The ‘Broom’ That Saved Yangon

The ‘Broom’ That Saved Yangon

Myanmar, Burma, The Irrawaddy, Battle of Insein, Kayin, Karen, Rangoon, Yangon, civil war, ethnic rebellion, Wetkaw, Bofors gun, broom

U Kyaw Thein Lwin sits in his living room with a painting depicting the battle in Wektaw behind him. (Photo: Sai Zaw / The Irrawaddy)

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.


9 Responses to The ‘Broom’ That Saved Yangon

  1. Give me a break. everyone knows chin soldiers died and defended Insein Battle. now u wanna forget them?

  2. This is just SHIT!!!!

    “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.”

    What a Shame!!!

    Better read that portion of defending Insein in ‘the autobiography of Bogyoke Kyaw Zaw, who has more authority to this question.

  3. Kyaw thein lwin said “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.”
    It was not due to the gun to succeed Kayin rebel but due to the advice of British officers advising him and his bama army.
    Kyaw thein lwin also said ” 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.”

    If British and its gun did not help to fight Kayin rebels, there was no notorious Ne win , evil Kyin Nyunt and fox than shwe in the Burma.

  4. Many Karens still have bitter feeling on the Chins because U Nu begged Col. Hrang Thio who was commander of the Chin Rifles(Three Battalions)to save the Union, and that’s why the Chin Rifles clashed with the Karens. Commander Hrang Thio got shot on his thigh and he died later. Aung San Thuriya Captain Taik Soon, Captain Van Kulh and other officers took care of the leadership role until Karen rebels were defeated. It was unfortunate thing which happened because of U Nu’s clever policy which was designed to make Buddhism as state religion. According to the Pang Long Treaty, ethnic groups were guaranteed freedom of religion, self determination and management on their respective lands. But U Nu’s ignored and neglected the Pang Long Treaty. So, Karens were fighting the good fight for a reason. However, the Insein Battle left eternal scar between the Karens and the Chins. Too bad.

    • Thank to shwe Joephyu
      Without your information about U Nu’s begging to Chin army, there was no success in Buddhist mania, beggar U nu and notorious Ne win upon Kayin rebel from bama army. It is the first time i start to know about the truth historical facts of failure of Kayin rebel on U nu and Ne win.
      When i was young, all the bama history book did not mention about the truth facts of kayin and bama clash. i only know about “the how goodness of G-Aung san, U nu, U Ba shwe and U kyaw naine”. I learned from the bama history book that how ethnics are bad to demand autonomy and to make disintegration of union of Burma. How bama kings conquered on Mon king (please, learn admirable Mon culture and language)and how to build the union of Burma cruelly for 3 times from Anawrahta, Kyansittha, Bayinnuang respectively. How did bama kings conquer on Thai kings (invasions). Some crueal bama king status are built by fox than shwe in Naypyidaw. Now, i learn about “how the goodness of Kyaw thein lwin again in Irrawaddy”
      One Kachin wrote about the crucial battle in Myitykyina in fighting against the Japanese occupation on Burma during world war 2. This “street to street deadly battle” is the crucial battle for defeating brave Japanese army with the main help of Chinese nationalist army and Kachin fighters for the road to Burma independence. The conquer on brave Japanese army in Myithkyina battle was on 14th March 1945 before G-Aung san revolved on Japanese occupation on 27th March 1945.
      Unity in all ethnics is crucial from any cost to fight for all ethnic’s right from fox than shwe. Do not let fox than shwe to divide all ethnics with the use of same strategy from U nu on Chin army. However, Shwe joephyu does not write why Chin army was willing to help U nu’s begging ( in other way round, U nu’s political strategy) with their blood spilling from the fight against Kayin rebels. DSSK has full support from Chin ethnic again recently. Does Chin ethnics want to support Kachin fighting against than shwe’s private army as Chin and Kachin are both sister and brother from their origin?

  5. History has been twisted and robbed again for personal gain. San San Nu(Daughter of U Nu) better tell the truth. She was with her Daddy when her Daddy approached Col. Thio who was commanding chief of three Chin Battalions(Chin Rifles). Many Chin soldiers died in action at Insein Battlefield. Who saved Rangoon and who stopped the war is not a mystery but the history clearly written with blood.

  6. WoW. One anti-aircraft 40 mm bofor gun could saved Rangoon city.
    It was amazing. This burmese military concept created on going civil
    war in Myanmar. Believe it or not.

  7. What was the best gift or reward from U nu/ne win on Chin army after conquering Kayin rebel from the fight of Chin army?
    Below is the history of bad reputation of Bama army led by G-Aung san although wikipedia is not the valid for reference.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/History_of_Burma

    Eventually the Japanese Army turned to Ba Maw to form a government. During the war in 1942, the BIA had grown in an uncontrolled manner, and in many districts officials and even criminals appointed themselves to the BIA (Burma independence army). It was reorganised as the Burma Defence Army (BDA) under the Japanese but still headed by Aung San. While the BIA had been an irregular force, the BDA was recruited by selection and trained as a conventional army by Japanese instructors.

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