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Burma and World War II

For the rare outside visitor today it is perhaps hard to imagine that Burma, one of the most secretive and isolated countries in the world, was also one of the most violent theaters of conflict in the entire history of World War II. The country was to witness scenes of the most appalling death and destruction as troops from the armies of four foreign powers-Japan, Britain, China, and the United States-fought their way back and forth across Burma's blazing landscape. Among Burma's diverse ethnic races, virtually no one was to escape unscathed.

Other countries have long since tried to put behind them the tragic memories of those dark days. But in Burma the war was to leave deep physical and psychological scars that have never really been erased. In any analysis of Burma's economic malaise, political isolationism, or ethnic conflict, the havoc wrought by World War II is a vital starting point. Largely forgotten by the world outside, the war was in fact to be just the beginning of Burma's troubles.

A War Along Racial Lines

Ironically, although some intercommunal rioting had erupted in the 1930s-largely directed against the ethnic Indian community-there were indications on the eve of the war that political relations between Burma's ethnic groups had been improving. Four years of subsequent bloodshed were to shatter this hope. In particular for the peoples of the rugged "Frontier Areas," who under the British colonial administration had been governed separately from the Burman majority on the plains of central, or "Ministerial," Burma, the war was to come as rude awakening. Worse still, coming so shortly before Burma's independence, the war was to dangerously inflame ethnic tensions across the country. Even today in perceptions of this conflict can be seen many of the fears and political arguments that have fueled more than 40 years of civil war.

In the main, World War II was fought along racial lines. For the Burman majority, it was nothing less than an uprising for national liberation. For much of the war, however, ethnic Burmans appeared to be fighting on a different side than the ethnic minorities. It was to Imperial Japan that the independence hero, Aung San, and the "Thirty Comrades" traveled for military training, and more than 3,500 volunteers were armed by the Japanese in the Burma Independence Army (BIA), which entered the Karen hills from Thailand at the end of 1941 in the footsteps of the invading Japanese 15th Army.

Burma's "independence," declared in August 1943, was to be their reward. However, when the flimsy nature of this independence became clear, many young nationalists immediately returned underground. There in the rural countryside they met with cadres of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), Burma's oldest political party, which under Thakin Soe's leadership had refused to join BIA and remained underground to continue the fight against what it considered to be Burma's main enemy: "fascism." Other resistance figures, led by another Communist, Thein Pe Myint, traveled out to India through Arakan to make contact with the British and to open up a new supply line for arms and training.

Finally, at a secret meeting of Communist, Socialist, and Burma National Army (the renamed BIA) leaders in Pegu in August 1944, they agreed to join forces together in a united front headed by Aung San, the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL), to prepare for a second nationalist uprising. By early 1945 they were ready, and on 27 March, as the Allied forces pushed back into Burma, Aung San ordered his BNA units to turn their weapons on their Japanese masters. It was a crippling stab in the back; undoubtedly this unexpected mutiny was to help the Allies bring their Burma campaign to a swift conclusion. As every schoolchild knows, BNA troops were even to beat the British in the race for Rangoon.

The Thirty Comrades

Not surprisingly, then, these courageous battle experiences in World War II were to have a deep impact on the youthful leaders of Burma's national liberation movement, and this perhaps goes some way in explaining the primacy of armed struggle for most political parties in Burma since independence. Tragically, Aung San himself, who perhaps more than any other Burman leader had won the respect of Burma's minorities, was assassinated in July 1947 shortly before independence was achieved. But the shadows of all these heroes of the national liberation movement still loom large over the country. Several of the Thirty Comrades, including Bo Zeya and Bo Ye Htut, were to go underground with CPB in 1948, and another, Kyaw Zaw, is still today a CPB Central Committee member. Three more of the Thirty Comrades, Bohmu Aung, Bo Yan Naing, and Bo Let Ya, were to join the insurgent Parliamentary Democracy Party of the deposed prime minister, U Nu, in the jungles of southeastern Burma in the early 1970s and try to overthrow the ruling Burma Socialist Program Party by force.

But above all it has been another of the Thirty Comrades, Ne Win, who has come to dominate Burmese national life. Even today, as in 1962 when Ne Win seized power, the Burmese Army, or Tatmadaw, still claims the right to decide and adjudicate on the country's future-largely on account of its historic role in Burma's national liberation struggle. No speech of the present Saw Maung regime would be complete without references to the sacrifices of the Burmese Army in the battle against "imperialism" during World War II. Tragically, if nothing else the events of 1988 were to brutally demonstrate that today's Burmese Army is very much the creation of Ne Win and not its founder, Aung San.

The Ethnic Minorities

Seen from the perspective of Burma's minorities, the war appears in a very different light. Most were to fight on the Allied side. For example, some 12,000 Karen and Karenni in the southeast joined the British-trained Karen Levies, or underground Force 136; these units were to be perhaps the most effective of all the Allied forces in Burma, inflicting more than 12,000 fatalities on the retreating Japanese armies during 1945. For their loyalty to the British, however, they were to suffer grievously. It was the Indian community, some 500,000 of whom fled the country, who suffered the heaviest loss of life at the hands of Burman nationalists. But in communal attacks on Karen villages in the Delta, the Official Report for Myaungmya District alone put the Karen death toll at 1,800 villagers. In the eastern hills hundreds more were killed-again, many eyewitnesses still recall, at the instigation of BIA.

Eventually in the Delta community leaders on both sides tried to stop the killings, and two battalions of Karen troops, led by San Po Thin and Hanson Kyadoe, joined BNA-but the damage had already been done. Many Karen leaders say they had already decided the future safety of their people was now dependent on an independent Karen state, something they claim British officers repeatedly guaranteed throughout the war. During the hasty British withdrawal from Burma, however, such promises were quickly forgotten. But for one former Karen leader, Saw Marshall Shwin, who was tortured by the Japanese after being turned in by BIA, the years have not lessened the pain. His heartfelt testimony is still enshrined in the Frontier Areas Committee of Enquiry of 1947. In 1987 he told this writer, "The British probably forgot us a long time ago, but what they did to us at Burma's independence has proven a very bitter, a very tragic experience for the Karen people. I told the enquiry what we wanted was real autonomy and I told them of so many atrocities committed by Burman soldiers against Karen villagers during the Second World War, but they didn't listen. I still don't know why."

Similar racial tensions, though on a lesser scale, were reported in Burma's far north, where various Chin, Kachin, and Naga Levies also fought on the Allied side. Indeed, remote mountain valleys along the Indian and Chinese borders were the only parts of Burma not to fall to the Japanese. In the Kachin Hills fighting was particularly desperate; various fabled units, such as the legendary "Chindits" of Colonel Wingate and the American "Merrill's Marauders" of General "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell, fought a highly dangerous guerrilla war behind Japanese lines, endangering the tens of thousands of local Kachin villagers who gave them unwavering support throughout the campaign.

Here in one of the most remote corners of Asia the impact of the war was particularly dramatic: following the Allied occupation of northern Burma, for a few brief weeks in 1945 the sleepy airfield at Myitkyina was by some estimates the busiest airport in the world. BIA troops in fact made few appearances in the northeast during the war, but ominously here, too, there was a dangerous rise in ethnic tensions. In 1946 the Council of Kachin Elders issued a stern word of warning: "What have the Burmese public done towards the hill peoples to win their love and faith? It was through the influence of a section of the Burmese public, who while saying that we all belong to the same race, blood and home, called in our enemies, the Japanese, that the hill peoples have suffered miserably during those dark years that followed."

Only in Arakan State did any ethnic minority-the Rakhine-join wholeheartedly on the BIA side. But here the role of the nationalist Rakhine movement has been downplayed by ethnic Burman writers. Indeed, the Arakan Defense Army, headed by Bo Kra Hla Aung, turned against the Japanese on 1 January 1945, three months in advance of the main AFPFL uprising in March. Moreover, during the war there was a worrying deterioration in relations between the Buddhist and Muslim communities, and there were a number of violent communal clashes in which both sides suffered heavy losses. As a result the Muslim community generally supported the British, and many Muslims served in the underground "V Force," which operated behind Japanese lines.

These social divisions still remain, but significantly, local villagers along the Naaf River today put the blame on BIA and a number of leaders from the Thakin movement who entered Arakan with the Japanese. "Everything was fine till they arrived," one Buddhist leader told this writer. "They told us what Burman villagers had been doing in the Delta, driving out the Indians and getting revenge on the Karens for supporting the British. They said if the Rakhines were true patriots we should do the same."

The Legacy of War

The rest is now history. The British originally planned on remaining in Burma for a period of six years in an orderly transition to independence. They ended up remaining less than three years, leaving many political questions still unresolved. Thakin Soe and the Red Flag Communists, U Seinda's Rakhine nationalists, and the Islamic Mujahid of northern Arakan went underground even before the British had left, and in March 1948, less than three months after independence, the Communist Party of Burma began its own armed insurrection. Then, at the beginning of 1949, following violent attacks on Karen communities in Tavoy-Mergui and the Delta, the Karen National Union took up arms against the AFPFL government, triggering the wholesale defection of Karen units from the Burmese Army-as well as a number of Kachin units under Naw Seng, a holder of the British Burma Gallantry Medal. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s various Karenni, Mon, Pa-oh, Chin, and Shan forces joined them, completing the complex picture of insurgency that the central government faces today. Indeed, even in 1989 many of the battles that rage in the eastern hills still have sad echoes of the campaigns of the war.

The same curious traces of World War II can be found in Rangoon, where the former Thirty Comrades member Ne Win shows little sign of being ready to release his grasp on political power, while two of his wartime colleagues, Bohmu Aung and Aung Gyi, head two of the new democracy parties formed in the aftermath of the 1988 coup. It is, however, another leader whom most observers believe can win any freely held election-Aung San Suu Kyi. She, of course, had not even been born then, but the political legacy she claims comes straight from World War II and the great national liberation movement of the 1930s and 1940s. As the whole world now knows, her father was Aung San, whose name today probably carries more poignancy and weight than it ever did when he was alive.

The same predominance of World War II veterans continues in many of the ethnic "liberated zones." For example, the Karenni leader. Saw Maw Re, the Kachin leader, N Chyaw Tang, and the Karen leader, Bo Mya, all first saw military service on the Allied side in the war, and all three insurgent armies are still run along British lines in what the Karen National Union calls the "Father-to-Son War."

If nothing else, Burma's tragic experience, after five decades of conflict, has amply demonstrated that one person's national liberation struggle may well mean another's persecution. Amid the high-flown rhetoric of patriotism and duty, few individuals from any community have been able to stand aside and remain truly neutral.

After so much bloodshed, then, it might be facile to expect any easy solutions. But if any consolation is to be taken from the traumatic events of 1988, it has been the sight of Burma's young people, from all ethnic backgrounds, urgently talking together-whether in the cities, jungles, or from exile-to try and find a new solution to Burma's tangled problems without harking back to the legacy of the past. It is as if a spell has been broken and the country has awakened from a long time warp. Hopefully, the future lies in their hands.

Their aspirations were summed up to this writer by one young medical student from Rangoon, Zaw Oo, whose father is a Burmese Army officer: "What we want now is democracy. We don't want authoritarian one-party rule any more. We have all suffered so much. We believe that only a democratic government can end the 40-year-old civil war which has done so much damage to our country. And we believe that only a democratic government can bring real peace and harmony to all our peoples-from all ethnic races-and rebuild our failing economy."

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