The British re-formed the Burma Regular Army in 1945 according to the Kandy Agreement between Lord Mountbatten and General Aung San. Almost all ethnic troops serving loyally in the British Army and irregular units of ethnic levies were absorbed into their own ethnic Rifle Battalions of the new army. And 200 officers and 5,200 other ranks from the demobilized BNA were reorganized as new Burma Rifle Battalions.
And at independence in 1948 there were First and Second Burma Rifle Battalions of non-BNA Burmese and ethnic mixed troops formerly from the British Army; Third and Fourth and Fifth and Sixth Burma Rifle Battalions made up of former BNA troops; three Karen Rifle Battalions; three Chin Rifle Battalions; two Kachin Rifle Battalions; and the Fourth Infantry Battalion of Gurkhas, all together only 15 so-called class battalions based on race.
That mixed and matched army was Lord Louis Mountbatten’s compromise solution to keep two opposing wings, the Burmese majority and the ethnic minorities, together as a 12,000-strong standing army. The army was seriously divided not just along racial line but also ideological lines. Most of the former BNA troops including Colonel Ne Win were considered leftists and anti-British while the rest of the army were the rightists, or conservatives and pro-British.
And naturally the Karen, the loyal soldiers of the British Raj, initially dominated the British re-formed Burmese Army by both troop numbers and the ranks of senior officers.
Karen-Led Burmese Army
Since the beginning ex-BNA Burmese troops bitterly resented the fact that Karen dominated the Burmese Army. This edited extract is from the book Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel by General Smith Dun the first Commander-in-Chief of post-war Burmese Army and a loyal Karen.
When Burma gained her independence in 1948, the Karens were well placed in the defense services and in their own right, not through any political pressure or string. There were only two king’s commissioned officers and those two were Karens with nearly twenty-five years service each.
Although not many Karens took active part in the gaining of the independence from British they resisted and fought the Japs from the start to the end, for which they suffered most. Had not the Japanese been defeated, Burma’s independence could never have been given by the British.
I became the C-in-C of the new Burma Army on the independence or rather, was left by the British as such, with the concurrence of the Burmese Government. Saw Kya Doe was nominated to be my Deputy with the rank of a Brigadier. Saw Donny became the Quarter-Master-General with the rank of a full colonel.
There were eight Karen Lieutenant-Colonels: three commanding each of the Karen Rifle Battalions, one commanding the Second Burma Rifle Battalion, one the Fourth Burma Regiment (Gurkhas), one the Burma Signals, one the Training Battalion, one the Assistant-Quarter-Master-General of South Burma Sub-District, and one commanding the Light Infantry Brigade at Meikhtila.
With the exception of one or two who were wartime officers, the rest mentioned above had services ranging from fifteen to twenty-five years (in the British Army). Hence I claim it to be Karen’s own right to be in that position on Burma gaining independence. Of the small airforce that was in making, Wing Commander Saw Shi Sho became Chief of Air Staff. In the small navy there were some Karen officers and men.
Alas! (So many) Karens in such positions must have been a point of sore eyes to the Burmese politicians, especially those who were not in uniform.
But the Ne Win-led Leftist Burmese faction of the army was not in a position to remove the Karen from the chain of command, yet. Karen and other ethnic forces were the ones propping up U Nu’s Socialist government in Rangoon as only these ethnic troops were willing to fight the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) now rebelling in the jungle against the AFPFL government.
Softly-Softly Civil War
War between the ex-BNA Burma Rifles and their former-brothers-in-arm, the Communists, was just a farce. Later two Burma Rifles had even deserted and joined the CPB. This is the translated extract from Myat Htan’s (Colonel Tin Maung) Autobiography. (Myat Htan was then a captain commanding the B Company of the Third Burma Rifles. He was also a graduate from the first batch of Mingaladon Japanese Military Academy.)
When my company was in Kyaik Htaw in the Delta the local political leaders (Communists) came for a secret meeting. I didn’t know them well but I’d heard of them and they’d heard of me as we were basically in the same boat politically speaking. One of them was also a former officer from our BNA. They came to tell me they were going to raid the government rice warehouses and redistribute the rice to starving peasants. So they told me the places and dates for the attacks and we agreed to be somewhere else during the attacks.
Before us Indian soldiers were there and they used to mow the raiding peasants down with machine guns and killed hundreds of Burmese. That was the reason they were replaced by us with the assumption that Burmese troops would be better suited to suppress a Burmese rebellion. When our battalion CO Colonel Thunder, the Irish man, heard of the warehouse raids and asked where were we during the raids I just lied to him that we were somewhere else out of reach.
We even gave them a box of Sten-gun bullets and they gave us their spent cartridges so that we could requisition back from the battalion. Their cartridges were so old and brownish-rusty I even got into trouble with our British Supply Captain.
But Karen and Kachin Rifles and their British advisers took the fight against the CPB seriously, too seriously for the Burmese officers of the Burma Rifles.
According to the Defense Agreement signed on 29 August 1947 a British Service Mission (BSM) was provided by the British government mainly to oversee training and procurement for the Burmese Army. Devised by BSM advisers the counter-insurgency campaign against the CPB till 1949 was ruthless scorched earth operations which required razing Burmese villages suspected of harboring or sympathizing with communists, and executing the villagers.
The troops used in these operations were exclusively Karen, Chin, and Kachin Rifles led by the British or British-trained ethnic officers and they had no mercy and took no prisoners from the Burmese villages deemed Communist sympathizers.
Colonel Chit Myaing of Third Burma Rifles wrote in 1949 that the Burmese army officers didn’t believe those killed in the operations were real insurgents as they were just ordinary men, women, monks, and children. This extract is from the book Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel by General Smith Dun points to some details:
Prome fell to the First Burma Rifles (all Burmese) who mutinied from Thayetmyo in sympathy with the Communists. The Second Karen Rifles which was at Meiktila was ordered to retake Prome from the Communists from the north, in conjunction with the First Kachin Rifles which had to be flown down from Myitkyina to advance from the south. The two battalions retook Prome after stiff resistance to both sides from the First Burma Rifles and their Communist allies.
It must be remembered that the First Burma Rifles was a regular battalion, equally well armed and trained as the two attacking battalions (one Kachin and one Karen). As the rebels were all Burmese and the population of the area was also all Burmese, the public were naturally on the side of the rebels.
So after Prome was retaken and when all was quiet, many complaints came from some politicians that the actions of the attacking Karen and Kachin troops particularly the Karen Battalion, was harsh on the Burmese population, deliberately ignoring the fact that, had the Communists overrun the country, a good many of those who complained would have had their throats slit by their now beloved Communists.
Not just the ethnic Rifle battalions from the army but the ethnic paramilitary organizations like KNDO (Karen National Defense Organization) were also heavily used by Karen-led army in ruthlessly suppressing the Communists rebellion with the knowledge of AFPFL leader Prime Minister U Nu Smith-Dun seriously alleged in his memoirs that:
The Second Karen Rifles was left to garrison the Prome area (after the Battle of Prome) when the First Kachin Rifles was pulled in to Rangoon to form a reserve, but had to be diverted to Thaton and Moulmein to deal with a new situation there. By this time, isolated communal clashes between the Burmese and Karens had already taken place, and the Karen Union Military Police of these two towns had taken the law into their own hands.
At this junction, the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO), at least ten thousands strong and expanding, was like an atomic energy, in the position of any big power, that can be put in use for both peace or war. Being purely a professional soldier and true to my oath of allegiance, I wanted to use them for peace.
So I put up a proposal to the Prime Minister (U Nu), who was also the Defense Minister then, that I could make use of KNDO, if the PM agreed, to reoccupy and garrison the areas where I could not meet with my regular troops, taking full responsibility for their loyalty and reliability.
The Prime Minister agreed, and thus the KNDOs were given several tasks in forming an outer ring of defense for Rangoon. Most important of all was the reoccupation of Twante town, a riverine gate to the Delta towns and Upper Burma both to and from Rangoon.
But U Nu’s government had never made that agreement public knowledge and so the visible surrounding of Rangoon by heavily-armed KNDO forces was alarmingly seen by the Burmese in Rangoon as a major threat to them. This is what General Smith-Dun wrote in his book:
Meanwhile the Burmese press, not knowing exactly what arrangement the Defense Department had with the KNDO of Insein and Twante, came out with startling news about KNDO plan to gain and seize power in order to fulfill a demand for a Karen state. Many wild rumors and stories against the KNDO and the Karens in general appeared almost daily in Burmese newspapers.
And Kyaw Nyein’s Socialists used that public paranoia to advance their aim of total elimination of conservative forces in general and the Karen in particular. But they had to eliminate other enemy Communists in the army first.
Socialist Purge in the Army
The newly formed Burmese Army was informally grouped into three factions according to their ideological inclinations towards three main political groupings: Conservatives, Socialists and Communists. At the beginning in 1946 Bo Let Yar, the Deputy Army Chief, was with the Conservatives and the Karen in the army, Bo Ne Win the CO of Fourth Burma Rifle was the leader of the Socialists, and Bo Ze Ya the CO of Fifth Burma Rifle was the leader of the Communists. There were three of the most senior members of Aung San’s famous Thirty Comrades.
By independence in January 1948, Let Yar became the Defense Minister, Ne Win one of two Deputy Army Chiefs, and Ze Ya was the most senior General Staff Officer (GSO 1). In July 1948 immediately after the defection of large pro-Communist faction of PVO to the CPB the army’s leftwing factions led by Ne Win and Ze Ya started their move against Let Ya-led Conservatives in the army.
This is the translated extract from Myat Htan’s (Colonel Tin Maung) Book. By then he was the major commanding the Second Company of Sixth Burma Rifle stationed in Pegu about 50 miles north of Rangoon.
Every night representatives from most (Burma Rifles) battalions met in Rangoon. Not many people. Just about ten led by General Ne Win and Colonel Ze Ya. I had to attend the meetings as the representative of Sixth Burma Rifles. By 7 pm every night we would gather ready for the meeting.
Then General Ne Win would arrive and explain to us what was happening in the politics of Burma that day. He would also let us know what he had discussed with the politicians that day and consult with us for what should happen in the near future. Every night was the meeting, night after night.
Under pressure from them Bo Let Ya resigned and PM U Nu had temporarily taken the Defense portfolio. So they asked U Nu through Home Minister Kyaw Nyein to choose either Ne Win or Ze Ya as the Defense Minister even though the conservatives in the army were strongly against one of them two leftists taking Defense Minister position.
Without Kyaw Nyein’s knowledge they (Thein Phe Myint, Ne Win, and Ze Ya) had decided that if U Nu rejected their demand the leftwing factions of the army would stage a coup and replace his Socialist-dominated AFPFL Government with another left-wing government led by the Left Unity Alliance.
Chaired by General Ne Win, the Alliance was the loosely formed coalition of Socialists, PVOs, anti-civil-war Communists, and left-leaning Army officers to counter against a possible coup by the conservatives-led security forces. Their political leader was Thein Phe Myint the former secretary-general of CPB now rebelling in the jungle.
This translated and edited extract is from the book Saturday Born the autobiography of former PM U Nu:
One day in July 1948 Home Minister U Kyaw Nyein came and saw me. He said the situation is quite critical now. So I asked how. He said both Bo Ne Win and Bo Ze Ya were demanding to appoint one of them the defense minister, whoever you like.
I was really angry at them for blackmailing us when the country was in such troubles. And the Socialist Party leaders knew that if I refused to appoint either Ne Win or Ze Ya the Defense Minister some thing dangerous would happen.
But I still told Kyaw Nyein that I didn’t like such demands and I would not appoint any one of them. Let them do whatever they wanted. We still had our people behind us. We could organize the people and counter their threats. With overwhelming public support we could fight back the army, I told him.
And for some reason Kyaw Nyein cried there with tears rolling down his cheeks. I loved him very much as a trusted right hand man and seeing him cry for whatever reason really hurt my feelings. So finally I told him to bring them to see me. He was then delighted for he knew I was in his hands by then.
Kyaw Nyein then went on one step farther and told me he wanted Bo Ne Win to be the Defense Minister as Ne Win’s Fourth Burma Rifles was the only battalion our Government could trust. He was right though. Out of the whole Burmese Army the only battalion the government could rely on was the Fourth Burma Rifles. So I said YES to him.
At 3 pm same day they came. Bo Ne Win, Bo Ze Ya, two or three army officers, Thein Phe, U Kyaw Nyein, and some other Socialist leaders. They were all seated in the ministerial meeting room and they all stood up when I entered the room. There I saw a big revolver on the belt of one officer and the sight of gun made my blood boil.
But I managed to calm myself down and asked Bo Ne Win and Bo Ze Ya to repeat their demand. They didn’t answer but their representative (Communist) Thein Phe (The political leader of their Left Unity Alliance) told me to appoint one out of them two as the Defense Minister. So far it was okay and I was thinking I should just pick Bo Ne Win as my promise to Kyaw Nyein.
But Thein Phe wouldn’t stop there. He said he could give me only three days to consider their demand. I just snapped and told them I didn’t even need 3 minutes and I would appoint neither one of them two. If they didn’t like my decision just kill me with the revolver on that officer’s belt. And I kicked them all out.
While I was walking up and down trying to calm myself down in my office the telephone rung. The caller was Bo Let Yar and he begged me to see Bo Ze Ya ASAP. So I saw Bo Ze Ya downstairs at my house. He asked me to appoint him as Defense Minster but I bluntly told him NO.
I immediately called Kyaw Nyein to let him know about Bo Ze Ya’s visit and he sounded really happy. He yelled on phone ‘Victory’. When I asked him why, he just replied that he would explain me the details later.
Later I found out he immediately called Bo Ne Win and told him what Bo Ze Ya had just done. Bo Ne Win was really angry and called Bo Ze Ya and so he had to confess that he went to U Nu alone and asked to appoint him the Defense Minster. Then was the end of their Left Unity Alliance. The irreconcilable split of the Communists and the Socialists in the Burmese army. (Exactly what Kyaw Nyein had wanted all along!)
That night Bo Ze Ya and one-half of Third Burma Rifle led by their Communist CO Lt. Colonel Ye Htut joined the Communist rebellion. The other half stayed back as their leader the Deputy CO Major Chit Myaing was not a Communist and he was loyal to Bo Ne Win.
We were really lucky then. For if they were not split into two that battalion could easily enter Rangoon and capture me and the ministers like hapless animals and declare themselves the military government. We had only a platoon of UMP and a section of Chin soldiers as my bodyguards.
This next translated extract is from Myat Htan’s book. He had written in details about what happened exactly at the last one of their regular meetings of army’s unified leftwing on that faithful day.
That night we had to wait for Bogyoke Ne Win and Bo Ze Ya for a while. Then Bo Ze Ya came in with a long face and we all asked him what happened. He just softly replied that he wasn’t that well. Then we heard the car and soon Bogyoke Ne Win came in with an angry face.
Then he sat beside Bo Ze Ya and stared at him for a while. Seconds after seconds, the whole room was dead quiet and we young blokes were scared and didn’t really know how to react. Bogyoke suddenly asked, ‘Bo Ze Ya, what did you do today, tell me?’
‘What did I do?’ replied softly Bo Ze Ya.
Bogyoke turned back to us and said, ‘Bo Ze Ya here went to U Nu and Bo Let Yar today and asked the Defense Minister position. That is not good. We are doing all together here for the good of the country and he has to go in from behind for his own benefit. What’s the point of doing anything? No point at all!’
He then stood up and told us to go home and then he left disappointed. That night was the last of our daily meetings.
This is another translated (edited) extract from Myat Htan’s book. He had written in details about what happened on the day the Burma Rifle Battalions took to the jungle after the Ne Win/ Ze Ya split.
On 18 August 1948 our CO Lt Colonel Tin Oo called me to his house and told me to go to Rangoon tomorrow. He said the army was to join the Communists in the jungle and my job was to go see the people from the Third Burma Rifles for discussion.
The whole army, I asked him. He said he didn’t know. How about Bogyoke Ne Win, I asked him again. He answered he didn’t know that also. Only thing we were sure was if we decided to join the mutiny we didn’t really need to go to the jungle as the Third and our Sixth could just take over Rangoon and declare our intent.
So I drove to Third Burma Rifles in Mingaladon next morning. There I avoided the CO Lt. Colonel Ye Htut for knowing that he would definitely urge me to join the mutiny. I went straight to Major San Yu and asked his and 2IC Major Chit Myaing’s positions.
He just said they were not joining. He also told me Bogyoke Ne Win was against it and I immediately knew what to do. As I tried to go back to my battalion in Pegu the CO Lt. Colonel Ye Htut saw me and called me into his office and bluntly asked me the position of our Sixth Burma Rifle. I calmly answered him as Bogyoke wasn’t in it we would not be joining the mutiny.
But he forced me to get on his jeep to go see Bo Ze Ya in a small concrete banglo in the wood just next to the battalion compound. Bo Ze Ya was sitting on the polished floor and beside him was U Thein Phe Myint. Once Bo Ye Htut told him that my battalion wouldn’t be in his rebellion Bo Ze Ya asked U Thein Phe to explain me the reasons for the rebellion.
U Thein Phe then sat very close to me and spent nearly half an hour lecturing me why I should join them in the rebellion. But whatever he said just went through me as if a Chinese was listening an Indian song. In my head I was only thinking I must go back to my battalion, I must go back to the battalion, repeatedly. He couldn’t convince me at all.
Finally they let me go as I told them I had to discuss the matter with my CO back in Pegu and we would reply that evening. Of course we completely ignored them. That night half of Third Burma Rifles led by Bo Ye Htut took to the jungle together with Colonel Ze Ya. Some troops and a couple of officers from our Sixth joined them. The whole First Burma Rifles from Thayet Myo also joined the mutiny on the same day.
Out of all (former BNA) Burmese troops only half of Third, Fourth, Fifth, and Sixth Burma Rifles were left with the Government.
This translated and edited extract is from the book Kyaw Nyein by Thein Phe Myint. He basically summed up the whole drama of the Communist/Socialist split in the army:
The dream of some of our Left Unity Council was to stage a coup first and then call for peace with the CPB. We could then form a left-unity coalition government with the CPB. All the leftist figures from Kyaw Nyein to Than Htun were to be included.
That idea was widely accepted and they also got me into it by saying Bo Ne Win would stage the coup and I as a political leader could keep the purposes of left unity, peace, and political aims intact. I also started dreaming for that grand vision.
But when we tried to materialize that dream Bo Ne Win refused to participate and for that reason alone many battalions and their COs pulled out of the coup plan. Finally I also decided to quit. Bo Ye Htut had tears on his cheeks when he took to the jungle with his troops from the Third Burma Rifles.
This extract is from the interview Major Chit Myaing had with the Burma Debate in Washington. He went straight to Ne Win soon after Bo Ye Htut and his men took to the jungle that day:
It was nearly daybreak when I arrived home. I took my car out and drove straight to Bogyoke Ne Win’s house to explain what had happened. The General remarked, ‘Now we know who is black and who is white.’
From there Bogyoke and I went to Prime Minister U Nu’s residence. We had to wake the Prime Minister. We reported the situation to him and the Prime Minister told me not to worry. He advised us to report the situation to U Kyaw Nyein who was at that time the minister for home affairs.
When we arrived at U Kyaw Nyein’s residence, we found U Ba Swe and Bo Aung Gyi of the socialist party also waiting to hear from us. U Kyaw Nyein asked who was the brain behind Bo Ye Htut. I said that was U Thein Pe Myint of the communist party.
That day August 10, 1948, if I had decided to join Bo Ye Htut and Bo Ze Ya, the 3rd Burma Rifles could have easily taken over U Nu’s government.
Kyaw Nyein later arrested his close friend Thein Phe Myint and kept him in jail for more than a year for persuading Bo Ze Ya, Bo Ne Win, and their men to stage a coup, and for forcing some of them to rebel after his plan had failed when Ne Win suddenly refused to obey him after that ugly split with Bo Ze Ya.
U Nu also wrote that Kyaw Nyein was really angry at Thein Phe Myint for destroying his plan to put Ne Win in charge of the security forces as the Defense Minister. Thein Phe was released by his close friend Kyaw Nyein a year later only after he wrote in desperation to U Nu that he would stage a hunger strike in the prison.
Ze Ya and Ne Win split or the split of Communist and Socialists in the army paved the way for the complete control of Burma by Kyaw Nyein’s Burma Socilaist Party under the banner of U Nu led AFPFL. The removal of Bo Let Yar and Bo Ze Ya and later General Smith Dun had placed the Burmese army under Ne Win who would never let go of that complete control of Burmese armed forces till he was put under house arrest by his own officers led by General Than Shwe in 1995.
After the powerful Communist faction inside the army was totally gutted the victorious Socialist-Party-boss Kyaw Nyein and his seemingly-obedient wardog Ne Win turned their attentions and their guns on the Conservatives both inside and outside of the army.
Released in London on 17 May 1945 the White Paper, the official British plan for postwar Burma, called for a minimum 3 year reconstruction period under British rule as per the 1937 Burma Constitution. This extract is from the June 1945 Far Eastern Survey’s article “White Paper on Burma” by Alice Thorner:
The terms of the White Paper offer Burma ‘full self-government within the British Commonwealth’ to be attained in three stages.
For the first of these, lasting approximately three years, Burma is to be governed according to the emergency administration proclaimed in 1942, liberalized by the addition of an executive council which may include non-official Burmese, and possibly also by a legislative council.
By or before December 9, 1948, it is hoped that a general election can be held and constitutional government under the act of 1935 restored. During this second period the Burmese are to draw up a constitution and discuss with the British Government matters in which the British would retain control after independence, such as the administration of the Shan States and other tribal areas.
The third stage, for which no date seems to have been given, is complete Burmese self-government within the Commonwealth limited by the safeguards mentioned above.
The leftwing-nationalist AFPFL strongly rejected the White Paper, demanding nothing less than complete independence outside the British Commonwealth while the conservatives and moderates and the independents on the other side of Burmese politics were willing to consider and enter into negotiations with the British. But as we all knew they lost and Burma gained complete independence in 4 January 1948 and immediately the chaotic civil war erupted between the ruling Socialists and the Communists.
As Kyaw Nyein had outlined as one of his six major problems, almost all British-trained civil servants in the bureaucracy and the British-trained military officers in the armed-forces and police were, in principle, against the Socialist government. And they sought actively to topple the elected AFPFL government. This translated extract is from the book Kyaw Nyein by Thein Phe Myint:
Meanwhile (in April 1948) an important ultimatum was put forward by the top echelon of the administrative machinery and the security apparatus. The National Security Council comprising Defense Minister Bo Letya, Army Chief Karen Smith-Dun, Police Chief U Htun Hla Aung, and Home Secretary U Kasi and other senior figures from the administration had decided to urge the PM U Nu to form a caretaker government without Socialists and PVOs.
Their reason was that the cause of the Communist rebellion and the Karens being restless and near-revolt was mainly because of their hatred of Socialists. They would calm down once the government with no Socialist politicians was formed.
But We including Kyaw Nyein knew their decision was part of the plan to sideline the Constituent Assembly (temporary parliament) and stage a coup by the army, police, and administration. General Smith-Dun and Police Chief Htun Hla Aung were even preparing (the detail actions) according to that plan at the meetings of High Ranking Officers from both army and police in Meikhtila.
Kyaw Nyein had known it from some of his police officers. We also knew the foreign minister U Tin Htut was together with their National Security Council as the foreign ministry is very important in this sort of business (staging a coup).
So we formed a leftwing alliance and called it the Left Unity Council. Bo Ne Win was Chairman and I was the Secretary. The Socialists, PVOs, anti-civil war Communists, and left-leaning Army officers were in it. Kyaw Nyein was the Socialist Party’s representative.
Even though the conservative alliance controlled the security forces they were rather gentlemen professionals compared to the politically-savvy thugs from the left alliance and so the three conservative leaders were brutally removed from the political stage.
The first to go was U Tin Htut the foreign minister and the Inspector General of the Union Auxiliary Forces the quickly-formed conservative paramilitary (Tin Htut’s Levies) to counter Kyaw Nyein’s levies Sitwundan and Ne Win’s Burma Rifles. This extract is from the book A Twentieth Century Burmese Matriarch written by Khin Thida, the only daughter of Police Chief Htun Hla Aung:
New problems of job insecurity for professional and semi-professional government, civil and military personnel compounded the (worsening) situation, as the politicians in power began replacing ex-colonial servants with their own ‘patriots’, branding the former as ‘British stooges’.
While these conflicts and tensions were building up, another political assassination occurred in December 1948. U Tin Htut was killed and the assassins never apprehended. He was the most senior civil administrator, the first Burman to be admitted to the Indian Civil service.
PM U Nu had sent my father to the Delta (Bassein) on some official duty before assassination. He was told by U Nu to go deal with a problem that had arisen out of Rangoon, and when he told U Nu that he would send one of his deputies to look into it, U Nu said, ‘no, you go yourself, I tell you to’.
And while he was out of town, U Tin Htut was assassinated. He found upon return that the CID investigation was receiving little cooperation from the (AFPFL) government. Suspicions and rumours abounded and my father soon found himself a target of AFPFL antagonism, as he delved deeper into the investigation.
In 1980 the founding-editor of Kye Mone (The Mirror) newspaper U Thaung (Aung Bala) wrote a book on General Ne Win. By then he was living in self-imposed exile in the United States. This translated extract is from that book Ne Win’s Mess:
When I was just a reporter in our ‘Burma Era’ newspaper, I was once trying to write a weekly series on my suspicion about Ne Win’s involvement in many assassinations. When I asked permission from our chief-editor U Ohn Khin he stopped me and said, “Didn’t you see what happened to U Tin Htut and U Htun Hla Aung? Don’t do anything and just shut your mouth.”
U Ohn Khin then continued, “Once I ran into Ne Win and he asked me if I wanted to know who killed Tin Htut. He tried to scare me by threatening me. You know I am not that easily scared. But for you it is quite dangerous to write something right now. Just keep the notes in a safe place. One day you will get a chance to write.”
After U Tin Htut next to go was General Smith-Dun the first Commander-in-Chief of the Burmese Army. Once Karen rebellion began after the atrocities committed by the Socialist Levies the government simply forced him to take long leave and put Ne Win in his place. They even tried hard to kill him in an ambush on his way to the airport in Rangoon. This is what he wrote in his autobiography Memoirs of the Four Foot Colonel:
When news of the (UMP and Sitwundan) attacks on Ahlone and Thamaing (Karen quarters) reached the Karen troops at Mingaladon, most of them pushed off to defend their kith and kin in those areas. The shooting war continued and spread to Insein and also to many other districts.
Under the circumstances it was impossible for me to remain in office, and therefore I resigned that very morning. There was a offer of long leave and full pay etc. But I just wouldn’t take it and resigned, and went on my self-imposed exile at Myitkyina in Kachin State where there are few Karens and Burmese.
Early next morning I sent my ADC to the airfield not far from my residence, to make sure that everything was laid on for my journey. The ADC went up and down the runway in his jeep several times without any untoward incident. At about 7 a.m. I and my family started from the house in two vehicles. The ADC in his own jeep led the convoy on same route that he had been on an hour or so ago.
As soon as my car arrived in the middle of the runway every weapon guarding the airfield seemed to open up on us, including 2 rounds of 2” mortars. I ordered my driver to turn round and run the gauntlet until we appeared out of sight. When we reached a safe place I was more than relieved to see all my household safe and not even a scratch on my 8-seater car.
It was now clear that the act was deliberate, and it was an attempt on my life. The rumour and suspicions which had warned me to be careful now became a reality.
After calling other senior army officers to gather at the airport he managed to overwhelm the Burmese commanding officer of the airport garrison that attacked his convoy and finally he flew out of Rangoon airport. But General Smith-Dun and his family had to land in Maymyo instead of their destination Myitkyina and they had to take their refuge in the house of Brigadier General Kyaw Zaw then the CO of the Burmese Army Northern District.
By then Kyaw Zaw had already disarmed and interned all the Karen officers and men serving under his command. This translated extract is from Brigadier Kyaw Zaw’s Autobiography from the CPB’s website:
General Smith-Dun phoned me from the airport and I went and brought him and his wife to my house. Only then I knew that his family was ambushed near the Rangoon Airport on their way to the airport. It was just pure luck that they had escaped without a scratch.
The General told me that they came to me here in Maymyo by deciding that they should rely on an influential senior Burmese officer during this extremely dangerous time and had chosen me. I told them I happily welcomed them to stay with me as long as they wanted.
Next day some Karen officers came and asked my permission to see the General. So I let them wait in the lounge room and went upstairs to general Smith-Dun and told him that some Karen officers were waiting for him downstairs and also added that they had the impression that I had you under house arrest here, so please tell them it was not so. So he went down and laughingly explained to them the situation.
A few days later he asked me to look for another house for them since they were feeling bad for my family to share our house with them. But I told him that by staying together it is more secure for both of us since if some Burmese wanted to kill you they wouldn’t dare because of me and also if some Karens wanted to harm me they wouldn’t dare to because of your presence here.
General Smith-Dun and family finally arrived at isolated Myitkyina and started his self-imposed-exile away from all the Karen-Burmese troubles. Loyal to the Union of Burma to the end, the old soldier quietly passed away in 1979.
While the former C-in-C of the Burmese army was slowly languishing into oblivion the last remaining leader of now severely-weakened conservatives the police-chief and the Second-in-Charge of Burmese armed-forces Major General Htun Hla Aung was quickly demoted and sent away to London as a lowly military attaché. The following is what Khin Thida wrote of her father’s demotion and subsequent forced-exile in Ceylon:
Wave upon wave of ‘purges’ of top echelon civil, police and army personnel occurred during the later half of the year of independence. The first to go were the Karen General Commanding Officer of the Burma Armed Forces and my father Major General Htun Hla Aung, IGP and Deputy Chief of Staff, both Sandhurst trained. Colonel Ne Win of the Burma National Army, one of the 30 Comrades trained by the Japanese, replaced them.
My father was posted to the newly established Burmese embassy to the Court of St. James as Military Attaché (a low position considering his standing) soon after U Tin Htut’s murder, preventing any further investigation. He told my brother and me that it was better to be demoted and sent into virtual exile than to be the next victim of assassination.
I left Burma in September 1950, part of the second group of Fulbright Fellows, with a stop over in London to see my father. It was a big shock to discover upon arrival that he had left for Burma just the day before. Since taking up his new post, my father’s relationship with the ambassador, a political appointee had been less than amiable and steadily worsened culminating in a confrontation and his immediate resignation. I learned much later that he never reached Rangoon but was stranded in Ceylon.
On his way home by sea and upon arrival in Colombo, Ceylon he received warnings from friends in Government that he would be arrested once he landed in Burma. He was also told that his passport would be seized if he attempted further travel. His only recourse was to seek political asylum in Ceylon, where he lived for next four years with little communication with us. (He stayed in Ceylon and came back only at the time of U Nu’s Buddhist Synod in 1954.)
Within a year after independence the demise of Burmese conservatives was completed and the country would be on the left for more than 40 years until the army staged a coup in 1988 and turned Burma around to march on the right again.
The only obstacles left in the way of the determined Socialist Kyaw Nyein and power-hungry Ne Win were the restless Karen in the form of three Karen Rifle Battalions and various armed-KNDO units.
And they would completely be brutally wiped out in the one-sided, so-called Karen rebellion the Karens did not really want to start. And they would eventually be forced to fight against the majority Burmese for generations.
But more than 60% of the Burmese army then were ethnic troops, and the high-ranking Karen officers dominated the army’s chain of command. And also there were well-armed KNDO forces, more than 10,000 strong, right in Rangoon and the vicinity.
So Burmese Socialist leaders, mainly Kyaw Nyein with the help of Ne Win from the army, countered them by forming their own Burmese paramilitary units outside the Karen-dominated army’s control. Two such forces were Sitwundan and UMP.
UMP and Sitwundan: The Paramilitaries
To protect the Cabinet and AFPFL leaders especially after Aung San’s assassination on 19 July 1947 the UMP (Union Military Police) battalions were raised as armed police battalions under Kyaw Nyein’s Home Ministry. Organizationally similar as the army battalions UMP battalions were equipped only with rifles and GPMGs (General Purpose Machine Guns) and recruited exclusively from the war veterans of Aung San’s PVO.
Two UMP battalions were quickly formed in 1947 and exclusively used in rooting out U Saw’s Galone militia. Also by absorbing three Karen battalions of British Burma Military Police ten UMP battalions in total were raised by the time of Independence in January 1948. The Karen UMP battalions were later found disloyal to the new Union as they deserted and joined their KNDO brothers when Kraen rebellion broke out in January 1949.
Immediately after the Communist rebellion in March 1948 paramilitary police reserve units called Sitwundan (War Servants) were also raised legally under Kyaw Nyein’s Home Ministry as per the power given by the Burma Police Act (1945). More than 150 Burmese officers and other ranks from Fourth and Fifth Burma Rifles loyal to Kyaw Nyein’s Burma Socialist Party were initially attached to the Sitwundan units for organizational and training purposes.
Based and deliberately-recruited locally in the Communist-controlled and Karen-threatened districts throughout Burma, there were thirteen thousand Sitwundan levies in twenty-six battalions by 1949. Grudgingly called Kyaw Nyein Levies, the control and operation of each Sitwundan unit was with the local AFPFL Member of Parliament and these levies simply became the thuggish pocket armies of district-based Socialist politicians. Following is what Kyaw Nyein wrote as the intro for Thein Phe Myint’s book Kyaw Nyein:
The English government was really angry at our government for not joining the British Commonwealth and so they wanted the AFPFL government to fall and put a minority government of Karens and Kachins and rejoin the Commonwealth. So the BSM worked against Burmese government by not selling arms from Bratain. They also encouraged Karens serving in the army and the Union Military Police to join Saw Ba Oo Gyi’s KNDO and start a Karen rebellion.
So while U Nu was buying precious time by softly-softly negotiating with the Karens not to rebel General Ne Win, Major Aung Gyi, and I were recruiting 10,000 armed levies within one or two months. But English wouldn’t sell us guns and Americans also refused to sell too because of the defense agreement between England and Burma. Communist countries wouldn’t sell us arms too since we are in war with Burmese Communists.
We have to thank Nehru for helping us during that serious difficult period. India sold us arms and ammunitions enough for nine full battalions. Otherwise we would be in a serious trouble.
Nheru’s India then had a massive stockpile of .303 Lee Enfield rifles and Bren guns which were leftovers from the British 14th Army and he sold them cheaply to his Socialist mates in the AFPFL government, and in some cases even bartered the guns for Burmese surplus rice to feed starving Indians.
Within a year Burma was horribly flooded with thousands and thousands of deadly Indian rifles and machine guns in the hands of Socialist paramilitaries, and Kyaw Nyein’s levies rapidly turned the tide of war against Communists and eventually turned their Indian guns on their restless Karen Brethren.
Initially Kyaw Nyein and U Nu didn’t really want to fight a racial war. Also the naturally peace-loving Karen didn’t want the civil war knowing very well that they couldn’t really fight a lasting war against the vastly majority Burmese. But our great villain Ne Win was on the war-path while U Nu was eagerly trying to resolve the dangerous standstill by frantic negotiations with KNU Saw Ba Oo Gyi.
Army C-in-C General Smith Dun and his Karen officers were violently against Ne Win even becoming the Defense Minister in U Nu’s Government. Ne Win badly needed an all-out Karen-Burmese war to get rid of his boss General Smith Dun and cleanse all the Karens out of the army so that he would have complete control over the mixed-matched army which would be transformed into a staunch Socialist army after all the purges.
So Ne Win orchestrated the Sitwundan massacres of countless Karen civilians to provoke the KNU/KNDO and finally unleashed his UMP battalions on the KNDO positions at Thamaing and Insein Karen quarters in Rangoon to start the Karen-Burmese war.
There began on 21 January 1949 the real Burmese civil war in which the hapless Karen minority are the main antagonists against the Burmese majority. The Karen cleansing was started on that fateful day by General Ne Win and is still going strong. The Karen have been utterly and indescribably suffering since that day and we Burmese also have been paying dearly for what we have ruthlessly done to our Karen brothers.
The peaceful, prosperous, and law-abiding civil society the British had patiently built in Burma for over a century was now truly dead and the so-called armed democracy where every single politician in power had his very own pocket army of thugs had begun. That struggling democracy did survive for more than a decade until brutally terminated by General Ne Win and his Socialist army in March 1962.
To be continued