The Burma Campaign

The Karen Rifles

Three battalions of The Karen Rifles were raised for the interim or new Burma Army between 1945 and 1946-47.  At independence all three transferred to the new Union of Burma Armed Forces.  They disappeared from the Burma Army order of battle during the Karen insurgency of 1949-1950.

By 1945, with victory over the Japanese in Burma in sight, the Burma Government began to lay plans for the return of British administration to Burma.  These included the creation of a new Burma Army by reorganising existing war time units (the Burma Regiment and the 2nd Burma Rifles) and raising new units.  By June 1945 a number of new infantry battalions were being raised or were planned as part of a three phased programme.  As part of Phase 3, the 1st Karen Rifles was planned to start forming at Toungoo from 1st June 1945.  It was to be followed by the raising of the 2nd Karen Rifles at Bassein beginning on 1st July 1945.  Although in all respects a regiment, no Karen Rifles regimental centre or depot was formed.[1] [2]

At the time of the Japanese surrender there were thirteen infantry battalions of the Burma Army:

- The 2nd Burma Rifles: reconstituted in December 1944 with Karens, Chins and Kachins and for the time being remaining in India.

- Six battalions of the Burma Regiment: 1st, 2nd, 4th, 25th Garrison, 26th Garrison and the Chin Hills Battalion.

- 1st and 2nd Kachin Rifles: formed as regular infantry battalions from former members of the Northern Kachin Levies in February and April 1945 respectively.

- 1st and 2nd Chin Rifles: formed from former members of the Western Chin Levies in April and May 1945.

- 1st and 2nd Karen Rifles: formed from mainly ex-Karen Levies but including some Karens of the former 1st Battalion, The Burma Rifles, raised from June to September 1945.

In addition, new Burma Rifles units were planned, the first of these being the 1st Burma Rifles, for which a cadre of former Burman (Patriotic Burmese Forces - PBF) soldiers was raised at the end of July 1945.[3]

The 1st and 2nd Karen Rifles trained all through 1946.  By December 1946, both battalions were expected to have completed company level training.  They included veterans of the war against Japan, were well equipped and well led by British and British-trained officers.[4]

During at least the first quarter of 1947, the 1st Karen Rifles was stationed at Moulmein.  During this period, the 2nd Karen Rifles was stationed at Bassein (today Pathein), about 120 miles west of Rangoon on the Bassein (Pathein) River.[5]

By the time of independence on 4th January 1948, a 3rd Karen Rifles battalion had been formed.[6]

Early in 1948, the 2nd Karen Rifles was brigaded with the Chin Hills Battalion under the command of the 1st Burma Infantry Brigade Group, commanded by Brigadier General Chit Khin, M.C.  The brigade’s area of operations was the Pyinmana-Meiktila-Kyaukpadaung triangle.  On 28th March 1948, a company of the 2nd Karen Rifles went to Kyaukpadaung with a platoon of ‘C’ Company, The Chin Hills Battalion on internal security duties to combat the activities of Communist insurgents.[7]

During 1948, political disunity within the new state became more pronounced.  Within the Army the almost exclusively Burman, former PBF officers regarded officers from the former British Burma Army, mostly Karen, Kachin and Chin as well as Anglo-Indian and Sino-Burman, as "Pro-Western", "Pro-British" or "Rightists".  The immediate goal of ex-PBF officers became the purging from the Army of "Rightists" in general and Karen officers in particular.  It was felt that Karen officers dominated the Burma Army and the ex-PBF officers were unhappy with the "scorched earth" and "slash and burn" tactics used by the Karen troops in anti-Communist counter-insurgency operations.  At the same time the ex-PBF officers were also threatened by Communist and pro-Communist mutinies amongst the new Burma Rifles battalions.  In August 1948, around a quarter to one half of the 3rd Burma Rifles, most of the 1st Burma Rifles and a few from the 6th Burma Rifles mutinied.[8]

The pro-Communist 1st Burma Rifles, based at Thayetmyo, took control of Prome on 9th August 1948.  The 2nd Karen Rifles at Meiktila was ordered to retake Prome, supported by the 1st Kachin Rifles which was flown down from Myitkyina.  Prome was retaken after stiff resistance and some Burmese politicians complained that the 2nd Karen Rifles had acted harshly against the local Burmese population.  Despite the complaints, the 2nd Karen Rifles was left to garrison Prome and the surrounding area.[9]

In late August 1948, Communist insurgents succeeded in taking the towns of Chaungwa and Myitha, which had been protected only by local police.  On 28th August, a company of the Chin Hills Battalion was sent to retake the towns.  Upon successful completion of the mission, the area was handed over to the 3rd Karen Rifles.[10]

In that same month, August 1948, the Mon nationalist movement, supported by its Karen counterpart, occupied Moulmein and Thaton. The rebel groups threatened to take over the administration of the area from the Union government.  The 2nd Chin Rifles led by Lt. Colonel Son Kho Pau was sent to quell this insurgency and left Prome in the second week of January 1949 for Moulmein [needs verification].  The responsibility for the security and administration of Prome was handed over to the 2nd Karen Rifles.[11]

It was at this time that the Karen uprising or insurgency took shape.  The Karen National Union (KNU) and the Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO) were already established before Burma gained her independence. Shortly after the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942, riots had erupted between the Burmese and Karen communities.  As a result of this violence and in response to growing Karen nationalism, the Karen National Union (KNU) was formed in 1947 to respond to perceived or real threats from the Burmese majority.  On 16th April 1947, only ten days after the KNU’s formation, the armed wing known as the KNDO was formed. Karen villagers, armed with weapons issued by the British during the Japanese occupation or taken from the Japanese, joined the KNU and KNDO and the organisations grew rapidly.  The KNDO’s demand to the Union government was for an independent Karen state covering almost all of lower Burma.  When the Burmese government refused this demand, the distrust and suspicions between the two sides grew and further instigated racial hatred between the two.[12]

By early 1949, in the face of the growing seriousness of the Karen uprising, the Burma Government decided to disarm the Karen battalions.  Senior Karen commanders were given indefinite leave and Karen soldiers were disarmed and detained in Army Rest Camps in Mandalay and Yangon (Rangoon).[13]  The 3rd Karen Rifles, stationed at Mandalay and Maymyo, were disarmed and interned.[14]

On 27th January 1949, the 1st Karen Rifles, led by Lt. Colonel Min Maung, defected to the Karen rebels at Toungoo.[15]  Following the taking of Toungoo by Karen rebels, the 1st Karen Rifles and the 1st Kachin Rifles, both still loyal to the Burma Government, were sent to recapture the town.  However before they attacked, news was received of the disarming and internment of Karen troops and civilians at Mandalay and Maymyo.  The two battalions then went over to the Karen rebels and dashed to Mandalay and Maymyo to save their brothers and cousins.[16]

At the same time Burmese troops surrounded the Karen quarter in Ahlone, Yangon and Insein and began to attack the Karen communities there with mortars and machine guns.  On 31st January, Karen wireless and artillery units stationed nearby at Thamaing and Mingaladon arrived to help defend the besieged Karen communities.  On 5th February, the 2nd Karen Rifles in the Prome area also switched sides to join the Karen insurgency.  The battalion then set off toward Insein but was attacked at Nattalin and scattered before the objective was reached.[17]

With these events the short life of the Karen Rifles came to an end.

17 January 2018

[1] “Burma Army Reorganisation”, WO 203/503

[2] The British Commanding Officer of the 1st Karen Rifles was Lt. Colonel R.L. Harman, formerly of the Burma Rifles.  The British Commanding Officer of the 2nd Karen Rifles was Lt. Colonel P.H.M. Galbraith, formerly of the Burma Rifles and the 1st Battalion, The Burma Regiment  (London Gazette; The Peerage).

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

[4] Epilogue in Burma

[5] South Burma Area, WO 268/145

[6] “Building the Tatmadaw”, Maung Aung Myoe, Institute of Southeast Asian Studies (2009)

[7]The Chin Hills Battalion”, Mss Eur E250

[8] Building the Tatmadaw

[9] “Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel”, Smith Dun; “Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948”, Bertil Lintner

[10] Chin Hills Battalion

[11] “A Short Biography of Lt. Col Son Kho Pau”, Salai Van Cung Lian

[12] Biography of Lt. Col Son Kho Pau

[13] Building the Tatmadaw

[14] Burma in Revolt

[15] Burma in Revolt

[16] Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel

[17] “The "other" Karen in Myanmar: Ethnic Minorities and the Struggle Without Arms”, Ardeth Maung Thawnghmung, Lexington (2012); Burma in Revolt