U Kyaw Thein Lwin, who prefers to be called “Uncle K.T.,” is an exuberant, talkative person. When asked about Dha-Byet-See (“The Broom”), he rolls his eyes and smiles as he prepares to tell a story about his days as a young navy officer and his role in the famous Battle of Insein.
A year after Myanmar regained its independence, civil war threatened to tear the country apart. An ethnic Kayin rebellion had started and Kayin soldiers in the national army had mounted a mutiny. In early February 1949, Kayin rebels overran the Air Force Ordnance Depot in Yangon’s Mingaladon Township and seized ammunition and guns, which they used to take over neighboring Insein Township.
The Kayin rebels decided to seize control of Insein because of a series of arson attacks that appeared to target the area’s large Kayin community. Some, including U Kyaw Thein Lwin, later came to believe that Gen. Ne Win, one of the legendary “Thirty Comrades” who fought against the British during World War II, was behind the attacks, which succeeded in agitating local Kayin civilians and forcing a showdown with the Kayin rebels.
Soon after the Kayin seized Insein, the two highest-ranking ethnic Kayin serving in the armed forces—Commander-in-Chief Gen. Smith Dun and Air Force Wing Commander Saw Shi Sho—were relieved of their duties, and Gen. Ne Win was given control of the army. Now firmly in charge, the country’s future dictator ordered an airlift of battle-hardened veterans from the 5th Burma Rifles stationed in Rakhine State to the capital.
Believing that time was not on their side, the Kayin rebels appealed to fellow Kayin in the Second Karen Rifles stationed in Pyay—“the best-equipped battalion of our army at that time,” according to U Kyaw Thein Lwin—to rush down to help them in Insein. They answered the call of their ethnic brethren, and it fell to U Kyaw Thein Lwin and his comrades to stop them.
U Kyaw Thein Lwin, who at the time was a young, British-trained navy officer, was assigned to defend the city with two Bofors guns, including one nicknamed “The Broom” because of the efficiency with which it swept away any hostile force in its path.
It was at Wetkaw, in Bago Region, that then Capt. Kyaw Thein Lwin used the Bofors guns to cut down the Kayin troops coming down from Pyay. The guns were mounted on wheels and were capable of firing 40-mm shells at 120 rounds per minute. He opened fire point-blank at 500 yards, knocking out advancing armored personnel carriers.
Halted in their tracks, the Kayin mutineers were unable to join the rebels in Insein and were forced to flee to the Bago Yoma mountain range. After 112 days of fierce fighting, the Battle of Insein ended in a victory for the government side, and the landscape of the ethnic struggle changed forever.
“We were very close to the complete fall of the government,” U Kyaw Thein Lwin, who is now in his mid-80s, recalled. “Every day, we had situation meetings [in the War Office] where British officers advised us.”
Ironically, after a hard day fighting with Kayin soldiers, he would often spend his evenings in the company of Kayin girls, taking them to see American movies in Yangon. Needless to say, he didn’t discuss what he was doing in Insein and beyond.
U Kyaw Thein Lwin came away from the experience of fighting the Kayin with real respect for his adversaries. “I defended the city as a soldier. It was never about race or nationalism,” he insisted. Later, while studying in London in the 1950s, he had to leave the navy because he was suspected of sympathizing with the Kayin.
What if things had turned out differently? U Kyaw Thein Lwin said that even if the Kayin had succeeded in their bid to seize control of Yangon, they wouldn’t have been able to form a government, because they simply weren’t ready to do it on their own.
“They would have had to form an alliance with the Burmans. Then there would probably have been a decent government,” he said.
Yan Pai contributed to this article.
A full account of U Kyaw Thein Lwin’s involvement in the Battle of Insein is available in his book, “Dha-Byet-See: The Gun that Saved Rangoon” (published under his pen name Myom-Lwin).
The story first appeared in the February 2014 issue of The Irrawaddy print magazine.