Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Colonel Thet Oo - Chapter 2-3

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

KNU: The Karen national Union

When the 24 brand-new second-lieutenants from OTS intake 36 including me reported for duty at the South-Eastern Military Command in January 1968 we were briefed by the GSO-3 Captain Khin Maung Htun.

“Okay, I’ll explain the enemy ORBAT (Order of Battle). Our target No-1 is KNU (Karen National Union), No-2 is NMSP (New Mon State Party), and No-3 is CPB’s Tanesserim Division. Most aggressive and strongest of them is KNU.

KNU leader is Bo Mya. He has six brigades under his command. Brigade-1, 2, 3, 4, 6, and 7. KNU Brigade-1 is in north of Thahton, 2 is in Nyaunglaybin, 3 is in south of Thandaung, 4 is in Myeik-Tavoy area, 6 is in Kawkareik area, and 7 is in the area covering Pharpun and Kamamaung and Hlaingbwe and the KNU HQ.

We have already issued the manuals for the organizational structure and personals of every KNU brigade and battalion. You have to study and remember as per your respective region so that you know well about your enemy in your territory.”

As the Command had warned us then, KNU had given our battalion a lot of trouble. They frequently ambushed our supply convoys when roads were good in summer. They regularly took pot shots at the ships and motorized-boats travelling between Phar-an and Shwe-gun. They frequently assaulted our fortified camps at Htu-seik, Sin-zwe, and Ka-taing-ti villages. Once they even stole a heavy 3” mortar from the Battalion HQ at Pharpun.

Since I am now married to a Karen woman and my children are Karen-Burmese I tried to study about my relatives the Karens in general and the KNU in particular from whatever books I could get hold of then.

Origin of KNU

As a legacy of century-long British colonial rule most Karens rather trusted and relied on the British than the Burmese. British also used the Divide and Rule principle to administer British Burma.

In 1945, a general mass meeting of all Karens was held in Rangoon and the KCO (Karen Central Organization) was formed. That public meeting had also decided to ask British to let Karens establish, under the British Governor, the self-administered Karen State covering Tenasserim Division, Pegu Division, Nyaunglaybin District, and the mostly Karen-populated border regions by the Thailand border.

In 1946, a Karen mission comprising Sydney Luni, Saw Phoe Chit, Saw Tha Din, and Saw Ba Oo Gyi went to England to meet British Government to demand for Karen statehood, without success.

Saw Ba Oo Gyi (1905-50).
In 1947, the KCO openly denounced Aung San-Atlee Agreement for Burma’s complete independence and formed KNU from KCO and other Karen mass organizations. KNU then established its own paramilitary organization KNDO (Karen National defense Organization) and secretly armed its troops. KNU President then was Saw Ba Oo Gyi.

KNU refused to attend 1948 Independence ceremony and continued to demand separate statehood for Karens. After the insurrections of CPB (Communist Party of Burma) and PVO (Public Volunteer Organization) in March and July 1948 respectively, the Karen Military Police in Thahton took over the town and started the Karen insurgency.

All three Karen Rifles battalions joined the KNDO and Karen Military Police battalions in the Karen insurgency and at the beginning of 1949 Taungoo, Phyu, Oat-twin, and Htandabin fell into Karen hands. Karens occupied Insein in February 1949 and started preparing to capture Rangoon.

Karen State of Burma.
Army C-in-C General Smith Dun, a Karen, was then replaced by General Ne Win on 31 January 1949 and Insein was re-taken by the army after a three months long operation. Similarly, army had re-taken the fallen towns of Pyinoolwin, Meikhtila, Mandalay, Pyimanar, Yemethin, and Pyawbwe in Upper Burma and the towns of Taungoo, Nyaunglaybin, Thahton, and Moulmein in Lower Burma from Karen hands.

In 1950, the KNU and its KNDO forces were driven out of all the towns and into the remote jungles of Pegu Yoma and Eastern Yoma Ranges and also into the Irrawaddy Delta as the splintered insurgent groups.

Saw Ba Oo Gyi was killed in a jungle and later followed by Colonel Min Maung. KNU had to change the leaders one after another and their successive leaders were Bo Soe, Lin Htin, Man Ba Zan, and Bo Mya.

When I became a soldier in 1968 Bo Mya was the KNU supreme leader and Man Ba Zan had just moved from Pegu-Yoma to Eastern-Yoma ranges. Their policies were also rapidly changing as their leaders were. First policy was blind Karen nationalism under the imperialist influences and then took on the CPB’s 1964 Policy as KNU formed an alliance with the Burmese Communists.

Once CPB started collapsing spectacularly on the Pegu-Yoma the KUN and KNDO remnants joined BO Mya’s KNDOs on the Eastern-Yoma. That was the time I became a soldier.  

My Revenge on Kyaw Hoe’s First Brigade

It was already in 1972 when I got my revenge on KNU Kyaw Hoe. Father of two Karen kids and already serving five long years in Karen State I was basically a Burmese-Karen speaking Karen fluently and having fought many battles with my brothers-in-law Daw-ta-khwars (Karen Rebels).

One day the battalion commander gave us the operation order to chase KNU First Brigade into Thahton’s Northern Sector.

“Okay my men, Ya-Ta-Kha (the South-Eastern Command) has ordered our battalion to send a column of two companies to clear the north of Thahton. Two Kayin-ma-lin (Karen woman’s husband) Bo Thet Oo and Bo Soe Win are the two company commanders and the IO will be Bo maung Maung. So, Thet Oo and Soe Win, start preparing to meet your brothers-in-law.”

Bo Soe Win was married to a Karen nurse Naw Su Waw just a month after my wedding. He was from DSA intake 7. On the D-day our column travelled to Ka-taing-ti by a car convoy and marched on foot to Baw-kyoe-le Village. Soe Win’s company led the column as Baw-kyoe-le with more than 100 households was his wife’s village. Nothing happened on the way and we camped the night there.

Our target was to clear KNU First Brigade from the Thahton-North-Sector covering Lay-kay, Kya-thaung-seik, and Pyin-ma-bin-seik areas. Again, nothing happened along the way and we reached Lay-kay Village as planned. Even our Battalion CO was a bit surprised for the KNU had vanished completely.

“Hey, Bo Thet Oo and Bo Soe Win, It must be because of you two, your relatives haven’t taken a single potshot at us. They are too bloody quiet. IO Bo Maung Maung, any news of them?”
“Kyaw Hoe was heard to be in Me-na-than area. No news about his men though. Whenever I asked, the villages just replied they do not know.”

We stayed three four days in Lay-kay and since nothing happened there our column continued on to Win-da-pa. Win-da-pa was a large village and the village Chief Saw Kyaw Lay was fluent in Burmese too. I went up to his house to take a shower at the well.

“Pha-htee, wai pha-htee, hay-yar-htee-se-ta-kyoe,” I asked him for the water bucket in Karen.
“Aar-par, you know Karen very well. Where did you learn it?” The Chief was surprised at meeting a Karen-speaking Burmese army officer just outside his house.
“My wife is a Karen, Pha-htee, I am your relative.”

That did the job and that night we even drank together and finally he told me something about Kyaw Hoe after the whole night of merry rounds of liquor. Kyaw Hoe would be attending a Buddhist ordaining ceremony in the nearby Talaing-kayin Village in four or five days. So we told the CO even though we were not so sure about the authenticity of that crucial information.

“Aye, we’ve been in the area more than a week and not a single shot is fired and the Ya-ta-kha doesn’t even believe us now. So they are dead quiet because of the ceremony. But, I don’t really want to disturb the ordaining ceremony. The villagers will hate us if that happens.”
“Don’t worry about that Sir, we’ll take care.”

On the day of the ceremony we marched at dawn from Win-da-pa to Taling-kayin and the point of our column was Bo Soe Win’s Company. On the half-way just before Don-tha-meet creek we ran into 14 or 15 KNU insurgents, the protective patrol sent by Kyaw Hoe already in the village.

After a brief skirmish they withdrew and by noon we entered the Talaing-kayin village on the banks of Don-tha-meet Creek. Kyaw Hoe and his followers had calmly left the village just before our arrival. We got nothing, not even a firefight. But at least, because of me, we got the clear smell of Kyaw Hoe and his First Brigade.

Next day we followed their tracks to the north of Talaing-kayin and we ended up doing multiple criss-crossing the Don-tha-meet Creek. Some parts of creek were so shallow we could easily ford it but some parts were so deep we couldn’t ford it. Once, while we were fording that bloody creek my company was ambushed.

Carbine and G3 bullets were flying all over our heads and they also fired 3 or 4 M79 grenades into the creek. I was still in the creek waters but timely saved by the quick action of my M79 man Saw Tha Shwe from my Company HQ. He held me tight by my waist and pushed me out of the creek onto the bank just in time. I was almost killed by a M79 while chasing bloody Kyaw Hoe.


Our long column finally reached the village of Pyin-ma-bin-seik which was a huge village and suitable to be used as the operational base for chasing Kyaw Hoe and his First Brigade. IO Bo Maung Maung softly talked the primary school teacher Naw Shwe Khin into letting me stay at her house. Naw Shwe Khin was a really pretty mu-ka-naw (A young Karen bachelorette) and I and Bo Maung Maung lied to her that we were bachelor officers.

Lin Htin at the middle with his officers.
We had information that she was related to late KNU leader Lin Htin the Commander of notorious KNU Fifth Brigade (which once briefly seized the Thai town of Maesot in 1961) and we even saw a framed photo of Lin Htin and his officers from the Fifth Brigade in her house. And she didn’t like Kyaw Hoe at all as Kyaw Hoe was Bo Mya’s trusted man.

There was a well-known background story quietly circulating among the native Karen populace involving Bo Mya and Kyaw Hoe.

 Lin Htin's Beauty Queen Wife.
After Lin Htin’s assassination in 1965 his Fifth Brigade was re-organized as the First Brigade. Out of all eligible senior battalion commanders of KNU, Bo Mya deliberately picked Kyaw Hoe, a junior officer, over others to become the Brigade Commander of the First Brigade. Other commanders complained and refused to follow Bo Mya’s orders.

Bo Mya then solved the major trouble brewing among the KNU ranks and files by inviting ten senior KNU field commanders to Baw-tha-yaw on the East bank of Salween River by promising a peaceful solution. Once the ten commanders arrived at Baw-tha-yaw Bo Mya arrested all of them and killed them all. Some said Bo Mya himself bayoneted all ten to death.

The ten brutally killed by Bo Mya were Din Garr, Pauk Kyaw, Phar Byar, Sein Thee (a) Kye Ni, Kyaw Khaing, Zaw Hein, Khin Maung Yee, Ronald, Alexandra, and Nyunt Tin. Our pretty mu-ka-naw Naw Shwe Khin was rumored to be the daughter of late Commander Din Garr. And she didn’t like Kyaw Hoe at all.

KNU General Bo Mya (1927-2006).
She told us that Kyaw Hoe’s brigade was now broken into a few groups because of our operations and he was trying to go back onto the western ranges and regroup his brigade there. So we reported that information to the CO and arranged for an ambush at the possible creek-crossing between Pyin-ma-bin-seik and Kyo-waing villages.

I scouted along the Don-tha-meet Creek and picked the most probable spot for their expected crossing. I then handpicked 30 men and lay wait in the sugarcane fields on the east bank since 6 pm that night.

All of us were in the dug-foxholes and worn only the flip-flops to hide the tracks of our army-issued jungle boots and eat only the dried rations. Fighting Karens wasn’t that easy as to fight them we had to behave like them in the jungle.

We lay waiting the whole night in the sugarcane field directly opposite the Kyo-waing Village and nothing happened that first night. We were hoping something would happen in the second night and it did. At about midnight we heard the bells of water buffalos.

“Ka-lok, ka-lok, ka-lok, ka-lok,”
“Hey, sentry, these are buffalo bells, careful!”

Then we heard the large herd of water buffalos clambering down into the creek. They were not that far from us. No more than 40 or 50 yards. I had to ask the platoon commander Bo Htay Myint near me to check the herd out as I couldn’t see that well in the dark.

“Bo Htay Myint, can you see the buffalos?”
“Captain, all black shadows. Might be buffalos,” replied eagerly Bo Htay Myint.

As we watched the blurred black shapes of buffalos in the creek, the herd finally reached other bank after 15 or 20 minutes of crossing. Then a torch light flashed and we heard a voice, “Mar-ta-gay, mar-ta-gay”. And there under the torch light flash on the far bank were KNU men with guns.

.30 M1 Carbine.
“Hey, insurgents, shoot, shoot, fire at will,” yelling at the same time I started shooting at them with my .30 M1 carbine. The rest followed and we even fired our M79s into the shadowy crowd clambering up the bank. They didn’t fire back at all and after a few minutes of shooting we went down to the water edge and found their jungle boots, pots and pans, jungle hats, and knapsacks.

The enemy was crossing the creek with the buffalo herd as their cover in the complete darkness. We waited till the morning and once sun was up we searched the creek bed for weapons and bodies. We had waited two days and two nights without a sleep and we were frustrated for getting nothing significant. So we searched in the water and fortunately found a cane basket load of about fifty M79 grenades.
M79 Grenade Launcher with 40 mm grenades.
“Hey, if there’re M79 grenades there might be a M79 launcher in the water, keep on searching,” I yelled out at the men in the creek and they finally found a brand new M79 in the mud at the creek bottom.

“Captain, I’ve got the M79 from the mud,” yelled out Sergeant Zaw Bun holding up the M79.
“Hey, we’ve got the KNU gun,” shouted the men.

Back then M79 portable grenade launcher was a new weapon for all of us and KNU too. Getting hold of one of their M79 was good news for all of us and everybody was happy.

“Phew, Son-of-a-bitch Kyaw Hoe must be sick by now,” I yelled out.

Later we heard Kaw Hoe was physically sick back then. Once we got back to the Pyin-ma-bin-seik after the ambush and reported to the CO he told us this.

“According to the radio intercepts by the Ya-ta-kha Command you men got at least four or five of them. It wasn’t so sure about if Kyaw Hoe was with them. But they were definitely his men. We also heard he was real sick now. Anyway the result is satisfactory for two sleepless-nights-wait. Why don’t you guys take a rest? You’ll get another chance with Kyaw Hoe again later.”

I wasn’t that satisfy with just a small firefight. But at least I was still happy with that successful ambush though. That was my first military play with KNU First Brigade. We then tried to chase Kyaw Hoe all over Thahton North Sector but he was good at avoiding us and he always escaped. Then in 1982 the famous Brigade Commander Kyaw Hoe of KNU First Brigade was killed in the same Thahton North Sector by Major Sein Lin’s Column.

Well before Kyaw Hoe’s death I was transferred to IB-61 at Kyauk-ta-lone in early 1972. That battalion was under the South-Eastern Command and I still had to face my brothers-in-law KNU Daw-ta-khwars there.