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The Pacific War and Japanese Occupation

The Allied proclamation of the Atlantic Charter in August 1941, which guaranteed "the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they live," raised the hopes of nationalists; they were disappointed the following month, however, when Prime Minister Winston Churchill stated in Parliament that this did not apply to Burma, which had its own program of political evolution. U Saw went to London to argue for dominion status, but on the way back to Rangoon he was arrested for attempting to make contact with the Japanese and was exiled to Uganda until the end of World War II.

The Japanese military became interested in Burma not only because of its strategic resources, particularly oil, but also because the Burma Road provided a route through which the Allies could supply the Chiang Kai-shek government in Chongqing. Its severance would speed a successful conclusion of the war with China. In 1939 Japanese agents contacted Ba Maw who, the following year, discussed the possibility of getting Japanese support for independence with his Freedom Block ally, Aung San. In August 1940 Thakin Aung San and a fellow Thakin were smuggled out of Burma on a ship bound for Amoy. Subsequently, they went to Tokyo to lay the groundwork for armed struggle against the British in concert with Japanese advances into Southeast Asia. An inteligence organistion, the Minami Kikan, was established by the Japanese military under an army colonel, Suzuki Keiji, to coordinate operations in Burma.

The Burma Independence Army (BIA) was an ethnic Burman organization that, although formed in late 1941 under Japanese guidance, had as its core elements a group of Burman nationalists known as the Thirty Comrades. These men, convinced that independence could be achieved only through armed struggle, left British-controlled Burma in 1940 to seek military aid and training from the Japanese. Aung San returned to Burma, contacted the Thakins, and arranged to smuggle 28 men out of Burma. These men, together with Thakin Aung San and his original companion, comprised the Thirty Comrades, who received military training from the Japanese on Hainan Island off the south coast of China. They formed the core of the Burma Independence Army (BIA), which was established in Bangkok in late December 1941.

Commanded by Colonel Suzuki, the BIA consisted of the Thirty Comrades, some 200 Burmese resident in Thailand, and Japanese members of the Minami Kikan. Underground movements were organized within Burma. When Japanese forces began the invasion of the Tenasserium area along the Andaman Sea and other parts of Lower Burma in January 1942, the BIA aided their advance and occasionally engaged retreating British forced in combat. One of the Thirty Comrades, Thakin Shu Maung, infiltrated Rangoon in early February and organized sabotage activities. He would become better known by his nom de guerre, Ne Win, "Brilliant like the Sun." Rangoon fell in March 1942, British troops evacuated Mandalay, and the Burma Road was cut off in May.

The BIA accompanied the Japanese army in its invasion of Burma, mobilizing Burman nationalist sentiments. Under Japanese rule, the BIA was forcibly demobilized, but a smaller Burmese military organization was retained, first under the name Burma Defense Army and then, after the Japanese granted Burma "independence" in 1943, as the Burma National Army. Trained by the Japanese, both forces were under the nominal leadership of General Aung San, the leader of the Thirty Comrades, and his comrade-in-arms, Brigadier Ne Win.

A number of historians have suggested that had the Churchill government been more flexible on the issues of self-government, Burmese nationalists might have fought on the Allied side. Ba Maw relates in his memoirs, Breakthrough in Butrma, his bitterness in perceiving that the principles of the Atlantic Charter applied to "white" nations like Poland but not to nonwhite colonial peoples. Japanese propaganda appeals for a common Asian struggle against "white imperialism" struck a responsive chord in many Burmese, despite the harsh realities of Japanese policies in China. The issue for the Thakins and other nationalists, however, was not a choice between Britain and Japan but which course of action would lead most quickly and surely to full independence.

When most of Burma was in Japanese hands, Ba Maw was made prime minister in August 1942 and Aung San commander of the 4,000-man Burma Defense Army, which succeeded the BU. In January 1943 Japanese Prime Minister Tojo Hideki announced that independence would be granted by the end of the year. In August Ba Maw was proclaimed head of state in a ceremony at Rangoon that recalled the traditions of Burmese kingship. General Aung San was designated minister of defense and commander of the new Burma National Army (BNA), and Thakin Nu, minister of foreign affairs.

Ba Maw's government had very little actual power. Nominally independent, Burma was seen by Tokyo primarily as an econmsic and strategic component of its all-out war dort Aung San had "been made fully aware of this when he visited Tokyo in March 1943; Colonel Suzuki, who apparently had a sincere commitment to Burmese independence, told him he had been disgraced for being too friendly to the Burmese. Japanese military authorities treated the Burmese people harshly, putting thousands in forced labor battalions. The Kempeitai, or military police, was universally dreaded. Although only a puppet leader, Ba Maw haughtily refused to cooperate fully with Japanese officers, and his assassination by the latter was apparently contemplated. He disliked the Thakins, especially Aung San, but did not betray them when they began to plan resistance against the Japanese.

Karen officers in the BNA who had connections with British officers still in Burma served as intermediaries between the Thakins and the British Special Operations Executive Force 136 in late 1943. Thakin Than Tun, who became a communist during the war, already had established contact with the Allies and the "inner circle" of Thakins in Ba Maw's government, which included Aung San. Disenchanted with Japanese overlordship, which quickly proved even more repressive than British rule, nationalist military and civilian leaders formed an underground antifascist organization in 1944. Resistance plans firmed up as secret meetings were held in August and September 1944 between BNA officers, socialists and communists, and Thakin Nu. The Anti-Fascist Organization, later to become the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), was set up. Aung San played the central role of coordinating diverse groups, such as the Karen National Organization, the Japanese-sponsored East Asia Youth League, former associates from Dobama Asiayone days, and the lkists.

Lord Louis Mountbatten, head of the South-East Asia Command, agreed to cooperate with Aung San. The 1944 Japanese offensive into India through Manipur had failed, and by the end of January 1945 Allied troops had reopened the Burma Road and captured Myitkyina. On March 25, 1945, General Aung San, receiving a signal from Mountbatten, led the Burmese forces in an uprising against the Japanese. In recognition of the army's switch to the Allied side, it was rechristened the Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF). Rangoon was captured in early May, though fighting continued in various parts of the country up to and even after the Japanese surrender on August 15, 1945.

As the military arm of the newly formed Burmese political party, the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), and the first independent Burmese army since the nineteenth century, the PBF emerged from World War II with the identity of a legitimate nationalist political and military force. It became a symbol of a time when all Burmese had been unified against a common enemy.

The training of the Thirty Comrades by the Japanese as heroic soldiers to help "liberate" the country from the British assumed the quality of a national epic because generals Aung San and Ne Win and many other major leaders emerged from the experience. Independence, a regained national pride, and the appreciation of the need for restraint of factionalism all could be related to the growth in status of the soldier.

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Page last modified: 08-10-2011 12:16:49 ZULU