JPRI Working Paper No. 87, August 2002
Burma’s Japanese Interlude, 1941-45: Did Japan Liberate Burma?
by Donald M. Seekins

According to a brief section titled  “Dai Toa Kaigi to Ajia Shokoku” (The Greater East Asia Conference and the Countries of Asia) in the controversial Atarashii Rekishi Kyokasho (New History Textbook) approved by Japan’s Ministry of Education last year:
Japan’s leaders thought it necessary to strengthen military control of the occupied areas in order to carry out the war effort. However, in order to win the hearts and minds of people in these territories for Japan, Japan granted independence to Burma and the Philippines in 1943 (Showa 18), and extended formal recognition to the Provisional Government of Free India.
Moreover, Japan, in order to gain the greater cooperation of the occupied territories in Asia, convened a Greater East Asia Conference in November 1943 with representatives from each of the territories. Major themes of the Conference were the sovereignty, independence, and cooperatively beneficial economic development of each nation, and the repudiation of racial discrimination, as expressed in the Greater East Asia Proclamation. This embodied the ideals of Japan’s war effort and was meant as a rejoinder to the Atlantic Charter promulgated by the Allied Nations [in 1941]. (Tokyo: Fusosha, 2000, pp. 280-81)
The section concludes by mentioning the role of the Japanese-sponsored Indian National Army in that country’s struggle for independence from Britain, achieved in 1947, and Burma’s success in breaking free of British rule the following year. “In these areas [i.e., South and Southeast Asia], movements for independence intensified, compared to the pre-war period, and so it can be said that the Japanese military’s advance into the southern regions (Nippon gun no Nampo shinshutsu) speeded up the independence of Asian countries [from colonial domination].” 
The language of the New History Textbook is concise and muted. But Michiko Hasegawa offers an unequivocal “affirmation” of Japan’s war and its accomplishments in her April, 1983, Chuo Koron article:
Did our Greater East Asia War really result in total defeat? The former colonies that became battlegrounds all gained their independence during or after the war, and they have not fallen into white hands again. What are we to make of this fact? In the postwar years we were taught that this was an incidental by-product of that detestable war. Yet as Japan’s official statements on war objectives make clear, the goal was to free Asia from British and American domination and establish the area’s self-defense and independence. Again, if one asks Japanese war veterans why they fought, the reply comes that they believed they were fighting to liberate Asia. And indeed, Asia was liberated. It is a curious logic that denies any connection between this purpose and the war’s outcome. Is history so difficult that it can only be understood through such a strange logic?   [Translated in Japan Echo, Vol. 11 (special issue, 1984), pp. 29-37.]
Drawing on the earlier work of Fusao Hayashi (Dai Toa Senso Koteiron, Affirmation of the Greater East Asia War), Hasegawa defines what other writers have called the Fifteen Years’ War (1931-1945) as the culmination of a “100 years’ war” that began when the western powers invaded East Asia in the mid-nineteenth century. Moreover, the “Greater East Asia War” was fought not in Japan’s national interest but to defend Asia’s cultural integrity (its “cultural sphere”) and very existence, which was in danger of being “choked” to death by the aggressive Westerners. That Japanese soldiers wound up fighting Asians was regrettable, even tragic, Hasegawa admits (one is reminded of what the American military used to say in Vietnam, that “we had to destroy that village in order to save it”). But it was a war with a higher purpose than mere empire-building.
These two passages present us with two rather different propositions: first, that the Japanese “advance” into Southeast Asia speeded up the process of decolonization, although it is not argued in the New History Textbook that if the “Greater East Asia War” had not occurred, the European colonies of Southeast Asia would never have achieved independence; second, and far more ambitiously (here I refer to Hasegawa’s passage), that the essence of the war was a survival struggle of Asian peoples against the West, and that this war was successful (thus, worthy of affirmation) since it resulted in the fall of the (European) colonial empires. Hasegawa compares the war-as-decolonization with Lincoln’s emancipation of the slaves during the American Civil War. However, she cryptically comments that Lincoln is given credit for freeing the slaves because he won his war, while the Japanese accomplishment (“an incidental by-product of that detestable war”) is belittled because Japan lost.
A closer look at the historical sources shows that the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia is difficult to define simply in terms of  “affirmation” or denial. In talking about “colonialism” or “the colonies,” we often overlook the fact that each country in Southeast Asia, and each of the (British, Dutch, French, and American) colonial regimes that governed them, was different. The Japanese impact on each of them, and on different peoples inside each country, also varied remarkably, so that we can speak of the Chinese in Singapore and Malaya enduring systematic atrocities during 1942-45 (for example, the Japanese-instigated sook ching extermination campaign, which claimed thousands of victims among Chinese males), while the indigenous Malays’ rural way of life was minimally affected (apart from Tokyo’s policy, wisely dropped, of promoting Emperor worship among devout Muslims). 
Indeed, if any generalization can be made about the “Greater East Asia War,” it is that it tore apart societies—ethnically, religiously, and in terms of social class—that had already been weakened by the contradictions of colonial rule. Some nations have been able to overcome this fragmentation in the decades since the war (Malaysia and Singapore, for example). Others have not (principally Burma), and arguably continue to suffer because of the legacies of  colonialism and the war.
Burma (known officially since 1989 as Myanmar) is the most interesting case study of the “Greater East Asia War” and its impact. This is true for three reasons. First, Japanese revisionists often hold up Burma as the prime example of the liberating agenda of the war, since most of the country’s post independence leaders (Aung San, U Nu, Ne Win) came to prominence under Japanese auspices in 1941-45. Second, the Japanese established what became independent Burma’s most important political, economic and (with the possible exception of the Buddhist monkhood) social institution, the Tatmadaw, or armed forces. Burma has been governed by an “Army/State” ever since March of 1962.
Third, Burma’s “Japanese interlude” represented a fundamental turning point in its development, more significant than the achievement of formal independence in 1948 and arguably of equal significance to its colonization by the British in the nineteenth century. Different parts of Burma have been battle zones since the first Japanese forces crossed over from Thailand in the opening weeks of the war. The ongoing civil war has turned what was once a prosperous and cosmopolitan country into one of Asia’s poorest and most isolated. Looking more closely at the Burmese case, we can see why a revisionist “affirmation” of the war is problematic, to say the least.
British Burma: Dynamic, but Divided
What follows is a fairly detailed description of Burma under British rule just before the outbreak of the war, since I believe no assessment of the Japanese interlude is complete without considering what went before. If one assumes that the colonial regime was totally bad, and moreover incapable of reforming itself, then its overthrow in 1942 must be a welcome event, analogous to the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in 1978-79, which got rid of the Pol Pot regime. But if one takes the position that the colonial system, seriously flawed though it was, was capable of evolving into a post colonial situation on its own, peacefully, then the Japanese “liberation” of Burma looks quite different.
In the years leading up to the Pacific War, Burma was Southeast Asia’s most developed country. It was blessed with rich natural resources, including abundant land for the cultivation of rice (between the late nineteenth century and the war, Burma was the world’s largest exporter of rice to world markets), petroleum (five percent of world production), teak (with forests protected by strict conservation measures), rubber, tin, tungsten, lead, silver, jade (mostly exported to China, where it is still highly prized), and world famous “pigeon blood” rubies. Standards of living for just about everyone (except poor Indian laborers and the more primitive upland ethnic groups, whom the British called “hill tribes”) were higher than in most other parts of Asia due to the abundance of food and other necessities. Although the economic position of ordinary Burmese farmers had deteriorated by the late 1930s, Rangoon (population in 1931: 400,000) rivalled Shanghai and Tokyo as one of Asia’s most modern and cosmopolitan cities.
Colonial Burma had a lively civil society, centered on Rangoon, embracing diverse religious, occupational, ethnic, and political associations, print media which were largely, though not completely, free to criticize the government, and a high quality University of Rangoon which nurtured a new generation of intellectual and political leaders. Because the university and elite secondary schools conducted courses in English, educated Burmese gained a facility in the language rivalled only in India.
The British government was armed with a formidable array of anti-subversive laws, but used them sparingly, at least until the outbreak of the European war in 1939. The rule of law was firmly established, and Burmese, who had their own sophisticated legal traditions, became such eager litigants that a retired executive of the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company comments that his firm earned a large percentage of its profits from conveying people back and forth to the courts in Lower Burma. The political system was not genuinely democratic, since the British governor had authority independent of the legislature in the constitutional system established in 1935. Elite civil servants (mostly British, with a few Burmese) had powers comparable to Japan’s present-day kanryo. But Burmese who wished to make use of them had freedoms that people in French Indochina or the Netherlands East Indies could only dream about.
The constitution of 1935 separated Burma administratively from India. It established a bicameral legislature which, like the British parliament, chose a prime minister. Most legislators were elected from territorial constituencies, others were reserved for minority communities and special interests. The governor, appointed by London, had sole authority over matters relating to defense, finances, foreign relations, and the Frontier Areas.
Burmese high school and university students were a prominent and much admired group in colonial society, and their rather playful political activism during the late 1930s resembled that of Americans and Europeans in the 1960s rather than Burmese oppositionists today, who face jail, torture, and possibly death. Two important political groups by the late 1930s were the Rangoon University Students’ Union (RUSU), which became radicalized under the leadership of Aung San (father of opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi) and Thakin Nu (later U Nu, Burma’s first prime minister after independence), and the Thakin Party, or Dobama Asiayone (“We Burmans Association”), established in 1930 by young urban intellectuals. (Thakin in Burmese means “master,” and Burmese were expected to use it when addressing the British—like sahib in India. That Burmese used the term to refer to themselves had subversive meanings for the colonial regime.) The Thakins, who by the end of the decade included the student leaders Aung San and Nu, led the drive for independence and attacked mainstream politicians for being subservient to the colonial overlords.
The worldview of these students, hardly a coherent ideology, was a lively blend of diverse trends: politicized Buddhism, Indian nationalist ideas, Irish Sinn Feinism, fascism, non-revolutionary Fabian socialism, and Sun Yat-sen’s San Min Chu-i.  The principal influence, however, was Marxism-Leninism. Thakin Nu established the Nagani or “Red Dragon” Book Club in 1937. Most of its publications were Marxist literature, translated into Burmese from western languages. All the most important young nationalists, including Aung San and Thakin Nu, were leftists. In 1939, they established the Communist Party of Burma, although Aung San, chosen secretary-general, was never a committed communist.
Outwardly prosperous, Burma’s society under colonial rule suffered from serious contradictions. Most Burmese living in the central part of the country (especially the Burmans, the ethnic majority who compose around 60-65 percent of the population) did not regard British rule as legitimate. The older generation looked with nostalgia on the Konbaung Dynasty, which the British abolished in 1885 at the end of the Third Anglo-Burmese War. They also feared that under alien rule the Buddhist religion, which had always been generously supported by the old kings, would perish amid the flood of foreign influences, including missionary Christianity. The younger generation, informed by leftist ideology, sought a radical new synthesis of Buddhism, socialism and nationalism that would restore the country’s independence and cure its social and economic ills.
Most ordinary Burmese found the elaborate “self-government” apparatus established by the British on the local and national levels simply irrelevant, and declined to participate in elections and other aspects of public life. According to John S. Furnivall, a perceptive observer of the colonial regime, “self-government was impossible because there was no self to govern itself” (Colonial Policy and Practice: A Comparative Study of Burma and Netherlands India, Cambridge University Press, 1948, p. 149). By “self,” he meant a citizenry sharing common values and an appreciation of the public interest.
Furnivall called this phenomenon of public disengagement the “plural society,” symptomatic of colonial “tropical economies.” What it meant was not simply that different cultural groups, with their own distinct values and customs, lived adjacent to each other (but not together) under a common authority, but that these groups, struggling to survive in an economically rational environment (“buy cheap, sell dear”), had nothing in common, lived in a state of mutual suspicion and anomie, and indeed were often at each others’ throats (for example, the Rangoon race riots of 1930 and 1938 between Burmese and Indians, in which hundreds of Indians were killed). As is true in today’s globalized economy (indeed, the colonial plural society is a cautionary tale for twenty-first century globalizers), different groups were unequally prepared (in terms of cultural values, levels of skill, political connections, and material wealth) to compete in a modern economy with clearly recognizable ethnic winners and losers. The results of this competition became politicized (thus, the radicalism of the young nationalists), especially as world economic conditions after 1929 made the suffering of the losers worse.
Immigrants, mostly Hindu and Muslim Indians with smaller numbers of Chinese and Europeans, sought economic opportunities. The immigration of Indians was facilitated by the fact that until the 1935 constitution was implemented in 1937, Burma was a province of the British Indian Empire and restrictions on their movements could not be imposed. By 1931, fifty percent of Rangoon’s residents were from the subcontinent (only 35 percent were Burmese), and Indians (including people from what are now Pakistan and Bangladesh) formed ten percent of the population of Lower (southern) Burma, or about 600,000 people.

The colonial regime’s economic policy was laissez faire, combining limited public investment in infrastructure (railroads, inland waterways) with a business-friendly legal regime. Foreigners, including not only British owners of large corporations such as the Irrawaddy Flotilla and Burma Oil but also Indian and Chinese entrepreneurs, dominated the modern, export-oriented economy, and local economies as well. Burmese farmers benefited from the boom in rice exports in the late nineteenth century, but by the early twentieth century were squeezed by low prices (often artificially low, due to collusion by buyers even when world prices were high), indebtedness, and forfeiture of their family farms to moneylenders, many of whom were members of the much-disliked South Indian Chettiar caste. The Chettiars became absentee landlords, whose large estates formed a growing percentage of Lower Burma’s agriculturally rich lands. Dispossessed Burmese farmers became their tenants, or joined the growing ranks of the unemployed who drifted into the cities and competed with low-paid Indians for scarce jobs (much like the Joads in John Steinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath).
Indians worked as urban and rural laborers, often under conditions of extreme poverty, but they also filled the lower ranks of the civil service (50 percent of all government employees were Indian), the professions (including most physicians), and the police and colonial army (along with Karens and other ethnic minorities). A majority of office workers in the big corporations were Indians, as were many merchants, shopkeepers, and craftsmen. Many members of the much smaller Chinese community also excelled in business, like their counterparts in Malaya and Singapore; however, the Burmese resented them less than they did the Indians because they assimilated more easily into Burmese society (indeed, many prominent members of Burmese society, including former dictator Ne Win, are Sino-Burmese). Although there were some Burmese capitalists—a handful of moneylenders and rice millers—they were the exception rather than the rule.
A second major division in colonial Burma, one which had still greater impact on the country’s subsequent development than the plural society, was between the lowland, rice-cultivating peoples of central Burma (what the British called “Burma Proper”), and the so-called “hill tribes” who lived along the country’s borders with China, Thailand, French Indochina, and India. More than 40 percent of Burma’s land area but a much smaller percentage of its population were included in the “Frontier Areas,” administered separately from Burma Proper, where local rulers enjoyed considerable autonomy. The Frontier Area included the Shans, a sophisticated people whose princes (sawbwa) governed thirty-two semi-independent states in eastern Burma (present-day Shan State); the Karens, who also lived in large numbers in the Irrawaddy Delta south of Rangoon; the Karenni, Kachins, Chins, Nagas, and Wa (the latter with an unsavory reputation as headhunters). Altogether, there are about forty to fifty major minority groups.
With the principal exception of the Shans, most of the Frontier Area peoples were not Buddhists but animists. In the nineteenth century, western missionaries converted many to Christianity, and graduates of mission schools became the new elites of the Karen, Kachin, and Chin communities. Karen Christians were especially determined to assert the identity of their people, and with British encouragement established the Karen National Association in 1881, one of Burma’s earliest political associations. Karen and Burman/Burmese nationalism were quite separate developments, often at odds with each other during the twentieth century.
Bonds between the “hill tribes” and the British were strong. The British trusted the upland ethnic groups more than the Burmans, and enlisted them in the colonial army and police. During the Third Anglo-Burmese War (1885) and the “pacification” that followed it (1885-90), Karens and other minority soldiers fought alongside the British against Burman insurgents. In 1941-45, they also fought together against the Japanese.
“Divide and rule” worked plenty of mischief, setting different groups against each other. At Rangoon University, stolid but hard working Karen students were often regarded by their Burmese classmates as “pets” of their British teachers. When political activism became a student pastime during the 1930s, Christian Karens generally avoided becoming involved.
The division of Burma into two administratively distinct entities, Burma Proper and the Frontier Areas, meant that the country was never really united under a single government (although separate civil services in each region were under the authority of Burma’s governor). Burma Proper had a semi-parliamentary system by the late 1930s, while the British preserved the “feudal” character of the Frontier Areas, where chiefs or princes ruled. Unlike Burma Proper, the Frontier Areas were systematically neglected, due to chronically slim budgets. They had next to nothing in the way of social services such as public education and health (although missionaries often filled the gap), and were not developed economically save for jade mines in the Kachin hills and the Namtu lead and silver mine in the Shan States. Then as now, the two regions were remote from each other, their inhabitants living in different worlds, making national unity next to impossible.
Without attributing particularly benevolent motives to the British, who above all wanted Burma to turn a profit and, with a few exceptions, maintained a cool and distant attitude toward their native subjects (as amply illustrated by George Orwell in his famous novel, Burmese Days), it is reasonable to suggest that British Burma was a work in progress. Given time and peaceful conditions, some of the problems connected with the plural society and the lack of integration between Burma Proper and the Frontier Areas could have been worked out. This is not to suggest that Burma should have remained British. By the late 1930s, most intelligent people in Britain and the colonies alike knew that the “Age of Empire” was drawing to a close. This would have been true even if the “Greater East Asia War” had not spread to Southeast Asia.
During the 1920s and 1930s, British colonialism, relatively liberal compared to the Dutch regime in Indonesia or the French in Indochina, was caught in an ultimately fatal contradiction. Outside of some indigenous and immigrant minority groups such as the Karens, the people regarded their British masters coolly, without enthusiasm. A vocal minority, with broad popular support, saw them as illegitimate. When open resistance such as the Saya San peasant revolt of 1930 broke out, it was brutally suppressed. But Britain had parliamentary government, and colonial policymakers could not ignore public opinion at home (although they listened less attentively to opinion in Burma itself, a major source of alienation). Burmese political demands—as opposed to armed insurgency—could not be dealt with by using bullets.
Wary of public opinion at home, insufficiently bloody minded to crush unarmed civil dissent, the colonial regime was in a quandary by the late 1930s. It failed to come up with a plan for complete self-government (i.e., Dominion status) that would have given the Burmese a stake in peaceful decolonization. Massive demonstrations in Rangoon in 1938-39 won popular support for the radicals, especially the Thakin Party, which rejected any kind of cooperation with the colonial regime. When war broke out in Europe in September 1939, the Churchill government short-sightedly demanded that India and Burma contribute to Britain’s defense without offering anything in return. Churchill’s determination to maintain the colonial status quo drove established politicians such as Dr. Ba Maw and the Thakins into an alliance, and set the stage for Japanese intervention.
The Japanese Interlude
Burma during the war was like grass trampled by fighting elephants. (In the words of an old Southeast Asian proverb, “When elephants fight, the grass is trampled.”) Not only was it a major battlefield, involving hundreds of thousands of Allied and Japanese troops in pitched engagements up and down the country, but it was fought over twice: first, when the Japanese successfully drove the British out in 1941-42, capturing Rangoon in March and Mandalay in May; and again in 1944-45, when British Commonwealth forces launched an offensive after the collapse of the disastrous Japanese Imphal Campaign (begun from Burma into northeastern India). The British moved into northern Burma in late 1944 and recaptured Rangoon by May of the following year. According to D.G.E. Hall, “seen as a whole, the battle for Burma was the largest single action fought against the Japanese” (Burma, 3rd. ed., London: Hutchinson University Library, 1960, p. 172). Untold numbers of Burmese died, mostly from disease or starvation.
In general, urban Burmese at first seemed to welcome the arrival of the Japanese, viewing them as liberators. But hospitable feelings were short-lived. Many Japanese troops had fought for years in China, and viewed local populations as enemies. Slapping the faces of civilians had become routine. The Kempeitai (Japanese military police), ostensibly on the lookout for British spies and communists, conducted a reign of terror, detaining and torturing people for little or no reason. Its behavior became so bad that wartime leader Ba Maw had to intercede with the highest military commanders to curb the worst excesses. Throughout the war, he found the most difficult Japanese to handle were the “Korea clique,” officers who had picked up a deep racial arrogance in Japan’s old colony (Breakthrough in Burma: Memoirs of a Revolution, 1939-1946, New Haven: Yale University Press, 1968, p. 156).
As Japanese forces advanced into the country in early 1942 and the situation looked increasingly hopeless for the British, the latter carried out a “policy of denial,” destroying much of Burma’s excellent infrastructure, including rail lines, most of the river boats operated by the Irrawaddy Flotilla, oil refineries, and communications networks. Japanese and British air raids wreaked havoc in Burma’s cities. During the March 1945 battle for Mandalay, the beautiful royal palace built by King Mindon in the nineteenth century was burned to the ground. 
It took more than a decade to repair the economic damage. Japan played an important role in reconstruction, signing a treaty with the government of independent Burma in 1954 to provide US$250 million in war reparations (supplemented in the 1960s by a further US$130 million in “semi-reparations”). (See Donald M. Seekins, “Japan’s Relations with Military Regimes in Burma: the Kokunaika Process,” Asian Survey, 32:3 [March 1992], pp. 246-62.)  But the easy prosperity of the prewar years was a thing of the past.
The influx of arms during 1941-45 and the creation of armed units in Burma Proper and the Frontier Areas, both national armies and local militias, made for an environment not unlike that of Afghanistan today. After the foreign enemies had finished fighting their battles, local warlords and ethnic minority rebels continued to settle scores and push their own agendas. The resort to force became a reflex, and remained one long after 1945.
Both the colonial and wartime periods posed problems for the country’s national identity. The British colonial regime was not concerned with nation-building. The political entity they governed was an assemblage of ethnic groups living under one of two separate administrations, in Burma Proper and the Frontier Areas. British Burma, despite its economic dynamism, civil society, and high educational standards, was a Rube Goldberg contraption, rife with internal contradictions, which collapsed easily under external pressure.
The Japanese impact on the country during 1941-45 was to open up space within which a nation-state could be constructed. Both the Japanese and their collaborators—principally Dr. Ba Maw, who became head of the Baho or Central Executive Administration after the British were driven out in 1942, and in August 1943 Adipadi or Head of State of “independent” Burma—were adept at symbolic politics, blending Pan-Asianism with evocations of Burma’s pre-colonial glories. What Ba Maw calls the “Burmese Era” was also a time of institution building under the auspices of the “totalitarian” state that he created.  The most important institution, however, was the army, which was established not by himself but by the Japanese, and which unlike its colonial counterpart was largely if not exclusively composed of ethnic Burmans.
In other words, radical political and social changes made possible during the Japanese occupation created a “post-colonial” state with an evocative and authentic (though selectively constructed) national identity, for the ethnic majority. But this was achieved at the price of excluding most of the indigenous and foreign ethnic minorities from the political-military center. And after 1941, the “political” and “military” spheres were inseparable, since men with guns, rather than colonial officials or elected politicians, dominated the political stage.
Building a Burman Army
From the beginning of their recorded history, the Burmans have cherished martial values, not unlike the Japanese. At its most powerful in the sixteenth and eighteenth centuries, the Burman state subjugated non-Burman states on the periphery of the Burman heartland (the Mons, Shans, Arakanese) and expanded into what are now Laos, Thailand, and northeastern India. An eighteenth century Burmese king even defeated a large Chinese invasion of the Shan States. The British colonial era, then, was something of a hiatus in which the Burmans were disarmed. The colonial armed forces consisted of soldiers brought over from India, or, as mentioned, non-Burman ethnic minorities. In 1939, the Burma Defense Force had in its ranks only 472 Burmans (a category which apparently also included Mons and Shans), compared to 3,197 Karens, Kachins, and Chins (D.G.E. Hall, Burma, p. 167).
Rangoon University had a Training Corps that was popular with Burman students, though there was no opportunity for them to pursue a military career after graduation. The major political parties, including the Dobama Asiayone (Thakins), the Myochit or Patriot Party and even the Rangoon University Student Union, had paramilitary units to guard leaders and keep order during rallies, and sometimes acted like Mussolini’s Blackshirts. Rejecting Mahatma Gandhi’s non-violent methods of struggle, the Thakins employed militant, aggressive rhetoric and planned armed struggle against the colonial regime. The decision of the Imperial General Headquarters (Daihon-ei) in late 1940 to give Colonel Keiji Suzuki authority to organize a Burman armed force to assist in the Japanese invasion of the country had an immense psychological impact on the ethnic majority.
The establishment of the wartime army has become partly mythic history, involving the heroic adventures of Aung San and the “Thirty Comrades.” Soon after the outbreak of war in Europe, Dr. Ba Maw (who had been ousted as prime minister following the anti-British demonstrations of 1938-39) talked with the Japanese consul in Rangoon, sounding him out on getting financial and other assistance from Tokyo. One of his closest associates, Dr. Thein Maung, became head of the Japan-Burma Society after his visit to Tokyo in October-November 1939 (the Society’s secretary was Colonel Suzuki).  As ties between Ba Maw, Aung San, and the Japanese grew closer, Tokyo loomed large in their planning for an anti-British underground movement (by this time Ba Maw and the Thakins had joined in a common Freedom Bloc, and Aung San was the Bloc’s secretary).
With a price set on his head by the British authorities, Aung San left Burma with a fellow Thakin in August 1940, bound for Amoy (Xiamen) on the China coast. Just whom he planned to contact remains unclear. In her biography of her father, Aung San Suu Kyi claims that his intention was to get support not from the Japanese but from the Chinese communists. When he and his comrade failed to contact communist agents, they reluctantly accepted the invitation of a Japanese agent to be flown to Tokyo to meet Colonel Suzuki (Ba Maw, Breakthrough in Burma, pp. 62-64, 110-13). In The Minami Organ, Tatsuro Izumiya, a wartime subordinate of Colonel Suzuki, cites from a Burmese source that “(a)t Amoy, Aung San intended to make his way overland to Chungking [Chongqing] despite the length of the journey. But they did not succeed, and after wandering around aimlessly for a few months, [they] were contacted by one Major Kanda of the Japanese Military Police” (translated by U Tun Aung Chain, 2nd ed., Rangoon: Higher Education Department, 1985, p. 23). In “Burma’s Challenge,” Aung San acknowledges the mutual reluctance of the Japanese and leftists like himself (“Bolsheviks” in Japanese eyes) to cooperate, and that:

I was sent out to China and given a blank cheque by my comrades to do what I thought best for my country. As the China-Burma Road was closed, I had to go to China by sea and that, even though insignificant in itself, caused our later association with the Japanese. I couldn’t reach the interior of China [where the communists were based] by sea. I was told I could reach Amoy only and then   would have to rely upon my own resourcefulness to get to the interior of China. (See Josef Silverstein, ed., The Political Legacy of Aung San, Rev. ed., Ithaca: Cornell University Southeast Asia Program, 1993, p. 83.)
Ba Maw’s version of events, written up in Breakthrough in Burma, does not mention China, claiming that he, Aung San, Dr. Thein Maung, and a Japanese diplomat planned Aung San’s escape, and that Amoy was chosen as his destination since it was close to the Japanese colony of Taiwan. Alhough they arrived in Amoy without incident, the two Thakins spent a couple of desperate months, ill and short of funds, before Aung San wrote a letter to his comrades in Rangoon asking for help. Thein Maung arranged with “Minami Masuyo” (Colonel Suzuki’s assumed name, as he was then in Rangoon posing as a correspondent for the Yomiuri Shimbun) to have Taiwan-based Kempeitai agents rescue them (Tatsuro Izumiya, The Minami Organ, p. 23).  There is no evidence that the two Thakins attempted to leave the port city and strike out for the interior.
In November 1940, they met Colonel Suzuki in Tokyo, where, Aung San comments, “I had to make the best of a bad job” (Silverstein, ed., p. 83). They agreed that Aung San would go back to Burma under cover to recruit more young men from his party to form the nucleus of an anti-colonial army. Though unenthusiastic about Japanese plans to invade Burma, he believed, rather naively, that while Japanese and British forces were fighting along the border, his new army could declare independence and seize power. Suzuki established a secret organization, the Minami Kikan (Minami Organ, minami being both Suzuki’s cover name in Rangoon and the Japanese word for “south”), to coordinate the Japanese and Burmese activities in Thailand and other parts of Southeast Asia.
By spring 1941, 28 men from the Thakin group had been smuggled out of Burma by sea and overland, and brought to Japan. Together with Aung San and his original companion, they were taken to a specially constructed training facility at Sanya on the Japanese-occupied island of Hainan, China, to receive military instruction. These men were the legendary Thirty Comrades, the core of the first Burman armed force since the fall of the Burman kingdom in 1885, the Burma Independence Army. Their training, which was so tough that at times some of the Thakins were on the verge of revolt, lasted from April until October.
The Japanese divided the Thirty Comrades into three groups: one group, including Aung San, was to assume command and administrative positions in the new army; a second group, including a Sino-Burmese Rangoon University dropout, Thakin Shu Maung (better known as Ne Win), was to carry out guerrilla and sabotage activities behind enemy lines; while the third group, composed of younger Thakins, received training as field commanders.  Because few if any of the trainees knew Japanese, instruction was carried out in broken English. (See Won Z. Yoon, Japan’s Scheme for the Liberation of Burma, the Role of the Minami Kikan and the “Thirty Comrades,” Papers in International Studies/Southeast Asia Series No. 27, Athens: Ohio University Southeast Asia Program, 1973, p. 31.)
On both sides, the alliance was one of convenience. The Burmese needed foreign assistance. The Japanese, seeking a decisive end to the “China Incident,” wanted to shut down the Burma Road through which the Americans and British supplied Chiang Kai-shek at his wartime capital of Chongqing. After northern Vietnam fell into Japanese hands in September 1940, cutting off a rail route between Hanoi and China, the Burma Road, which wound through the mountains from the railhead at Lashio (in Shan State) to the Yunnan Province capital of Kunming, provided Chiang’s only access to the outside world. According to Japanese sources, the volume of arms and supplies carried over the road expanded from 2,000 tons in 1939 to 10,000 tons in 1940. 
Following the Pearl Harbor attack and the landing of Japanese troops at Kota Baharu, Malaya, on December 8, 1941, the Thirty Comrades were brought to Bangkok, and on December 27, the Burma Independence Army (BIA) was officially established. Colonel Suzuki assumed command, while another Japanese officer was chief of staff. Aung San was designated senior staff officer, and Shu Maung was appointed head of an army group in charge of “interior sabotage.” Each of the Thirty Comrades took a nom de guerre reflecting pride in their new mission, including Aung San (Bo Teza, the “powerful commander”) and Shu Maung (Bo Ne Win, the commander “brilliant like the sun”). Suzuki assumed the name Bo Mogyo, “commander thunderbolt,” which showed his adroitness in manipulating cultural symbols. According to an old prophesy, Burma’s British conquerors (symbolized by an umbrella) would be struck down by a thunderbolt. A rumor was fostered that Suzuki was the descendant of Myingun Min, a prince of the defunct royal dynasty, thus a minlaung or pretender to the throne. On the day the BIA was founded, the Thirty Comrades performed the thwe thauk or blood drinking ceremony, in which each donated some of his blood, mixed with liquor, which they dranktogether. This ceremony, like the Bo Mogyo legend, drew deeply on Burma’s warlike past.
The BIA accompanied Japanese forces penetrating Burma in the first months of 1942. Its rank and file, which numbered as many as 30,000 (of whom only about 4,000 actually took part in military operations) consisted of Burmese living around Bangkok and the Thai-Burma border, augmented by thousands of young village volunteers inside Burma. Although the new army distinguished itself in several engagements with the British, notably at Shwedaung near Prome, a British intelligence report published in late 1943 notes that “(a)bout half the BIA consisted of high minded young Nationalist idealists but the other half were mere thugs out for what they could make. Most of the members enlisted to get in on the ground floor of the new government” (Government of Burma, Intelligence Bureau, Burma During the Japanese Occupation, Simla [India]: October 1943, p. 59). The BIA soon degenerated into an armed mob as law and order inside Burma broke down in the wake of the British retreat. This led to inter-ethnic violence that surprised even the Japanese.
Loved and feared by his men but an irritant to his superiors, “Bo Mogyo” was relieved of his command, and sent home in June 1942. Ba Maw compares him to T.E. Lawrence, the agent of a big power who gains mastery of a small country’s local knowledge and who seems to feel split loyalties. According to U Nu, Suzuki said that if the Japanese refuse to grant Burma independence, “then tell them that you will cross over to some place like Twante [near Rangoon] and proclaim independence and set up your own government. If they start shooting, you just shoot back” (Burma Under the Japanese, New York: Macmillan, 1954, pp. 24-25). This romanticism was at odds with the views of the top brass, who exercised tight control over the country in order to extract its natural resources.
In the summer of 1942, the Japanese established the Burma Defense Army (BDA), replacing the BIA. The new army had a planned troop strength of 10,000 (British intelligence reported that only about 5,000 were actually mobilized by late 1943), and was a structured institution with a general staff and officers’ and enlisted men’s training facilities. In its first year of operation, the officers’ training school at Mingaladon north of Rangoon trained 300 officers, of whom the top 30 were sent to Japan for further training. During the war, a large number of Burman officers entered military academies in Japan, there absorbing Japanese military doctrine. 
By the time Burma was declared “independent” by the Japanese in August 1943, the armed forces, now renamed the Burma National Army (BNA, Bama Tatmadaw) were free of formal Japanese control. According to U Maung Maung, there was little communication between the BNA at its headquarters in Rangoon and the Japanese command across town, except for liaison officers. Ne Win succeeded Aung San as commander-in-chief of the armed forces with the rank of colonel, while Aung San became defense minister in Ba Maw’s cabinet.
The impact of Japanese tutelage on the present Tatmadaw or armed forces is difficult to assess. Some of the Thirty Comrades were eager students. In U Maung Maung’s words, “they behaved and dressed as much like Japanese officers as they could” (Burmese Nationalist Movements, 1940-1948, Edinburgh: Kiscadale, 1989, p. 42). Others, including Ne Win, apparently resented the forceful imposition of Japanese values, especially during the time on Hainan. But Ne Win received counter-insurgency training from the Kempeitai, and the sophisticated Military Intelligence apparatus he established after Burma became independent may owe something to his Japanese teachers. After 1988, some democracy activists claimed that the Tatmadaw copied its brutal pacification tactics in the Frontier Areas from the Japanese. There are more than superficial resemblances between the Tatmadaw’s “Four Cuts” policy against ethnic minority rebels (to cut, or deprive, rebels of recruits, funding, supplies, and information) and the Japanese army’s sanko seisaku or “three all” policy in China (“kill all; burn all; destroy all”). But war atrocities have their own dynamic, and there is no reason to believe that an army largely unconstrained by public opinion or the rule of law—as Ne Win’s was even before his coup d’etat in 1962—would have followed civilized rules of war, even if the Japanese had never come to Burma.
The most important of the Thirty Comrades and their Thakin comrades, many of whom had communist sympathies, had grown thoroughly disgusted with Japanese-style sham independence by mid-1944, and established an underground Anti-Fascist Organization with Aung San’s blessing. As British Commonwealth forces fought their way into central Burma the following year, Aung San ordered the BNA to rise up against the Japanese on March 27, 1945. Allied with Lord Louis Mountbatten’s South-East Asia Command, they received still another new designation, the Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF). March 27 is now an important national holiday, originally known as Anti-Fascist Resistance Day but now Armed Forces Day.
In terms of personnel, the army established by the British after their reoccupation of the country in 1945 was an unstable joining together of two antagonistic groups: BNA/PBF veterans, mostly Burmans, and ethnic minority “class units” that had remained loyal to the Allies. A Karen, General Smith Dun, was appointed commander in chief. Ethnic minority soldiers outnumbered the Burman contingent, but the ethnic and communist revolts of 1948-49 (especially the 1949 uprising led by the Karen National Union) led many minority troops to mutiny. Others were purged from the ranks. Smith Dun retired, to be replaced by Ne Win as supreme commander. From that time on, Ne Win and his close cronies from the wartime era dominated the military and, after 1962, the Army/State.
Ba Maw argues that Suzuki’s and Aung San’s decision to recruit the Thirty Comrades from among a single faction of the Thakin party rather than a plurality of factions aggravated the personalistic and factional nature of Burmese politics (Breakthrough in Burma, p. 130). In fact, few of the Thirty Comrades had a role in the postwar state, especially the post-1962 Army/State. The most important legacy of Ne Win’s rise to military prominence during the war was his establishment of a traditional Burmese-style personal dictatorship, centered on himself, in which he quite consciously assumed the role of king.
The Japanese did not build the Army/State that rules Burma today. But in promoting the rise of a Burman military largely independent of civilian authorities, much like their own, they planted seeds that grew during the ensuing years of turmoil. The Japanese and their Burman allies succeeded in driving out the white colonialists, as Hasegawa has argued. But a worldview placing the military at the center of the political system contributed to a “post-colonial” regime that, by the 1960s, was more oppressive than the colonial original. As Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, First Secretary of the State Peace and Development Council, has said: “our Tatmadaw was made in Japan” (Gustaaf Houtman, Mental Culture in Burmese Crisis Politics: Aung San Suu Kyi and the National League for Democracy, Tokyo: Tokyo University of Foreign Studies, 1999, p. 153).
Ethnic Conflict
The central issue in Burmese politics today is not the well-publicized battle of wills between Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and the military junta, but how centuries of hostility between the ethnic minorities and the majority Burmans can be ended and how the different groups can be included in a new national community on the basis of equality. Minority scholars point out that ethnic conflict has been a fact of life since the beginning of the country’s recorded history (for example, the Burman wars from the eleventh through the eighteenth centuries against the Mons, who established sophisticated polities in Lower Burma), and that no political arrangement that  ignores the aspirations of the minorities, especially in the Frontier (or Border) Areas, can bring genuine peace. (See, for example, the essay by Shan scholar Chao-Tzang Yawnghwe, “Burma: the Depoliticization of the Political,” in Muthiah Alagappa, ed., Political Legitimacy in Southeast Asia: the Quest for Moral Authority, Stanford University Press, 1995, pp. 170-92.) 
The Burman military, especially since the establishment of the first Army/State by Ne Win in 1962, is diametrically opposed to this, asserting that although Burma is a multi-ethnic society, the different indigenous groups are fundamentally the same (according to one commentator, “We all descended from the Mongolian Tribe and therefore we, the indigenous races are not aliens but kith and kin”) (Dr. Hla Myint, “The Role of the Health Sector Contributing to National Consolidation,” in Socio-Economic Factors Contributing to National Consolidation, Rangoon, Ministry of Defense, Office of Strategic Studies, 1997, p. 141).  The military claims that the present discord among ethnic groups is caused by the colonial-era destruction of a primordial “national identity,” and that the British policy of “divide and rule,” set “kith and kin” against each other. The truth is that the British, determined to transform an unruly, independent kingdom into a pliable, money-making venture, made use of ethnic divisions, but did not invent them.  Among the Karens, the old admonition of mothers to their children—“eat your rice quickly. The Burmans are coming!”—was not British propaganda, but part of their long history of oppression at Burman hands.
The Japanese interlude made the ethnic situation far worse than it was under British rule, for two reasons. First, the collapse of social order following the Japanese invasion set the different groups against each other, especially in Lower Burma. The level of violence was unprecedented. Second, the war put the minorities and the Burmans on different sides, the former largely supporting the British, the latter the Japanese (at least until the uprising of March 27, 1945).
After the British began their retreat from Burma in the spring of 1942, Karen soldiers serving in their ranks were discharged and went home to their villages, often bringing their arms with them. Because they refused to surrender these arms, they and their families soon became targets of the BIA, especially in the Irrawaddy Delta where a large number of Karens lived. Often, Karens joined forces with local Indians to fight the BIA and other Burmans. To punish Karen guerrillas for the death of one of his officers, Suzuki ordered the BIA to destroy two large Karen villages, killing all the men, women, and children with swords. This incident ignited a race war, with more massacres on both sides, until the regular Japanese army intervened to impose order and rein in the hooligan element in the BIA. The worst incidents were in the Myaungmya District south of Bassein in the Delta, were an estimated 1,800 Karens were killed and 400 of their villages destroyed (Ba Maw, Breakthrough in Burma, pp. 186-92).
Ethnic violence in Arakan, western Burma, was even worse than that between Karens and Burmans. Buddhist Arakanese and mostly Muslim Bengalis attacked each other, and Bengalis crossed over from what was still British territory to help their co-religionists. Today, Karen guerrillas and Arakanese Muslim militants continue to resist the central government in two of the country’s most tenacious insurgencies. In these areas of Burma, it is not incorrect to say that World War II continues today.
As the British began their retreat during the opening months of the war, Burman/Burmese mobs also attacked Indians in urban and rural areas of Lower Burma, and hundreds of thousands of them left the country, often on foot through the densely jungled Arakan Yoma mountain range. Thousands died on the perilous journey back to their ancestral homelands, and of those who survived, few returned to Burma after the war. Although an Indian (Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi) minority lives in Burma to this day, especially in Rangoon, the war marked the end of their prominent role in the country’s multi-ethnic society.
Of all the Frontier Area regions, the Shan States, a rich mosaic of diverse peoples, were the most fortunate. The Japanese prevented the BIA from entering the Shan States in 1942, probably in order to prevent more racial violence. The Shan sawbwa (princes) formally recognized Japanese rule, and with the exception of the easternmost principalities, Kengtung and Mongpan (which were handed over to Japan’s ally, Thailand), the Shan States became a part of “independent” Burma in 1943. The rulers retained the autonomy they enjoyed under the British, and the region was spared the worst calamities of the war.
The situation was quite different in other parts of the Frontier Areas, where the Kachins, Chins, and Nagas lived. Because the Japanese were unable to impose effective control over these peoples, who traditionally played an important part in the colonial armed forces, the British recruited them for underground operations and their major push against the Japanese in 1944-45. Formerly remote and isolated, the Kachin districts (now Kachin State) became a focal point of the Allied effort to recapture Burma. At one point, the airport located in the small town of Myitkyina (now the Kachin State’s capital) became the world’s busiest as men and supplies were brought in for the campaign in Upper Burma. More significantly, a generation of Kachin war veterans began their own resistance against the Rangoon government in the 1960s, becoming one of Burma’s best organized and effective guerrilla movements, the Kachin Independence Army.
Bitter wartime memories on the part of the minorities made postwar reconciliation almost impossible. Aung San, who had become Burma’s most popular leader after the March 27 uprising, seems to have understood that national unity without free participation of the minorities was impossible. At the February 1947 Panglong Conference, he and minority leaders (with the prominent exception of the Karens) laid out the contours of a constitutional settlement establishing a quasi-federal structure of government. But Aung San was assassinated in July of that year, and his successors—including even the sophisticated and basically democratic U Nu—were less sympathetic to the aspirations of the Frontier Area peoples.
The central government’s Burman perspective, combined with the systematic “Burmanization” of the army in the late 1940s, combined to create a major national tragedy. By the mid-1980s, when Ne Win was still in power, the former Frontier Areas were dominated by an array of ethnic, communist, and drug-dealing armies, at least 28 major groups, of whom the largest, the People’s Army of the Communist Party of Burma, commanded 15,000 men, mostly ethnic Wa. According to Martin Smith, this civil war cost an average of 10,000 military and civilian deaths a year between the 1950s and the late 1980s (Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, 2nd. ed., Zed Books, 1999, pp. 100-101).
Did the Japanese Liberate Burma?
The New History Textbook mentions the Greater East Asia Conference of November 1943 as a focal point for Japan’s vision of an Asia freed of Western colonialism. It is easy to dismiss this conference as nothing but empty words and gestures, especially since “Greater East Asia” leaders who attended included Wang Ch’ing-wei, whose Nanking regime was propped up by Japanese bayonets, as well as the premier of Manchukuo, the original puppet state carved out of China by the Kwantung Army in 1931. (Other participants were Jose Laurel, president of the “independent” Philippines; Subhas Chandra Bose, leader of the Free India government; Thai prince Waithayakorn; Ba Maw of Burma; and Hideki Tojo, who served as chairman.) But such propaganda had great appeal, even among Asians otherwise unenthusiastic about Japanese rule (in the words of the Joint Declaration issued at the end of the conference, the countries of “Greater East Asia” will “ensure the fraternity of nations in their region by respecting one another’s independence and sovereignty”). This ideological contribution of the Japanese to an “Asian identity” was especially attractive to indigenous ethnic/religious majorities (Burmans, Malays, Javanese) who had been marginalized by the colonialists.
There is no doubt that the Japanese occupation hastened Burma’s departure from the British Empire. Toward the end of the war, the Churchill government published a White Paper proposing that Burma Proper be returned to the prewar, semi-parliamentary system after a few years of reconstruction (designed to benefit British business interests), with the ultimate goal of self-government. The Frontier Areas, however, would determine their own political future, either together with or separate from Burma Proper. This was clearly unacceptable to Aung San and his comrades, who wanted speedy independence and immediate integration of the Frontier Areas with Burma Proper. Faced with the prospect of fighting a well-armed Burmese guerrilla army, Churchill’s successor, Clement Attlee, gave into Aung San’s demands, and in January 1948 the new Union of Burma was born.
But war is a blunt instrument, and the old political and social order, imperfect as it was, could not be easily replaced. As I noted at the beginning of this paper, the Japanese occupation represented a fundamental turning point in the country’s history simply because after 1941 men with guns rather than politicians or colonial officials dominated the political stage. The war militarized Burma’s society, and the impact of this can be seen six decades later. Of course it is also true that Burma suffered from being propelled directly from the Pacific War into the Cold War with the 1948 Communist Party of Burma uprising and large-scale Kuomintang incursions into Shan State in 1950.
The fundamental issue is sovereignty. But sovereignty is not simply the replacement of white faces by brown ones at the apex of the state, the substitution of one ethnic-racial elite by another. This is often little more than a new twist on colonialism. What it means is that the different peoples who come together as a nation can develop freely, using their own resources and initiatives as well as those from the outside world, to create a national community that has its own vitality and integrity. As Furnivall suggested, what is needed is a sense of the public interest, of shared citizenship, a “self to govern itself.”
This requires genuine independence, for if a country becomes the plaything of others in their global strategies, not only do the indigenous people lose control of their politics and economies. They are also deprived of the institutions and practices that have sustained them in the past, without being able to develop viable new ones. Burma’s great tragedy is that, because of its geographic location, it has been the object of empire-building and top-down social experimentation during both the British colonial and Japanese periods. After the war, it became a lamentable side-show in China’s internal political struggles, and arguably today it has become a satellite of a Middle Kingdom eager to project its power into the Indian Ocean. The Army/State created by the Burmans was meant to secure the country’s sovereignty and independence, but its ethnocentrism has led to protracted civil war and a sellout to foreign interests. Genuine national unity remains elusive.
DONALD M. SEEKINS  is professor of Southeast Asian studies at Meio University in Nago, Okinawa. He has written extensively on modern Burma, including JPRI Working Paper No. 60 (September 1999), “Japan’s ‘Burma Lovers’ and the Military Regime.” His book, The Disorder of Order: The Army-State in Burma since 1962 (Bangkok: White Lotus) was published in the spring of 2002.

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