Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Tin Than Oo's Battles - Episode 1

(Concise translation of Chapter 5 from Late Tin Than Oo’s Autobiographical Novel.)

On the Waingmaw – Chibwe Road (1975-76)

Army's Bandoola Batch.
In DSA (Defense Services Academy) the first year was most troublesome for all of us as we were not yet used to the strictly-disciplined life of a junior officer-cadet. Only in the Second Year we got used to it. Third year was quite okay and Fourth Year or the Final Year was just a breeze.

But once graduated and became a second lieutenant and a gazetted-officer we became the first years again. Everything had to be learned from zero as we tried hard to apply the lessons learned from the academy into the real situations on the battle fields of frontline.

Most graduate officers from our 16th Intake (11 January 1971 – 31 December 1974) ended up in the infantry battalions under Army Northern Command based in Myitkyinar the state capital of rugged Kachin State. From the top of our class Wunna Maung Lwin (now the Foreign Minister of Burma) to the last of the class Hla Han most of us had to serve in the Kachin State as our first field postings.

Within a month Kyi Soe who was the Second Best Cadet of our intake lost both legs   stepping on an enemy mine in the Sadone area. He first ended up in the Myitkyinar hospital. My heart sunk when I heard that he later died at Mingaladon General Military Hospital from his leg wounds. Then was the height of long civil war in Kachin land.

CPB (Communist Party of Burma) and KIA (Kachin Independence Army) insurgents were active in the sector east of May-kha River. Intense battles were regular events in that area that time. CPB frequently raided small army outposts and they also often quarreled with their once-allied KIA.

French-made Alouette-3 Helicopter.
It was early 1975 and my posting was IB-58 stationed then in Myitkyinar but operating in the remote and rugged area between May-kha River and Chinese borderline. Soon after I reported at the battalion I was sent to Chibwe by riding a small air-force Alouette helicopter on its way to pick up a wounded soldier there.

Back then the Forward Command Base of IB-58 was in Chibwe the small town terminus of the 60 mile long vehicular road from Waingmaw across the Irrawaddy from Myitkyinar. As I got off the helicopter at Chibwe the medics loaded a severely wounded soldier into the Alouette. The poor man had lost a leg stepping an enemy mine and the pain of losing a whole leg might be completely unbearable. But he didn’t move at all. He seemed to be sedated by a heavy morphine dose.

That was my first ever battle field experience. Even before landing on the ground I was greeted by the sight of horribly wounded soldier in a stretcher on the ground from the helicopter hovering above.


My first assignment there was the commander of security platoon at the battalion Forward Command Base and within a month I became a platoon commander in the First Company. I ended up travelling all over the place as our First Company was on a non-stop operational duty. High mountains in that frontline border region are really tall and steep. Enemy’s land mines were everywhere. And I’d been all over the places along the May-kha river course.

Kachin State Map.
At the beginning of the raining season in May 1975 I was re-assigned as the commander of small army outpost at Sha-ngor camp on the Waingmaw-Chibwe road. Food was extremely scarce while the enemy was abundant in our area. Malaria also was rampant. Communication was impossibly difficult and the native population was sparse.

Enemy had effectively staged a huge land mine operation to restrict our movement in the area. Because of so many mine incidents even the native population didn’t dare to move freely in their own fields. Enemy had laid thick minefields to block between their territories and our territories. Only they knew the safe ways in and out off their mine fields.

They even entered into our inner territory around the major population centers and mined and injured and killed so many of our men and the civilians too. If the civilians went into the enemy territory they would never come out alive. It was almost impossible to get the information about the enemies, CPB and KIA.

In addition to their intensive landmine operations the CPB and KIA had extensively used guerilla operations against us. We called it Fire-and-Flee operation. They first tried to attract our columns to chase them. Once our columns marched into their area they fired at us and then fled. The column was left seriously disturbed and since the enemy knew their local area very well it was almost impossible to catch up with them once they ran.

We had to watch out at the water edges as they used to lay mines at the crossings. We got to be real careful all the times not to get ambushed on the road and the trails too.

Other enemy common strategy after their well-horned fire-and-flee guerrilla strategy was their ambush strategy. They usually waited quietly in a line of foxholes dug right next to the road or jungle trails once they knew a vehicle convoy or an army column on foot was coming along.

Waingmaw-Chibwe Road.
Once our soldiers had entered their killing field the enemy reserves on the high ground started firing at the column. Once the column had turned their guns towards the enemy on the high ground their main troops in the foxholes shot at the column point blank. Within five or ten minutes they would kill as many soldiers as they possibly could and then withdraw fast after stripping the arms, ammos, and backpacks off the dead and dying.

But once the army personnel had been in an area long enough we started to know the terrain like the native insurgents. We became familiar with the land, rivers and streams, mountains, and intimately the geographical nature of the area. We started to understand the mindset and nature of our enemy once we had enough engagements with them.

We knew where the possible ambush sites were. We were able to overcome their landmines by avoiding the well-used trails and using the difficult jungle tracks like wild animals. Even we became used to the malaria and we could travel on foot with the high body temperatures of 101 or 102 degree Fahrenheit with malaria.

We simply bypassed the enemy ambush sites and cleared their killing fields from behind. The usual character of enemy was once things didn’t happen as expected they didn’t know what to do and just quickly retreated.

But we still couldn’t take it easy. We had to do things hard way to avoid getting killed. We always had to open our eyes and ears wide. Guns were always loaded and ready to fire. We couldn’t be lazy and we were walking all the time. I had to make sure my men were ready too.

And the time was slowly ticking away.

Back then the Waingmaw-Chibwe Road was notoriously bad and extremely dangerous. The truck convoys couldn’t travel at will on the road as we would have wanted. In the raining seasons the road was frequently blocked by the landslides on the mountain sides. Only in the open seasons we could repair the road and bring in the food and supply convoys.

The insurgents used to plant huge anti-tank mines on the road and managed to destroy some trucks. They sometimes ambushed the convoy. When weather was really bad the airforce helicopters couldn’t even fly.

Anyway I had to serve for a while at the boring Sha-ngor Camp.  Malaria had tortured us there. Once the enemy dug the line of foxholes right next to the road and waited to ambush one of our convoys coming along. The road patrol from our camp ran into them and the firefight ensued. When I followed there with the reinforcement the enemy withdrew and disappeared.


A Typical House in Waingmaw.
Communication with outside world was almost impossible. In rare occasions when we received letters and parcels from the families and friends from Proper Burma we were endlessly happy. We tirelessly replied to them as they might well be eagerly waiting for our letters and the news too.

When we had nothing else to do we tried to read the old magazines and old newspapers. During idle times everybody sat around and listened to the only transistor radio, battery-operated, broadcasting the BBS (Burma Broadcasting Services). My dear childhood friend Boat-sone-ma (her nick-name meaning a chubby girl) regularly dedicated many song requests for me through BBS’s Song Presents Program for the Burmese soldiers serving on the faraway frontlines on the border.

Once the song she dedicated for me was called “For my faraway love!” and all my men led by the Platoon Sergeant Than Win Htoo were really amused.

“Ha, that Boat-sone-ma might be our Captain’s girlfriend?”
“She must be fat or really chubby if she’s even called Boat-sone-ma.”
“Captain is keeping her a secret. He never said anything about her before.”

I tried to offer an explanation to their jocular accusations.

“Hey, what are you guys accusing me of? If you request a particular song from BBS you wouldn’t always get what you ask for.  They just played whatever they had, okay. She is just a friend, not my girlfriend!”

But my men wouldn’t easily accept my explanation. I even had to hide her old letters from my men and it became a big job for me in a small crowded army outpost with absolutely no privacy. But when I was really bored there I reread her letters again and again.

“Whether you write to me or not, I have to keep on writing to you. I do not write these letters for no good reason.  I’m writing because I’m afraid you will eventually lose contact with the outside world.

Are you now fighting many battles? Just be careful! Don’t be daydreaming like you used to when we were young. They will shoot you with their guns. Don’t you remember by heart the Buddhist Sutras I sent you?

Repeat the Than-buddhay Sutra nine times every day. Nine times every day for Beik-kah-way Sutra too. If you have to travel on foot repeat the Thi-ri-tham Sutra six times.

I know, I know, you wouldn’t be saying theses sutras, but I have to keep on reminding you though. I’m really worried about you. You should listen to me once for your sake. Believe in the Sutras. They are really powerful. When you wake up in the morning please pray to the Lord Buddha. When you go to bed please pray again too.

Please do not forget the Three Treasures; Buddha, Damma (Buddha’s teachings), and Sangha (The Buddhist monks). One who never forgets the three treasures will never get hurt, seriously.

You’re sending your parents money every month through the Postal Services? Your mother, she is really happy whenever your money comes. You money isn’t that much for your parents, but you’re doing a great deed sending them money out off your salary.

Our Gods will look after you who take care of his parents. Your mother is donating your money for charities so that you’ll earn good deed. That is really good.

I have already finished my university degree, but I’m just staying home doing nothing. I was thinking of working as a teacher for the town’s Primary School. But I couldn’t do that. You know me. With my temper I don’t think I can handle the children. The kids now in our little town are like you and me when we were young. Most are spoiled. So I just sit at home doing nothing yet.

Back in DSA at least you got one month leave every year. Now to get ten days leave a year is impossible for you? We all here remember and miss you. Come back as soon as you get your leave. Don’t go wandering around anywhere else.

I would like to send mango-pickles and Balachaung for you. But I don’t know how as no one I know is going to Myitkyinar, ever. Why do you have to go all the way to Myitkyinar? If you really want to go that far away from us you should go all the way to the Putao at the northern end!

Have you ever listened to my song presents? I once requested BBS the Tin Tin Mya’s Song “Blue mountain range and backpack” for you, but they broadcasted another of her songs. The young men from our town heard it and came sung that song in front of our house that night.

Anyway I don’t care what other people say and I’ll always request songs for you. My nick name Boat-sone-ma is now even forgotten by my parents. No body calls me with that name any more. But I am afraid if I used my real name you wouldn’t know it was from me. So I use the name Boat-sone-ma and now people are calling me Boat-son-ma again. I had to be really rude and rough to them so that they stop teasing me with my nick name.

A Crowded Rangoon Bus.
By the way, I have to tell you the story about how tough I was. Last week I had to go to Rangoon. From the highway bus terminal to the house at the singlet-mill I had to take a really crowded Number Nine bus.

One bastard wouldn’t leave me alone on the crowded bus. He tried to rub me up. I couldn’t avoid him. Follow me everywhere on the bus. I couldn’t block him with my bag and umbrella. He kept on trying to rub me up. Finally I stomped on his feet with my heel and you wouldn’t believe me. He said why I was hurting him.

I told him that he was a horny bastard and also hit him on the head with my folding brolly. He got off the bus and only on the ground he threatened to hurt me. What a brave man?

How about your old wounds and malaria? All gone now? Please take care and write to me!”


Jade Mines of Burma.
After well over a year on the front line our whole battalion was relieved by another infantry battalion to go back to Myitkyinar for a short R&R break. The battalion CO told us that all the bachelor officers would be given ten days leave in turn one by one.

But I didn’t get that promised leave as I had to take care of the Weapon Company, the Ffth Company, as the acting Commander while their Company Commander was attending a heavy weapon training course.

Then the order came in from the Northern Command to escort the convoy of jade mine workers to the jade mines at Pharkant-Lonekhin area about 150 miles southwest of Myitkyinar. Two companies were needed for the long vehicle convoy and my Fifth was one of the two.

On the way to the jade mines KIA tried to ambush the convoy twice without a success. After a month there at the jade mines we came back to Myitkyinar with another convoy. KIA waited at the Myohaung intersection and took pot shots at us but we immediately counterattacked and they had to flee again.

Once we were back in Myitkyinar my company was sent onto the ranges between the town of Mohnyin and the Irrawaddy River. We chased the KIA there for a while and then came back to Myitkyinar. We thought we would have a nice rest at the battalion compound in Myitkyinar but the enemy had penetrated into the inner area of Kachin State and our battalion had to cross the Irrawaddy again to chase them out.

Later we came back to Myitkyinar as the battalion was being reorganized and prepared for a major operation into the Triangle Area between Maykha and Maylikha Rivers. The whole IB-58 entered the Triangle Area from the Myitsone (The Confluence of Maykha and Maylikha to become the Irrawaddy) and searched and destroyed KIA regional HQ of that area. But it was their hardcore territory and they immediately rebuilt a new HQ as soon as we left the area for Myitkyinar.


Boat on the Irrawaddy River from Katha to Bamaw.
We didn’t have a long rest back at the battalion compound in Myitkyinar. By a special train we went down to Kathar Town on the west bank of Irrawaddy. From Kathar our battalion was transported by ships upstream to Bamaw on the east bank of Irrawaddy.

We then went to Mansi Town on the Bamaw-Namkhan Road by a trucks convoy. From Mansi we marched on foot to the long borderline with China. We were relieving the war-exhausted battalions on the remote outposts by the border line there.

Back then the CPB Battalion 202 was active in the Shweli Valley. CPB was expanding their battalion 101 and 202 as their new war regions. Our battalion faced off with them in the sector north of Shweli River.

In that area our enemy CPB used the conventional war strategy instead of their usual guerilla Fire-and-Flee strategy. They had massive manpower and used Chinese human wave attacks on our outposts and the casualty was extremely high on both sides.

Only after thirteen months there our battalion was relieved by another battalion and we came back to Myitkyinar. I was first thinking of taking a short leave to go back home. But instead I ended up in Maymyo (Pyin loo lwin) to attend a course at the Central Engineering Regiment there.

By then I was a lieutenant with two gold bars on each shoulder and soon to be promoted to a captain with three bars (later three stars as the bars become stars) on each shoulder.

(Famous movie director and writer Tin Than Oo (a) Lt. Colonel Maung Maung Oo aged 57 died of chronic lever cirrhosis on 5 November 2010 in Rangoon.)