In the 19th century Burma was annexed by Great Britain after three so-called anglo-Burmese wars. As early as 1862, the country had been subordinated to the Viceroy of India as a province of India. As a result of the third Anglo-Burmese War, which began in 1885, the troops of the new colonial power managed to incorporate “Upper Burma” until 1890, thus gaining access to its mineral resources and stifling organized armed resistance, in which Buddhist monks had also and especially participated. The rest of the Burmese armed forces were wiped out.
The country soon developed into one of the largest rice exporters in Asia and gained increasing colonial economic importance due to its precious stones, wood, rubber and Petroleum Resources. However, the introduction of British law, along with the immigration of Chinese and Indian traders, led to the impoverishment of large parts of Burma’s population, especially in the wake of the Great Depression of the 1930s. The rice trade was in the hands of Chinese and Indian businessmen, while Indians, as Protegés of the colonial power, were also increasingly involved in the administrative and financial system and also acted as moneylenders.
The latter recruited themselves to a large extent from the South Indian Chettiar caste, whose members were particularly hated in the population, because as Landlords they were also able to acquire more fertile farmland in “Lower Burma”, on which impoverished Burmese farmers had hired themselves as tenants or day laborers. At that time, about one million Indians lived in this ethnically extremely heterogeneous country, whose population at the beginning of the 1940s numbered about 17 million people. On several occasions, resentment erupted in violent, pogrom-like attacks against members of the Indian Community. In contrast, the Chinese in the country were considered to be willing to integrate. Many of them succeeded not only in the smooth integration into Burmese society, but also – as in the case of the later coup General (1962) and long – time dictator Ne Win-the ascent into their Hautevolee.
Against British supremacy, organisations and groups were already formed around the turn of the century, but especially in the 1920s and 1930s, which campaigned in different ways against colonial patronage and for political independence and a socialist economic order in the country. These included, among others, the YMCA Model (Young Men’s Christian Association; young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA), the General Council of Burmese Associations (GCBA), radical student associations and transport workers in the capital Rangoon as well as prominent political activists from the Buddhist Sangha – among them the monks U Ottama, U Seinda and U Wisara. Their Partly peaceful, partly violent Protest was accompanied again and again by strikes against the (educational)education and tax policies of the authorities.
The Dobama Asiayone (we-Burmese Association), founded in May 1930, whose members called themselves “Thakin” (“Lord” or “Master”), gained increasing importance in the anti-colonial struggle, a name which the Europeans in the country had exclusively reserved for themselves as a salutation. This was not only intended to establish equality with the “colonial masters”, but also to signal who the real masters of the country were and that this term had been usurped illegally. “Burma to the Burmese “was the central Slogan of this henceforth also known as the” Thakin movement”, which advocated the preservation of its own cultural and religious (especially Buddhist) heritage and a comprehensive Burmese public life.
After the second student strike of 1936, which was organized primarily by the Rangoon University Students’ Union (RUSU), which was founded in 1931, the movement received a boost from student activists, all of whom would later play a prominent role in the country’s political life. Among them were Aung San (father of Nobel Peace Prize winner and long-time opposition politician Aung San Suu Kyi) and the first democratically elected prime minister U Nu, for example Thein Pe, the future general secretary of the Communist Party of Burma, and the future Deputy Prime Minister Kyaw Nyein. On May 8, 1936, the First Student Conference was held in Rangoon on the initiative of RUSU and the formation of the All Burma Students’ Union (ABSU) was decided. At this meeting, Aung San was elected vice-chairman of the ABSU. In addition, the All Burma Youth League (ABYL) existed.
The student strike was triggered by the Relegation of Aung Sans and Nus from Rangoon University. They had refused to give the university management the name of the author who had made sharp attacks on a high-ranking university employee in the student newspaper they edited. Both Aung San and Nu joined the Dobama Asiayone and the “Thakin Movement” respectively, in which they soon also held leadership positions and thus made the transition from student to national politics. The movement increased in militancy when the final separation of Burma from British India was completed in 1937. It was assumed that independence would be postponed further and that the forms of cooperation offered by the British were rejected as half-hearted, because the prerogatives of power were ultimately reserved for a British governor. This did not prevent the nationalist and later governor of Japan, Ba Maw, from serving as the first Burmese Prime Minister from April 1937 to March 1939. His turbulent tenure was accompanied by severe anti-Indian riots, which prompted the colonial government to impose a state of emergency and later to ban political parties and organizations “for the protection and defense of Burma” (Burma Defense Act). Those who disobeyed this order faced imprisonment (including Ba Maw) or went underground or went abroad.
Preparations for war
Another reason for the more militant action on the part of the non-parliamentary spectrum of resistance was the developments in Europe, where Nazi preparations for war were in full swing, as well as the escalation of Japanese Aggression in neighbouring China. No wonder that in 1939 several political associations and political parties were formed which loudly demanded independence from the British and spoke out against participation in the war alongside them – among them the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), the people’s Revolutionary Party, which was renamed the Socialist Party after the war, and finally a weighty alliance in the form of the cross-party Freedom Bloc (Freedom Bloc). This was composed of the Dobama Asiayone, the ABSU, Ba maw’s Sinyètha (poor people) party, and politically active Buddhist monks.
“The oppositional Freedom Bloc was an intellectual product of (…) Aung San. The purpose of the Freedom Bloc was to send the message to the people of the country that the people would support the British war effort only if the British government made a solemn declaration promising Burma independence after the war; otherwise the people would fight the British war effort.”
“One event chased the next, and the crowds swelled constantly. The speakers kept the subject very simple and partisan; the British say they are fighting for Poland and other oppressed white nations; the Burmese should fight for the liberation of these white nations without having given their consent, but they themselves should not be free; we must also fight for ourselves; we must have what the white nations have; for this we must fight with all the means at our disposal; Bo Bo Aung (hero of an ancient Burmese legend who brings a king to his knees because of his supernatural powers) will help us; Bo Bo Aung will also send others to our aid. - Such words penetrated directly into the Burmese heart; or rather it was an Echo of what had already begun to speak there. Another fact that helped us was the complete absence of Opposition. The British found that they had no friends who really stood up for them in the country.”
As different as the ideological orientation within this bloc was – in addition to Marxist-Leninist literature, books on the French Revolution and the Irish struggle for freedom, as well as fascist writings served as preferred reading – so different were the political considerations on how and with which methods independence should be realized. Roughly, two currents could be identified: while some were inspired by the rise of Mussolini and Hitler and welcomed their authoritarian or fascist ideas, others tended towards socialist or communist ideas. This was also reflected in the organizational orientation of the struggle for freedom and independence. If the former, according to the slogan “The Enemy of my enemy is my friend”, relied on the support of Japan as part of the Axis powers to shake off the hated colonial yoke of the British, the latter saw Japan as the main enemy to be fought – if necessary with British participation. Among the protagonists of this line were the communists Thakin Than Tun and Thakin Soe, who as early as July 1941, as political prisoners in Rangoon’s notorious Insein prison, had characterized fascism as the main evil throughout the world in their jointly written Insein Manifesto and had called for it to be resolutely opposed by means of a broad alliance including the Soviet Union.
After the riots of 1938 and the beginning of the Second World War in Europe in 1939, many leaders of the Thakin movement were arrested or managed to escape to neighboring China. There they turned directly to the Japanese military for help or were prevented by agents of the feared Kempeitai (military police) from seeking support from the Chinese communists. Among those who had also been able to settle in China in 1940 was Aung San. Contacts with Japanese officers, among them Colonel Suzuki Keiji, enabled Aung San to travel to Tokyo for initial talks, from there returning briefly to Burma in the spring of 1941, in order to travel again to Japan with close friends and comrades of mind, later so-called “Thirty Comrades”.
There was a lively exchange of ideas about the formation of an own army and the political reorganization. From then on, the “Thirty Comrades” received logistical and political-military support from the Suzuki-led “South Office” or the “South agency” (Minami Kikan), an intelligence network that the colonel had already established while stationed in Rangoon, where he was stationed under the name Minami Masuyo as a correspondent for the Japanese daily Yomiuri Shimbun. Dr. Thein Maung, in his capacity as chairman of the Japan-Burma society, was one of the most important liaison persons between the “Thirty Comrades”, Dr. Ba Maw, who had previously been ousted as prime minister, and Minami Kikan.
Minami Kikan coordinated his Burma-relevant plans and projects on behalf of the Imperial General Headquarters (ICJ) in Tokyo. On the Initiative of the” South Bureau", Aung San and his followers were initially taken to a specially created training camp in Sanya on the Japanese-occupied Chinese island of Hainan. There, under the aegis of Japanese officers, the “Thirty Comrades” completed six months of military training, which was accompanied by political training in the spirit of the Greater East Asian common sphere of prosperity officially proclaimed in Tokyo in August 1940 (see the first part of this series “rich country, strong army”) (Houtman 2007: 179ff.). With this concept, militaristic Japan draped its own hegemonic goals in Asia and the Pacific, deeming itself the “leader, light and protector of Asia” in the struggle against Western colonialism and imperialism. So harsh must have been the physical Drill, the training in psychological warfare, and the instruction in acts of sabotage against the British, that some of the recruits had at times considered sabotaging and stopping the Training.
When, a few days after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Japanese troops marched victoriously into Thailand’s capital Bangkok and, without encountering any significant resistance, advanced further south to Malaya, the long-awaited moment of their test came for the “Thirty Comrades”. They were taken to Bangkok, where Aung San announced the establishment of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) on 27 December 1941. Thus, on Japan’s Initiative, the nucleus of the first Burmese military force since the Fall of the kingdom in 1885 had emerged. Colonel Suzuki took command of the BIA, while Aung San became its chief of staff and Shu Maung became the head of an army group that was responsible for Sabotage in the interior of Burma in the upcoming operation (Yoon 1973: 31).
Each of the “Thirty Comrades” took a nom de guerre in an act of solemn oaths of loyalty. Thus Aung San henceforth called himself Bo Tay Za (“powerful commander”), Shu Maung became Bo Ne Win (“commander shining sun”), while Suzuki adorned himself with the symbolic name Bo Mogyo (“commander Thunderbolt”). This was meant to be a deliberate reminder of an old prophecy that Burma’s British conquerors, symbolized by an umbrella, would ultimately be crushed by a thunderbolt.
Imperial objectives – subaltern armies
In the context of the larger East Asian common sphere of prosperity, the Japanese military pursued three main objectives with regard to Burma. On the one hand, it was about access to the strategic resources (including oil) of the country. In order to protect the narrow Malay Headland against the cutting off of the important land connection between Bangkok and Singapore by possible British attacks, the Japanese general staff planned the Invasion of Southern Burma to occupy There air bases as well as the port of Rangoon. Finally, it was a question of controlling the equally important Burma Road in the north-east of the country, through which the Allied forces provided logistical support to the Chiang Kai-shek government in Chungking. An interruption of this supply route, which ran from Assam in northeast India via northern Burma to Kunming, the capital of China’s southwestern Yunnan province, would have meant a faster success of his “China campaign” from the Japanese point of view.
After the Fall of the British colony of Singapore on February 15, 1942, until early March, cities in southern Burma were taken by Japanese troops and BIA forces, and finally, on March 8, the capital Rangoon. Meanwhile, having grown to 300 fighters, members of the BIA under Japanese command were initially deployed as spies and local leaders. However, during the advance, Japanese officers recruited as many Burmese as possible who had previously lived in Bangkok and on the Thai-Burmese border, which quickly increased the BIA to about 4,000 fighters. These were joined by so many volunteers from rural areas within Burma that within a few weeks the BIA degenerated into an armed Mob. There were repeated violent attacks by BIA combatants against ethnic minorities, which surprised even Japanese officers.
With the withdrawal of the British troops, numerous Karen soldiers had to resign at the same time because they had served the British for many years. However, many of them returned to their villages armed. If they refused to surrender their weapons, they were targeted by the BIA, who, either on the orders of Colonel Suzuki or on their own, carried out “punitive actions” against Karen areas and burned entire villages. South of Bassein in the Irrawaddy Delta, the most brutal massacres of the BIA occurred, during which about 1,800 Karen were murdered and 400 of their villages destroyed. (Ba Maw 1968: 186ff.) the majority of the Karen had declared their loyalty to the British Crown, committed themselves to military professionalism, advocated a separation of politics and the military, and feared Burmese dominance.
In the summer of 1942, the Japanese military intervened and replaced the BIA with a regular army, the Burma Defense Army (BDA). It was planned to have a force of about 10,000 men and was commanded by a general staff and officers – also under the leadership of Aung San. Other Burmese officer candidates received their training at a specially created Training Centre in Mingaladon (north of Rangoon), the best of which flew to Japan for finishing touches and were trained at military academies there in the spirit of Japanese militarism.
Admiration for the Tenno
As in the Philippines, the Japanese occupation plans also provided for Burma to release the country into an independence from Tokyo’s clemency. On August 1, 1943, Ba Maw, who described himself as Anashin (Callahan 2003: 55), was elected head of State (Adipadi), while Aung San, now with the rank of Japanese “Major – General”, became commander-in-chief of the successor organization of the Burma Defence Army, the Burma National Army (BNA, Bama Tatmadaw), and simultaneously became defense minister in Ba Maw’s cabinet. As ardent admirers of the greater Japanese Empire, The “Thirty Comrades” imitated their Japanese fellow officers in behaviour and dress (Werning 2003). After all, they all owed their careers to extensive Japanese logistics and military personnel.
Ba Maw’s participation in the larger East Asia conference in Tokyo on 5 and 6 November 1943 underscored this close connection to the Japanese Empire. At the invitation of the Japanese Prime Minister Tojo Hideki, who also acted as patron of this conference, the closest vassals of Japan had gathered there – all inspired by the idea of linking pan-Asian ideas with the return to a (supposed or actual) glorious pre-colonial era. Other participants in the two-day meeting were Wang Jingwei, whose regime in Nanking was based on Japanese bayonets, the premier of the puppet state Manchukuo, Zhang Jinghui, Philippine President José P. Laurel, Subhas Chandra Bose as leader of the free India Movement, and the Thai prince Wan Waithayakorn.
It was only when the inhuman course of Japanese militarism became more and more apparent in the course of the war and the role of the government as a puppet of the Japanese occupiers that Aung San and his followers distanced themselves from their former patrons. Moreover, when the occupying forces failed to advance into Northeast India with their Imphal Offensive in March 1944, and the allies inflicted heavy losses on them, Aung San, together with communists and socialists, participated in the establishment of an anti-fascist organization (AFO). It was founded at a secret meeting in Pegu in August 1944 and later renamed the anti-Fascist people’s Freedom League (AFPFL). In March 1945, the BNA, along with its political leadership, changed fronts and joined forces under the name Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF) with the forces advancing against the capital Rangoon under the South-East Asia Command of Lord Louis Mountbatten. On 27 March 1945 there was a nationwide uprising against the Japanese troops. This date, which was henceforth celebrated as “anti-fascist resistance day”, was later renamed “Tatmadaw day” (“armed forces day”).
Lead Colonial Heritage
After the British reconquest of Burma, Aung San escaped arrest and conviction for anti-British actions and for the execution of Burmese civilians during the Japanese occupation solely on the basis of a British calculation. The British military wanted to avoid entangling its troops in a Burmese civil war as long as the war against Japan was not decided. Finally, in London in January 1947, Aung San was able to sign an agreement with Prime Minister Clement Attlee on the formal independence of Burma on 4 January 1948. However, Aung San, meanwhile chosen as the first prime minister of independent Burma, fell victim to an assassination attempt on 19 July 1947, when he was shot along with other ministers during a cabinet meeting on behalf of political opponents.
The war was a disaster for the civilian population of Burma. In the Japanese-occupied areas, there was mass forced labor and severe supply shortages, which also affected British India with the famine in Bengal in the spring of 1943. In addition, the selective support of individual ethnic, religious and political groups on the part of almost all actors led to atrocities against the civilian population. While the British had disproportionately included members of the Kachin, Chin and Karen in their police and military apparatus alongside Indian soldiers, the Burmese, who had been protected by the Japanese, had succeeded in consolidating and steadily expanding their influence in the state, society, politics and economy over the course of the war and the period thereafter. This was also reflected in the military hierarchy: after General Smith Dun, a Karen, retired as commander-in-chief of the army at the end of the 1940s, Ne Win succeeded him in this post. A position of power that secured this and his fellow soldiers from the time of the Japanese occupation a key position in the state and military respectively in the military state in the long term. The separation of the country into two completely different administrative units by the British so-called Burma Proper and the Frontier Areas, continued in the post-war period and laid the seeds for ongoing conflicts – for example, in the Northern Kachin State and Western Rakhine state, formerly Arakan.
The most significant and far-reaching legacy of the Japanese occupation in Burma was the following::
Anti-colonial or anti-British resistance was not primarily due to the commitment of outstanding political leaders, but became the domain of a mostly academically trained, sworn Burmese youth corps, which, fully trained in the spirit of Japanese militarism, developed into a kind of “warrior caste”. Years later, Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, First Secretary of the State Council for peace and development (SPDC) from 1997 to 2003 before becoming prime minister in August 2003, declared bluntly: “our Tatmadaw were created in Japan” (Houtman 1999: 153).
The most important Institution that emerged in this way was an army under the wing of Japan, operating under different names – with the consequence that since the establishment of the BIA the sphere of the political was militarized and the military increasingly Burmese.
As the military Arm of the newly founded Burmese AFPFL and the first independent Burmese army since the end of the 19th century, at the end of the war the PBF enjoyed the privilege of being the country’s only legitimate national(istic)political-military force.
Independence, a regained national pride, strict loyalty, respect for the principle of seniority and compliance with the command structures marked henceforth a leadership that should find its ideal-typical correspondence in the soldier’s existence.
Finally, Japan, whose claim to leadership in Burma was respected and admired far more than, for example, Vietnam, Malaya and the Philippines, had proved that as an Asian power it was able to destroy the long-nurtured myth of the invulnerability of Western colonialism and imperialism.
Like Sukarno, the later founding father of Indonesia, Aung San was initially one of the most ardent admirers of Japan in Southeast Asia. In harmony with Japan, which wanted to reshape the Region in its own image and transform its populations into submissive subjects of the Tenno, Aung San and Sukarno envisioned a rigid central state, which would be responsible for curbing any kind of centrifugal forces. A disastrous course of action, especially in multi-ethnic states such as Burma and Indonesia, where Birmanization and Javanization were understood as raison d’etre postcolonial nationalism and executed militarily.
Excursion: the Thailand-Burma Railway: Japan’s most gigantic war project during World War II drove 100,000 Asian and about 10,000 “white” forced laborers to their deaths.
“Along the railway line there were already 55 prison camps for 64,000 men, but that was far from enough. Because the Japanese brought in more workers: from the countries they had just conquered, Burma, Malaya and Indonesia. The Imperial army recruited them by force. Samid, for example, is the only survivor from a group of 40 Indians picked up by the Japanese in Singapore: ‘I went to the market. It was a Friday. Then two Japanese showed up and asked me, ‘what are you doing here?‘I told them I was a Student. They said, ' You had better go to Thailand to work there instead of studying.‘And urged:’ Manai, Manai-come with me! Come with me!‘I said I couldn’t go with you so easily, my parents would never let me. But they insisted. I started to cry. But they ruled me: ‘stop it!’ And dragged me by force to a train. He was full of Indians. There were certainly some thousands. And the Japanese threatened to cut off all our heads if we didn’t come along.”
Passages from a video film shown by the private museum Thailand-Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, about the construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway.
“The Sweat Army, one of the largest organized extortions during the Japanese era in Burma, is synonymous with slave labor in Nazi Germany. It all started with the fact that the Japanese absolutely needed a land connection from China to Malaya and Burma. Since Burma was a member or a future member of the common sphere of prosperity, he was required to contribute his part to the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway. (…) These men were driven into malaria-infested jungles without proper clothing, food and shelter. To clear the wonderful path that would turn Burma into a paradisiacal terminus of a gigantic joint prosperity railway from China.”
Kanchanaburi is a well-maintained small town with about 30,000 inhabitants, many of whom live from tourism. Backpackers come here to undertake trekking tours in the scenic surroundings. From Bangkok, travel companies like to offer Kanchanaburi as a destination for a day trip in air-conditioned buses. Crowds of Thai and international tourist groups flock to the city for a few hours a day. They bring good sales to retailers, restaurant, Hotel and Guest house owners. The main attraction is a bridge that owes its fame to an advertisement that could not have been more resounding six decades ago.
In 1957, the film “the bridge over the River Kwai” was shown in cinemas and immediately received three Oscars. The Film made the leading actor Alec Guinness famous as an actor and overnight the Thailand-Burma Railway, also called “Death Railway”, the epitome of a notorious slave project. This strip celebrates the tenacity, endurance and unbroken will to survive of Allied prisoners of war under the thumb of their Japanese military foes. The screenplay was based on a story whose author, the Frenchman Pierre Boulle, was himself a prisoner of war for a short time and had locked the Vichy loyalist behind bars in Saigon. Much of the Strip is fiction, but the fates it describes are bitter reality. And Kanchanaburi was then, in the summer of 1942, together with Chungkai, three kilometers away, the Japanese command center when work on the “Death Railway” began.
Bridge to India
By the spring of 1942, the Japanese troops had taken control of the entire continental and insular Southeast Asia in addition to East Asia. These included the previously French-dominated Indochina-Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia–, the Philippines as an American colony, Dutch India, Today’s Indonesia with its rich oil and gas deposits in Aceh, in northern Sumatra, as well as Malaya including the “fortress Singapore”, which the British considered impregnable. The commanders of the colonial troops had either surrendered or left for Australia or Ceylon, Today’s Sri Lanka.
Nevertheless, a Problem remained unresolved for the Japanese: their supply routes between Thailand and the Burmese capital Rangoon (today Yangon) were too far. They passed through the great detour via Singapore and the Strait of Malacca, a sea route that offered little protection against surprising allied air raids. There was indeed a connection from Thailand to the Burmese Moulmein. But this Overland runway was unsuitable for heavy transporters as well as a constant and larger supply of military and civilian goods of any kind. Especially in the rainy season, when the Terrain turned into an impassable morass landscape. Thus, the Japanese general staff considered a plan that had already been cherished before the war in Rangoon and Bangkok – namely to connect Moulmein with the Thai capital by a railway line. Such a railway, according to Tokyo’s military - strategic calculation, should be the hub of North-South and east - West Expansion, pave the way for Japanese troops from China to Singapore and at the same time serve as a logistical hub for the conquest of the Indian subcontinent.
As the largest and most populous colony in Asia, India was of enormous importance to the British. They recruited two and a half million soldiers there and sent many of them to the front lines of the Second World War in Europe, North Africa and especially in Asia. This was also the case in the jungles of Burma, where they had to fight against the Japanese together with soldiers from Nepal and 100,000 men from the British colonies in Africa. As early as February 1942, Japanese forces from Thailand had invaded Burma, then also a British colony. And in May 1942 they had also beaten the British troops there and pushed them back to the border with India.
The terminus of the Thailand-Burma Railway on the Burmese side was Thanbyuzayat, which was already connected by rail to the capital Rangoon. The starting point on the Thai side was Nong Pladuk, where there was also a rail network that led South via Bangkok and ended in Singapore. A total of 415 kilometers separated Nong Pladuk from Thanbyuzayat. 304 kilometers led over Thai and the remaining 111 kilometers over Burmese territory. For the construction period of such a route, which led mainly in the border area of both countries through dense jungle, earlier British construction plans had planned about five years. From Tokyo, however, the order was made to complete this route in a maximum of 16 months – whatever the cost. In June 1942, construction began on both sides of the border, which was actually completed in mid-October 1943. Shortly thereafter, Japanese troops took the railway into operation. Up to 3,000 tons of military equipment and supplies rolled over the rails every day.
“Human material in abundance”
“Before the war there were more Indians in Rangoon than Burmese. A total of one million Indians lived in Burma at that time. The British had brought them to Burma because they were familiar with the British colonial administration. Many of them worked here as colonial officials, clerks and accountants of the British. When the Japanese arrived, half of them fled on foot across the border to India, to the province of Assam. But one in two of them, about a quarter of a Million people, perished. Among the Indians who remained in Burma, there were also volunteers for the Japanese troops. Because Japan promised to grant independence to India – after the expulsion of the British – they went to war with the Japanese against the allies. The Indians were treated better by the Japanese than the Burmese. At first, the Japanese in Burma pretended to be friends, announced that they would grant independence to our country, and urged the people to rise up against the British. But when their troops had conquered our country, they turned out to be imperialists and broke their promise.”
U Thet Thun, who experienced the war as a Student and later served in his country’s diplomatic service as ambassador in Paris, in conversation with the author in Rangoon.
“In order to do the Job, the Japanese mainly had human material available as a tool. And this Material was cheap. Later it was ready in abundance-Burmese, Thais, Malays, Chinese, Tamils and Javanese, bruised, squeezed creatures. When nothing could be squeezed out of them and they were completely broken, they were carelessly thrown on the human garbage heap, the railroad of death.”
In contrast to Thailand, which had granted Japan transit rights, cooperated with it and was the only country in the Region able to maintain its independence halfway, Burma had been a militarily occupied country since 1942. In its capital Rangoon, the Japanese high command had launched the Burma Central Executive Administration (BCEA), a coalition of various factions of the Burmese independence movement. Until 1. In August 1943, when Burma officially declared its “independence” under Japanese supervision, the BCEA had received orders from the Japanese general staff to provide sufficient manpower for the Burmese section of the Thailand-Burma Railway. In March 1943, Thakin Ba Sein, who headed the transport and irrigation department at BCEA, created the Central Labour Service office under the leadership of Thakin Ba Sein. Initially, the BCEA, as well as well-known Burmese intellectuals and anti-British resistance fighters, had supported the Japanese railway project and recruited more than 70,000 people willing to work in national campaigns.
The contemporary witness U Hla Pe, quoted at the beginning, mentioned in his 1961 report on the Japanese occupation, which registers the new Masters drew in order to convince the Burmese of a new life in prosperity:
“Large-scale newspaper advertisements and public attacks painted a life in abundance in the rosy colors. Lavish wages and a constantly rolling supply of sought-after goods from Thailand were promised to those willing to work as well as adequate medical care. Even those who stayed at home were promised rewards and special benefits. Advance payments for women and children should additionally motivate those willing to work. In fact, volunteers came from all corners of the country. (…) But all the great promises remained wishful thinking. (…) The Japanese cared nothing about it; they brutally forced people to work. The Burmese authorities and superiors did nothing because they did not want to risk an outbreak of violence. (…) If not enough professional workers could be hired in a Region, people were taken out of their homes or from their fields without further ado. When they reached the labour camps, they found that they did not have enough food, let alone good wages or special benefits.”
Whatever pro-Japanese Sentiments existed among the Burmese population, the picture suddenly changed when Japan ordered large-scale Burmese romusha, forcibly recruited workers and peasants, to build the Burmese section of the Thailand-Burma Railway – a humiliation for a supposedly independent country. The consequences: on the one hand, former sympathizers and collaborators of the Japanese military administration increasingly distanced themselves from the occupiers, which led to the fact that since August 1944 the anti-fascist people’s freedom League (AFPFL), led by Aung San, and the Burmese army publicly called for guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. On the other hand, out of a total of about 175,000 Burmese romusha, only about 90,000 people could ultimately be used to build the railway. Numerous romusha escaped before they reached the labour camps. Nevertheless, the construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway on the Burmese side claimed at least 40,000 victims. To this day, it remains unclear how many of the more than 80,000 Burmese who fled the country before being forced to work died of disease, malnutrition and exhaustion during their flight.
On the Thai side, the Japanese initially resorted to Dutch, Australian, US and British prisoners of war in the construction of the railway, who had fallen into their hands during the capture and military occupation of Malaya, Singapore and Dutch India (Java, Sumatra and Borneo) at the beginning of 1942. That was a total of about 62,000 people, of whom over 12,000 did not survive the ordeal. But soon three times as many Asians followed, almost 200,000 romusha, forced laborers and Kulis from Dutch India, Singapore, Malaya, Tamils living in Malaya from South India and China. Some romusha also came from Thailand and the Pacific. Their living conditions are described and illustrated in a haunting way by a museum created on a private initiative, the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, which opened its doors in Kanchanaburi in January 2003.
In the lower of the two floors of this center, information boards and maps give a historical overview of the 1930s and 1940s of the last century. Plans show Japan’s Imperial targets in East and Southeast Asia. Rare photos, secretly taken by Japanese cameramen and partly provided by Ranichi Sugano, possibly the last surviving engineer of the railway project, show that Japanese guards with bayonets drove the forced laborers into the jungle at dawn. There they had to cut down jungle trees and saw them into railway sleepers, break stones from the mountains and crush them into gravel, drag railway lines onto the track and nail them with heavy hammers. They usually had only simple tools at their disposal – pickaxes, knives, shovels and nails made of scrap metal. Those who did not work fast enough were flogged, and those who tried to escape were executed. A short video, compiled from various historical film clips, documents above all the fate of Malays and Indians or Tamils from Singapore. They were usually kidnapped on the street by the Japanese military police, forcibly locked in train carriages in which they had to crouch for days on steel floors – crammed together like in a cattle transport. Arriving in Kanchanaburi and Chungkai, they were housed in long bamboo huts, whose floors quickly turned into slippery morass during the rainy season. Malaria, dysentery and Cholera took hundreds of lives every day. Hunger, exhaustion and harassment of the Japanese guards, mostly serving Koreans, did the rest to make the work on the Thailand-Burma Railway a hell on Earth.
“The suffering, disease, humiliation and harassment also affected Allied prisoners of war, 17,000 of whom did not survive the hardships, “said Australian Rod Beattie, research director of the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, in an interview with the author,” but to an even greater extent the Asian forced laborers were affected. The Asians made up 80 percent of the workers and 90 percent of the victims. About 100,000 of them died – mainly Malays and Tamils as well as Burmese.”
In recent years Beattie has walked up and down the old railway line on the Thai side to look for traces there. He covered more than 2,000 kilometres on foot. According to Beattie, the Japanese had set up between 90 and 100 labour camps on Thai territory alone during the construction of the railway, to which perhaps another 30 camps on the Burmese side had been added. Even after the railway was completed, about 30,000 prisoners had to carry out maintenance work in numerous Camps along the railway line and ensure that sufficient coal was available for the locomotives. Since the railway was of great importance in terms of military strategy, it became increasingly the target of Allied air raids from 1944. In such an attack alone, almost 100 prisoners of war lost their lives near Nong Pladuk, the starting point of the Thailand-Burma Railway on the Thai side, and 300 people were injured. At Nong Pladuk, in addition to air defense positions, there were also large ammunition and oil depots of the Japanese.
After Japan had already surrendered and allied troops began to literally collect survivors of the “Death Railway” on tipping lorries, bring them to safety and provide medical care, the Japanese command in and around Kanchanaburi destroyed everything that had been written before and during the construction of the railway. Takashi Nagase, an English interpreter in the service of the Japanese military police, suspected two things behind this act of destruction: they wanted to cover up as much as possible any traces that could have proved the systematic humiliation and torture of the prisoners. Although Japan had signed the Geneva Convention on the treatment of prisoners of war of 1929, it had not ratified it. In addition, all files concerning mainly the Asian forced laborers, who themselves had no notes, diaries or other records, were to be destroyed. It was different in the case of the Allied prisoners of war. Their dead were mostly known by name, their records were systematically compiled and evaluated after the war, while their remains were properly buried in the war cemeteries in Kanchanaburi, Chungkai and Thanbyuzayat and found their final resting place. By the early 1950s, the U.S. government had exhumed the approximately 130 bodies of GIs prisoners of war and had them transferred to the United States.
History and selective memory
First of all, after the end of the war, the allies also took care of the repatriation of their own compatriots to their homeland. All this did not apply to the Asian romusha. Their bodies were buried in the jungle. The survivors were on their own and had to watch as they organized the return to their homeland. They were not an issue for Japan, the former European colonial powers cared as little about them as Thailand, where they had been transported. While very few of these Asian romusha remained in Thailand, where they later married and died, most of them returned to their homeland after weeks or months of further hardships – as stowaways on trains and boats and after long foot marches. But nobody cared about their fate there; whether in Malaya, Dutch India, China or India – political and social unrest prevailed everywhere as a result of anti-colonial liberation struggles. With an already relatively low life expectancy, most romusha have already died in the 1960s and 1970s. None of them had received any compensation for the injustice and suffering they had suffered. They were simply forgotten.
“The Thailand-Burma Railway was a project, “says Australian Rod Beattie, who works full-time as curator of the Commonwealth War cemeteries in Kanchanaburi and Chungkai,” in which European, Australian and American colonial rulers came under the yoke of Asians. Europeans who subjugated Europeans have always existed, and also Asians who oppressed other Asians. But there were very few cases where Asians dominated Europeans. And here even members of several European countries came under Japanese rule. They have not forgotten that. The fact that the Japanese have also tortured Asians en masse is still quite irrelevant for those who do not live in Asia and are not Asians.”
Myths, Misunderstandings and selective perception – today’s Kanchanaburi benefits from this peculiar Melange. The town is located at the confluence of the Menam Kwae NOI and Menam Kwae Yai, the small and large river Kwae, which from here is called Mae Khlong. “During World War II, the Japanese had Asian forced laborers and Allied prisoners of war build a wooden and then a steel bridge over it, the components of which came from Sumatra and were shipped to Thailand,” Hugh Cope, Beattie’s colleague and managing director of the Thailand - Burma Railway Centre, explained in an Interview with the author. Cope added mischievously: “although there was no bridge over the ‘River Kwai’, there are still too many influential advocates on the ground and in Bangkok who want to maintain this myth in the interest of the tourism industry: foreign visitors are magically attracted by the ‘bridge over the River Kwai’ and Thai businessmen are delighted with such curiosity.“Long ago, the River Kwai Boom also caught the better-heeled kids of the metropolis Bangkok. Among them, it is considered chic and hip to rent houseboats over the weekend and experience the Kick of an alcoholic river trip.
For a long time there were only two museums in Kanchanaburi, the JEATH Museum and the Second World War Museum. The former was built in 1977 on the grounds of a Buddhist monastery, Wat Chaichumpol,. Its bamboo construction is supposed to remind of the accommodations of the prisoners of war. JEATH-Nomen est Omen - stands for”Japan, England, Australia, America, Thailand, Holland”. Here, mostly in the Form of faded newspaper clippings, Western victims and Japan are thought of as perpetrators. The Second World War Museum was built eleven years later near the Old Bridge and shows an indiscriminate selection of war and post – war utensils-the Asian romusha are not mentioned.
In addition, the Australians maintain their own memorial at Hell Fire Pass near the Burmese border in memory of their dead, the graves of the Allied soldiers are lovingly cared for at the war cemeteries in Kanchanaburi and Chungkai on behalf of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission (headquartered in Maidenhead, Berkshire, England). In Kanchanaburi 7,000 and in Chungkai nearly 1,800 Allied soldiers have found their final resting place. The names of the deceased are engraved on most tombstones. Only well-kept Commonwealth graves commemorate the victims of the allies. Gravestones with the inscription “whose name only God knows” refer to the mass of nameless Asian victims. These were forgotten here, 75 years after the end of the war, and the Thailand-Burma-Railway Centre, just opposite the war cemetery in Kanchanaburi, had not remembered their fate since the beginning of 2003.
Militarism as a state virtue
Nationwide revolts, the rise of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), uprisings of various ethnic minorities such as the Shan, Kachin, Mon and Karen, the mass flight of defeated Kuomintang associations from China across the border to Burma as well as internal political instability as a result of Fractionations within the ruling AFPFL caused the old core of the “Thirty Comrades”, which had formed around Lieutenant General Shu Maung alias Ne Win after the assassination of Aung San, to to intervene directly in political events. By the mid-1950s, the military academy or National Defence College, the Defence Services Institute (DSI) and the Defence Services Historical Research Institute (DSHRI) had created important institutions under the aegis of the military, which both considerably expanded its economic power and contributed significantly to formulating political-programmatic guidelines and adopting an appropriate ideological orientation.
Remarkably, the first publication of a text, sometimes titled “blue Print for Burma”, sometimes “Blueprint for Free Burma”, occurred during this period.the editors of the Guardian Magazine, in whose March 1957 issue (Rangoon, pp. 33-35) he appeared, stated that he came from the pen of Aung San. This draft or blueprint for a post-colonial Burma is said to have been drawn up in early 1941 in consultation with Colonel Suzuki’s Minami Kikan. According to the report, Aung San is said to have taken the view: “what we want is a strong state administration, such as exists in Germany and Japan. There will be only one Nation, one state, one party and one leader. There will be no parliamentary Opposition, no nonsense of individualism” (Maung Maung 1959: 91-92).
This paper later sparked controversy as to whether the text of this text actually came from Aung San personally or whether it was not rather the authorship of one or more members of the Minami Kikan or, as a co-authored paper by Minami Kikan employees and the core of the later BIA leadership, was intended to outline the thrust of future policy (Houtman 2007: 189). In any case, the Tenor of the “Blue Print” was excellently used by Ne Wins and his closest confidants trained in psychological warfare to brand factional struggles within the ruling AFPFL as harmful and at the same time to claim for himself the sovereignty of interpretation over the role of Aung San. In the later founded Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP), which was to remain for years the only permitted political grouping in the country, the military saw the core of the “Blue Print” put into practice with Ne Win at the head, whereby the public reference to the person of Aung San and his political legacy steadily declined or was pushed into the background (ibid.: 181-83).
Under the pretext of ending crippling (party)political wrangling, maintaining national unity and security at all costs, and fending off foreign influences, Ne Win and his loyalists went on a frontal attack and put themselves in power on March 2, 1962. Almost a decade after Ne Win’s resignation in the summer of 1988, it was still evident how persistently the military adhered to such a world view and how deeply their faith in a mission as just as necessary had permeated his corps spirit.
“What did the Tatmadaw do during the four political crises of 1948, 1958, 1962 and 1988? Had the Tatmadaw held back in all these years, the country would have been destroyed four times. Had the Tatmadaw not seized power, especially in 1988, the Union would have been a shambles today and the bloodshed would have continued."(ICG 2000: 9-CIT. according to Nawrahta, Destiny of the Nation. Yangon: the News and Periodicals Enterprise, 1995, P. 23). And five years later, on the occasion of the “day of the armed forces” on 27. The most powerful military in the country at the time, Senior General Than Shwe, recalled these “four crises"in his own way on March 20, 2000. He warned” pessimists dependent on foreigners “against missteps and emphasized that they were only” jealous of the efforts of our Tatmadaw to strive for the full development of our country.“Resistance against it, according to Than Shwe, is illegitimate, anti-national and controlled from abroad (ICG 2000: 9 – CIT. after: The New Light of Myanmar, Yangon: 28 March 2000, p. 1).
Regiment mit eiserner Faust-the Ne Win era (1962-88)
As a result of the coup d’etat in March 1962, a military regime was created, to which all state authorities were subordinated. Economically, the Junta under Ne Win also took over the scepter and carried out a comprehensive nationalization. Through the control of the economy and foreign trade policy, the military succeeded in gradually weaving a fine-meshed clientelistic network that allowed the officer corps and businessmen devoted to them to secure their interests by means of foreign economic aid (until the end of the 1980s, primarily from Japan) and proceeds from the lucrative trade in (Teak)wood, precious stones and drugs. With the consequence that the military, especially (Regional)commanders and Gangs cooperating with them in the Form of so-called People’s Militia Forces (PMF), have been able to reap immense profits from legal and illegal transactions until recently.
The British non-governmental organisation Global Witness estimated that 18 per cent of the primary forest was cut down between 1990 and 2005 alone. And this in a country that once had four-fifths of the world’s Teak stock (The Economist 2012). Moreover, military battalions, especially in the border regions, were obliged to provide for themselves by establishing farms, plantations or other business. No wonder that in this way in the past rich people now own beautiful department stores, luxurious hotel and tourist resorts and even airlines (Hammer 2012). The beneficiaries are said to include Ex-prime minister and ex-President Thein Sein, who was commander of the Triangle region Military Command southeast of the city of Lashio between 1997 and 2001.
In order to legitimize its comprehensive powers, the Ne-Win Regime had developed the “Burmese path to socialism” as a new state doctrine, with the BSPP as the only permitted political party. Outwardly, it was proclaimed that the BSPP was the appropriate political Instrument for the country to pursue an independent development course with the help of an amalgam of Marxism, Buddhism, nationalism and socialism. Ne Win himself served in various capacities over the next 26 years-as chief of the Armed Forces, Chairman of the Revolutionary Council, Prime Minister of the revolutionary government, president of the Socialist Republic of the Union of Burma and chairman of the BSPP.
The first victims of this draconian policy were the students. In the capital Rangoon, followers of the new ruler even had the building of the historic RUSU blown up in the summer of 1962. Universities nationwide remained closed, so that thousands of students in the Hinterland joined guerrilla units or went into hiding abroad, preferably in neighboring Thailand, or sought asylum. The military used extreme brutality against the different guerrilla units. Residents of entire villages, even children, were forcibly involved in the conduct of the war as helpers. Like no other Southeast Asian country, a ubiquitous, highly efficient block maintenance system was created, in which even Buddhist bigots were integrated. Ne Win gradually transformed the armed forces into a formidable fighting force, established powerful Centers for psychological warfare, and helped the Tatmadaw, with about 490,000 men under arms and an annual budget of between 30 and 40 percent of government revenue, rank 10th on the military’s worldwide list and had the second largest army in Southeast Asia after Vietnam. He undoubtedly benefited from his training in counterinsurgency and psychological warfare by instructors of the once feared Kempeitai.
Among other things, Ne Win had learned about the “three-Everything policy” (sankō sakusen) from the Japanese troops. This tactic was modified in the course of his reign as a “policy of four cuts” implemented in the struggle to “pacify the Frontier Areas”, especially against the Karen National Union (KNU) and against the fighters of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA). In essence, it was about cutting off their popular support by cutting off Information, food, collecting taxes and recruiting. With regard to the urban centers, Ne Win’s longtime protégé and head of the Directorate of Defence Services Intelligence (DDSI), the omnipresent military intelligence service, colonel Khin Nyunt, implemented a similar tactic. A sophisticated spigot system flanked these measures. From the beginning of the 1950s to the end of the 1980s, this civil war is said to have cost the lives of an average of about 10,000 civilians and soldiers per year (Smith 1999: 100f.).
The long maintenance of NE Wins was made possible not least by an old-new patron – namely Japan. Since the end of the war, Japan has remained one of the closest allies and largest funders of the governments in Rangoon. As early as 1954, Tokyo signed an agreement with the now independent Burma as the first Southeast Asian state on war reparations amounting to the equivalent of 250 million US dollars. And from 1962 to 1988, Japan’s governments provided the Yangon Regime with the equivalent of $ 2.2 billion in aid (Mendl 1995: 103).
On July 23, 1988, Ne Win resigned after 26 years in office, after the country had previously been plunged into a severe economic crisis, the cost of basic food and fuel had multiplied, and there was great resentment that an unannounced, indemnified demonetization of the 25, 35 and 75 kyat notes literally drained and pauperized a large part of the population overnight. The government had justified this step by wanting to curb the rampant black market. In the course of nationwide mass protests, which were bloodily suppressed in order to “prevent the dissolution of the Union,” as the military insisted, General Saw Maung, a man, assumed power, which from 18 September 1988 was embodied by a collective military leadership, the state Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC).
Military councils - from SLORC to SPDC
Ne Win disappeared from the political scene, but behind the scenes he was still able to act as a grey eminence until his death – he died on 5 December 2002 at the age of 91. He had to spend the last days of his life under house arrest, isolated from the public. Nor was there a state funeral, only the closest circle of relatives and friends were present at the funeral. Thus ended the Ne Win era, but not that of the military.
In fact, a younger guard of the military had replaced an older one. Those who were to take on leadership positions in the SLORC, which for cosmetic reasons was renamed the state Peace and Development Council (SPDC) at the end of 1997, had all been protégés of the grey eminence. (Under Ne Win, for example, the State Bank introduced a banknote with a face value of 75 Kyat in the run - up to its 75th birthday, while later 45 Kyat and 90 Kyat banknotes were also put into circulation. Their face value could be divided by 9, the favorite and lucky number ne Wins.) In this sense, his “orderly” withdrawal in spring 2011 may have been a tailor-made departure. To this end, the new metropolis of Naypyidaw was designed and stamped out of the ground five years earlier on his Initiative. Nomen est omen: located about 400 kilometers north of the old capital Rangoon (today Yangon), this retort city is called “home of the Kings” or “royal residence”, an allusion to Old Royal Capitals in the Region and due to its pompous monumental buildings a contribution to the final sacralization of the Tatmadaw.
Since 22 October 2010, the country, which has since been called the Republic of the Union of Myanmar, has also had a new coat of arms, a new national anthem and a new state flag. The latter, with its three yellow-green-red stripes, corresponds exactly to the flag that Burma had used as a Japanese puppet state in the mid-1940s! The only difference: while at that time a peacock adorned the center of the flag, today this is a white five-pointed star.
Epilogue or calculated move of the military
With the parliamentary elections of 7 November 2010, the first in twenty years, Burma’s military rulers completed a significant stage of their “seven-step plan”, proclaimed years earlier, towards a “managed democracy"that they had well-established. The country’s most prominent political prisoner, Aung San Suu Kyi, daughter of Aung San, who had been praised abroad for many years as an “icon of democracy” and was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1991, was finally able to end her long-standing house arrest a few days later, on 13 November. At the same time, this marked the beginning of an unprecedented political flight, which “the Lady” experienced together with the National League for democracy (NLD), which she led. The catch with all this: this happened at the high price of having been at least co-opted, if not openly collaborated with, the military still firmly in the saddle.
Since the spring of 2016 and after several electoral victories, Aung San Suu Kyi has been acting as state advisor, foreign minister and head of the presidential office in a personal Union. Not even a pedestal of the former” icon of democracy " remains today. In mid-December 2019, for example, Der Spiegel wrote in support of numerous media reports and comments about the “lady” who has now been scolded as an “accomplice of the generals” or a “corrupt Angel of peace”.:
“It is a brutal transformation that can be observed in The Hague these days: Aung San Suu Kyi, head of government of Myanmar (… this time, however, he travelled to the International Court of Justice (ICJ) to defend his country against accusations of genocide against the Rohingya. (…) The 74-year-old transforms from a fighter for human rights to a defender of a possible genocide. (…) About two years ago, more than 700,000 people fled Rakhine from the atrocities committed by the military to the neighboring country of Bangladesh. There, they remain in overcrowded Camps, traumatized and without perspective. Since 2017, soldiers are said to have murdered thousands of people in the state. They had raped women and children, destroyed villages and burned people alive, according to the reports. (…) With her performance in The Hague she showed that (she) acted as a puppet of the military. Instead of denouncing the violence against the Rohingya, it buys power in its own country. The experienced politician knows: the Muslim Rohingya are hated by the majority people of the Buddhist Burmese and are considered ‘illegal immigrants’. With cool opportunism, Aung San Suu Kyi has so far avoided any partisanship for the minority.”