*** war and social upheaval: World War II -- Burma

World War II: Burma

World War II CBI Theater
Figure 1.-- This Chinese boy soldier, age 10, with heavy pack, is a member of a Nationalist army division boarding a plane returning them to China, following the capture of the vital Myitkyina airfield in Burma (December 5, 1944). The unit was part of the the allied command of U.S. Major General Frank Merrill. Nationalist Chinese and other Allied troops had earlier crossed through the treacherous jungle of the Kumon Bum Mountains before attacking Japanese troops to the south. Exhaustion and disease led to the early evacuation of the Chinese and Allied troops that spearheaded the offensive before the final assault on the town of Myitkyina still held by the Japanese. Source: U.S. Army Signal Corps

Burma was the scene of some of the least publicised fighting in World War II, in part because neither side really wanted to fight there. Burma beginning in 1824 was gradually annexed into British India. It had in the years leading up to World War II achieved quasi-Dominion status. Burma began to play a role in the War when the Burma Road was used by the Americans to transport supplies to Chang Kai-Sheks Nationalist Chinese. The United States covertly set up the Flying Tigers in China and Burma. After Pearl Harbor the Japanese launched offensives west and south from Indo-China. Thailand agreed to allow the Japanese to transit unimpeeded. They quickly seized the Burma Road, making the Burma Road useless. This also cut the British forced in Burma off from any hope of resupply. The Japanese proceeded to drive the British out of Burma, cutting the Burma Road. It was the longest military retreat in British history. Burma was of only minor interest to the Japanese, but they did want to cut the Burma Road, having done this the Japanese became increasingly interested in India, concluding that a popular insurection would occur as they approached the Indian border. The fighting in Burma was primarily a British theater, but the United States supported the British and Chinese in what was called the China Burma India Theater (CBI). Although Burma was a generally unreported theater of the War, it was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the war. It was also the scene of terrible attriocities. The Japanese worked thousands of British and Empire POWs and local laborers to death building a raiolroad to supply their troops. The Allies regrouped in India and drove back into Burma. A northern prong of the advance was to build a road from Ledo to link up with the old Burma Road and open a supply route to China. The British also drovde toward Mandalay. There was risomg natiomlisd resistance to British rule (1930s). The quick defeat of the British gave nationalists the idea that independence was a viable goal. Burmese nationalist forces orgamized by Aung San sided with the victorious Japanese who used them for propaganda purposes. Aung San's Burmese National Army switched sides as the Japanese military situation deteriorated. The Burme assisted the British 14th Army in the lattercstages of the campaign. final stages of the campaign. The British finally retook to Rangoon. They hoped to restablish their colonial regime. Aung San's supporters set up what was in effect a Burmese government. Aung San negotiated in Britain for independence (1947). After returning to Burma he was assassinated in Rangoon with many of his cabinent members. Burmese politics has remained tumultous even to this day.


The rugged geography of Mynamar/Burma isolated it from its much larger and more powerful neighbots--India to the west and China to the north. High, rugged mountains discouraged both trade and travel as well as military campaigns. This geographic isolation shaped Burma into a country distinctly different from its larger neigbors, especially China to the north. Th Arakan Mountains in the west borderd by the Chindwin River would play a key role in British defense of India.


Pre-Colonial Society

Burma's pre-colonial siciety was basically a subsistence economy. The vast majority of the population was involved in rice production and other agricultural pursuits. Burma lacked a formal monetary system until the reign of King Mindon Min (mid-19th century). Land was seen as the property of the king. Major erconomic activitities, especially y export opretrations including oil wells, gem mining and teak production were controlled by the monarchy. (Burma was fanous for its rubbies.) Burma was important in the Indian Ocean trade. Logged teak was a prized export that was used in European shipbuilding, because of its durability, and became the major export item, in part explainuing Briutish interest.

British Colonization

Britain colonized Burma after establishing the Raj in India. The immediate cause was the Burma Wars. Thesewere a conflict between the Arakan Kingdom in western Burma and British-held Chittagong to the north. Burmese forces defeated the Kingdom of Arakan (1784-85). The Burmese Konbaung Dynasty (1752–1885) created the second-largest empire in Burmese history. They restored the kingdom and continued the Taungoo reforms aimed at centralizing rule and included a mass literacy campaign. Burmese forces invaded India (1823). This began the Anglo-Burmese Wars (1824-85). The British launched a seaborne expedition of mostly Indian troops that took Rangoon with little resisance (1824). The Treaty of Yandabo formally ended the First Anglo-Burmese War (1826). The British governed Burma as a province of the Raj. The British instituted social, economic, cultural and administrative changes. This began a transformation of a basically n agrarian society. Britain made Burma an official Indian province of India with the capital at Rangoon (1886). Ethnic, religious, and a range of cultural differences under cut this effoirt. Burma proved to be a valuable colony for the British. Some sources say that the population prospered. Burma was the second wealthiest part of Southeast Asia after the Philippines. It was the world's largest exporter of rice. Burma produced oil through the Burmah Oil Company. Burma also had a wealth of natural and labor resources. It produced 75 percent of the world's teak and was a highly literate population. Burma was widely seen as on a fast track to development as a orosperous, sucessful country. Other sources claim that the population suffered. We note charges like the peasantrty was largely landless and worked fir absetee landlords. Of course the peasabtry did not own land before the population arrived. What we do not see in the attacks on the British is comparison of diet, housing, health, longevity, education, and other factors before and during British rule as after it. It is true that there was increaing nationalist feeling among the Burmese as the world moved toward World War II.

Burmese Nationalist Ferment

As in India, local elites over time began to press for greater participation abd even independence. Britain responded by making Burma a separate colony with a largely autonomous local government and an elected assembly (1937). This still-dependent status dissatisfied many politically active Burmese and university students. It should be noted thazt the universuties were a British creation. Strikes and disorders followed. A vocal political party advocating independence from Britain gained considerable popular support. The British used force to quel protests. Despite Burma's colonial status, there was more open political expression and less supression of basic rights under Britain than after independence which followsed World War II. Some of the nationalist leaders visited Tokyo where Japanese officials expressed sympathy with their desire for independence. The Burmese like other nationalist groups in the region did not understand that the Japanese were eyeing Burma as a future colony and would be much more explotive and brutal colonial masters than the British.

Japanese Invasion of China (1937)

China invaded China (1937). They soon esrtablished ciontrol over most of the coast and ports. Chang Kai-Shek's Nationalist Amry fought some set piece battles with the Japanes, but after expeiencing major defeats, withdrew into the interior. Here the Japanese found they could not defeat the Nationlists. The Japanese were roundly condemned by the League of Nations and the Western media. And what the Japanese military thought would be a short, decisive campaign dragged on several years with no conclusion in sight. The Japanese frustration increased as the war dragged on and the war begame a drag on the Japanese economy. America increased diplomatic pressure on Japan to end the war in China. And the U.S. Goverment began financing military supplies for China. Burma began to play a role in the War when the Burma Road was used by the Americans to transport supplies from Rangoon north to Chang Kai-Sheks Nationalist Chinese.

The Burma Road (1937-42)

The Imperial Japanese Army swept across China, closing all of China's seaports. Thus cut the Chinese off from foreign supplies, except for a rail commection through French Indo-China. At the time there was no rail or improved road connection between Burma and China. Chaing Kai-Shek ordered some 0.2 million Chinese laborers to build a road connection with Burma. It came to be called the Burma Road (滇缅公路) and was an incredible engineering feat. They cut a 700-hundred-mile overland route. The work was done by hand with virtually no road-building equipment (1937-38). [Webster] The road came to be called the Burma Road as much of it lay within the British colony of Burma. It ran from the southwest Chinese city of Kunming in Yunnan which was beyond the reach of the Japanese, except by air attack. The road wound south over mountaneous terraine and jungle to Lashio where it conncted to the existing Burmese rail system leding to the seaport of Rangoon further south. This allowed supplies to reach the Nationlist forces resisting the Japanese. The British landed supplies at Rangoon (modern Yangon) and moved then by rail north to Lashio. There trucks transported the supplies north to China over the Burma Road. This made Burma a target of the Japanese militarists planning the Pacific war. After the Japanese seized French Indo-China (1940), the Burma Road was the only Chinese connection to the outside world. The British yielded to Japanese diplomatic pressure to close down the Burma Road to supplies for the Nationlists, but only for 3 months (1940). One historian writes, "Not only was Burma not a primry target in the establishment of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, it might have been left univaded but for the war in China. Closing the Burma Road, which ran from Rangoon to the Chinese border and was thus a primary artery for supplying Natioanlist China in Chunking, soon became a strategic impertive. Thus the Japanese were inveigled into an unnecesary invasion of Burma simply because the hotleads in Tokyo could not leave China well alone." [McLynn] With the Japanese seizure of Burma, China's last link with the outside world was closed January-May 1942). After the British retreat from Burma. An air supply route was established over the Himilayas called The Hump, but the quantities that could be air lifted were limitd.

Pre-War Political Developments (1930s)

Few Burmese at the onset of the 1930s decade thought that there was any hope of sevcuring independence from the mighty British Empire. This began to change weih the rise of the NAZIs in Euroope and more imprtantly for the Burmese, the Japanese in Asia. Fo some reason, Burmese nationalists ignored Japanese expansion behavior in northeast Asia. It is diffucult to see wht they would have thought that their behavior in southeast Asia would be any different. We do not see any ratiinal comaprisons to British rule and Japanese rule in the counties thery conquered and occupied (Taiwan, Korea, and Manchuria). As far as we can see can tell, Burmese natioanlists, just assumed that the Japanese because they were Asians might be a liberating force. The Burmese differed over what couse to take. The Thakin Moevement deveoped as the most imkprtant inmdeopendence group. Some students at the University of Rangoon began to resent their British professors. Radical students group began organizing protests which develppd into Dobama Asiayone (ABSU), better known as the Thakin movement. Peasants led by Saya San rebelled in the countryside. They fought an overmatched struggled with well armed British and Indian troops for two years. The Thakins beganm as middle class inivrxsity stydents. They were not involved in the rebellion, nut gained the support the peantry who comminly turned against British-educated elite. University students stahed another strike (1936). Two student leaders (Thakin Nu/U Nu) and Aung San joined the Thakin movement. (Sang today is seen as father of the nation. His youngest daughter and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, is the president of Mayanmar Aung San Suu Kyi, dposed by the military in 2021.) The British government separated Burma from India and granted it its own constitution (1937). It was widely belived in Burma that the British actiin was to desined to enbsure that the concssions beinb made to the Indian Congress Party would not be granted in Burma. Some Burmese nationalists began to see saw the outbreak of World War II as an opportunity to gain concessions from the British in exchange for support the war effort. With Britain fully occupied in Europe they reasoined that the British would be more likely to grant cnmcessions. They were closely followed developments in nedighnoring India where th Congress Party was gaining home rule. The Thakin movement in contrast rehected any Burmese participation in the War. Aung San along with other Thakins founded the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) (August 1939).[3]

War-time Developments (September 1939 - December 1941)

Aung San also helped found the People's Revolutionary Party (PRP) which became the Socialist Party after the War. Ther weas a growing feeling in the Tird Wold at the time that capitalism ewas an explotive system, and the road to aprosperous future was socialism. As would become ovioys after the War, none of these nationalist keaders had nay real mknowledge of economics. Burma was a rich country with great promise. This lack of areal knowledge of ecinomics is why the Burmese ecomomy failed after indepdence and countinues to be a failed country to this date. Aung San helped organize the Freedom Bloc which loosly united the CPB, Thakins, politically active monks, and the Poor Man's Party formed by Ba Maw's. [Smith] The Thakins called for a national uprising. Brituish authorities began rounding up the Movmrnt's leaders, especially Aung San. He escaped to China dsiring to make contact with the Chinese Communists. The Communists, however weere in the far north. He was detaimd by the Japanese authorities. They offered support for a nationl uiprising against the British. He hlped set upo a secret intelligence network -- the Minami Kikan. It was headed by Colonel Suzuki. Aung San secretly slopped back into Burma. He rescruited 29 men to work with him to assist the Japanese. They went to Japan for military training wehich was conducted on Hainan island in Japanese occupied China. They became the Thirty Comrades. It is difficult to undrstand why it does not seem to have dawned on Aung San and his comnrads since they spent time in occupied Japamese Chinma that Japan was an imperial power not a liberating force. Apparently they were consumed with hatred toward the British.

Japanese interest in Burma

Japan's primary goal after WEorld War I was to seized control of China. This began with the invasion of manchurtia (1931) and then China proper (1937). The miltaistsd who launched the War expected a quick victory instead they found themselvs bogged down in adraining and nfless war. They gradually seized Chinese port cities and then French Indo-China (1940). This meant that the Burma Road was China's last link to the outside wa and viatal supplies needed to fight the Japanese. Seizing Burma was this a way of completing the isolation of China. But the Japanese also had theie eyes on the resources of Southeast Asia which the Japanese called the Southern Resource Zone. Their primary concern was oil, but rubber was also imoprtant. There was some extraction of petroleum from the country’s central region before the arival of the Btitish. The local industry was expanded by the British. Burmaa not a major producem butthere wa sxome limited production. Burma had many other resources. Burma in partiuculr had rich agricultutal land. There are mineral resources, including baiter, copper, gold, lead, silver, tin, tungsten, and zinc. Few of these resources hd ben developed. And after Midway, Japanm began losing abyavility tio trabhsport resources back to the Home Islands.

British Forces in Burma

Britain like America realized that the Japanese were preparing for War, but did not know where and when they would strike. The British hard pressed by the Germans in the Middle East had only limited resources for the uocoming Pacific War. The top priority for the British was Singapore whuich was the linch-pin for the British defensive position in Southeast Asia and the Pacific. Burma was the lowest priority for a theater that itself was at the bottom of the British priorities. British plans to defend Burma were incomplete. The Burmese themselves were not consulted and had little motivatiin to fight the Japanese who had shown apparent sympathy for an independent Burma. Neither Britain nor the United States was prepared to commit significant forces to defend Burma. It was, however, not just a matter of men and material. The British volonial administration did not take even the most basic steps to prepare for invasion like establishing military control of the rail lines. The British had only two divisions to defend Burma, the Indian 17th Division and the 1st Burma, another Indian Army unit. There were also two under-strength and poorly equipped regular British battalions. Local Burmese forces were a problem. They included police, Burma Frontier Forces, and the Burma Rufels. The Burma Rifels had been formed by the British during Wiorld War I. They were originally composed of Burmese, Karens, Kachins and Chins with some Gurkhas. The British stopped recruiting Burmese (1927), despite objections from experienced officers. British officials claimed that the Burmese did not make good soldiers. Probably the major concern was polituical relaibility. The decesion to stop recruiting Burmese alienated the regiment from the Burmese population, which began to see the regiment as just another part of the British colonial regime. The British as the situatuiin deteriorated resumed recruiting Burmese, but the local perceptions were permanently affected. The British forces in Burma lacked any apreciable air or naval contingent. Nor did British commanders accurately perceive potential Japanese strength, capabilities, or possible attack routes. The British belatedly rushed forces to Burma and some had begun to arrive just as the Japanese had launched their offensive and were appraoched the all-important port of Rangoon.

Flying Tigers (January 1942)

President Roosevelt after hearing from Claire Chennault, who Madame Chiang Kai-Shek had hired him to train Chinese pilots, decided to help China build a modern air force. He signed an executive order 1940 which permitted U.S. military personnel to resign so that they could participate in a covert operation to support China (May 1940). This is significant because it was the first direct American military action to impede Axis aggression. It was taken in the atmospshere of the fall of France and the president deciding to run for a third term. Subsequent Japanese actions beginning with the occupation of northern French Indo-China only confirmed the President's decision to aid China. And the Magic intelligence from the cracking of the Japanese Diplomatic (Purple code) made it clear that the Japanese public protestratuins of a desire fir peace were a diplomate charade (September 1940). President Roosevelt approved the transfer of Curtiss P-40 Tomahawk fighters to China. They would be included in the Lend Lease Program (1941). The planes were originally slated for the British RAF which was just beginning to brace for the Battle of Britain. America woud eventually produce a phenomenal number of aircraft. At this time, howevr, production was still limited and the U.S. Army Air Corps struggling to obtain needed new aircraft. The President also secretly approved the formation of the American Volunteer Group (AVG) to fly the P-40s. These were the first modern fighters ever deployed in China. The AVG's main task was to protect the Burma Road so that supplied could continue to reach China. The all-volunteer AVG became known as Chennault's Flying Tigers. The Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor (December 1941) before the AVG could go into action. It thus no longer had to be a covert operation. Although very small, provide the Chinese a creditable air capability for the first time. Initially part of the AVG was deployed on both ends of the Burma Road. The Japanese invasion of Burma forced the Burma contingent to redeploy to China. It also cut off supplies over the Burma Road. The AVG continued to operate with supplies flown in from India over the Himilayas. The P-40s flown by the AVG were on paper no match for the fast, manueravble Japanese Zeros, but they were more robust and had armor protecting the pilots. Chennault developed battle tactics that enabled the Tigers to deal with the Zeros, but their major goal was to intercept the Japanese bombers hammering Chunking. ThecArmy Air Corps and U.S. Navy did not take the AVG seriously and did not adapt Chenault's tactics until losses in the Pacific forced them to adjust tactics. Eventually the AVG was formed into the U.S. 14th Air Force. Some of the Tigersjoined up, Others left China. Many of the new crews honored the AVG by also painting the shark's mouth image and referring to them selves as the Flying Tigers.

Japanese Invasion (January-May 1942)

After Pearl Harbor the Japanese launched offensives west and south from Indo-China. The primary Japanese war aim was to obtain raw materials for the resource poor Japanese industrial economy. Burma was part of the Southern Resource Zone that Japan desired to add to its Greater Co-Prosperity Sphere. And of immediate interest was the desire to cut off Nationalist Chinna from American aid by closing the Burma Road and hopefully finally complete the conquest of China. Thailand which joined the Axis agreed to allow the Japanese forces in Indochina to transit unimpeeded. They quickly seized the port of Rangoon. This not only cut the Burma Road at source, but meant that British units in Burma could not be supplied or reinforced. General Sir Archibald Wavell, in supreme command of the Far Eastern theatre, formed two scratch divisions--the British 1st Burma and 17th Indian into Burma corps (Burcorps). Their principal goal quickly became to avoid capture by the Jaoanese by retreating west to India. There were few Americans in Burma, but Nationalist Chinese divisions commanded by Vinegar Joe Stillwell, retreated with the British. The Japanese proceeded to drive the British out of Burma. The British retreat proved to be the longest military retreat in British history.

Allied Southeast Asia Command

There was at first no unified Allied command in Southeast Asia. The British India Command was at first under General Sir Archibald Wavell who brought the British units outvof Burma. When the joint allied command was finally agreed on, it was decided that the senior commander would be British. The British military because the British dominated Allied operations in Southeast by weight of numbers, at least compared to the Amnericans. A large part of the British force was Indian units. The American name for the theater was the China Burma India Theater (CBI). The actual American combat commitment was limited. The main units were the Flying Tigers (absorbed into the 14th Air Force), engineers who built Ledo Road, and Merrill's Marauders. The American forces were commanded by General Joseph "Vinegar Joe" Stilwell. The senior Allied commander was, however, Generalissimo Chiang Kai-Shek. Stiwell theoretically reported to Chiang as several Chinese divisions had retreated out of Burma to India where they were supplied andctrained by the United States. Chisng coveted the divisuiins because under Stilwell they became some of the most effective units in theNationalist Army. Stilwell has celebrated disagreements with Chiang and often broke the chain of command and worked directly with the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff on an operational basis. This continued even after the formation of the South East Asia Command (SEAC) and the appointment of Admiral Lord Mountbatten as the Supreme Allied Commander of South East Asia (October 1943).

Japanese Occupation (1942-45)

The Japanese moved into Thailand (December 1941). This gave them a route into Burma. Aung San announced the formation of the Burma Independence Army (BIA). [Smith] The Japanese defeated Americam, Brutish, and Chinese forces (January-May 1942). The British position in Burma was weakened by the organization of Burmese nationalist forces who became useful allies. [Seekins] The Allis retreated into India, leaving Burma to the Japanese. The quick defeat of the British gave nationalists the idea that indepence was a viable goal. The BIA proceeded to set up a provisional government which established control ovder som areas. Japanese authoirities wre not decided in Burma's future. Col. Suzuki wanted the Thirty Comrades to establkidsh a provisional government. The Japanese Army finally selected Ba Maw who had formed the Poor Man's Party to organize the government. [Smith] Apparently they decided tht he would be eaier to control than the Aung San and the BIA. As the Japanese were driving the British out of Burma. the BIA expanded wihout any real control. In many areas, locasl officials and a smattering of criminals set themselves up as BIA units. As a result, the Japanese and Aung San reorganised the BIA into the Burma Defence Army (BDA). The BIA had been an irregular para-military force, but the BDA was trind an armed into a conventional army by Japanese instructors. The Japanse attempted to reform the BIA into an allied force as the Burma National Army (BNA) under Aung San. Ba Maw became head of state, but other nationlist leaders were brought inyto the govermrnt. Aung San became War Minister, Communist leader Thakin Than Tun beca, Minister of Land and Agriculture, and Socialist leaders Thakins Nu and Mya were also invluded in the Government. Which is interesting because the Japanese were supressing the Communists and Socialists in Japan itself and the occupied territories. Because Burmese nationalist forces organized by Aung San sided with the victorious, the Japanese used them for propaganda purposes. They Japanese set up a nominally independent Burmese government under Ba Maw. This was part of their propaganda effort to cloke their conquests as liberating Asians from European colonial rule. Burma became part of their Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, essentially the organized looting of Japan's expanded empire. Both the Burmese government and BNA were strictly controlled by the Japanese occupation authorities. The Japanese declared Burma independent (August 1943). It was of course all a sham and by this time the Burmese nationalists wer becoming aware of the deception. And by that time, the War had begun to tuned against Japan, although it wa not immeiutely apparent in Burma. It was by 1944. Aung San began secret negotiations with other nationlist factions. This included Communist leaders Thakin Than Tun and Thakin Soe and Socialist leaders Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein. They formed the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO) at a secret meeting in Pegu (August 1944). [Smith] The AFO would become the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL). tHey would turn against the Japanese and set as agoal a fairer and more equal society. [Taylor, p. 284.] Of course the Marrxist ehetoiric souned wonderful, bur vproduced a failed country. Less well understood is the Thailand-Burma Railway. It was constructed across impossible terrain and malarial jungle by slave lkabor. Much attentioin is given to the British and Commonwealth POWs. But the Japanese also conscrioted Nurmese civilans. Some 86,000 men perished, 573 people per mile of railway.

Indian National Army

Burma was of only minor interest to the Japanese, but they did want to cut the Burma Road, having done this the Japanese became increasingly interested in India, concluding that a popular insurection against the British would occur as they invaded India. They targeted Assam, within reach of Calcutta. They thus allowed a dissident Bengali politician, Chandra Bose, who had escaped to Germany, recruit Indian troops captured in Singapore as well as Induan civilains in Southeast Asia for an Indian National Army to liberate India from the British. Actually there wee two Indian National Armies one was foremed in 1942 afterv the fall of Singapore., but was disbamnded as a result of disagreements with the Joanese. Bose was given cimmand of the second INA formed in 1943. There are differenty estimates as to its size, but probably totaled about 50,000 men. [Belle, p. 199.] It was committed to U Go and Ha-Go ionvasion of India (February 1944). [Toye, p. 161.] By most accounts the INA units prformed well, but largely wasted becuse they and the Japanese units they fought with were do poorly suppled. The INA was largely destroyed in the U Go (1944) and the subequent defense of the Irrawaddy at Rangoon (1945).

Indian Border Fighting

The fighting in Burma was primarily a British theater, but the United States supported the British and Chinese in what was called the China Burma India Theater (CBI). Although Burma was a generally unreported theater of the War, it was the scene of some of the most vicious fighting of the war. It was also the scene of terrible attriocities. The Japanese worked thousands of British and Empire POWs and local laborers to death building a railroad to supply their troops along the Indian border.

Burmese Economy

Some intercommunal rioting had erupted in the 1930s--largely directed against the ethnic Indian community which played an imprtant role in the economy. When the Japanese invaded, the British attempted a scorched earth policy. They destroyed oil wells, and mines for tungsten, tin, lead and silver to keep them from the Japanese. Burma was bombed first by the Japanese and later more extensively by the Allies. The open immigration policy introduced by the British led to the growth of larger indian and and Chinese communities. This led to intrcomminal violence, especially against the indians which increased with the deoarture of the British. [Seekins] This had some impact on the economy. The primary British objective was to increase rice production which is why they opened immigration. Burma became the primary source of rice impprts to feed Bengal which when these shipments were cut off by the victoriouis Japanese, famine conditions developed in Bengal during the War. Burmese resources were exploited to support the Japanese war effort. The Japanese lacked the resources to actually pay for the resources in the territories conquered throughout Southeast Asia. The food, raw mtetials, and especially oil were vital to the Japanese war effort--in fact the reason Japan went to war. The Japanese not only required each occupied territory to be self suffucent, but also to support the large military forces deployed. Both of these policies adversely affected the terriutories occupied, including Burma. [Huff and Majima] Imprts were needed fior a range of manufacty=ured goods not produced in Burma and necessary for the proper functioning of the economy. Japan made no effort to supply these goods. Japanese mismanagement led to shortages even in rich agricultural countries like Burma. Black markets proliferated where ever the Japanese wnt. Even the Japanese soldiers bought black market goods. Southeast Asians became involved on peddling stolen or looted goods. But the major goods were food. Japanese policy resulkted in reduced prodyctiin and shortahs. Southeast Asians trying to obtain food sold family heirlooms and jewellery to black market traders. Some of these traders became fabulously wealthy. One author dscribes, "Manila’s ‘buy and sell’ merchants, Malaya’s ‘mushroom millionaires’ and Rangoon’s New Order Brokers". [Huff] As the British began driving the Japanese out of the country, the Japanese also adopted a scoarched earth policy. And as there was no paniced withdrawl, they had much more time for more thorough destruction. We note heavy criticism of Nritish colonioal policy. It should be noted that income levels in Burma only regained 1938 income levels 40 years later, in 1978. [Huff] The Japanese invasion and occupation is a malor part of that trrible record, but also the Burmemese goverments that replaced the British. This was the worst recpvery record of all countries involved in World ar II, including Vietnam.

Ethnic Minorities

After the British and Chinese retreated fom Burma, the Japanese found their colony relatively easy to control. Many of the Burmese welcomed the Japanese as liberators. As the British, Chinese, and Americans braced for a Japanese offensive into India, only northern Burma was a problem for the Japanese. Ethnic Burmans at first supported the Japanese while the ethnic minorities tended to support the Allies. Hill tribes in the north resisted Japanese rule, The Kachins in the north were the most anti-Japanese group, but Karens, the Chins, the Kukis and the Nagas also resisted. They begn a guerrilla war against the Japanese. The Burmese and some tribes were more supportive of the Japanese, especially the Shans. They cooperted with the Japanese Army and the Japanese secret police--the Kempei in efforts to subdue the minority hill tribes. The Allies in turn supported the guerrillas from Fort Hertz, the only remaining Allied base in Burma that had an airfield. This was the only way of brining in supplies to these remote areas. The British helped organize three regiments of guerrillas -- the Karen Rifles, the Kachin Rifles, and the Kachin Levies. They had jungle fighting skills the British lacked, but they needed both tactical training and the modern weapons to confront the well-armed Japanese.


The Kachin or Jingpho people inhabit the Kachin Hills in northern Burma and neighbouring areas of China and India. They are called the Singpho in India where they are found in Arunachal Pradesh. As is the case for many Burmese ethnic groups, the Kachin are a composit grouping of several related tribal groups. They were known for their fierce independence, disciplined fighting skills, and complex clan inter-relations. Many Kachin's embraced Christianity. These attributes and jungle skills made them invaluable adjuncts for the Allies attempting to drive the Japanese out of Burma. The Kachin inhabited northern Burma. Considerable missionary work took place during the British colonial period. The Kachin were ardently anti-Japanese. This reflected their generally pro-British attitudes and conversion to Christianity. It also reflected Japanese brutality. They were better placed than the Karen who were also anti-Japanese. The Kachin were located in an area where the Allies could get weapons to and provide miklitary trainung. The Kachin were in the north on the Chinese and Indian borders. Thus the Allies were able to supply weapons and orgnized and trained the Kachin Rifles and Kachin Levees to harass the Japanese. The United States was especially interested in northern Burma with the goal of reopening the Burma Road. What was to become the Office of Strategic Services activated Detachment 101 (April 14, 1942). They were given the assignment of organizing action behind enemy lines in Burma. This was the first American unit of its kind. The objectives were to gather intelligence, harass the Japanese, identifying targets for air attack, and rescuing downed Allied airmen. The American OSS personnel was never larger than a few hundred men. Insted they relied on support from anti-Japanese tribal groups, especially the Kachin. Eventually the support of the Kachin played a key role in retaking northern Burma so the Ledo Road which originated in India could be built across northern Burma to join up with the Burma Road. This restablished a land route to supply the Chinese.


The Karen people are Sino-Tibetan language speaking ethnic groups which live in southern and southeastern Burma and ajacent border regions of Thailand. They represent over 5 percent of the Burmese population. The British during the colonial era were supportive of the Karen. Minority western-educated Christian Karens founded the Karen National Associations (KNA) to promote Karen interests in the British colonial administration (1881). KNA representatives at the Montagu-Chelmsford hearings in India testified that that Burma was not "yet in a fit state for self-government" (1917). They were concerned about Burmese majority rule. They criticized the Craddock Reforms (1920). The Karens won 5 and later 12 seats in the Burmese Legislative Council. The British colonial added Karen New Year to the public holidays (1938). The majority Buddhist Karens were much slower to organize. The Buddhist KNA was founded (1939). The British managed to prevent any major outbreak of violence between the Karens and majority Burmese. This changed with the Japanese occupation (1942). The Japanese abnd their Burma Independence Army (BIA) behaved brutally toward the Karen who were seen as pro-British. Viloent incidnts occurred, however the Karen were no armed to any extent. Mostly the BIA armed by the Japanese destroted villages and massacres wwe carried out. A pre-war Cabinet minister, Saw Pe Tha, and his family were among the victims. Colonel Suzuki Keiji assigned to gain control over the BIA, intervened to prevehnt further escalation of the violence. He met with a Karen delegation led by Saw Tha Din. As a result of pre-War attitudes, the Japanese/BIA attrocities, seizure of crops, and press-ganging Karen labor, the Allies found support among the Karen as they launched offensives against the Japanese in Burma.

Battle for Burma (1943-45)

Once reaching India, the British and American commanders began to assess just what had happened and to plan how to not only defend India, but to retake Burma. For the Allies, the China, Burma, India Theater (CBI) was the most remote and lowest priority. The focus from the begonninwas on defeating NAZI Germany and even in the campaign against the Japapanese the CBI was of low priority. Even so, the far greater resorces of the Allies meant that more resources were available to the Allied forces than to the Japanese who were hard pressed to move men and equipment forward to the front. The major British interest was taking bavk their colony. The Americans who attached an importantce to the Chinese Nationalists with the British did not share were intent on reopning the Burma Road to Chunking China. The British planed a series of drives into Burma using mostly Indian units. They believed as a result of their experience in Burma that their own units needed training in jungle fighting. The 14th Indian Division attacked along the southern coast (January 1943), but failed to disloge heavily entrenced Japanese troops at Akyab. . Stilwell's CAI was among the most effective in the Nationalist Army. While Chaing's poorly led and supplied Army in China itself declined to attack the Japanese, the CAI was both well led and well supplied. They proved themselves a competent force. It was composed of units left in Burma after the Japanese cut the Burma Road. Stillwell was an irascable, but effective commander. He spoke Chinese and earned the resprct of his Chinese soldiers. Stilwell trained the CAI along American lines. Officers were expected to train as well as men and he emphasized discipline. He also ma\de sure that commanders did not engage in corupt practices. Thus the men were well equipped and fed. The officers as well as the men were Chinese, unlike the British Indian Army. Given the effectiveness of the units, conflict developed betweem Chaing and Stillwell. Field Marshal Sir Archibald Wavell decided that the British troops needed to learn to fight with the Japanese in the jungel. Wavell gave an eccentric British officer, Orde Wingate, the opportunity to carry out a jungle warfare campaign behind Japanese lines in Burma, The force became known as the Chindits, these were the name of the stone tigers that guarded temples in Burma. The Chindits adopted classic guerrilla tactics. They attacked Japanese forces where they were unprepared and did not expect an attack. Along with the British were the Gurkhas, experts at hand to hand combat. The Chindits used deep-penetration tactics. They operated in small groups and were supplied by air. The Americans formed a comparable force. The Chindit operations seemed to have convinced the Japanese that remaining static in Burma made it vulnerable . They decided on an offensive which aimed to attack Imphal, a strategic position where the British were building up their supplies for the planned drive into Burma. The fighting around Imphal was some of the most vicious of the War. Although cut off, the British refused to surrender (March-July 1944). In the end the attacking Japanese force was decimimated, in part because they attacked without supplies, planning to seize what they need from the British. This was followed by the Allied invasion of Burma. The American/Chinese Army in the north. This enabled the Americansto build the Ledo Road which reached the nothern part of the Burma Road and reopened an overland supply deliveries to China. The British Indian Army attacked in the south and after hard fighting reached Mandalay. Rangoon soon fell.

Reopening the Burma Road (1942-45)

Chaing had dispatched Nationalist forces to help the British defend Burma. They were commanded by newly arrived American General 'Viniger' Joe Stilwell. Some of these forces joined the desperte British retreat to India. It became mission of Stillwell and his largely Chinese force to re-open the Burma Road and until that was acomplished to supply the Nationlists as much as possible through an air-lift from India over the towering Himalayas -- The Hump. It was a daunting task for the aircraft available at the time (C-46s and C-47s). The American effort to renter Burma began with jungle operations of Merrill's Marauders after British General Orde Wingate had organized Chindit Brigades. The men involved in the CBI Theater fought in some of the most difficult terraine and environmental conutions of the War. And they were for the most part the lowest priority of the Allied war effort. Stillwell was able to train and supply his Chinese division, tuning thm into some of the most effective units in the Nationalist Army. Despite the terrible conditions, the Bitish who were less convinced of the importanbce of China, were determined to take back Burma. The Americans were primarily determined to reopen the Burma Road to keep China in the War. China was also seen as providing bases for the planned air assault on the Japanese Home Islands. The British and Americans faced monsoon rains, mud, leeches, and heat as well as tropical conditions. [Webster] The British with Anerican support defeated a Japanese attempt to capture Assam. This allowed the American-Chinese force to recapture northern Burma. This allowed construction of a new road to link up with the old Burma Road--the Ledo Road. While Rangoodn was still in Japanese hads, the Ledo Road provided a link between the Burma Road and the Indian rail network. The Ledo Rod This was one of the most challenging construction projects of the War. The Ledo Road eventually ran from Ledo Assam, through Myitkyina and connected to the Burma Road at Wandingzhen, Yunnan, China. The first trucks reached the Chinese frontier over this road (January 28, 1945). Although supplies began flowing into China, the quantities were still limited, largely because of the distances from the ports in India to the Nationalists in Yunnan. It required a enormous quantity of fuel to move supplies such distances by truck. Only a seaport could provide the means to adequantly supply the Nationalists. This was not achieved, however, until after the Japanese surrender (August 1945).

Liberation (March 1945)

It is difficult to know how tio describe the Allkied operations in Soitheast Asia as these were colonies and noy countries. And Britain, France, and the Dutch hoped to restablsh their colonies. In Burma by 21944 the ntionalists knew that they had nade a terrible mistake cooperting with the Japanese which had much more explotive colonialist goals than the European countries. Infirmal contcts btween the AFO and the British began (1944). The British set up Force 136 to deal with resistrance groups in Southeast Asia. This was aided when the Briutish crossed the Irrawaddy and retook Mandalay (February (1945) and then took Rangoon (March). With he vheavy lifting accomplished, Burma National Army rose up in a country-wide rebellion against the Japanese March 27). This was celebrated as 'Resistance Day' until the military renamed it 'Tatmadaw (Armed Forces) Day'. Aung San and other naatiionlistrs negotiated with Lord Mountbatten and formally joined e Allies as the Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF). Th AFO began deling with the British as the provisional government of Burma. Thakin Soe was Chairman and Aung San as a member of its ruling committee. [Smiih] What was left of the the Japanese Army bwuthdrew from Burma (May 1945). The British wnted the AFO disarmd. The AFO wanted its men to be oart of a post-War Burmese Army. The ASO irganized some veterans into a paramilitary force under Aung San -- the Pyithu yèbaw tat or People's Volunteer Organisation (PVO). They did this openly and drilled in uniforms. [Smoith] Agreement was reached with Burma over the PBF at the Kandy conference in Ceylon (September 1945).

Independence (1947)

The British hoped to restablish their colonial regime. Aung San Suu Kyi's supporters set up what was in effect a Burmese government. Aung San negotiated in Britain for independence (1947). After returning to Burma he was assassinated in Rangoon with many of his cabinent members (July 1947). Burmese politics has remained tumultous even to this day. Burma was one of the great hopes of Decolonization. Burma was a relatively rich colony and seemed to have all the makings for a sucessful independent country. Intead it proved to be one of the most dismal failures of Decolonization.


Belle, Carl Vadivelle. Tragic Orphans: Indians in Malaysia (Institute of South-East Asian Studies: 2014).

Huff, Greg. World War II and Southeast Asia: Economy and Society under Japanese Occupation (Oxfird Univerity Press: 2020), 552p.

Huff, Gregg, and Shinobu Majima. "Financing Japan’s World War II Occupation of Southeast Asia," The Journal of Economic History Vol. 73, No. 4, (2013), pp. 937–77.

McLynn, Frank. The Burma Campaign: Disaster into Triumph 1942-45 (2011).

Seekins, Sinald M. Burma and Japan Since 1940: From 'Co-Prosperity' to 'Quiet Dialogue'm (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2007), 181p.

Smith, Marin. Burma - Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity (London and New Jersey: Zed Books, 1991).

Taylor, Robert H. The state in Burma (C. Hurst & Co. Publishers: 1987).

Toye, Hugh. The Springing Tiger: A Study of the Indian National Army and of Netaji (Allied Publishers: 1959).

Tuchmn, Barbara. Stilwell and the American Experience in China, 1911-45 (1970).

Webster, Donovan. The Burma Road: The Epic Story of the China-Burma-India Theater in World War II.


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Created: 5:39 AM 9/9/2010
Last updated: 5:09 AM 12/7/2021