The birth of Burma Army
The birth of Burma Army
|Courtesy:||The Penguin History of the Second World War|
|Authors:||Peter Calvocoressi, Guy Wint and John Pritchard|
In Burma, the history of the Malayan campaign repeated itself. The Japanese Army invaded it on 11 December from Thailand.
Burma, one of the smaller countries of the British Empire, had had, in the half century of its membership, a comparatively uneventful history. Burma became known, no longer as an oriental paradise inhabited by a merry, picturesque people, but as a fated, evil country, the arena - from no fault of its own, it is true - for some of the most horrible fighting of the war. It was not simply to flare into prominence by the brief experience of being overrun. It was to remain a contested land until the end of the war.
Burma had formerly been attached to India. It had been annexed to it as the result of three wars in the nineteenth century. It was an act of convenience for Britain; by no shadow of claims could it be regarded as an Indian land. Its majority people, the Burmese, were one of the Asian peoples with the clearest national consciousness; their economy was not inevitably linked with the Indian; their language and script had only a distant connection with Sanskrit; their religion, to which they were peculiarly devoted, was the Hinayana form of Buddhism, which ultimately derived from India, but which had practically died out there. Hinduism, which Buddhism had once rivaled in India, had revived there powerfully, and had overtaken Buddhism in the sub-continent. But in neighbouring Burma, Buddhism had no competitors, and flourished mightily. This rendered Burmese culture different from India.
The unnatural union of Burma with India was resented by the Burmese. Their desire for freedom was two-fold, freedom from Britain and freedom from India. This second freedom they won at the time of the great political recasting inaugurated by the Government of India Act of 1935. It was perceived that to continue to enforce the unity of the two countries would impose an unnecessary strain on the problematical machinery of government devised for India. Burma was allowed to settle its own destiny, and the Burmese legislature voted to go its own way. It had a constitution which half met Burma's growing demand for complete freedom. Its Government had the same liberties as a provincial government in India under the Act of 1935. But what in India were to be the federal powers of government were in Burma controlled by the British.
In the days of the union between India and Burma, the British had neglected to build up communications between the two countries. A railway was planned, chiefly for military reasons, but was never made. Its absence was to have a powerful effect on the shape of the fighting now to break out. Shipping interests, powerful with the Government, saw in it a threat to their monopoly of traffic with Rangoon, and successful opposed the scheme.
In the years just before the war, political life developed rapidly. The professional and commercial classes were organized in orthodox political parties, which were willing to pursue their national aims through non-revolutionary means and within the framework of the institutions already conceded. But the desire for independence was greater, perhaps, than it was in India, though it was not taken as seriously. Moreover there were revolutionary parties, notably the Thakins, which meant the party of the 'masters' or 'gentlemen', which were ready to seek any aid, and do anything, which would bring about the end of British rule. These parties, which stirred up political consciousness in Burma, had a growing clientele among students, and among people who had no limiting restrictions placed on their political activity by economic considerations.
Japan found the political situation in Burma more suited to its intervention than in any other country. Moreover Burma, through the existence of the Burma Road, had become a major preoccupation of Japanese strategic plans. Japan had prepared its action in Burma for several years, and more carefully than in most other centers. It had sent there a naval officer who, disguised as a trader, had made the first contact with Burmese politicians. The results were so promising that a Japanese consul was instructed to build up a pro-Japanese network. This however, had brought the Japanese Ministry of Foreign Affairs into the picture. Fearful of angering the British unnecessarily, the Ministry demanded extreme caution.
Progress came, not from persons engaged in this part of the enterprise, but from the coming to Burma of a Japanese Army officer, Colonel Suzuki Keiji, who was a natural genius at all kinds of espionage and subversion. He modeled himself on Lawrence of Arabia. Until 1939 he had had a career as a regular combat officer; it ended with Suzuki under a somewhat mysterious cloud, brought about by an incident in 1939 in the war with China. Thenceforward he was a spy. He chose Burma as his field of activity, and he was as little subjected to control in what he did there as was Doihara, a much more celebrated agent and planner of subversive action in Manchuria and China. Officers like him were give much latitude by Japan. They might create a situation which the Japanese Army would be free, when the time came, to manipulate or to ignore, as circumstances decided.
Disguised as a mild-mannered newspaper reporter for the Yomiuri Shinbun, Suzuki explored Burma for a year and a half, concentrating upon gaining an understanding of its political and ethnic divisions. He decided that the Thakins offered promising material with which to work. He was a curious man; he was genuinely interested in promoting the movements of Asia people to be free; he took seriously the claims of Japanese propaganda that Japan supported all movements for independence; he was regarded with suspicion and as a nuisance by the more orthodox Japanese, who had no intention of conquering large parts of Asia, and simply transferring them to native hands. In Japanese service, he was advancing views and actions which were not at all favoured. He has been described as a rebel by temperament, a conformist by upbringing. His conversation fascinated the Burmese with whom he came into contact. He would tell them to insist on being independent. If, after the Japanese conquered their country, they refused to grant independence, the Burmese ought to shoot back.
Suzuki and his handful of associates set themselves to form the nucleus of a Burmese independent Army, which could be extended as soon as a Japanese Army crossed the borders. He calculated that a Burmese force would prove a valuable auxiliary for bringing about the discomfiture of the British, whether in harrying them politically, in forming a link with the Burmese population, or in straightforward military operations. In 1940 he began to select likely young revolutionaries from the class of political adventures and arranged for thirty of them to be sent over to Formosa for military training in Japanese schools. The thirty Thakins received this education partly in Formosa, partly in Hainan Island; Suzuki had them well grounded, by strict Japanese discipline, in combat tactics, in methods of civilian cooperation with the Japanese Army, and in all ancillary methods. It is clear that he had some difficulty in getting these young men accepted in the various training camps, for he acted as a lone wolf, and had not fully emerged from the disaster which had temporarily blocked his military career. The Thakins, for their part, objected to the strenuous quality of their training, and contemplated desertion. They had actually got control of a small sailing ship with which they proposed to sail for home. On their fate depended much of the modern history of Burma. The accident of who was chosen among the thirty Thakins, the founder members of the Burma Independence Army, governed the course of Burmese politics down to the present day. Because of personality difficulties, the Thakins tended to fall into factional groups, which were reflected for long after, quite irrationally, in Burmese politics.
Suzuki, together with a staff of adventurous Japanese who were looked at rather askance by the Japanese Army, transported this thirty Thakins to join the two divisions of Japanese troops waiting to invade Burma. By a shrewd move to catch the Burmese imagination, he gave each of the Thakins a new name from Burmese folklore, which was peculiarly rich in such things. He devised ceremonial oaths to link them together. And he revived the old Burmese legend that they had discovered ancient charms by Burmese insurrectionists, and had been the sustaining weapon of the peasant leader, Saya San, in a rebellion in 1930, was obstinately believed by the Burmese populace. It was to support the Thakins handsomely. The atmosphere in their camp was that of a boy scout jamboree, the same vague high-mindedness, the same enjoyment in devising ruses, rather the same kind of humor. The Thakins, half in terrified awe of Suzuki, half in na?ve enthusiasm for him, admired the way he genuinely fought for their interests with his orthodox Japanese colleagues.
This Japanese dealing with Burmese politicians was to have interesting consequences as the history of Burma unfolded. But, in the actual conquest, the principal agent was the Japanese Army. This fought the battles, and defeated the British. The British were embarrassed by the Burma Independence Army, but it only contributed marginally to their downfall. They complained of the treachery of the population, the clamour against them by the Pongyis (Burma monks), the betrayal of their movements to the Japanese, and the false Intelligence often given to the Army by the villagers. For all these things, the Burma Independence Army, playing the part of aide to the Japanese, was partly responsible. Their experience permanently soured the British troops, and gave Burma a bad reputation as a country to fight in. Anything to do with Burma was thought to be unlucky, and the country filled the Army with great apprehension.
However, for their rout, the British had to blame the Japanese directly. They had invaded at the start with two divisions with which they overran the south and took Rangoon, the capital. As in Malaya, the British had placed their confidence in the natural obstacles to troop movements the rugged, jungle country of the border. Again it had become axiomatic that tanks could not penetrate this, and again the fact had not been tested. They quickly found out that they had deceived themselves. Unlike Malaya, the country was held by too few troops, badly trained, with a defective Air Force. From the start, the British were too unevenly matched to have any chance of holding the Japanese advance. After Singapore fell, the Japanese were reinforced by another two divisions, which had been campaigning there, and they advanced to the north, pushing back the British before them.
The British accepted the offer of Chiang Kai-shek to send Chinese Army to assist the defence. They did so reluctantly because, through awareness of maps which were being published in Chungking, they had reason to suspect that Chiang had designs on the Burma frontier, and that, once they were in, the Chinese troops would be hard to evict. Japan, however, prevented this danger by driving them back into China. On the borderland some of the Chinese were broken up, and also suffered a great defeat.
By the end of April, the British were expelled from the country. They were pushed right out of Burma. Eventually the greater part of their forces escaped into India, marching out through the trackless jungle land which intervened between Burma and India. Only a part of the far north remained out of Japanese hands. It was inhabited by Chins and Kachins with whom British rule was unfamiliarly popular, being like all British administration of the jungle fringes of their Empire, so light as hardly to be noticed. This territory was held by a body of irregular troops, recruited exploits of this force, the intelligence and devotion of the Chin people, are one of the subjects which has escaped narration.
The same incidents marked the Japanese advance as had happened in Malaya. The civil government collapsed. It showed itself again and again to be extremely incompetent, its officers were lazy, its resolution was contemptible, its planning was certain to be based on faulty information, its complacency was unlimited. Its poor showing did not come altogether as a surprise. Before the war, the British administration in Burma had been notorious for delays and muddle. When it was put to the test, it perished with the same sense of scandal as the administration in Malaya. The machine of government had been allowed to rust, and its levers broke in the hand when pulled. It was unfortunate because the British could not rely upon any machine of popular government to provide a link with the people, or to rouse any enthusiasm on the Government side for the war. Shortly before the start of the war, the Prime Minister of Burma, U Saw, who had been on a visit to London, was detected while returning home in making contacts with the Japanese. He was arrested and interned in the Seychelles, but although U Saw was made harmless, the episode did little good to the British sense of security, and brought little change among the politicians who replaced him. (U Saw, a turbulent figure, was the powerful opposition leader in post-war Burma. He came to world notoriety in 1947, when he organized the assassination of U Aung San and half the Burmese Cabinet. For this he was hanged.)
The growth of the Burma Independence Army took place as Suzuki had foreseen. By the time that they were able to parade in liberated Rangoon, they numbered 5,000 men, and claimed to number 10,000. Their appeal had been great. But their methods of recruitment were deplorable. The Burmese villages, partly because of the peculiarly rapid tendency of the Burmese to resort to violence, had always had a higher proportion of criminal types than was usual in the East. As the Burma Independence Army advanced through the county it proved to be irresistibly attractive to this sort of recruit. An armed force, with licence to rob and pillage, provided the ideal shelter behind which it was possible to hold the whole country ransom. The Army spread a reign of terror behind the Japanese advance. Its original Thakin leaders found that the control of their troops was passing out of their hands. For seventy-five years Burma had experienced deep and unfamiliar peace in its rural life. The exploits of the Burma Independence Army abruptly destroyed this peace, and to Burma's cost, it was to prove impossible to restore peace in this or the next generation.
The population of Burma consisted of a Burmese majority, and many non-Burmese people, organized with different customs and religions. Under the long British peace, these had relaxed their suspicions; the different people had mellowed, and their government had seemed easy. But the exploits of the Burma Independence Army stirred up the feeling of the Burmese that they ought by right to be dominant, and raised a consequent feeling among the minorities of great insecurity. In panic, the minorities organized for self-protection: where a minority possessed the remains of tribal life, its institutions were rapidly brought into play. In no time, civil war was provoked and was spreading, especially between the Burmese and the Karens, the Burmese and the very large Indian minority, and the Burmese and the hill people, the Kachins. As a result, there took place a terrified mass migration to India, and it is estimated that India, in the midst of war, had to receive half a million refugees. For every refugee to cross the Indian frontier, there were several others who starved and died on the way.
The Japanese became aware of the chaos which was being provoked. Having driven out the British from the whole country, except for a comparatively small corner which was inhabited by Chins, they were looked to by the law-abiding part of the population as the only power able to secure basic order in the country. They had been maneuvered by Suzuki into giving countenance to Burmese revolution, but it had served its term, and they had really no sympathy with its explosive purposes. Japan, whatever its propaganda might declare, was never a revolutionary power, and generally was on the side of property and privilege. In the middle of June it applied itself to the problem of providing a Government for the country. It was not willing to proclaim Burma's independence, but established a provisional Government, made up of politicians of the orthodox parties. The Burmese Cabinet could only rule the country through the civil service structure of the British, and this the Japanese sought to preserve. Burmese civil servants were promoted to take the place of British officials.
Stability, however, could not be expected as long as the Burma Independence Army was allowed to roam the country, doing its will by sheer force. The decision was therefore arrived at to suppress the Army. Colonel Suzuki was to return home to Japan. He sought to stay, claiming that as he held a commission for what he had had done from prince Kan'in Kotohiko, who had been Chief of the Imperial General Staff until 1940, his order had therefore come directly from the imperial house, of which Prince Kan'in was a member. Suzuki asserted that this freed him from control by the Japanese Army. It was a variant of an old theme tune played by generations of swashbuckling Japanese military officers, who trumpeted the doctrine of their superior allegiance to the Emperor as a means of sidestepping restraints imposed on them by their military commanders. But Suzuki argued in vain. In place of the Burma Independence Army, a new force was raised, much more regular in its structure, more firmly under the control of the new Government.
This was a natural, merely prudent step of the Japanese Government. It was a decision which any responsible government was bound to take: the Burma Independence Army had stirred up so much feeling that any orderly administration was really impossible so long as it persisted. But the apparent repudiation of Burmese revolutionary nationalism by the Japanese was held by nationalists all over Asia to be difficult to square with Japanese propaganda claims; the more so since the Japanese were at first unwilling to satisfy the Burmese with any talk of independence. In Burma it caused the start of a long-drawn-out quarrel between the Japanese and Burmese nationalism, which was to play a part in the Japanese downfall at the end of the war.