April 14, 2021
Opinions and Commentary

Were Chin Soldiers Made Scapegoats?

The Chin Community ( Germany ) had issued a statement upon the above mentioned topic. They mentioned: “Ever since the first massacre of the students in 1962, General Ne Win’s Military Intelligence Service used to spread words about Chin soldiers shooting at demonstrators.

The same thing happened during the 1974 Labour and U Thant Strikes and again during the uprisings of 1988 after troops mowed down hundreds of demonstrators. This is part of Ne Win’s stratagem to reduce public hatred towards him or his Burma Army and to instil ethnic hatreds among the oppressed peoples”.

The present author is neither a Burmese [1] nor a Chin, but a Rakhaing or Arakanese, hence, also a member of another ethnic minority group of Burma .   As a neutral person, I will attempt to meet the complaints raised by the Chins looking into all authentic historical facts of Burma and its people, and carefully scrutinize the roots of these rumours.

Traditionally, Chins are warrior tribes and many Chins joined the Burma Rifles since Burma was under the British Rule. The bulk of the soldiers in the British-trained Army were of minority ethnic groups such as Chins, Kachins and Karens.   Most of them were Converted Christians from their natural beliefs.  It cannot be ruled out that it was part of the ‘Tactic and Strategy’ or ‘the Policy of Divide and Rule’ of the Colonial Masters then.  In any case, the British Rulers never trusted the majority Buddhists Population of Burma, especially the majority ethnic group, the Burmese.  The Burmese were rarely accepted in the armed forces before the First World War.   Some Colonial Rulers wrote:  “Never arm the Burmese!  If the Burmese have an army they will invade all weaker neighbours, bully other ethnic minorities and finally they will kill their own people who won’t dance to their tune”.   Any how, the British did not accept the Burmese in the Burma Rifles at the beginning.  They used only Chins, Kachins and Karens.

Hence, many Chins were career soldiers and officers when Burma regained her independence and they had a very good reputation as ‘Loyalists to the Union ‘, ‘Real Soldiers Defending Democracy’ and so on, under U Nu’s Regime.    Chins did not accept statehood although they were granted.  They remained as a ‘Special Division’ inside the mainland.   Only in 1974, according to the new constitution ‘Chin Special Division’ became Chin State , however, as everybody knew, the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma and its 1974 constitution were sham ones.   The ‘States’ were only ‘Nominal States’, incomparable to the States of the 1947 constitution.  Since the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma was a centralized Nation and a ‘ One Party State ‘, the real power was only in the hands of an elite group in Rangoon , particularly in the hands of the Party Chairman and the Head of State then, Ne Win.   In fact, the authorities and powers given to the ‘State Councils’ were much lesser than the authority and power of a Deputy Commissioner of a District under U Nu’s regime.   However, even under the BSPP Regime some persons of ethnic minority groups were appointed as high ranking officers in the Burma Armed Forces.   As far as I remember, there were two Chins and one Kachin Brigadier General in the Army, which was the second highest rank in the then army and the Chief of Burma Air force was an Arakanese (Rakhaing).   Also some colonels     were from some minority ethnic groups as well as from Muslims. [2]  Only after 1988, the bulk of the high ranking officers are from “Burmese Buddhists”.

The statement of the Chin Community: “Ever since the care-taker government period in 1958-1960 General Ne Win abolished the British-era ethnic based battalions and turned the Burma Army into mixed-ethnic battalions with the majority made up of ethnic Burmans. But Ne Win was careful enough not to eliminate the names of these battalions, so the names 1st, 2nd or 3rd Chin Rifles remain even though these battalions are no longer made up of Chin soldiers. Burman soldiers made up the majority in any battalion and if there are any Chin soldiers they are only about 20 to 30 or even less in each of these battalions”, is correct.

In fact, Ne Win did it even earlier than the Era of the Caretaker Government.  Since he became army chief in 1949, he had this idea.   He became Commander in Chief of Burma Army after the forced retirement of the Karen, General Smith Dun, because some Karen Army units and one company from a Kachin Battalion went underground and fought against the central government.  Let Ya, who was the Second in Command under Aung San, at the same time, the Defence Minister and Deputy Prime Minister then, was totally against the forced retirement of General Smith Dun, a Karen.   And even when the majority of the cabinet ministers wanted to pension Smith Dun he recommended another Karen, Brigadier Saw Kya Doe, to be given the post of Army Chief.  His efforts were all in vain because eventually Ne Win became the Army Chief.

Ne Win and his protégés did not trust the battalions of the ethnic minorities, especially the Karens and the Kachins.   There were lots of conflict between the Defence Minister Let Ya and the Commander-in-Chief Ne Win due to Let Ya’s plan to send military officers for further studies in the Military Academies Sand Hurst ( England ) and West Point (USA).   Ne Win never trusted the officers either trained by the military academies of the western countries or the officers of ethnic minorities, who at that time became the majority of the general staff of the Burma Armed Forces.   He wanted to dismiss all of them except Brigadier Saw Kya Doe, who had joined the Japanese-trained Burmese Army during the Japanese Era.  Let Ya was against that plan, but Ba Swe, Kyaw Nyein and all the socialists, who were the majority in U Nu’s government, backed Ne Win firmly.   Let Ya became fed up with politics and resigned from both his political and military posts.  These were given to Ne Win, who became Deputy Prime Minister as well as Defence and Home Minister.   He thus could manipulate all Armed Forces in Burma as he wished and as soon as he took office he removed almost all British-trained persons from their posts, regardless of whether they were of Burmese or ethnic-minority descent. The only Sand Hurst-trained Karen, Brigadier Saw Kya Doe, mentioned above as Let Ya’s preferred successor to Smith-Dun, was allowed to remain in the Burma Army for one or two years, not only because he and his battalion joined the Burmese Armies during the Japanese Era but also because he fought against the Karen and other rebels.   Later even Saw Kya Doe became fed up with war and he resigned from the army.

Since that time, Ne Win shuffled the ethnic battalions of the Burma Army into mixed-ethnic battalions with the majority made up of ethnic Burmese slowly by slowly.   He used two methods. The first method was the immediate replacement of the commander and the bulk of the officers of those battalions with Burmese. The second method was replacing the soldiers, non commissioned officers and many officers of that battalion with Burmese and also from other ethnic groups, if the commander was still from that ethnic group.   In that way, all battalions of Burma army became mixed-ethnic battalions with the majority made up of ethnic Burmese.  However, Ne Win was cunning enough not to eliminate the names of these battalions, hence; they remained as Chin, Kachin, Shan, Karen, Ghurkha, Kayah Battalions, and so on.   Some of the commanders were of that ethnic group and some were Burmese.  The final reshuffling was made during the Era of the Care Taker Government.

In the case of the shootings at the university campus on the 7 th July 1962, the commander of that battalion was Lt. Col. Sein Lwin who was later well known as the ‘Butcher Sein Lwin’ in 1988.   The bulk of the soldiers were Burmese and not Chins.   Colonel Sein Lwin was not a well educated man; he did not even finish his high school.  That’s why he regarded university students with jaundiced eyes.   About more than a year ago, in 1960 still under U Nu’s regime, Sein Lwin had problems with university students.   Sein Lwin drove his new Chevrolet Bel Air Sedan recklessly on Prome Road near the University and some students were slightly hit. Instead of stopping to apologize to the students, he and a fellow army officer speeded up the car and tried to escape.   The students followed his car.  Just near the ‘ Windermere Ministers Village ‘ Sein Lwin could not control the speed and the car hit the round-about and stopped.   He and the other officer ran into the ‘ Ministers Village ‘ and took refuge there. One minister came out and consoled the students telling them that he came out to apologize on behalf of the driver and his companion so that the students could forgive the driver and the other.   The angry students did not chase the driver anymore but they set fire to Sein Lwin’s car.  Since that time he was very angry with the university students and waited for a chance to give a Vendetta.   On the 7th July1962 when his troops surrounded the campus, the students jokingly asked him whether he wanted to see how the university campus and class rooms looked like because they knew exactly that he had never been inside there in his whole life, he felt insulted.   It was the best time for him to revenge, hence, he sent Ne Win through radio the false information that the situation could not be controlled by peaceful means and therefore he had to request for shooting orders.   Ne Win who was drunk at that time, wanted to show his power and authority to the challengers, permitted the firing orders.  However, later Ne Win pushed all blames to Aung Gyi, his deputy then, which was vehemently rejected by Aung Gyi in his ‘Open Letter’ in July 1988.

As mentioned earlier, Chins are traditionally warrior tribes and well known to be good and disciplined soldiers.   In fact, since the BSPP Era many Chins did not join the army as they did under U Nu’s Era because there were many shortages in Burma due to the mismanagement of the economy.   Many people had to think for their ‘Existence Minimum’ and had to carry out ‘cross border trading’ with the neighbouring countries in their nearest border.   Those traders, though officially paying tax to the government, were named ‘smugglers’ and the markets selling these goods were called ‘Black Markets’.  Many Chins, too, were involved in this kind of trading with their nearest border, India .  Hence, there were not many Chin soldiers inside the Burma Army.  However, since the Ne Win Era the name Chin Battalions remained although in truth, the bulk of the soldiers of those battalions were pure Burmese Buddhists.   And since the Chins are well known to be good soldiers who obey the commands of their Army chiefs, the various Burmese Military Governments usually stated that it was the Chin Battalion who did the shooting.  Since most of the Chins are Christians and the majority populace of Burma are Buddhists, this also serves as a good tool to confuse the Burmese populace and ‘divide and rule’ the country between the Chins and the Buddhists majority similar to the way the Colonial Masters did earlier.

Here I would like to point out that the descendents of the People of the Subcontinent had to bear the burden of the ‘Divide and Rule Policy’ of the British Colonial Masters.   Until the present time, they are neither cordially accepted nor showed affinity by the Burmese people.  A similar situation can be found in many former British Colonies in Africa .

During the Colonial Era, the British preferred Indians for public sector jobs.   Most of the policemen and officers, postmen, railways and other transport workers, prison guards and officers, doctors, nurses and hospital workers, clerks, armed forces personnel and even menial workers were Indians.    Here I would like to cite Ton That Tien [3] who wrote:  “That in some form of occupation half of those engaged, and that in other forms of employment over 40%, should be aliens, would be a remarkable situation in any country”.

On the whole the British were too distrustful of the loyalty of their Buddhist subjects (the Burmese and other ethnic groups like Mons , Shans and Arakanese) to become familiar with modern science, technology and warfare.   All independence struggles, rebellions, boycotts and so on, were brutally crushed by the British-Indian Army, Para-Military Police and Burma Police which were mainly filled up with Indians.

Thus there began to rise in Burma an antagonism against Indians in addition to anti-British feelings.   Many Burmese did have ill-feelings towards the Indians during the colonial era. These feelings are now slowly decreasing, especially among the new generation who were born in the post-independence era.  However, until the present time, Indians are neither cordially accepted nor showed affinity by the Burmese people.

Aping the Colonial Masters, the various Military Governments have been using the same divide and rule tactics with a big difference.  Indians were aliens brought by the British to Burma and the whole battalion is filled only with Indian soldiers.  Chins are indigenous minorities of Burma and the battalions are not filled with Chin soldiers but with Burmese Buddhists and are named Chin battalions.    This shows that the various Military Governments are more crooked than the Colonial Masters.

Nowadays, in Burma if one sees a minority soldier who speaks Burmese with accent they just conclude that this is a Chin although they may be a Wa or Karen or Kachin or of other minorities, because the reputation of Chin soldiers was totally destroyed since Ne Win’s Era.   There were rumours that these soldiers who shot the monks in Rangoon in September 2007 were taken from the Thai-Burmese Border.  It cannot be ruled out that some soldiers are from the ‘ceased fire groups’ of some other ethnic minorities or the Pocket Army of the Opium Warlords, who are for the time being allies of this military regime.   When we saw the pictures of some soldiers in ‘Stern Magazine’ their features were with ‘Chinky Eyes’ and they looked more like other ethnic minorities from the Chinese Border rather than a Chin.  Hence, no wonder, they talked in a much accented Burmese as some monks claimed.

However, one cannot deny the fact that the majority soldiers in the division stationed in Rangoon , which crushed the demonstrators in September 2007, were Burmese Buddhists.  In any case, these soldiers were recruited from some minorities as well as from the Burmese.    Many young boys from their childhood were taken or bought from their poor parents and trained to become soldiers.  According to the latest surveys, there are about 70,000 ‘Child Soldiers’ in the Burmese Army, the highest in the world.   They were taught or better say ‘brain washed’ to be faithful and loyal to the Burmese Military and their leaders only.  They were taught they had no parents anymore, only the Burma Army was their parents and because of the Burmese Military and their leaders, they could survive and therefore they had to respect ‘their parents’ had to listen to them and obey their orders.  It is very similar to the way the Japanese Imperial Army trained Koreans and Manchus about 25 years before the Second World War.  Most ‘Japanese soldiers’ stationed in South East Asia were the so-called “Manchukos”.  Only officers were Japanese. One cannot neglect the fact that, Ne Win, the so-called ‘Second Father of the Modern Burmese Army’ was a Japanese-trained soldier who turned down the plan to send military officers to go for further studies in the Military Academies Sand Hurst (England) and West Point (USA).   Hence, there is no doubt that many ideologies of the modern Burmese Army were influenced by the Mentalities and Ideas of the Second World War’s Imperialist Japanese Army!

Sometimes the Burmese are too ethno-centric.  They had and have an illusion that pure Burmese Buddhists soldiers won’t shoot and kill their own people, especially the monks even if they are ordered by their officers.    They would rather become renegades and so on.  In fact, since the time of the Burmese Royal Army; all Burmese soldiers did kill, loot, rape, and destroy everything which their ‘He who must be obeyed’ commanded.   The past history  of Ayuddiya (Siam) and Mrauk U (Arakan), then the present history of U Thant’s funeral riots in 1974, then again in 1988 had proven that Burmese soldiers did not respect the clergy and the religion they supposed to practice.  There is no doubt that these Burmese soldiers did kill monks, loot monasteries, temples, destroyed Buddha statues and even loot the Buddha statues as booty to take home during the crushing of these demonstrations in September 2007.

The history of the Holy Maha Muni Image in Mandalay has proven it!  The Burmese Royal Armies looted this colossal statue from the Arakan City or Mrauk U after the Burmese conquest of the Rakhaing Kingdom in the late 19 th Century.  They used the Arakanese prisoners of war, about thirty thousand including the last King of Arakan, as slave labour to carry that colossal image across the mountain range and for other slavery works.   Till now some Arakanese from Sittwe call the Burmese as “Robbers and Thugs of the Holy Image, Maha Muni”.   I am sure; Thais must have been naming the Burmese some similar names.   There were rumours in Thailand that the Burmese king Hsinphyu Shin of the Konbaung Dynasty had robbed the gold from Ayuddiya and donated that gold to the (former) umbrella [4] of the Shwe Dagon Pagoda in Rangoon .

After 1988 many Chins left the country because of economic, social, political and other problems.   It can even be called as the ‘Chin Exodus’ and therefore, nowadays there are very few Chin soldiers in the Burma Army.   Aside from that, almost all ethnic minorities in Burma are bilingual speakers.   Apart of their mother tongue, they also have to speak and learn Burmese which is the Lingua Franca of the whole Union of Burma.   As Christians the Chins learned the English language from the Christian Missionaries.   That’s why; generally their command of the English language is much superior to many Burmese who start learning this only from the 5 th grade where their teachers are also not native speakers but Burmese.   After the nationalization of all schools in Burma in 1965, Burmese replaced English as the official language used in the schools.   Teaching the minority languages such as Shan, Karen, Mon and so forth was also forbidden. Only in the early 80s, when Ne Win’s favourite daughter Khin Sandar Win failed the entrance examination in Singapore , did English once again become an official language.   It was rather too late because there was then a shortage of experienced teachers able to teach the required subjects in English.  Many experienced teachers and scientists who had been trained under U Nu’s government began to leave Burma and settle abroad.   The Burmese people have had to suffer under this burden until the present.   Hence, if a normal Burmese goes abroad he/she has language difficulty but many Chins speak English fluently and rarely face language difficulty.

As the way, the Chin Community claims:   “The Chin youth are very clever and intelligent and very much globalized.  In response to the military regime’s persecution and hardships and sufferings imposed upon them, the Chin youth are temporarily leaving behind their beloved land in the thousands to study political science, economics, and theology and so on in the western countries. At this very moment there are already about 500 Chin students in the universities in the western world and the number is increasing. This makes the racist military regime very nervous”.  According to population ratio, the Burmese and Chins are 40:1, however, based on this population ratio, nowadays there are comparatively more Chins studying abroad than Burmese.

As a conclusion, I would like to say that I share the view of the Chin Community.   There is no doubt that the Chins were made Scapegoats by the Burmese Military for their propaganda purposes as well as for their further ‘divide and rule policy’ because all opposition groups, whether they are Burmese or ethnic minorities, have the same and single goal which is to topple down the Military Dictatorship in Burma and the Junta is afraid that they will be united.   Hence, the Junta instead of admitting their mismanagement, tried to divert by pushing blames on Chin soldiers thereby ‘shooting two birds simultaneously with one stone’. So for those in the opposition camp inside or outside Burma , and especially the Burmese media in exile, should think twice before they write or speak so as not to unwittingly echo the junta’s words but rather scrutinize the reality inside the Burma Army and avoid becoming a mouthpiece of the enemy they claim to fight against.

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[1] The word Burmese or Burman is also only for the Bamas, the biggest ethnic group in Burma and not for the citizens of Burma, because if one asks a Karen or a Shan or even a Tavoyian who speaks a dialect of the Burmese Language, “Are you a Burmese or a Burman” his answer will be no doubt, ” I’m neither Burmese nor Burman, instead I am a Tavoyan, Chin, Shan and so forth.   ” The word Arakanese or Rakhine/Rakhaing is also only for the majority ethnic group in the Rakhine State, the people who are called Yakhines by Burmese, and not for the other groups living in Rakhine State such as Mro, Dainet, Kamans, Kamwee, Myedu, early Bengali settlers who came after the British occupation and the group who named themselves “Rohingyas”. I used the word Indian in this paper to represent not just the people of India , but rather the people from the Subcontinent, which means Indians, Pakistanis and Bangladeshis who are called Kalas by the Burmese.

[2] Muslim is a religion. Regardless of any ethnic group, every body could be Muslim if they believe in this religion. Hence, what I meant was not only the Buddhists who are majorities but also the believers of the minority religion could also get higher positions.
[3] Ton That Tien, India and Burma , in: India and South East Asia 1947-1960, Geneva , 1963, p. 152.

[4] The present Umbrella of Shwe Dagon Pagoda was donated by King Mindon in the second half of the 19 th century.   The Umbrella donated by King Hsinphyu Shin is kept in the Pagoda Museum since that time.  King Hsinphyu Shin donated that umbrella due to his body weight one or two years after the Burmese conquest of Siam .   That’s why, the modern Thais suspected it to be made of the gold taken as booty from Siam .  About 90 years later, at the second half of the 19 th century, his great grand nephew, King Mindon, replaced that umbrella with the new one due to his body weight again.   Since Hsinphyu Shin was a warrior and Mindon was a fat man, it is sure that Mindon was heavier than his great grand uncle.   Apart from that, Mindon was the king only of Upper Burma .  Lower Burma had already become a British Colony and King Mindon had to ask permission from the British Government for his donation.   When even the king of the half of Burma could donate more gold to the new umbrella than the first one; it must be taken for granted that the ruler of the entire Burmese empire then, Hsinphyu Shin, could easily donate such gold amount without using the gold from Siam taken as booty, though there was a very unfortunate incident.   The present author has seen that umbrella many times in the museum.  The names of other donors from the Ava City were written on the gold banyan leaves and small gold bells attached to that umbrella, though the king was formally known as the main donor.

By Zaw Htwe Maung

Chinland Guardian
November 22, 2007

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