Karen Revolution Day – Book Excerpt

Excerpt from my forthcoming book ‘A Just Country – The Karen of Burma: Nationalism and Conflict’

Saw Ba U Gyi U NuChapter 5 – The Struggle Begins


Regardless of the fact that the Karen were finding themselves the targets of the local Police force, the Burmese Government, fearing the KNU’s ever increasing strength and no doubt fearful of Karen reprisals, decided to act against the KNU and the KNDO, whose numbers according to one source, had swelled to over 10,000 armed men. [1] Amid a background of contorted newspapers reports detailing mysterious foreign planes dropping weapons to the KNDO for a takeover of Rangoon and the continuing ethnic disturbances throughout the country, U Nu began to mobilize a political militia, the Sitwundans. These he then placed under the direct control of then deputy Commander-in-Chief Ne Win to counter the power of the KNU and his own armed force’s Karen leadership.

A number of inflammatory disturbances soon occurred between local KNDO units and Sitwundan forces stationed in the main Karen area of Insein, north of Rangoon. Here large numbers of KNDO troops had been relocated to avoid further conflict with the government and with the possibility of disbanding them and returning them to their villages. In August 1948 it appeared that Insein, nine miles north of Rangoon, was about to be captured by the communists and the Burmese government was more than happy to have the KNDO garrisoned in the area to release the pressure on Government forces. However, by the end of the year reports began to be filed with the Insein police that the KNDO units were responsible for ‘high-handedness against the Burmese community, and a few cases of dacoity and robbery.[2] In addition, the Sitwundans themselves were also alleged to have abused the local Karen including at one point threatening to exterminate them. [3]

Even prior to the Christmas massacre, the severity of the ethnic tensions had become apparent. Shots and mortar shells had been fired into the Karen quarters in Insein on 29 December, the then eve of Karen New Year. Less than three weeks later on both 22 January and the next morning, an armoured car drove through Thamaing Karen quarters strafing the area with indiscriminate gunfire. Mortar shells were also reported as being randomly fired into the area. In one such, incident a woman was seriously injured. [4]  Such episodes were not confined to Insein but were widespread. One such incident was reported by the Burmese daily ‘The Nation’ on 16 January and described how 150 Karen had lost their lives when a Union Military Police (UMP) unit, commanded by Bo Sein Hman, a former cabinet minister and second in command of the PVO, attacked a village in Taikkyi township. The KNDO retaliated by raiding the treasury in Maubin only to then see the 4th Burma rifles raze an American missionary school in a retaliation.[5]

No longer able to tolerate such flagrant abuses against Karen communities, Lt Colonel Min Maung the Taungoo born commander of the 1st Karen rifles and holder of the British Military Cross, purportedly at the behest of Saw Ba U Gyi, seized control of Taungoo and Tantabin on 27 January 1949, the next day, Pyu, was also taken. Bassein, 200 miles away was unsuccessfully attacked by another KNDO unit commanded by Saw Jack.

The Sitwundans immediately attempted to disarm the KNDOs, in what many believe may have been a pre-conceived plan by Deputy Commander-in-Chief, Ne Win. Ne Win, who had been trained by the Kempeitei and was one of the original thirty comrades, attended a meeting held by Smith-Dun and his deputies, Let-Ya and Kyadoe, to discuss Alhone Karen quarters which had earlier been searched for weapons and torched. Ne Win on entering the room had:

‘…listened quite attentively, but at the end had got up and said ‘if only the Karen had started two months ago it would be alright for them. Not now,’ and left.’[6]

Smith-Dun, the Karen Commander-in-Chief, in an attempt to put an end to what threatened to be open communal warfare, arranged for a meeting between Saw Ba U Gyi and U Nu it was set to take place on the 31P January at 12 noon. The appointment was not to be met for that morning at 6:30, Thamaing Karen quarters was again attacked by the Sitwundans using automatic weapons, Bren Guns and Mortars. The Karen Affairs Officer for the area, J Poo Nyo, phoned Smith-Dun immediately. The army commander then contacted the Prime Minister to find out who had authorised the attack. U Nu had replied:

‘…that he was going to contact someone whom he named, who was no other than Dun’s deputy [Ne Win]. So it must be presumed that Dun’s deputy was actually conducting that particular operation which started the wholesale shooting war between the Karen and the Burmese. Whatever the motives of the authors of these communal clashes, they had achieved their objectives, but at the cost of many hundreds and thousands of lives, both Karen and Burmese, especially those living in the outlying districts and villages. When news of the attacks on Alhone and Thamaing 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 these circumstances, it was impossible for Dun to remain in office, and therefore he [Smith-Dun] resigned that very morning. There was an offer of long leave and full pay etc. But Dun just wouldn’t take it and resigned, and went on his self-imposed exile to Myitkyina in the Kachin State where there are few Karen and Burmese.’ [7]

Many of the Karen believe that the racial animosity and provocation was planned deliberately by Ne Win who had already decided to wipe out the Karen before the outbreak of rebellion. This belief was further substantiated by an army document that was allegedly found in Meiktila, in 1949, which contained detailed information on the history, structure and aims of the KNU, and population figures of Karen towns and villages, including officials and military strength.[8] It was this document that formed the basis for what became known as ‘Operation Aung San’. The order apparently signed by Colonel Maung Maung, Major Mya Thein, and Major Thein Doke, which reportedly contained the instruction that,

‘All Karen armed personnel of the Army, Police, Military Police, and armed Karen forces in upper Burma, along with Armed Foresters, and Karen Leaders in all ranks in every town and village were to be rounded up and their personal movements and activities were to be watched.’[9]

The existence of the document has often been provided as the evidential basis for a Burman pogrom of the Karen and also other ethnic groups including the Kachin, Shan, Chin and Pa-O.[10]

Sgaw Ler Taw, who had translated and distributed the letter to a number of individuals, and on whose letter the quoted order is based, is said to have lost all his records and till this day there is still no copy of the document to be seen.

Despite this, the document has provided the basis for the belief, especially among the Karen, that the Burman majority were intent on systematically wiping out the ethnic groups.[11] While there is little doubt that racial animosities throughout the period were leading to large scale bloodshed it must be noted, that if the quote is correct, the document, issued at the time of ethnic insurrection, merely calls for containment in the same way that the U.S. Military interned the Japanese during World War II.

Even now other documents pertaining to what the Karen still believe to be a Burma Army agenda of ethnic cleansing still continue to materialize. One such text records the death-bed instructions’ of Burman nationalist Thakin Kodaw Hmine and is a diatribe against a number of ethnic groups suggesting that all are untrustworthy and that only the Burmans have their rightful place in Burma. According to point three of this document:

‘The Karen, we cannot put our trust in them. They have the policy of doing what they say. This is one kind of enemy. Do not provide improvement for them. They act without hesitation. In case of lack of vigilance beware. We Burmese will have trouble breathing.’ [12]

Whether a number of Burman nationalists had actually engineered the ethnic war can never be proven. If such an aim was someone’s hidden intentions then they were successful. The attack on Thamaing was repelled by a number of KNDO support units who had been mobilized throughout Insein and surrounding areas including Taungthugon Karen quarters, where Mahn Ba Zan lived. His house at the time was probably serving as the KNU/KNDO headquarters. The battle had begun and it was not long after, 2 February 1949, before the Burmese Government declared the KNDO illegal. The Sitwundans reacted immediately – torching Karen areas including, once again, Alhone. Crime reporter and journalist, U Thaung, recalls his experiences there on 2 February:

‘…Alhone was set ablaze. Fire engines were prevented from reaching there. Karen nationals rushing out of their burning homes were shot down. I arrived there as soon as permission was granted.

Dead bodies were everywhere in the streets. Many of them were children and young girls. It was a totally different scene from the public executions [he had reported on]. In the public executions the faces of the dead were covered with masks, here they were uncovered. The square jaw was the outstanding characteristic of the beauty of Karen girls and I used to idolize them. So many girls with the feature I loved were lying on the streets. I couldn’t control my grief.’[13]

Saw Ba U Gyi, Mahn Ba Zan, Hunter Tham Hwe and Saw Sankey, all in Insein at the time felt they had very little option but to declare a full-scale revolt. The Karen Rifles and KNDOs immediately started taking cities throughout the country. At Insein itself, an 112 day stand-off was to take place between the Karen and the Burma Army, under the command of Ne Win. This came to be known as the Battle of Insein.

The Battle of Insein

By 7.00 o’clock on the morning of 31 January, thirty minutes after the first recorded attack on the Thamaing quarters, a number of houses had already been looted and torched. By mid-morning at least a quarter of the village on the southern side, undefended by the KNDO, had fallen to the Sitwundans who had begun to mow down fleeing villagers. Responding to requests from the KNU leadership, a Karen Artillery regiment, which had been training at Mingaladon Airport two miles east of Insein, was brought in to support the KNDO units. The two other regular Karen Infantry battalions, commanded by Aung Sein, which had been on alert after troubles began at the beginning of the year, also responded to the call for support.

The Karen were able to field a company-size KNDO unit in the Nanthagon-Taungthugon area and about a platoon-size KNDO unit in the Gyogon seminary area. Along with other villagers the combined Karen force could not have amounted to more than 400. These units were faced with a mixture of the Union Military Police, Sitwundans, regular police and a number of armed Burmese civilians with almost twice as many men as the defenders. [14] The Insein Railway station which had been guarded by UMPs and a number of railway’s employees armed with machine guns and rifles were able to launch spurious attacks against the Karen while mortar fire from the local police station and administrative offices rained down on the Nanthagon-Taungthugon quarter’s high school. Here the KNDO had taken up positions leaving the school’s football field to separate the two sides.

The ordinance depot fell to Karen forces on 2P February giving them much needed weapons and ammunition including light cannons and machine guns. Karen tactics quickly changed from defensive to offensive as the Karen forces moved forward to repel the attackers. Further weapons had also been obtained in a somewhat audacious move by Sgaw Maw Lay the commander of the Nanthagon-Taungthugon KNDO. He had loaded ten trucks with a hundred soldiers and driven to Mingaladon airport where they were able to raid the arms depot after the Gurkha regiment of the 1stBurma Rifles unsuspectingly let them in. [15]

The KNDO soon organised themselves. Sgaw Maw Lay was responsible for Nanthagon-Taungthugon KNDO, the Gyogon Seminary KNDO was under the leadership of Bo Tha Aye Saw, a former UMP N.C.O., Thamaing came under the command of J Poo Nyo, at one point a high ranking civil servant in the Burmese government. Intelligence was the responsibility of Henry San Baw while Saw Sankey was responsible for overall command.

By the seventh day the Karen had organised lines of communication and set up a frontline. Food was organised by Thramu Aye Bya and her seminary students who were cooking day and night to feed the forces which had risen to around one thousand with 500 being maintained as frontline troops. [16]

It was not long into the fighting that the UMPs and Sitwundans were forced to pull back from their positions abandoning the railway station, the police station and what was the biggest prison in the country, Insein Jail. The prisoners were released with many of them fleeing the area as soon as possible. Many of the Karen inmates joined the rebellion and took up arms against the government. Others who supported the struggle included a British army officer, Captain Vivian, who had been imprisoned for supplying weapons to the assassins of Aung San. The notorious Saw Seaplane, who had brutally attacked countless Burmese villages and had been imprisoned for his actions, went on to form a number of Karen convicts into a fighting company.

It is not clear whether it was the Karen battalion under Seaplane or other irregular Karen forces, but a number of civilians were murdered and property looted in the attack on the Insein Bazaar area, apparently to the disgust of the regular Karen forces. The misconduct of those Karen who had taken the opportunity to vent their frustration on the local community resulted in a further delay of the assault on the rice mills along the Hlaing River and a missed opportunity to capture more ammunition from the retreating Burmese soldiers. [17]

Despite all this, the rice mills were soon captured, alleviating the ever growing problem of food supplies. In addition to rice, the mills also contained large quantities of dried beans, which were quickly cooked into curry. The packaging problem, for meals to be transferred to the frontline, was soon solved with the help of the government press in the jail. The building was stocked with paper and the seminary students were able to prepare over a thousand meals a day which were then packaged for distribution to the Karen forces. [18]

Insein jail, which had been used by the Japanese as an arms depot during the war, had also been used by them to hide what weapons and ammunition they could not carry. These were quickly converted to be used by the Karen who had already started recycling spent shells from the frontline. Within a matter of days, the KNU had captured the ten square miles of the area that made up Insein Township. The Burma Army had been in no real position to counter the Karen forces and had relied on what Edward Law Yone described as:

‘…a motley array of half-trained and untrained students, Yellow Band PVO, civilian police and soldiers…[who were] quickly decimated by the KNDO.’ [19]

In a bold move, two companies – one regular and one KNDO – attempted to push further towards Rangoon, almost reaching the Thamaing road junction about a mile away from the Insein boundary. Although the Karen Rifles had been able to approach from the west almost unhindered, the KNDO, flanking them on the east, took fire and there were a couple of casualties in both regular and KNDO companies including one or two dead and half a dozen wounded. [20] This had demoralized the unprepared KNDO troops and the assault was halted and a retreat made by both companies when they came under machine gun fire from naval forces in jeeps who had been sent to defend the area.

While the main fighting was taking place at Insein, in Taungoo, 170 miles north, Karen forces had taken control of the city almost unchallenged and were beginning to widen their territory. At Prome, about 190 miles north of Insein, meanwhile, the Second Battalion of the Karen rifles, under Mya Maung, abandoned their positions and began to march, bringing their families with them, towards Insein at the request of the KNU Leadership, who were beginning to see their frontlines being forced back and hearing rumours that the 5th Burma Rifles, a seasoned military unit which had been engaged in fighting the Mujahids in Arakan state, had been airlifted back to be used against the Karen uprising.

On 9P February the 2nd Karen Rifles had got about as far as Zigon, 40 miles away from Prome, when they were ambushed by Burmese troops under the command of Bo Sein Hman. He was supported by Burma air force planes which strafed and bombed the Karen troops and their families in a move which saw practically all captured, including Mya Maung. Those who did escape were able to slip quietly through the Pegu Yomas before emerging at Insein or Taungoo a few weeks later. [21]

The collapse of the 2nd Karen Rifles gave a momentous boost to the U Nu government and leaflets were quickly dropped on Insein giving details of the surrender, and authenticated by the signature of Mya Maung. With ammunition and supplies decreasing rapidly, and with very little aid getting through Burma Army lines from Taungoo, the situation was beginning to look grim.

Morale was increased, however, in early March with the arrival of forces from Thaton commanded by Bo Nyunt Maung and Bo Lintin, and a Karen Battalion from Taungoo. Further soldiers from the Salween district commanded by Ta Ka Paw also arrived to fortify Karen positions. While the arrival of reinforcements was able to relieve those frontline troops that had been holding back the Burma Army the problems were by no means solved. The attacking forces had been expanded to include the 1st Chin Rifles, two battalions of University Training Corps and Gurkhas also from the 1st Burma regiment. The war of attrition continued into April when finally a chance appeared on the horizon.

At the beginning of April, an invitation was delivered to Saw Ba U Gyi requesting peace talks between himself and U Nu. It was signed by the ambassadors of Britain, India and Pakistan who also guaranteed Saw Ba U Gyi safety if he would attend the meeting in Rangoon. The intermediary was George Algernon West, the Bishop of Rangoon, who had worked extensively with the Karen and the Karenni and was held in great regard. The KNU had received another overture earlier when U Ba Tun Tin, a respected Karen official in the Burmese Government, brought a letter from U Nu requesting a similar meeting to be held Kawehgyan, a Burmese army outpost delineating the frontline. U Ba Tun Tun later said that he had been quite surprised to find in Ba U Gyi a very credulous and naïve person who had elected himself to go and meet U Nu, putting complete faith in his erstwhile friend. This he had done despite the advice and pleas of his deputies and councillors to send someone else first for verification of the Burman’s sincerity. [22]

U Ba Tun Tun was correct in his assertion when on his arrival at Kawehgyan Saw Ba U Gyi was, instead, taken to the War Office and a proposal to end the standoff was made containing the following points.

‘Amnesty to KNDO insurgents.

Treatment of the Karen Army personnel. – There will be no discrimination to the disadvantage of the Karen Army and other army personnel belonging to the minority groups. As these people are in law still members of the Union Army, they will place themselves at the disposal of the Government of the Union. The Army Re-organization Committee composed of the Hon’ble Sir Ba U, Chief Justice of the Union as Chairman, the Hon’ble Lt.-General Ne Win and Lt.-General Smith Dun, M. C, will not only consider the re-organization of the armed forces but will also go into the question of grievances of the Army personnel, if there be any.

Karen Civilian Officers. – They will be treated in the same way as the Burmese civilian officers in similar circumstances.

Arming. – The Karen leaders agree to the principle that nobody unless authorized by authorities in this behalf shall carry or possess arms. Karen civilians will be given permission to hold such quantity of firearms as may be necessary for the security and protection “of the villages where they live.’[23]

Saw Ba U Gyi, under pressure not only from the Burmese but also the other ambassadors, agreed to give in to the demands of U Nu, however, he insisted that a commission for Karen State affairs be formed. It was agreed that a surrender ceremony was to be held on 8 April at Tha Mae Oo.

Saw Ba U Gyi, on his return to Insein, immediately informed Hunter Tha Hmwe and Major Aung Sein at the Taungoo headquarters of his signing of the agreement but both informed him that they were not happy with the agreed conditions. They put forward a list of further proposals. These included

‘1. The cessation of hostilities throughout Burma and the declaration of a truce for further negotiations;

  1. The provision by the Government of facilities for a meeting of the military and political leaders of the insurgents and that frontier leaders should take part in the negotiations;
  2. The holding by the insurgents during the period of the truce of the areas they have occupied.’[24]

The Karen leadership knew that the AFPFL would never agree to these requests, especially point 3 allowing them to keep territory they had newly occupied. The biggest problem, however, was the fact that the agreement had already been signed. To overcome this obstacle, it was agreed that Saw Ba U Gyi had, in fact, signed the agreement on behalf of the Karen National Union while in reality the military action that had taken place was the responsibility of the KNDO which had been the organisation declared illegal by the government.

It was decided therefore that Mahn Ba Zan, the KNDO commander, should be the one charged with negotiating any agreements. On 5 May, Mahn Ba Zan went to meet with U Nu’s representative San Ba U to put forward the new Karen proposals. After San Ba U had contacted U Nu it was decided that Mahn Ba Zan should then meet with the AFPFL’s Chief of Foreign Affairs U Aye Maung. Here he outlined the problems regarding the fact that the agreement had failed to take into account Karen aspirations. A hostile U Aye Maung had replied that failure to comply with the signed agreement would result again in war, nonetheless it was decided that Mahn Ba Zan should meet with senior leaders of the AFPFL.

At the meeting with U Nu it was again put forward that the agreement was not designed to settle the Karen political dispute, only the military stalemate. Therefore, the Karen would not be able to comply as they could not agree to being disarmed until the greater problems affecting them were addressed. U Nu refused to accept any changes and the negotiations ended in a return to armed conflict on the 9 April.[25]

With hostilities recommencing it was hoped that Karen forces from Taungoo would be able to break through government line at Pegu and help those at Insein. The situation was not to be favourable, however, under repeated attacks from the Burma army the once held 10 miles of Insein had shrank to five as the defenders ammunition and strength was slowly sapped.

Soon troops began to desert. Those civilians who had remained withdrew into the confines of the jail to protect themselves from stray shells and rifle fire as the frontline was gradually pushed towards them. Karen troops by the end of May came under the direct control of Saw Taw Plo who saw more and more of his men disappearing. Saw Ba U Gyi, aware that there was little hope for reinforcements arriving from Taungoo moved to the west of the Hlaing River in preparation for a full withdrawal.

On the night of 20P May 1949, large numbers of Karen troops and civilians were able to slip across the swollen Hlaing River to safety. The battle had lasted three months and 21 days with the possibility of, according to one source, a thousand Karen casualties with fatalities as high as 350-400, half of those were most likely civilians killed in the shelling alone. Although Insein had been lost the Karen were still able to hold on to other areas of the country. The fall of Insein may have lost them the battle, but it had not ended the revolution.


[1] ‘Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel’, Smith-Dun, SEAP, 1980

[2] Smith-Dun quoting ‘Saw Po Tu’

[3] Ibid.

[4] Smith-Dun quoting ‘Saw Bellay’

[5] ‘Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity’, Martin Smith, Zed Books, 1999

[6] Smith-Dun

[7] Smith-Dun

[8] The author has been unable to verify the existence of the document or find anybody who has seen it.

[9] Letter dated 25th June 1987 from Sgaw Ler Taw to Harold E Klein. Quoted in ‘The Karen of Burma Their Search for Freedom and Justice’. Unpublished manuscript.

[10] The document apparently contained the same article for both. Ibid

[11] See Guy Horton, ‘Dying Alive’ also quoting Klein, for further discussion,

[12] Two of these documents were seen by the author in 2003. The first was in Burmese and the second in English which was dated July 12th 1997 and came from an Arakanese source.

[13] ‘A Journalist, A General and an Army in Burma’, U Thaung, White Lotus, 1995, p 15

[14] Ba Saw Khin, ‘50 years of Struggle’

[15] Mika Rolly, ‘Insein Battle’ unpublished material

[16] Ibid.

[17] Ba Saw Khin

[18] Mika Rolly

[19] Law Yone and Mandelbaum,‘The Pacification of Burma’, Far Eastern Survey, October 1950

[20] Ba Saw Khin

[21] Ibid

[22] Ibid

[23] ‘Burma and the Insurrections’, Government of the Union of Burma, 1949

[24] Negotiations in Burma Breakdown’, From our Correspondent, The Times, April 11th, 1949

[25] ‘Karen History’, Sgaw Ler Taw, Karen National Union , 1974

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