The Battle of Insein Never Really Ended
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The Battle of Insein Never Really Ended

By AUNG ZAW Monday, February 9, 2009

A funeral cortege for soldiers who died in the battle.

Captain Tun Tin and his fellow officers of the 5th Burma Rifles were taking a break from ongoing battles with communists and Mujahedeen rebels in Arakan State. When off duty at their barracks, they usually tuned in to the radio for news and light entertainment.

An announcer suddenly broke into the broadcast with the dramatic words: “The Union of Burma is now facing a great danger.” The message was repeated three times and then the radio went off the air.

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Two radio operators, Karen officers named Arthur and George, approached hurriedly and handed an incoming wireless message to Tun Tin. It read: “Attention 5 Burif, repeat Attention 5 Burif. Abandon Arakan, Repeat Abandon Arakan. Troops Dispatch Forthwith, Troops Dispatch Forthwith. Dakota Planes awaiting Akyab Airfield. Ack receipt, repeat Ack receipt.”

Then came the news that rebel soldiers of the Karen National Defense Organization had seized the Rangoon suburb of Insein.

Tun Tin and soldiers immediately left for the Sittwe (Akyab) airfield and boarded the Dakotas, planes of Indonesia’s recently launched Garuda airline, provided by the Indonesian government at the request of the newly formed Burmese government led by President Sao Shwe Thaike and Prime Minister U Nu.

Tun Tin’s commanding officer, Col Saw Myint, later recalled that it was the first time Burmese soldiers were airlifted to a battlefield—in this case, Rangoon.

As soon as he landed at Rangoon airport, Tun Tin half-jokingly told senior officers who briefed him on the Insein emergency: “We’ll go shopping in Insein within four or five days.”

It was January 1949, barely one year after Burma won independence from Britain.

Hostilities between the Karen and Burmans had been escalating since 1948 as Burmese troops tried to disarm Karen soldiers who had fought alongside Britain against the Japanese in World War II. Karen and Burmans shared a history of distrust and the Karen soldiers who had supported the British war effort feared they would be vulnerable to attack by Burmese troops if they surrendered their weapons.

When the Thirty Comrades led by Gen Aung San entered Burma with Japanese troops to liberate Burma from British rule, many Karen continued to support Britain, harassing the Japanese and providing intelligence to the British.

In the Irrawaddy delta region, the Karen population also resisted the new administration backed by the Burma Independence Army (BIA).

A rebellion in the delta was led by Shwe Htun Kya, who—according to Maj Kyaw Zaw, a member of the Thirty Comrades—commanded only about 100 armed men, who had refused to disarm and surrender their weapons. Retreating British officers left Shwe Htun Kya with arms and ammunition and reportedly told him: “We will be back soon. Keep up the resistance.”

Col Suzuki (aka Bo Moe Gyoe), who helped train Aung San and the Thirty Comrades, traveled to Myaungmya to investigate the Karen rebellion.

A Japanese colonel was killed during the mission and Suzuki ordered revenge. In Myaungmya alone, about 150 Karen, including former cabinet minister Saw Pe Tha, were executed by the BIA and Japanese troops.

The Karen retaliated by killing many Burmans.

In his autobiography, Kyaw Zaw acknowledged responsibility for much of the killing in the delta. Entering one town, Phyu, Kyaw Zaw found that 200 people had been killed by the Karen National Defense Organization (KNDO).

The violence spread to Rangoon, where Insein was taken over by the KNDO. Ne Win, the country’s new army chief of staff, removed senior Karen officers from the War Office and called in forces from the north and south.

Kyaw Zaw, a colonel and commander of the northern region, based in Maymyo, was among those recalled to the capital.

He recalled that as soon as he entered the War Office, Ne Win threw down a military map and thundered: “You are now in charge …go and fight the Insein battle.”

Kyaw Zaw replaced Brig General Aung Thinn, who was “permitted to retire” by Ne Win, who was suspicious of the southern commander’s loyalty.

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O Wrote:
It is right. The Battle of Insein has not ended. I don’t see that anybody has won. Myanmar [Burmese] people have lived together with Karen since long ago. Also we will stay together in the future. I think for the last six decades Myanmar and Karen leaders were in controversy about the border line. They can never see that both peoples are difficult to separate.

An ex-naval volunteer Wrote:
Thank you for this interesting article on the Battle of Insein. You may have inadvertently left out a very important event which occurred between February 9 to 13, 1949, which had a direct bearing on the outcome of the battle and perhaps changed the course of history. As a participant of this little-known, long-forgotten episode which I would like to name “The Ambush at Wetkaw,” may I add a few words of my own?
On February 1, 1949, Gen Ne Win took over from Karen Gen Smith Dun who went on leave. The Karens at Insein, believing that time was not on their side, and aware that the well experienced 5th Burma Rifles stationed in Arakan was being airlifted, asked their Second Karen Rifles, the best equipped battalion of our army at that time, stationed at Prome by the government, to rush down and help them at Insein.
This full-strength battalion of over 1,000 professional soldiers rushed down Prome highway in 120 vehicles, spearheaded by an armored carrier and supported by two six-pounder artillery pieces, eight three-inch mortars manned by Gurkha specialists, and with enough ammunition for a brigade to help and rescue their besieged brothers at Insein. They reached Zigon on February 8.
At that time, Brig Kyaw Zaw had not taken charge of our forces. There were no regular government troops to stand up against this elite, battle-hardened Karen battalion. Our only regular troops nearest to Yangon [Rangoon] was the 3rd Burma Rifles, which were stationed at Maubin, Pyapon and Dedaye. And, I should say, half a battalion strength was left, commanded by then Major Chit Myaing as the new Commanding Officer, after the [former] CO, Colonel Ye Htut, had gone underground with half his men to join the Communists.
As Twante Canal was in the hands of the KNDO, ready to block any government troops attempting to transit the canal, the half-strength 3rd Burma Rifles Battalion had to be lifted overnight by inland double-decker steamers via the unused river and sea passage at great risk on February 5, 1949. The battalion consisted of four under-strength infantry companies and was equipped with only four three-inch mortars. A six-pounder scratch gun crew of UTC lads and a volunteer Naval Bofors gun crew which had been supporting our forces at Insein, were hastily organized to provide artillery support.
When this makeshift government force arrived at Gyobingauk on Feb 9, the bridge at Wetkaw, a few miles south of Zigon, had already been abandoned by government Levies and armed UMPs. In the early morning of Feb 10, the mechanized Force of the Second Karen Rifles crossed Wetkaw bridge at leisure and commenced to make a dash for Yangon, fully confident that there were no government forces or Guns strong enough to oppose them all the way to Insein, and felt quite invincible.
Fortunately for the government, the element of surprise was with the government forces. The Naval Bofors gun mounted on wheels, which is capable of firing 40-mm shells at 120 rounds/minute, stood on the road in their way and opened fire point-blank at 500 yards, knocking out their armored carrier and also damaging one of the six-pounder guns. This action was totally unexpected by the Karen Forces who neglected to position a scouting patrol in front.
For next two days there were attacks and counter-attacks, and exchanges of mortar fire between the two forces, until the naval Bofors found a clear position to directly shell the insurgent vehicles, which demoralized them completely.
On Feb 13, the Karen Forces with their families abandoned all their vehicles and heavy equipment and attempted to escape towards the Pegu Yomas. Both second-in-command and the CO were captured however. In the recently written words of a historian of the Karen struggle “... thus came the end of the very first and perhaps, most important phase of the Karen struggle.”
Anyone who is reading this may ponder what would have happened in the course of history if the “Ambush at Wetkaw” had not taken place on Feb 10, 1949. I myself could not help thinking yesterday when I visited the Bridge at Wetkaw and the site of this action on the 60th anniversary to pay homage to the comrades –in-arms of both forces who are no longer with us.

Keith Dahlberg Wrote:
When I first studied Burmese in 1957, near Tharawaddy, I remember passing a Burma Air Force base at Hmawbi, only 20 miles north of Insein. Did it not exist in 1949 or were the Karen forces closer in?

Kanbawza win Wrote:
The Irrawaddy—both in printed and electronic magazines—has been considered one of the best of the Burmese publications, both by the people of Burma and the international community. But reading the above article we have some reservations, not only for its journalistic ethics but also of the magazine’s mission. It chooses to highlight only a fraction of the true story where it narrows in on the heroism and sacrifices of the Burman, even though mention was made [about the Chin]: “The most decisive role in defending Insein was played by the 1st, 2nd and 3rd Chin Rifles, fighting on what is regarded as the most strategic battle front of all.”

It would be ridiculous to level the famed and honorable magazine, as harboring the “Mahar Bamar” attitude—even though it is dominated by Burmans and “farang” [Westerners]—when it mentioned that “Tun Tin noted that soldiers from different regions of Burma such as Kayah, Kachin and Gurkha helped to defend Rangoon.” But the fact that most of the ethnic nationalities armies rally behind the Burmese army is because they loved and believed in “Pyidaungsu” (the Union of Burma), the alternative being Communism or one major ethnic group lording over it.

Ethnic nationalities still cherished the dream of Bogyoke Aung San who initiated the union spirit. The supreme sacrifices made by the Chin and the Kachin soldiers that fought tooth and nail in the Battle of Insein was so intense that U Nu’s daughter, who fell in with a young Chin captain, was promised marriage if Rangoon was saved, even though the promise was never kept.

Now all the ethnic armies are fighting against the Myanmar [Burman]-dominated tatmadaw [Burmese army]. Why? It was rather paradoxical to witness that the KNU was been belittled at its 60th anniversary. Instead we should concentrate on a Federal Democratic Union of Burma, where all the ethnic nationalities, including the Karen, have consented to live within the union since the 1970s. It would be more beneficial if one of The Irrawaddy`s aims would be to close the gap between the ethnics and the pro-democracy fighters.

Pe Than Maung Wrote:
When Insein was occupied by the KNDO, they were confronted by: (1) hastily trained students from Myoma High School, the University of Rangoon, Faculty of Medicine; (2) Communist and PVO troops; (3) Burmese navy, Burmese Air Force with Oxford Trainers and fire extinguisher bombs. The Chin troops commanded by Brig Blake arrived a few days later and started the offensive against the KNDO. The Burmese Navy also shelled Insein from the Hlaing River. When the Burma Rifles arrived, the offensive was well on its way.

kanyaw Wrote:
Very nice story. It makes me recall memories. Many soldiers from different regions (including non-Burmese) helped the govt protect Rangoon. What did they get? Finally they were systematically destroyed by the govt. How stupid. Now they all know how the junta is (before and now), and why the Karen are fighting for justice and freedom. During that time, there were a lot of educated Karen people. They knew what would happen. But, until now we can’t get unity among the Karen, opposition groups and the other different races. It will still be too far from our dreams. However, one day, if we are united, our dream will come true, surely.

Pe Nyun Wrote:
I miss that gentleman soldier of the Burma army. A rare specimen among the thugs. I heard a few of his episodes while playing golf in BGC and Maymyo. Perhaps [he’s] the only person in the tatmadaw who often recites and quotes Shakespeare. Even after I left the country, he would call me up from Singapore or run across in Washington. I would say he is apolitical soldier. It’s a pity he's getting on too much to lead.

Khin Maung Tar Wrote:
Can you tell me the intention of this article?

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