The Burma Campaign

2nd Burma Rifles

In late 1944, the colonial Burma Government in exile in India was organising an interim or new Burma Army which would later be passed on to the future independent government of Burma.  As such this Army was organised and trained largely as an internal security force.  The make up of the new Army included a number of infantry battalions raised from the hill peoples of the frontier areas – Karens, Kachins, Chins – and eventually six battalions of the new Burma Rifles, officered and manned by Burmans with the exception of the 2nd Burma Rifles which remained a mix class battalion. 

By April 1945, the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Rifles was under the command of Headquarters Eastern Command, G.H.Q. India and located at Hoshiarpur.  Having served with Special Force (the Chindits), the Battalion was at that time converting to an internal security role and was earmarked for service with ALFSEA in Burma.[1]

During 1945, the Battalion was reorganised, with all non-Burmese personnel being posted away, in anticipation of becoming part of the new Burma Army.  The ethnic make-up or “class composition” of the battalion was two companies of Kachins and one each of Chins and Karens.  The Commanding Officer was Lt. Colonel J.A. McKay.  The Battalion was sent from Hoshiarpur to Burma, leaving on 6th January 1946 and arriving at Rangoon on 14th January.  Upon arrival the Battalion was sent to Syriam.  At the time a number of Governor’s Commissioned Officers (G.C.O.s) and men of the 2nd Karen Rifles were attached to the Battalion and were posted to their unit shortly after arrival in Burma.  In February, the first former Patriotic Burma Forces (P.B.F.) officers were attached to the Battalion for training.  These were 2nd Lieutenants Thet Htun, San Myat Shwe and Pe Zaw.[2]

Throughout 1946, each Burma Rifles battalion underwent a 24 week basic training programme.  The programme was supplied by the Burma Regimental Centre together with a platoon of instructors.  A company of Gurkhas from the 2nd Reinforcement Battalion, The Burma Regiment was attached to each Burma Rifles battalion to perform regimental duties while the battalion completed training.  In the case of the 3rd Burma Rifles the attached company came instead from the 2nd Burma Rifles.[3]

The 2nd Burma Rifles remained at Syriam throughout 1946.  The detached company with the 3rd Burma Rifles remained so from March until July.  In March, the Battalion was 1,030 men strong.  Detachments were provided as guards and picquets for the oil pipeline and the Battalion also provided the guard for Government House.  During the month 350 men were on leave.  During April, the Battalion continued to provide guards for the oil pipeline and 250 men were on leave.  In May, in addition to training, guard duties and leave, the Battalion provided a company for internal security duties.  In June, the internal security detachment was reduced to two platoons and there were 200 men on leave.  In July, it was noted that the different classes in the Battalion – Karens, Kachins and Chins – made up mixed platoons.  This was quite unusual as the normal British practice had been for mixed class battalions to be formed of companies of a single class.  It seems internal security duties were complete by July for no such detachments were recorded.  There were 120 men on leave.  In August it appears that all leave was complete and the Battalion continued to train.  On 13th August, two attached Burman officers were posted to the 5th Burma Rifles and one to the 4th Burma Rifles.  Captain Saw Moody was posted to the unit from No. 5 Holding and Enquiry Centre (see New Burma Army 1945-49).  In September 1946, the 2nd Burma Rifles moved to Prome where it continued training and was active on internal security duties.  Lt. Colonel McKay remained command throughout 1946.[4]

In May 1947, the 1st and 2nd Burma Rifles participated in successful internal security operations, taking the surrender of many ‘dacoits’ north of Prome and in the Thayetmyo area.[5]

At independence on 4th January 1948, the 2nd Burma Rifles was formed of Karen, Chin and Kachins, the majority of whom were all veterans who had served with the British against the Japanese.[6]

In the first years of independence the Government of the Union of Burma faced armed opposition from a wide range of dissident groups: the Communists; the People’s Volunteer organisation (P.V.O.) and ethic minorities, chiefly the Karens.  Despite the launch of a leftist policy to counter the Communists’ appeal, the government suffered a severe reversal in June 1948 when elements of the 1st, 3rd and 6th Burma Rifles mutinied, with some members defecting to the rebels.  Agitators had undermined the reliability of the 2nd Burma Rifles and some sources claim that the only battalion of the Burma Rifles the government could depend upon with confidence was the 4th Burma Rifles, once commanded by General Ne Win, now commander of the North Burma Area.[7]

This view of the 4th Burma Rifles apparently comes from a Burmese source.  The claim for the reliability of the 4th Burma Rifles may stem from the fact that it was once commanded by General Ne Win, then commander of the North Burma Area and who in 1962 seized power in Burma (by then Myanmar) in a coup d’état.  This contrasts with the view of the British Services Mission at the time whereby it was felt that 2nd Burma Rifles remained the most reliable battalion of the Burma Rifles.  Steps were taken to remove the units affected by mutiny to locations remote from the area of operations.  The 1st Burma Rifles was one of the units removed from the operational area and the 3rd Burma Rifles at Mingaladon were not considered reliable enough to relieve them.  The 4th Burma Rifles was also taken off operations and sent to Moulmein.  The mixed class battalion, the 2nd Burma Rifles formed from Karens, Chins and Kachins many of whom had served with the British and on the Chindit operations of 1943 and 1944, were felt to be more reliable.[8]

Strife between the Government and the Karens exploded into armed conflict in January 1949.  At the beginning the armed Karen National Defence Organisation (K.N.D.O.) was estimated to be between 10,000 and 15,000 men strong.  It was joined by around 5,000 defectors from the Burma Defence Forces.  Among the Government units that joined the K.N.D.O. in whole or in part at the end of January and in the first days of February was the Karen element of the 2nd Burma Rifles.[9]

Major fighting between the Karen insurgents and Government troops occurred at Insein between January and May 1949 and in the Mandalay-Meiktila area between March and April.  After the fall of Mandalay on 13th March, Major Khen Za Moong of the 2nd Chin Rifles flew to Rangoon.  There he was asked by General Ne Win to go to Thazi and take command of "SONFORCE", which consisted of three companies of the 3rd Chin Rifles and two of the 6th Burma Rifles, commanded by Major Tin Mg (Myat Htun).  The commander of the 3rd Chin Rifles, Lt. Colonel Lian Chin Zam, and several of his officers had been captured on 20th February and subsequently interned at Meiktila by the K.N.D.O. who now held the town.  Khen Za Moong was ordered to contact the headquarters of the 3rd Chin Rifles at Meiktila and with the combined force at Thazi to clear the Meiktila-Thazi area of the K.N.D.O. and other insurgents.  Khen Za Moong flew to Heho in an Oxford aircraft of the Burma Air Force.  On arrival at Heho he discovered the airfield was guarded by a detachment of the newly formed 1st Shan Rifles.  Major Kyaw Nyunt of the 5th Burma Rifles was in command of the area.[10]   

Each day, the K.N.D.O. would march out of Meiktila and mortar the Government troops at Thazi.  The troops of the 3rd Chin Rifles and the 6th Burma Rifles sheltered in bunkers from this fire throughout the day.  Khen Za Moong organised an attack against Meiktila but despite initial success was forced to withdraw to Thazi when the K.N.D.O. counter attacked, supported by artillery, mortars and armoured cars.  He then flew to Rangoon with Major Tin Mg (Myat Htun) to report the situation at Thazi but when he returned he found that Thazi had been encircled and that he, Major Tin Mg and their small escort were unable to join "SONFORCE" inside Thazi.  The officers joined the White P.V.O. insurgents in the area, who at that time were maintaining a temporary truce with Gorvernment forces.  Khen Za Moong maintained contact with the troops inside Thazi by radio.[11]

Major Khen Za Moong then returned to Rangoon where he was given command of the Chin Company of the 2nd Burma Rifles, led by Captain Zel Khai, and with this company flew back to Heho.  This small force attacked Thazi railway station but could advance no further.  Later they planned a second attack but at dawn on the day of the attack, 8th April 1949, scouts reported that the K.N.D.O. had left.  The 2nd Burma Rifles company entered Thazi and made contact with the troops of "SONFORCE".  The K.N.D.O. had abandoned Meiktila and Thazi and were making their way to Toungoo.[12]

The force at Thazi then made contact with the 3rd Chin Rifles headquarters in Meiktila.  The Communists and the White P.V.O. had entered Meiktila and were in the process of occupying parts of the town.  The Government troops from Thazi, now reinforced by the Chin Company of the 2nd Burma Rifles, cleared the insurgents from the area.  After making arrangements for the garrison and administration of Thazi and Meiktila, "SONFORCE" was disbanded and the various detachments of troops rejoined their parent units.[13]

On the Pegu front in April, a Karen and Kachin column of around 2,000 men set off from Toungoo for Rangoon.  The column was delayed at Nyaunglebin for three days by the fierce resistance of the 2nd Burma Rifles.  Nyaunglebin fell on 20th April and the Karens resumed their march on Rangoon, taking Daik-U two days later.  They were halted at Pegu on 1st May 1949 by a force made up of a company from each of the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th Burma Rifles together with two battalions of the Union Military Police.  The rebels were forced to retreat to Toungoo which became the new headquarters of the K.N.D.O.[14]

A new battalion, the 1st Emergency Chin Battalion which later became the 4th Chin Rifles, began forming by June 1949 at Kalemyo, near the Chin Hills.  The nucleus of the new battalion was formed by men of the Chin Company of the 2nd Burma Rifles.  The battalion had suffered heavily in the fighting for Pegu in April, notably in the defence of Nyaunglebin.  The recruits for the new battalion were enlisted "only for one year or the duration of the present emergency, whichever is the shorter".  This seems to have been the end of the 2nd Burma Rifles for there is no mention of the Battalion in reports after this time.[15]

18 March 2018

[1] WO 203/503

[2] Transfer of Burma Army to SACSEA, WO 230/256; War diary 2nd Burma Rifles, WO 172/10325

[3] Epilogue in Burma; Historical summary of the 4th Burma Rifles, WO 268/161; WO 172/10325

[4] WO 172/10325

[5] “Epilogue in Burma, 1945-48”, McEnery J.M., Spellmount (1990)

[6] “Building the Tatmadaw: Myanmar Armed Forces Since 1948”, Maung Aung Myoe, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (2009).

[7]   “A Guide to Intra-state Wars: An Examination of Civil, Regional, and Intercommunal Wars, 1816-2014”, Dixon J.S., Sarkees M.R., CQ Press, (2015).

[8] Second Quarterly, 30th June 1948, DEFE 7/863

[9]Review of the Civil War in Burma”, British Services Mission, 21st March 1949, DEFE 7/864

[10] "Tedim to Yangon, Background and Record of The Moong Family",  Khen Za Moong, (1995)

[11] Tedim to Yangon

[12] Tedim to Yangon; “The Chin Hills Battalion”, MSS Eur 250.

[13] Tedim to Yangon

[14] Guide to Intra-state Wars; Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography; Tinker

[15] The Second Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission, 30th June 1949, DEFE 7/865; Tedim to Yangon