Life & Times of Lahpai Zau June (MC & Bar; Thray Sithu)

Lahpai Zau June grew up a widow’s son in the small village of Loi Kang, not far from the town of Kutkai. As a young lad, he walked the 3 miles back and forth from Loi Kang to Kutkai to attend primary school. It was a time when the teaching of Kachin had newly become part of the school curriculum, and much enthusiasm for learning was being generated amongst the Kachins. Zau June was the first from his village to attend school.

Loi Kang/Kutkai is in Hsenwi State (Sinli to the Kachins), and forms part of the Kachin enclave that stretches from Hsenwi to Kodaung/Mong Mit in Northern Shan States. The Shan princes or Sawbwas, much like the Maha Rajahs of British India, were given free rein to rule over their traditional fiefdoms with only nominal supervision from the colonial government. Kachin chiefs or Duwas in the Shan area were given similar autonomy, with more than 60 of them holding sway as “Nay Baing” or homeland rulers.

Young Zau June was a bright and diligent student, and his potential as a high achiever was duly brought to the attention of the ruling Council of Shan Chiefs. The Council awarded him a scholarship that would cover the entire span of his academic life. He also received an additional monthly stipend of Rs[1]. 5 from the Sawbwa of his home state, Hsenwi. This enabled Zau June to study in Lashio, the largest town in Northern Shan States, after finishing primary school at Kutkai, and then to Taunggyi in Southern Shan States for his high school education. From there, he went on to study civil engineering at the government technical school at Insein, Rangoon.

It was while he was in his final year at the technical school, that he was recruited to undergo military training at Mandalay. This was in 1941, a year before the Japanese invasion of Burma, and the British were hastily ramping up recruitment to beef up army ranks. He joined a group of 45 mostly civil servants for a 4-month training course. At the end of the training, only 12 Burmans (non-Anglos) were selected to attend an Officer Cadet Course at Maymyo. The 3 Kachins in the select group were Duwa Shan Lone (later Maj.) from the Home and Political Department at the Secretariat, Subedar Zau Gawng (later Lt. Col., First Kachin Rifles) from the Myitkyina Frontier Force Battalion, and Zau June. After completing the 3-month Officer Cadet Course, Zau June was put on the Reserved List of Military Officers as 2nd Lieutenant, and enlisted as Recruiting Officer in Sumprabum, the hilly region north of Myitkyina.

When the Japanese did enter Burma, the swiftness and ferocity with which the invasion took place caught the British off guard, and forced them to make a hasty retreat to India instead of putting up any strong resistance. Zau June also had to abandon his post at Sumprabum, and come down to Myitkyina. It was now May 1942, and he found the town in a state of chaos. Refugees from lower Burma were arriving in droves, while the townspeople were desperately trying to flee ahead of the Japanese advance. Zau June went to put up at his cousin Deputy Inspector of Schools (DIS) Lahpai Khun Nawng’s place, but found the house abandoned. His cousin had fled to the ancestral home at Pangmu in the Burma-China borderlands of Sinlum Hills.

The British had been airlifting essential personnel, including the newly trained officers, to India. Zau June arrived in Myitkyina at the tail end of this operation, and was to be on the very last plane to leave Myitkyina. However, the morning of the departure, he overslept and missed the plane. The Japanese were about to enter Myitkyina, and he was on his own, cut off from his fellow servicemen and his British superiors. This put him in imminent danger of being captured as a British spy.

There was no possibility of returning to his childhood village of Loikang as the Japanese were all over the place, with all rail and motor ways now in their hands. The best option it seemed, was to trek to Pangmu and seek refuge with his clan uncle Rev. Lahpai Zau Tu, the Duwa of Pangmu.

Once at Pangmu, Rev. Zau Tu, a strict traditionalist, set about getting the 26 year old bachelor properly settled in marriage, war or no war. A suitable partner was found in 21 year old school teacher Lasi Bu, daughter of his trusted deacon Lasi Balawng and Maran Ji Jan, his wife’s niece. However, within a week of their wedding on January 27, 1943, the young couple had to flee Pangmu as they learned the Japanese military police at Bhamo had been making enquiries about Zau June.

Lt. Zau June and his bride fled to Wawhkyung in the Sadung Hills, home to the Zaiwa branch of the Lahpai clan, to which Zau June belonged. It took the couple 14 days of foot slogging to reach Wawhkyung, a town on the Kampaiti Road that led to China. Some months afterwards, Gen. Wingate’s Chindit [2] forces swarmed into the area, and Zau June joined them in their march east, going as far as the Chinese city of Baoshan/Paoshan. On his return, while recuperating from a severe bout of malaria, he received urgent summons to come to India. So in October of 1943, leaving his now heavily pregnant wife behind, he made another long difficult trek, this time to India.

Within a month of his departure, a young Karen army officer arrived at Wawhkyung, having parachuted in. As directed by Zau June, he made contact with Lasi Bu, seeking her help in gathering intelligence on Japanese military movements in the area. Lasi Bu proved her mettle by quickly organizing a network of trusted Kachins to report on Japanese maneuvers. At the end of each day, she would consolidate the information received, translate it, and pass it on to the officer to be relayed to Headquarters by wireless. This was dangerous work as there was heightened Japanese activity in the area, and no way of knowing who amongst the locals might be Japanese collaborators.

Then in May 1944, Zau June, now Captain (temporary) with British Special Force 136 [3], parachuted in to Mungji Htingnu Kawng, a former British frontier fort. This was to be a major staging ground for British re-entry into Burma later that year. At the fort, there were about 1,000 men, ex-Burma Rifles and assorted Kachin recruits under the command of Maj. Shan Lone. They were later joined by 2 British officers from India, and supplies of arms, clothing, etc., were dropped by parachute on moonlit nights. Hundreds of Chinese irregulars also came from across the border to receive arms and training.

Soon after his arrival at the fort, Capt. Zau June sent for his wife and newborn son to join him. As there was a major Japanese battalion stationed nearby, the trip was not without its dangers. About this time, General Chiang Kai-shek’s Chinese forces arrived in the area to do battle with the Japanese. As a result, Lasi Bu found herself looking after about 50 war refugee families while her warrior husband immersed himself in covert military operations.

As the operation expanded south into the Shan States, Zau June was dropped behind enemy lines south east of Kutkai on the night of November 29, 1944. His assignment, given his hometown advantage, was to prepare the ground for the parachute landing of a unit of select Burma Rifles Kachin officers. With Allied entry into Burma now in full swing, the Kachin officers coordinated efforts by British led Force 136 and US led OSS Detachment 101[4] to mobilize and arm Kachin levies, while also leading them into battle. Areas south of Hsenwi and Lashio towns saw large scale battles against the Japanese. Intensified air drops of arms and supplies continued until October 10, 1945, when the Japanese finally surrendered to the Allied Forces.

While operating on this front, Capt. Zau June distinguished himself with exceptional acts of bravery, and received a host of accolades – mentioned in dispatches, awarded the Military Cross (MC), and Bar[5] for additional acts of gallantry. It was also during this time that he was able to save his benefactor, the Sawbwa of Hsenwi, from the clutches of the Japanese, arranging for his evacuation to India.

[6] In the meanwhile, Lasi Bu found herself stranded in Sima. British Lt. Col. Herring of the Dah[7] force kindly stepped in to arrange her evacuation to her parents’ home in Pangmu, now clear of Japanese presence as the Kachin Rangers led by Capt. (later Gen.) Lazum Tang Gyi had chased them out of the Bhamo area. A Padang Manau, the first of other such victory manaus celebrating the Japanese rout from Kachinland, was held at Sinlum from March 24-26, 1945.

By the end of the war, Zau June had been promoted to the rank of Major, and was serving in the 2nd Kachin Rifles, when he requested for a transfer to civilian service. He was accepted to the Frontier Service, formerly a white preserve, and served as Assistant Resident in the Sadung and Kamaing areas. In 1947, on the eve of independence, he was made Joint District Commissioner (DC) of Myitkyina, in preparation for his installation as DC of Myityina in the newly created Kachin State upon independence. The Myitkyina DC superseded all other DCs in the state, and Zau June had the distinction of being the first Kachin to hold this lofty administration position in the post-independence era.

The immediate years after independence were tumultuous. The entire country was plunged into chaos and instability with a multitude of political and ethnic armed groups rising up against the central government of Prime Minister U Nu. The situation was so volatile, the newly independent nation seemed teetering on the brink of disintegration.

In Kachin State, as elsewhere, security was of primary concern. The immediate threat came from communist strongholds in Shwebo and Monywa Districts to the south and southwest of the Kachin State border line. With an eye to expanding their control up north, the communists destroyed bridges, and disrupted the Myitkyina railway lines near Kawlin, effectively cutting off the State’s life line. Communication with Rangoon was sporadic at best, and beset with rumors of imminent rebel takeovers, civil servants were confused, panic stricken and demoralized, not knowing whether to stay on at their posts or abandon their duties and flee.

Then there were rogue officials who would take advantage of the chaotic situation to enrich themselves. When government officials from Katha, an important district town along the railway line, came running up to Myitkyina citing rumors of an imminent Karen insurgent raid, it was decided to send a contingent of Union Military Police (UMP) to beef up the town’s defenses. However at Katha, the UMP men found no trace of any rebel presence. Instead, they were told that the treasury needed to be transferred to Myitkyina to prevent it from falling into rebel hands.

Completely ignorant of treasury regulations and evacuation procedures, the UMPs brought back with them, the few bags of small change the Treasury Officer had handed over to them. DC Zau June was horrified to find that the Treasury Officer had not come up with the UMPs, or provided any documents relating to the transfer. Rumors then circulated in Katha that the UMP Kachins had looted the treasury. It was only after the Prime Minister appointed a special prosecutor that the true facts of the affair came to light – that the Katha DC and Treasury Officer had connived to loot the treasury and scapegoat the UMPs.

In the face of such daunting challenges, the young Myitkyina DC leaned on his cousin, former DIS Lahpai Khun Nawng, now an army commander at Myitkyina, to navigate the affairs of state. The two of them, together with trusted friend and compatriot Maj. Ja Naw, chief of the UMP, worked in tandem to steady the new Kachin State.

Zau June’s tenure as Myitkyina DC was only some 2 years, cut short by an untimely death at the age of 34. Nevertheless, he was a very popular leader who had the trust and respect of all ethnic groups that populate the state, not just the Kachins. He was in particular, the darling of Kachin youth. The Union government also considered him a most valuable and able administrator, and honored him with the civilian order of Thray Sithu for services rendered during a particularly trying period in the history of the young nation.

The “Zau June Road” that runs along the banks of the Irrawaddy River at Myitkyina, stands in honor of DC Zau June’s memory as an outstanding Kachin leader.

 

References:

Ninghtoi Aprat a Magam Alat: Duwa Lahpai Zau Jun; Shiga Shanan, Vol. 27, December 2009; Jinghpaw Wunpawng Amyu Sha Hpung, Japan. (A Hero of the Times: Duwa Lahpai Zau Jun; Newsletter of the Kachin National Organization; Vol. 27, December 2009; Japan)

Memoirs of Col. Lahpai Khun Nawng & Duwa (Maj.) Shan Lone (private circulation).

[1] Rupees: Indian monetary unit used in British times.

[2] A British Special Force formed to operate behind Japanese lines in Burma in 1943 and 1944.

 [3] A branch of the British WWII Special Operations Executive (SOE) organization, formed to encourage and supply resistance movements in enemy-occupied territory, and occasionally mount clandestine sabotage operations.

[4] Detachment 101 of the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) which operated in the China-Burma-India Theater during World War II, and recruited and trained thousands of Kachin Rangers, who provided valuable assistance in the eventual recapture of the Burma Road, turning the tide of war against the Japanese.

[5] Bar to the Military Cross: Captain (temporary) Laphai Zau June, M.C. (ABRO 188), Army in Burma Reserve of Officers; (Supplement to the London Gazette; 20 December, 1945)

[6] After the war, the Sawbwa gifted Zau June’s widow Lasi Bu with a plot of land in Kutkai as an act of gratitude.

[7] A British-led force of Kachin irregulars attached to the Chindits.

Leave a Reply

*