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E-Pao! Feature - The rise and fall of rebellion in Myanmar

The rise and fall of rebellion in Myanmar
— Summary for a rediscovery —

By: R Yangsorang *



The Communist Party of Burma (CPB), the Kachins, the Karens, the Shans, the Mons, the Was, the Pa-Os and the Palaungs had fought for more than forty years, but apparently for a hopeless dream of an independent state for each one of them, encompassing territories of their respective regions. In minority areas, the brutality of the Government troops was notorious.

On the other hand, racial hatred and separatist tendencies were always powerful in north-eastern Burma. In the situation, the more enlightened insurgent leaders opted for federalism or regional autonomy, and they discarded the idea of unrealistic urge to break away from Burma altogether. In all likelihood, rebellion in Myanmar, without oppressing the minorities and civilians except by the Masala (Govt troops), is to be envied.

Far be it from our land, still their mode of operation can be borrowed for good. This is the land where road blockades and bandhs are unheard of. Every year from October to May, thousands of people from all-over Burma flock to the gold fields at Gawng Sha in northern Kachin State.

The area has the world’s largest deposits of gemstone. They work in groups of 15-30, living together in large bamboo huts on the bank of the Mali Hka River and sharing whatever gold dust they manage to extract from the sandbanks. In one season, 30 kgs of gold alone can be collected from the river exclusive of other precious stones. The skilfully washed gold has found its way onto the gold markets of Taiwan and Hong Kong. With pieces of gold tucked in their leather-bags, their hearts are bound to be big.

Similarly, we also have a story to retell. How fine! One of many names of our land is Sanaleibak (Land of gold). It was said that gold was found in the streams on the north of Imphal valley, but none was to be found west of Kabaw valley now in Myanmar when the British made a diligent investigation of it.

According to “A Full Account of Manipur” by Colonel McCulloch printed in 1839 A.D., “The region is rich, but undeveloped. Iron and gold have been found, and tea grows in wild profusion”. Yes, iron, the only metal then detected to exist in Manipur was said to be obtained from the beds of small streams south of Thoubal. (Captain R.B. Pemberton, 1835 A.D).

But what is strange enough is that the exact place, where gold was panned, remained untraceable. Destined for only a legend? If the metal is to be found now in our land wherever it is, it will glitter on and on to be cherished greatly and its glory will be sky-high.

In an attempt to rediscover the magnitude of the resistance movement in Myanmar, the summary begins with an open rebellion within Kachin State in the northernmost region known as the Triangle. From there, and there only, high and rugged mountain ranges of Yunan province of China can be seen at close range, and it is only a kilometre away from Kachin heartland.

Original leaders of the Kachin revolt were three brothers affectionately called Zau Seng, Zau Tu and Zau Dan representing the ethnic Kachin race with a population almost equal to the population of Manipur valley. Their first base was not in Kachin State itself but in the Kachin inhabited areas of northeastern Shan State. That won’t do.

The number of the brigade matters, too. They had four brigades scattering over the state. The Kachin Independence Army’s 1st Brigade at Lakawng Bum, the 2nd Brigade at Tanai Yang, the 3rd Brigade at Loije and the 4th Brigade at Man Pi with their military tactical headquarters at Na Hpaw tell the story of the beginning of the resistance movement in northernmost region of Burma.

The 2nd Brigade was the largest and best equipped of all rebel-controlled territory in Burma. Taxes on lucrative trade provided the KIA with a substantial income the advantages which other rebel armies didn’t have. The headquarters of the political wing of KIA, Kachin Independence Organisation was located at Pa Jau situated at an altitude of almost 2,000 meters spreading out on more than ten hillocks.

The Headquarters boasted of electricity, telephone exchange, magnificent churches, schools and civil administration. Initially, the armed band of the three brothers had only thirty men supported by rifles of the World War II vintage. Zau Tu, the second in line of the leadership funded the uprising by robbing the treasury in the Shan State Centre of Lashio of 90,000 Kyats.

Much of the success of the KIO in establishing firm control over the north could be attributed to the ethnic cohesiveness of the region where the outside influences were at a minimum. Although the Kachins constitute a number of tribes, the distinction between them seemed to have little divisive effect. There were the Jingphaws, the Maru, the Lashi, the Atzi, the Lishu and the Rawang but these represent more linguistic groups than actual tribes.

The only group of Kachins to remain by and large outside the insurgent movement were the Rawangs of the northernmost tip of the state. Eventually, the insurrection attained its higher dimensions, encompassing nearly all of Kachin State apart from the major towns and roads. This rapid growth of an insurgency without any outside assistance was almost certainly unique in the Southeast Asian context.

It is really worth to admire the Christian Kachins who were the best fighters in Burma with their reputation of being disciplined forces, keeping up international norms in their rebellion. The Kachins did not take up arms against the government in Rangoon until 1961. They were one of the last minorities in Burma to rise up into rebellion at about the same time. And the Karens began their struggle in 1949. The Mons and the red Karennis went into rebellion at about the same time. And the Shans followed in 1958.

They thought it would be possible to work for an improvement of their position without having to wage an armed struggle. But one disappointment followed another. After the end of the World War II, there were Japanese jeeps only for the officials in the state government, nothing for the people. There was no development, only neglect and decay everywhere in the state. So, Kachin students in Rangoon began secretly organizing themselves. They often met in the hostel room of one Brang Seng.

He himself was an extraordinary personality, quite unlike any other ethnic rebel leader in Burma. He was better educated, spoke good English required for leadership and revealed a wide knowledge of political as well as regional issues such rare quality possessed by a rebel leader in remote Kachin State was unexpected.

He had been born in a small village near the Hpakan ruby mines in 1930, the son of an illiterate petty trader. His father had wanted all seven brothers and sisters to stay at home and help support the family. But an uncle, seeing the intelligence of the young Brang Seng, sent him off to school.

His studies were interrupted by the Japanese invasion of 1942, when, along with many other Kachins, he went into hiding in the jungles of the Triangle. He completed his studies after the war, spent a few months in Singapore as part of Burma’s delegation to the YMCA, and then returned to his native Kachin State to become headmaster of the Kachin Baptist High School in Myitkyina, a railway station of Kachin state, and later became its principal. Brang Seng joined the Kachin rebels in 1963. At that time, few of the authorities were aware that he had already been secretly active in the Kachin nationalist movement for some time, working clandestinely in Myitkyina.

After years of simmering discontent, the Kachins went into open rebellion in 1961. The same year, the Burmese Parliament decided to establish Buddhism as the State religion of Burma a move seen by the predominantly Christian Kachins as an open provocation. The first stated purpose of the young Kachin nationalists was to oppose this decision and what they termed the Burman chauvinism they believed it reflected.

At the same time, Burma had also reached a border agreement with China according to which a few Kachin villages had been handed over to the Chinese in exchange for Burmese sovereignty over an area near Namkham known as the Namwan Assigned Tract, which the British had originally leased from China in the 19th Century. The deal was not unfair by international standards. But rumours soon spread across Kachin state to the effect that vast tracts of Kachin territory had been ceded to China.

Even today, it is not unusual for many Kachins to point across the border at a piece of land, which was not even discussed during the Sino-Burmese talks, and claim that it was given to China by Rangoon. The failure of the central government to clarify the nature of the border agreement was at the root of misunderstandings which drove hundreds of young Kachins underground.

The KIA’s success, however, had actually been preceded by an earlier but abortive attempt at building a Kachin rebel army. Already during the World War II, Naw Seng a brilliant warrior in the British-sponsored Kachin Levies had harboured separatist ideas the original brain behind the uprising in Kachin state. The young fighter had a dream of an independent Kachin country, independent like Nepal, and prospering as the gallant country does, by hiring out its fighting men.

After the war, Naw Seng was awarded the Burma Gallantry Medal and Bar by the Colonial authorities for fighting against the Japanese. The Burmese he saw as traitors who had sided with the Japanese. Immediately after the war, the Kachin Levies became the Kachin Rifles, a properly organized military unit in the new Burmese Army. Naw Seng was appointed commander of its first battalion and fought for the Rangoon Government against the Burmese Communists, who had taken up arms soon after independence in 1948.

But the following year, when he was also ordered to conduct operations against the insurgent Karens, he defected with most of his battalion. They joined the Karens and launched a major campaign against the Government in northern Burma. In late 1949, Naw Seng and his followers marched even further north towards Kachin state, to organize their own people. But they were cornered in the Kachin-inhabited hills of northeastern Shan State.

Eventually, he had no choice but to retreat into China, which he did in April, 1950 from a border village called Mong Ko. Instead of becoming the rulers of another Nepal, Naw Seng and a few hundred ex-Kachin Riflemen ended up as labourers on collective farms and tractor factories in China’s Guizhou province. There they remained, almost forgotten, until 1968, when the Communist Party of Burma, supported by China, launched an invasion of northeastern Shan State.

Naw Seng emerged from obscurity as the military commander of the CPB unit that first entered Burma, ironically at Mong Ko, his point of departure. While Naw Seng was in Chinese exile, the KIA had been founded and was already well-established in the very same areas the CPB moved into. Fierce fighting broke out between the Communists and the KIA, and Naw Seng himself died in 1972 under circumstances which had never been satisfactorily explained.

According to the official CPB version of events, he was killed in a fall from a cliff while hunting in the Wa Hills. Many Kachins preferred to believe he was murdered by the CPB because he refused to fight his own kin in the KIA. Whatever the truth the matter, hostilities between the two rebel armies came to an end in 1976 when Brang Seng became the chairman of the Kachin Independence Organisation, the KIA’s political wing.

For the Kachins, the cease-fire with the CPB brought peace on at least one front; it also provided infusions of Chinese arms via the Burmese communists.

The KIA was thus able to increase its strength considerably and, in the late 1970s, it launched several determined campaigns against the government. It was then that the KIA took over parts of the Bhamo-Myitkyina road. The Kachins also moved their headquarters from the remote Triangle area down to Pa Jau and relations with China became smoother.

It appeared that the military pact of 1976 with the CPB involved the Kachins coming under the communist ideological influence. Brang Seng went to China for the first time in 1967. He and his men walked across the border at Panwa Pass and camped outside the nearest Chinese army outpost. They said they needed their help and they asked if they the Kachins were communists.

They replied they were Christians but that they wanted good relation with their neighbours. After some confusion and discussion, an army truck took them to the nearest airport, at Baoshan, and they were flown via Kunming to Beijing. There, they met Zhou Enlai Brang Seng never tried to hide the fact that he was a Christian and not a Communist. Zhou was sympathetic and seemed to understand.

The long journey from Panwa Pass on the border to the Gate of the Heavenly Peace in Beijing had been made possible by an unusual turn of events. The Kachins, who had long feared the Red Chinese, had already on several occasions helped batches of similarly Christian Nagas to reach China. If Nagas could get help from the Communists across the border, why not Kachins.

In the case of the Nagas, China’s long standing hostility towards India and the unsettled border issue between the two giants prompted Beijing to bury ideology in the interests of realpolitik. With the Kachins, there were similar, non-ideological considerations. To divert public anger over a rice shortage, the military authorities in Rangoon had instigated anti-Chinese riots in the capital in 1967. Radio Beijing demanded revenge, castigating Ne Win’s regime as “fascist” and insisting that “blood should be paid with blood”.

Almost daily rallies were held outside the Burmese Embassy in Beijing and Red Guards’ mounted loudspeakers around its compound walls. As it happened, the Burmese Ambassador to China at the time was a pro-government Kachin national, Sinwa Nawng. Here were probably other reasons for the Chinese support as well. This was the time of the Cultural Revolution and Beijing had decided to extend all-out- support to the CPB. The plans for the thrust into Mong Ko were already at an advanced stage. The CPB needed local auxiliary forces, and the CPB as well as their Chinese comrades presumably thought the KIA could prove useful in that respect.

At a meeting in Beijing between the KIA and the CPB, the latter demanded that the Kachins accept the political tutelage of the communists. “We refused, of course,” Brang Seng said, “We would fight with the CPB against the common enemy. But we would not accept their political leadership. And, shortly afterwards, fighting between the KIA and the CPB broke out in Mong Ko area. It lasted for eight years, until 1976. Then, at last, the CPB accepted a military pact on equal terms.

The alliance with the CPB and a normalizing of relations with China were only two of several policy changes engineered by Brang Seng in the late 1970s. He also steered the Kachin rebellion away from the separatism it had espoused towards a programme of a regional autonomy within a restructured Union of Burma. To some extent a new generation of leaders paved the way for the new thinking. Of the KIA’s three founders, Zau Dan had fallen in a battle with the CPB in 1974, while Zau Seng and Zau Tu had been assassinated at a Kachin liaison camp near the Thai border in 1975.

The culprit was a young lieutenant who, in a climate of mounting opposition to the Old Guard, presumably saw a place for himself in a reshaped KIA. In the event, he was rewarded with execution rather than promotion. But the assassination may not have been entirely unwelcome.

Today, the three brothers are recognized as the founders of the Kachin rebel movement and a monument in their honour has been raised at Pa Jau. But in private, many cadres did not appear to mourn the loss of leaders, who in effect had pushed the KIA into a military and political cul-de-sac. Military cooperation with the CPB and a rejection of separatism were policies for which Brang Seng had also managed to rally support at the NDF meeting at Pa Jau.

The next item on his agenda was to strengthen almost non-existent co-operation between the various constituent members of the NDF. At the Congress, the front had been divided to three regional commands to co-ordinate activities. The northern command comprised the KIA, the SSA and a smaller rebel army of Palaung hill tribesmen from northern Shan State.

The Central Command embraced the Wa, Pa-O and the Karenni forces; and the southern command, the Karens, Mons and Arkanese. On the central and southern fronts no cooperation to speak of had been achieved. In the north, however, it had been decided to set up a joint battalion comprising one company from each of the three component forces. Brang Seng, Major Gen. Zau Mai from Na Hpaw and some other Kachin leaders were leaving for northern Shan State, where the Kachin-Shan-Palaung National Democratic Front battalion was to be officially inaugurated at the KIA’s 4th Brigade headquarters.

The other NDF members would be encouraged to follow suit. Morale was high. The Commander of the SSA, Col. Sai Lek visited Pa Jau. A half-Shan, a half-Indian Muslim turned Buddhist, Sai Lek was 45, and like the other rebels, he too was enthusiastic over the joint battalion and the new NDF unity it reflected. Many Shan boys and girls began joining the SSA in large number, and one of them, Than Aung’s reason for going underground was impressive and striking.

His father was apprehended and accused of helping the rebels in northern Shan State. The Burmese soldiers hung him by his feet and beat to death in front of his family when Than Aung was only nine. To take revenge, he ran away from home to join the SSA. One of the Burmese excesses that took place in 1984 in Bung Lien, a prosperous Shan village was extreme. The Govt. troops rounded up all the women and assembled them in the yard outside the local Buddhist monastery, the pride of every Shan village.

The women, regardless of age, were forced to strip naked while the soldiers looked on laughing and joking with their rifle barrels. After the troops had eventually left, the angry women went straight to the SSA guerrillas who set off in pursuit. An ambush was laid and several Govt. troops were killed much to the satisfaction of the women of Bung Lien.

And so, after almost four decades, the civil war in Burma persisted with no end in sight. Rising resentment against the Govt. was strong in northern Shan State where Sai Lek’s SSA was active. Shan boys and girls were joining the ranks of insurgents nearly every day. High Schools at Namkham and Muse were all but empty. Nearly all the Shans had joined the SSA voluntarily with full of passion for their own cause and a wish to fight the Govt. which every one despised.

The fertile valleys in Shan State could supply the SSA with rice and everything they could spare. But unlike Kachin State, the Shan region did not have much gold or precious stones to finance the purchase of arms and ammunition.

But for the Kachins, buyers from as far as Canton, Shanghai and Beijing came down to the Kachin border to purchase gold, rubies and sapphires found in the 2nd Brigade area. Taxes on trade had made the KIA one of the richest rebel armies in Burma. In August, 1986, the Karens issued a statement denouncing the Pangshang agreement. The news was radioed up to Pa Jau. The Karens refused to honour the pact with the CPB because, as they put it,” their goals and ours are totally different”.

The NDF members led by U Soe Ang, a Karen leader visited the KIA camp. The Kachins pleaded for regional autonomy within Burma. The other NDF members also accepted the proposal and signed a defence treaty with the CPB on the 24th March, 1986 at Pangshang (CPB’s headquarters).

In March, 1987 Brang Seng, Sai Lek, Zawng Hra and the others had arrived at the Thai-Burmese border. Almost immediately after the Rangoon authorities had discovered that they had reached Thailand, a major offensive was launched in the Kachin area around Na Hpaw and Pa Jau. Nearly 10,000 Government troops were mobilized for the operation, which was to become the most massive attack ever launched against the KIA. supported by heavy artillery and aircraft, government soldiers moved down the Myitkyina Bhamo road.

Dabak Yang was occupied on 24th May and Hkala Yang overrun shortly afterwards. Another column advanced north from Bhamo, detoured undetected through Chinese territory and Na Hpaw from the rear on 25th May. Out-gunned and out-numbered, the Ka-chins retreated to Pa Jau. More Government troops were thrown in and even Pa Jau fell on 29th May. In a carefully orchestrated propaganda tour, foreign diplomats and defense attaches from Rangoon were flown into Myitkyina in January 1988 and from there helicoptered up to Na Hpaw for a brief visit.

They were shown the captured positions and Burma’s intelligence Chief Khin Nyunt, assured his guests that Brang Seng had fled the country after the offensive — totally reversing the chronology of events. None of the foreign visitors had any chance to talk independently to the people in the Na Hpaw area - or to see the devastation of the nearby villages. In May 1987 alone, 18 Kachin villages around Na Hpaw were burnt down and plundered. Dozens of villagers were shot, girls were gang-raped by the Burmese troops and many other civilians beaten up and tortured. Kachin villagers wept and moved to northern Thailand in search of a new livelihood. In early 1990 a KIA camp in the 2nd Brigade area was overrun by Government troops.

In early 1990, Government troops overran a KIA camp in the 2nd Brigade. In CPB’s territory, nothing disastrous took place till then. But after Gen. Saw Maung's military takeover on the 18th September, 1987, fierce fighting broke out between government troops and the CPB. In March, 1989, the ethnic tension within the CPB finally developed into an all-out mutiny. Thakin Ba Thein Tin, Chairman of the CPB and other leaders were driven in exile in Yunan province. The CPB literally collapsed after 41 years of armed struggle.

Along the Thai-Burmese border, an NDF Congress was held at the Karen National Union’s headquarters in June, 1987 and the Karens stuck to their independence stand. In the midst of ethnic in-fighting, the people in central Burma launched their massive street protests against the military regime. In the savagery of the Government troops, thousands of demonstrators were gunned down. Initially, the NDF had failed to link up with urban movement for democracy. The weaknesses of the jungle-based guerrillas were exposed.

Gen. Saw Maung set up a new junta called the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) on the 18th September, 1988. Countless people were arrested and summarily executed. Almost, 10,000 students and urban dissidents fled the country.

A new front called the Democratic Alliance of Burma (BAB), uniting the NDF and the Burma dissidents was formed. The co-operation was strengthened. In a general election held in May, 1990, Burma’s main opposition party, the National League for Democracy (NLD) secured 392 out of 485 contested seats. The NLD was formed during the 1988 uprising by Aung San Suu-Kyi. Even before the election, she was placed under house arrest.

In a dramatic turn, instead of releasing her, and handing over power to the elected assembly, the regime ordered for crack-down, arresting more than 60 MPs-elect and scores of others were forced to resign. Then, the SLORC declared cease-fire offer. Weary of decades of civil war, the ex-CPB troops gave in one by one. The SSA had already made peace with Rangoon in late 1989, and they were followed by the Pa-Os, the Palaungs and the KIA’s 4th Brigade in north-eastern Shan State.

The main KIA also made a formal cease-fire agreement with Rangoon on the 24th March, 1994. Brang Seng, who masterminded the Grand Alliance between all major rebel armies in northern Burma, suffered a massive stroke and died in Kunming Hospital in Yunan on the 18th August, 1994.

Another architect of the alliance of 1986, U Soe Ang, a Karen leader died of cancer in April, 1993. Col. Sai Lek of the SSA died of fever in January, 1995 at Thai border. Thakin Ba Thein Tin, Chairman of the CPB, who had travelled abroad widely including Calcutta, was languishing in exile in China. What remained inside the country was the leaderless NLD which was forced to discontinue its democratic movement with its leader, Aung San Suu Kyi under house arrest till date.

All the structures which had been built up so costly in the late 1980s and early 1990s collapsed almost overnight. As of now, the feasibility of federalism in Myanmar is a remote possibility, or the question of granting regional autonomy for each of the ethnic groups in the country remains vexed after the position of the military junta has become much firmer than ever before.


* R Yangsorang wrote this article for The Sangai Express
This article was webcasted on July 04th, 2006


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  • Inner Line Permit (ILP) Demand :: Timeline
  • Child Friendly Police Stations proposed
  • ADBU Goes Green with Solar Energy
  • Convocation of Assam Don Bosco
  • Fetal Echocardiography - Seminar held
  • Rejoinder to NPF from NDPP [04 Sep]
  • Divide, divert and rule will not work
  • FA, MU crisis : Issues before LS polls
  • Krishna Janma @ISKCON #1 : Gallery
  • Komrem Student Day @Bangalore : Gallery
  • September Calendar for Year 2018 :: Tools
  • The Coils of Pakhangba :: Book
  • Exhibition @ Art College #2: Gallery
  • AMWJU Sit-In-Protest : Gallery
  • Jangou Rah : eRang Classic
  • The Story of 40 Pineapple Suckers
  • Yumkhaibam Nanao Eramdam Yaourakhre
  • Ningol Chakkouba Celebration in Delhi
  • Martyrdom of Haipou Jadonang #2: Gallery
  • Chaklam Khongchat Numit #2 : Gallery
  • The World of Kuki People :: Book
  • Martyrdom of Haipou Jadonang #1: Gallery
  • Dolaithabi Dam , Senapati : Gallery
  • Eid-Ul-Adhaa Festival #2 : Gallery
  • Dr. Jodhachandra Sanasam : Sahitya
  • Shougrakpam Bijaya :: A Profile
  • Disputed Myanmar Border Pillar : Gallery
  • Front Page Photo 2018 #3: Gallery
  • Dzuko valley #4 :: 360 Panorama View
  • Manglandasu Nang - OST :: e-pao Radio
  • Old Manipuri Movie #1 :: eRang Classic
  • SPONSORED ADS