Japanese Occupation

   The Japanese invasion and occupation of Burma was motivated initially by the need to cut off the Burma Road, through which the United States and Britain provided supplies to the Chiang Kai-shek (Jiang Jyeshi) government in Chungking (Chongqing). Acquisition of the country's rich natural resources, especially rice and petroleum, was another major objective (though Allied submarines crippled the export of vital materiel to other parts of the Japanese Empire between 1942 and 1945). Burma was also used as a base from which to launch an invasion of northeastern India in March-June 1944, the Imphal Campaign. Wartime administration of the country can be divided into three periods: January-May 1942, a chaotic time when the Japanese army successfully drove the British out of the country and local government in many areas was controlled by the Burma Independence Army; June 1942-July 1943, when the Japanese Military Administration (Gunseikanbu) exercised full governmental authority; and August 1943-August 1945, when Tokyo granted Burma nominal independence within the "Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere." However, Dr. Ba Maw's government had little freedom to exercise its authority because the Japanese commander of the Burma Area Army remained effectively in control.
   Burma was transformed by the occupation. The British defeat in 1942 shattered the myth of European superiority, making it impossible for them to reimpose the colonial system after the war. Old elites, including Burmese civil servants and politicians, were swept aside. The prewar plural society broke down after as many as 600,000 Indians, Anglo-Indians, and Anglo-Burmese fled Burma by land and sea for the Subcontinent in early 1942. Many did not return after the war. Though largely powerless, Ba Maw's "independent" state asserted a Burmese, or Burman (Bamar), national identity, and promoted "totalitarian" mobilization of the previously apathetic population through party and mass organizations.
   However, the most important consequence of the occupation was establishment of a Burman-officered and manned army (known as the Burma National Army after August 1943), the direct predecessor of the Tatmadaw, which viewed itself not only as the defender of national unity and independence but also as a revolutionary force deeply involved in politics. Thanks in large measure to his prominent role in the activities of the Japanese-organized Thirty Comrades and the wartime army, Ne Win was able to become commander of Burma's armed forces after the Karen (Kayin) uprising in 1949. The Thakins were disillusioned with Japanese intentions after it became clear that Tokyo would not grant Burma immediate independence in 1942. By 1944, they had organized an underground AntiFascist Organization, and on March 27, 1945, now celebrated as Armed Forces Day, Aung San ordered the Burma National Army to rise up against the Japanese. Postwar Burmese historiography emphasizes Aung San's leadership of the struggle against both the "imperialist British" and the "fascist Japanese." However, the post-1988 military regime, the State Peace and Development Council, has emphasized Japan's positive contributions to Burma's independence, largely to secure Tokyo's financial support.
   Burma's abundance of rice prevented the terrible famines that afflicted Indochina and Java during the war, though the country's infrastructure was devastated and the presence of over 300,000 Japanese troops on Burmese soil imposed a heavy economic burden. The Kempeitai (Japanese military police), perpetually on the lookout for Allied spies and communist agents, was universally feared and hated. Outrages against local women by Japanese troops were not uncommon, despite the "import" of large numbers of Korean, Chinese, and other "comfort women" for the troops' recreation (a small number of Burmese women were also forced into this role). But the large-scale atrocities that characterized the Japanese occupation of other Southeast Asian countries and China did not, for the most part, occur. Japanese troops were instructed to regard the Burmese as their allies and friends, in stark contrast to the situation in wartime China. When they undertook their desperate retreat to the Thai border in 1945, many Japanese soldiers were aided by Burmese villagers, who gave them food, medicine, and shelter. Memories of Burmese kindness provided a firm foundation for the postwar Burma-Japan relationship. Postwar Burmese governments have also assisted Japanese veterans' groups in locating the graves of their fallen comrades, who numbered as many as 190,000.
   However, approximately 50,000 Burmese laborers, members of Ba Maw's "Sweat Army," died under extremely harsh conditions, especially during construction of the Thai-Burma Railroad. Communal violence between Burmans and Karens in early 1942, especially in Myaungmya (Myoungmya), and the fact that most of the ethnic minority "hill tribes" remained loyal to the British during the war, created intense ethnic minority distrust of the Burmans, with negative postwar consequences. The inflow of arms and armed men between 1941 and 1945, both in Burma Proper and the Frontier Areas, created a vicious cycle of civil war and political violence that continues to this day.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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