The Burma Campaign

5th Burma Rifles

The 5th Burma Rifles was raised for the interim or new Burma Army at the beginning of 1946 and was formed mostly of former members of the Patriotic Burma Forces (P.B.F.).  The Battalion was based at Pyinmana where it was listed by Headquarters North Burma Area as Area Troops, with a company at Thayetmyo, on 23rd January 1946.[1]  The Battalion continued to recruit and train at Pyinmana throughout the year, under the command of Lt. Colonel K.T. Roper.  The second in command was Major W.A.S. Hyde, M.C. who had served with the 3rd Battalion, The Burma Rifles in 1941-1942 and with the Chin Hills Battalion between 1942 and 1944.[2]

In July 1946, it was thought that the 5th Burma Rifles would move from Pyinmana to Mingaladon on or as soon after 1st October that year.  On 2nd August, 2nd Lieutenants Khin Zaw, Pa Lay and Chit Pe were posted to the battalion from the 2nd Battalion, The Burma Regiment to which they had been attached for training.[3]

There were many tensions in the newly formed battalions of the Burma Rifles, especially concerning the secondment of British officers to command and train the Burma officers who had served previously with the P.B.F.  On 1st February 1947, a Burman lance corporal allegedly assaulted the Indian canteen manager at the headquarters of the 5th Burma Rifles in Pegu.  On 17th February, the man was sentenced to three month's imprisonment which resulted in a strike by men of the Battalion Headquarters Company who believed that the wrong man had been arrested and punished.  The next day the Burman rifle companies refused to parade and their officers refused Lt. Colonel Roper's orders to assemble.  The incident was labelled a mutiny and Lt. Colonel Roper was later replaced by an officer from the 4th Burma Rifles, who was thought to be more popular.  British officers serving with the Burma Rifle battalions at this time were in a difficult position, resented by the former P.B.F. officers and men in their battalions and sometimes thought by their fellow British and Anglo-Burman officers to be transitioning their battalions to Burman control too quickly.  Whether this incident was a true mutiny or not remained unclear.  Former Burman Colonel Saw Myint, who was a company commander with the 5th Burma Rifles at the time, was unsure how the incident got out of hand.[4]

Prior to independence all units of the Burma Army underwent “Burmanisation” by which process all remaining British officers and N.C.O.s left and were replaced by Burmese.  The first Burman Commanding Officer of the 5th Burma Rifles was Lt.Colonel Zeya who took command early in 1947.[5]

The 5th Burma Rifles first went into action in March 1947 amidst the political and ethnic conflicts that were a major feature of the approach to Burmese independence.  Although an accord reached between the British and the majority of Burmese leaders and agreed on 28th January 1947 reduced tensions in Rangoon, trouble continued to occur in Central Burma, stirred up by the Communists aiming to disrupt the elections for Ministerial Burma scheduled for April.  In some areas the 'dacoits', mostly Communist sympathisers, were actually in control.  In February Aung San asked for help and the Burma Government requested a military operation.  This was Operation “Flush” and 'Flush Force' was assembled to undertake it.  In addition to British and Indian units, the force also included the 5th Burma Rifles and three companies of 4th Burma Rifles under the Burman Lt. Colonel Ne Win.  The operation began on 2nd March 1947 and was deemed over on 2nd May.  The men of the 4th and 5th Burma Rifles performed well.[6]

Immediately after the Communist rebellion of March 1948, paramilitary police reserve units called Sitwundan (literally “military burden carrier”) were raised by the government under Kyaw Nyein’s Home Ministry under the power given by the Burma Police Act (1945).[7]  More than 150 Burmese officers and other ranks from the 4th and 5th Burma Rifles loyal to Kyaw Nyein’s Burma Socialist Party were initially attached to the Sitwundan units for organizational and training purposes.[8]

There were major defections to the insurgent cause in August 1948.  The 1st and part of the 3rd Burma Rifles deserted to the insurgents on 9th and 10th August.  The 4th, 5th and 6th Burma Rifles were found to be unwilling to fight and suffered a trickle of deserters.  They were kept in being on the government side by being posted to garrison duties away from the contested areas.  During July and August 1948, two companies of the 4th Burma Rifles were sent to Bassein to deal with disorder in the Delta area.  The 5th Burma Rifles was effectively isolated on Akyab Island, in the Arakan.[9] 

The 5th Burma Rifles saw action in the Arakan (Rakhine State), where the Muslim ethnic minority, the Rohingya, had sought to establish greater autonomy or even independence from Burma.  The newly independent government of the Union of Burma refused to grant this and local fighters, Mujahideen, subsequently began to attack police stations and soldiers in the area.  The "Red Flag" Communists were also active in attacking the police and government forces.  By June 1948, government control of the Arakan was reduced to the city of Akyab and most of the northern portion of the state was in the hands of the Muslim insurgents.  In September 1948, part of the 5th Burma Rifles was surrounded by the Mujahid rebels north of Sittwe (Akyab) and reinforcements were rushed from Rangoon to the battalion’s aid.  After several weeks of fighting the 3rd and 5th Burma Rifles and the 1st Chin Rifles were successful in driving the Mujahideen back into the jungles to the north of the state.[10]

During January 1949, the Karen conflict erupted into open warfare.  The major threat to the government was the attempt by the Karen National Defence Organisation (K.N.D.O.) to seize Rangoon.  The K.N.D.O. succeeded in taking the north eastern suburb of Insein where they were stopped and became besieged by government troops.  With the fighting in the balance, the government decided to bring the 5th Burma Rifles back from the Arakan to reinforce its forces at Insein.  The 5th Battalion was gathered at Sittwe (Akyab) airfield and flown to Rangoon by aircraft of the Indonesian airline, Garuda.  The first platoon landed at Mingaladon airfield in the first week of February.[11]

By 8th March 1949 the 5th Battalion was deployed as follows:[12]

- Battalion Headquarters:   Mingaladon

- Three rifle companies:   Insein

- One rifle company:  Akyab.

During the fighting at Insein, the 5th Burma Rifles took part in the unsuccessful attack on Mindhama Hill, today the site of the Kyauk Taw Gyi Pagoda.  Three companies were involved in the attack.  These formed up at Jamah Garden (now Victoria Hospital) during the night.  'C' Company under Captain Muang Lwin was detailed to take Mindhama Hill.  The other two companies were given separate objectives.  At 04:00 Maung Lwin assembled his men.  The hill was largely clear of vegetation and the Karens were dug-in in a series of old Japanese bunkers and newly prepared trenches.  The Company approached in silence through a rubber plantation and climbed the slopes before coming into hand-to-hand combat with the Karens.  Unexpectedly, the Karens retreated before launching a fierce counter attack supported by mortars and snipers.  The fighting continued throughout the day but 'C' Company was unable to hold the hill.  The Company suffered many casualties who were evacuated to the Burma Military Hospital and the Rangoon Civil Hospital.  The 1st Chin Rifles relieved the 5th Burma Rifles, continued the attack and successfully occupied the K.N.D.O. positions.  Sergeant Tai Cawn of the 1st Chin Rifles was awarded the highest gallantry medal, the Aung San Thuriya, for his exemplary leadership in this action.[13]  Throughout the Insein fighting which ended on 22nd May, the 5th Burma Rifles lost around 80 men killed and over 100 wounded.[14]

In April, on the Pegu front, a Karen column of 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.  The defence of Pegu now rested with several companies of the 3rd and 6th Burma Rifles together with two battalions of the Union Military Police (U.M.P.).[15]  On 27th April, four trucks arrived with the government forces at Pegu, carrying a company of the 5th Burma Rifles transferred from the Insein battle.  The company was sent forward to report to Lt. Colonel Chit Myaing, 3rd Burma Rifles, at his command post.  Here the company was placed in reserve to the rear of the post.  Early the next morning, the Karens attacked and got behind the command post and then between the post and the government artillery positions.  Here they fell upon the reserve company and inflicted many casualties upon the men of the 5th Burma Rifles.  The command post with the Headquarters and Mortar Platoons of the 3rd Burma Rifles was overrun and most of the officers and men killed.[16]  Despite this defeat, the government troops held on and the K.N.D.O were halted at Pegu on 1st May 1949.  The rebels were forced to retreat to Toungoo which became the new headquarters of the K.N.D.O.[17]

At the beginning of August 1949, a new organisation known as the Peoples' Peace Guerrillas (P.P.G.) began to make its presence felt.  The organisation was largely pro-government and in areas where Burma troops operated they appeared to co-operate well.  However in the Thaton area in Tenasserim difficulties arose between the P.P.G. and the 2nd Kachin Rifles, who resented the presence of irregular forces not under their control.  After several incidents between the P.P.G, the Sitwundan and the 2nd Kachin Rifles, the Kachins were withdrawn and replaced by the 5th Burma Rifles on 19th September.  One effect of the arrival of Burman troops in the area was an upsurge in K.N.D.O. activity, which tends to confirm previous collusion between the Kachins and the Karens.[18]

Early in the latter half of 1949, in Tenasserim some minor gains by the K.N.D.O. in the Thaton District were reversed.  The government troops in the District were the 5th Burma Rifles and one company of the 3rd Burma Rifles (possibly the 3rd Burma Regiment).  There was much activity around Tavoy, mainly 'dacoity', but the arrival of a company of the 5th Burma Rifles supported by a Landing Craft Gun (Medium) or L.C.G.(M.) in mid-December 1949 improved the situation.[19]

At the beginning of 1950, there were sporadic attacks on Government forces in the Amherst area by the Karens and the Mons.  The mainly Union Military Police and Burma Territorial Force units there were under some pressure until the arrival of a motor gunboat which helped restore the situation.  In the Thaton area there were sniping incidents, small raids and the shelling of Karen positions by naval craft.  During March Government forces were more active.  Having been relieved by the newly raised 3rd Burma Regiment at Moulmein, the 5th Burma Rifles left the town to launch an offensive northwards from Thaton.  This operation progressed well.[20]

17 January 2018

[1] War diary ‘G’ Branch, North Burma Area, WO 172/9982

[2] War diary 5th Burma Rifles, WO 172/10327

[3] War diary 2nd Burma Regiment, WO 172/10320

[4] "Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma", Callahan M.P., Cornell University Press (2003)

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

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

[7] In latter half of 1948, the Burmese government began raising and arming irregular political militias known as Sitwundan. These militias were under the command of Major General Ne Win and outside the control of the regular army.  In January 1949, Sitwundan units were responsible for several outrages against Karen communities which contributed to the outbreak of fighting between the K.N.D.O. and government forces.

[8] Hla Oo’s Blog under the title “Burma in Limbo” (Hla Oo's Blog, accessed August 2016)

[9] The Third Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission,30th September 1948, DEFE 7/863; “Review of the Situation in Burma”, British Services Mission, 30th June 1948, DEFE 7/863

[11] "A Hill Too High", Hla Thaung (Facebook - A Hill Too High,accessed August 2016)

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

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

[14] A Hill Too High

[15] After the re-conquest of Burma a Frontier Constabulary was created to take on the security problems of Burma’s borders which before the war had been the responsibility of the Burma Frontier Force.  The place of the Burma Military Police was taken by a new force called the Armed Police.  After independence on 4th January 1948, this force became the Union Military Police (U.M.P.)  (“Law, Society and Transition in Myanmar”, Crouch M., Lindsey T. Bloomsbury (2014)).

[16] Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography

[17] “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); Bo Kyaw Zaw’s autobiography on the C.P.B. website and made available in a series of posts at Hla Oo’s Blog under the title “Burma in Limbo” (Hla Oo's Blog, accessed August 2016); “The Union of Burma”, 4th edn., Tinker H., OUP (1962).

[18] The Third Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission,30th September 1949, DEFE 7/866

[19] The Fourth Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission,31st December 1949, DEFE 7/866

[20] The First Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission,31st March 1950, DEFE 7/866; The Second Quarterly Report of the British Services Mission,30th June 1950, DEFE 7/867