The Battle of Insein Never Really Ended
By AUNG ZAW Monday, February 9, 2009

(Page 2 of 3)

Aung Tin fought with the British General Orde Wingate and was a close friend of the charismatic Karen leader Saw Ba U Gyi.

The Battle of Insein began, with the War Office issuing the order: “Not to retreat one inch from your position.”

All roads into Rangoon were blocked by Karen soldiers and only the air route was open for government reinforcements.

The Karen rebels had earlier raided Mingaladon Air Force base and seized ammunition, although they did not take over the airport. If Karen forces had taken the airport, government reinforcements from Arakan would not have been able to land in Rangoon. They would have taken weeks to arrive by sea, and by then Rangoon would have been under Karen control.

In their books, Tun Tin, Kyaw Zaw and Saw Myint maintained that if Rangoon had been taken by the rebels Burma would again fall prey to imperialist slavery under colonialist rule.

Kyaw Zaw and Tun Tin believed that Britain bore part of the blame for the fighting between Karen and Burman. The irony was that Tun Tin and his officers later traveled to London and studied there, learning the “four cuts” British warfare strategy which would later defeat Burma’s ethnic insurgents.

The Battle of Insein failed to have a serious effect on daily life in Rangoon. The city’s cinemas were still showing up to four programs a day and schools remained open.

Movie stars and musicians performed for the troops on the Insein front line, where soldiers requested encores with the plea: “Before we die in the battle, could you please sing one more song!”

Karen snipers commanding strategic positions gave government forces a hard time. Tun Tin recalled telling his men in the face of a fierce Karan attack: “We will never surrender, we will leave our bones here but we will never surrender.”

As Karen soldiers advanced and snipers took their toll, Tun Tin whipped up the morale of his men by climbing from the trenches and urging them on.

Ne Win, an army commander at the time, recalled in the book “Burma and General Ne Win,” written by the scholar Dr Maung Maung, who was briefly president in 1988:

“Once, a troop of men in front of Insein would not move on order to attack. They had grown weary and battle-shy. Tun Tin, their leader, jumped up from the trench and walked up and down with a little swagger telling the men that death would not come until one’s time is up.” Bullets whizzed round like him bees, but he remained untouched. The men then rose and marched forward to attack with Tun Tin leading them.”

Tun Tin was decorated and received the title of “Thura” for his bravery. Others who were awarded medals included Aung San Thuriya and Thiha Thuriya.

Kyaw Zaw, who had previously known only guerrilla warfare, described the Battle of Insein as his “first military academy.” He lost many officers and men in the battle, describing Insein as a graveyard littered with corpses. On the battlefield, he met Col Kyi Maung, who later became a prominent leader of Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy.

Ceasefire talks between Karen leader Saw Ba U Gyi and Burmese commanders were mediated by Indian diplomats, but the truce broke down after three days. It was a surrealistic break in the fighting—Karen soldiers were even allowed into Rangoon to watch movies.

The government used the pause to bring reinforcements from upper Burma aboard Garuda aircraft. The Karen found themselves short of ammunition and with no open lines for supplies or reinforcements. The fighting resumed.

During breaks in the fighting, Tun Tin and his officers roamed Rangoon and spent time in a hotel in Fraser Street, now renamed Anawrahta Street. The former colonial-era student prayed at Shwedagon Pagoda for victory, pledging to save the union from disintegration and his motherland’s “fragile independence.”

Although some foreign historians have depicted the Battle of Insein as a conflict between Burman troops and Karen rebels, Tun Tin noted that soldiers from different regions of Burma helped to defend Rangoon.

They included Chin, Kayah, Shan, Gurkha and Kachin battalions (though some Kachin took up arms against the U Nu government).

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. Some insurgents, including communists, reinforced Burmese forces before going back to the jungle to repel Burmese troops.

The battle lasted 112 days, finally ending in May 1949.  About 500 Karen soldiers and civilians died.

Fifteen major actions were fought before the Karen began to withdraw from Insein at the end of April.

Tun Tin observed the retreat through his binoculars and noted it was calm and impressive. He had to wait before fulfilling that ambition to go shopping in Insein, however.

In a visit to Insein hospital, he saw Karen nurses led by Dr Saw Marcus Paw treating wounded Karen soldiers, singing as they worked.

An Arakanese medic with the Burmese Army, Dr Htun Aung Kyaw, offered to help the Karen medical team.

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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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