From the Archive

The Forgotten General of Burma’s Army

By Yan Pai 16 February 2020

In a highly significant gesture, Myanmar military chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing on Friday dropped by the grave of General Smith Dun, who served as the first commander-in-chief of the country’s army from Jan. 4, 1948 to Jan. 31, 1949, during a trip to Kalaw, a hill town in Shan State. The visit marks a change in the attitude of the Myanmar military toward Gen. Smith Dun, an ethnic Karen who was removed from his position following the Karen revolution in 1949 and kept under surveillance until his death in 1979. Sen-Gen Min Aung Hlaing also met with Gen. Smith Dun’s surviving family members. To mark the occasion, The Irrawaddy revisits this story from November 2013.    

Monday would have marked the 107th birthday of Gen Smith Dun, the first commander-in-chief of Burma’s army, if he were still alive. Unfortunately, 2013 instead marks the 34th anniversary of his death.

Known as the “four-foot colonel” for his small stature, Dun was born to an ethnic Karen family in Bassein or Pathein, the capital of Irrawaddy Division, on Nov. 11, 1906.

He was enlisted in the Indian Army in November 1924, initially with the 10th battalion of the 20th Burma Rifles. After receiving his military training, he served with the 2nd battalion 20th Burma Rifles. In 1932, when the Indian Military Academy (IMA) was established, he was selected to attend the IMA where he earned the first Sword of Honour, an award given to the best cadet of each year’s intake.

During World War II, the then Col Smith Dun parachuted into the Japan-occupied Irrawaddy Delta and led Karen guerillas fighting against the Imperial Japanese Army.

When Burma proclaimed its independence from British in 1948, Dun was promoted to the rank of general and appointed as the commander-in-chief of the armed forces. It was not only because of the key role he played in the early years of the country’s struggle for independence, but also to foster confidence between different ethnic groups and the majority Burmans in a future union that would include all ethnic minorities.

Besides, even Bo Let Ya, the first Minister of Defense after independence and one of  those most trusted by independence architect Gen Aung San, recognized the loyalty of Karen military leaders such as Gen Smith Dun and Bri-Gen Saw Kyar Doe, the Deputy Chief of Army Staff in 1948.

However, that confidence was shaken in 1949 when Karen insurgents began their war for independence from Burma. A fierce fight known as the Battle of Insein broke out between the Burman-led government and Karens in Rangoon’s Insein Township at the end of January of that year. From that point on, Burman leaders no longer trusted the Karen, and Dun was removed from his position, along with his fellow Karen troops. He was replaced by Gen Ne Win, who staged a military coup in 1962 and led the country to ruin during years of one-party authoritarian rule until 1988.

Gen Smith Dun was a man with a strong sense of Karen ethnic identity, but was always a loyal and professional leader during his time in the Burma Army. As commander-in-chief, he kept his Karen soldiers sharp and disciplined.

Nevertheless, suspicion of his ethnic roots lingered even after his dismissal. The government kept him under surveillance until his death in 1979.

Col Smith Dun spent his final years in Kalaw, a hill town in Shan State, where he devoted most of his time to gardening, reading and writing. He finished his book, “Memoirs of the Four-Foot Colonel,” shortly before he died, which was published a year after his death by Cornell University’s Southeast Asia Program.

Col Smith Dun was once a real hero of army history. Unfortunately, he has been excluded and is no longer part of the official history of armed forces in Burma.