reported to the Company CO Captain Aye Kyaw and introduced Mary to him and his wife as my fiancée.

His wife was also a Karen from Taungoo and knew Mary’s family very well. Mary’s father Saw Nan Mu was a famous forestry manager and almost everyone knew him. My CO said that now he’d got a pretty kid sister for his wife.

I attended the General Military Hospial in Rangoon together with Mary. We were at the hospital for more than a month and after my discharge we went back to Phar-an and got married at the Brigade HQ there while waiting for the boat to Ka-ma-maung.

Mary then was only 18 and I was 23. We were really young to get married that way. But being a combat soldier I couldn’t live in day-dreams. I had to be decisive and I didn’t want to get killed without having a wife and kids.

That was the funny story of how a little Burmese officer unexpectedly got married to a young Karen girl.