Myanmar Shadow Government’s Declaration of War Echoes 1949 Rebellion
By The Irrawaddy 10 September 2021
The shadow National Unity Government’s (NUG) declaration of war earlier this week against the military regime has echoes of 1949, when armed organizations rebelled against the government, occupied half the country and fought the Myanmar military.
With NUG Acting President Duwa Lashila calling on civilian resistance fighters to target the junta and its assets and for ethnic armed organizations to join the fight against the regime, the NUG is hoping to unify anti-coup forces to fight the junta in more effective fashion.
But just a few months after Myanmar gained its independence in 1948, several armed organizations took up arms against the then Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL) government over ideological conflicts and racial tensions. At that time Myanmar’s population was 17 million, compared to around 54 million today.
The Karen National Defence Organisation (KNDO), the then armed wing of the Karen National Union (KNU) – which was established before independence – rebelled against the government after their demand to be allowed to secede from the Union was denied. The KNU was also at odds with the government over the Karen peoples’ territorial boundaries within the Union.
Two Karen battalions from the Myanmar military – one based in Pyay and the other in Taungoo in today’s Bago Region – as well as ethnic Karen police joined the KNDO. Other leftist units in Myanmar’s military including Battalions 1 and 3, based respectively in Thayet in today’s Magwe Region and Mingalardon in Yangon, and some Bago-based units also rebelled against the government.
The military-published history of internal insurgency in Myanmar said that there were only around 2,000 officers and men left in Myanmar’s military at the time.
Anti-government groups, which also included different factions of communists, were stronger than the Myanmar military because they had weapons left behind after World War II and also because the defecting units took their arms with them when they joined the revolt.
Troops from the Communist Party of Burma, which had a force of between 10,000 and 15,000 fighters, occupied towns in today’s Ayeyarwady, Bago, Mandalay and Magwe regions, including Hinthada, Pyinmana, Yamethin, Myingyan and Pakokku.
Meanwhile, the white-band faction of the People’s Volunteer Organization, which was formed by independence hero General Aung San from war veterans as his own paramilitary force for the independence struggle, occupied towns in central Myanmar.
The KNDO, which was believed to have at least 10,000 soldiers, occupied Mawlamyine and Thaton in Mon State, in collaboration with the Mon National Defence Organisation. By early 1949, the KNDO had taken control of Mandalay, Pyin Oo Lwin, Taungoo, Pathein, Meiktila and several other towns before its troops reached and occupied Insein Township in the north of Yangon.
Between February 1 and May 22 in 1949, the KNDO was able to retain control of Insein, posing a great threat to the central government in Yangon.
Amid the chaos, government employees went on strike across the country, which was ultimately counterproductive as it gave the government a breathing space. “At the time, the Union government was completely broke. Fortunately, government employees came out on strike across the country. We didn’t even have the money to pay their salaries,” said the then Prime Minister U Nu.
Yangon was surrounded by the vanguards of armed groups. The government was unable to control the rebellion around the country and was struggling to hold Yangon. Some international newspapers even started referring to the U Nu government as the ‘Yangon Government’.
“The Union of Myanmar (then Burma) was rocked violently throughout 1948 and until April 1949,” wrote U Thant, a civil servant in the U Nu government who would later become United Nations Secretary-General, in his book Journey to Pyithawthar.
As Myanmar’s military units were short of weapons, U Nu had to fly to New Delhi to seek help from his Indian counterpart Jawaharlal Nehru. Only after Nehru provided arms was the AFPFL government able to start reoccupying the towns taken by the rebels.
U Nu’s government was also helped by the fact that the different armed groups were no longer collaborating because of their different political objectives. By 1950, the government had retaken control of most of the occupied towns. But more armed groups would later emerge and, over the next 70 years, Myanmar would continue to suffer from insurgencies until today’s civil war.
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