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How World War II Shaped Burma's Future

Colonial powers beat the Japanese but lost their empires

By Bertil Lintner

Next to Tokyo's Yasukuni shrine, where Japan commemorates its war dead, is the equally controversial Yasukuni Yushukan Museum, which exhibits military uniforms, weapons and other war memorabilia. But regardless of the memories those exhibits call to mind of the atrocities the Japanese committed in the territories they occupied during World War II, the museum displays make a point that is undeniable: the initial victories of the Japanese army over the Americans, British, French and Dutch showed the peoples of Asia that the colonial powers were not invincible. Even if the Japanese lost in the end, they had proved that an Asian army could defeat the mighty Westerners.

When they returned after the war, it was evident that there was no way back to old-style colonial rule, even if some of them tried. The Indonesians had declared independence on August 17, 1945, and the Dutch launched a costly "police action" to restore colonial rule until they, in 1949, were forced to accept the inevitable and withdraw for good. On September 2, 1945, Ho Chi Minh proclaimed himself president of the independent Democratic Republic of Vietnam. The French were even more stubborn than the Dutch, and it was not until 1954 that Vietnam was granted independence, and then as a divided country.

Burma became nominally independent in 1943 under Japanese occupation, but that taste of limited home rule was enough for the Burmese nationalists to begin negotiating the country's future with its colonial masters when the Pacific War was over. Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith was reinstated as British governor in October 1945, but his main duty then was to oversee Burma's transition to independence. Japan had, in effect, crushed colonial rule throughout East Asia, and, inadvertently, fostered a new kind of nationalism throughout the region.

The Americans granted full independence to the Philippines in 1946, Britain left India the following year, and Ceylon and Burma in 1948. The French gave up Cambodia in 1953, and Vietnam and Laos in 1954. Only in Malaya, where a communist insurgency raged for several decades after the end of the Pacific War, did the British continue to rule until 1957. Two years later, Singapore--Britain's erstwhile fortress in the Far East--was granted full internal self-government.

But while the Pacific War marked the beginning of the end of colonialism, it had another, more severe impact on Burma. In the beginning, Aung San and his Burman nationalists had sided with the Japanese. His Burma Independence Army was armed and trained by the Japanese, while the Allied powers armed and equipped hill peoples such as the Karen and Kachin to fight the occupiers. Centuries of mistrust between the Burmans and the hill peoples resurfaced, and those wounds have not yet been healed. Even today, many Karen talk with bitterness about atrocities carried out against them by the BIA during the Japanese occupation, and the Kachin are proud to point out that they already had celebrated their victory manau in Myitkyina by the time the Burman nationalists in March 1945 turned their guns against the Japanese.

The arming of the hill peoples, and vast quantities of weapons left behind by the Japanese, meant that Burma's ethnic conflicts from the very beginning turned violent. The hill peoples had the means to form their own militias and armies and the first, the Karen National Defence Organisation, was set up in 1947, a year before independence. The Mon formed a similar militia in 1948, while the most militant of the Burman nationalists, the Communist Party of Burma, dismissed independence as a sham and resorted to armed struggle in April 1948. That war continued until 1989, when the hill-tribe rank-and-file of the CPB's army mutinied against the aging Burman leadership of the party and drove them into exile in China. But the army remains under a different name, the United Wa State Army, and although it has had a ceasefire agreement with the government in Rangoon since the mutiny, it still has at least 16,000 soldiers--and they are better armed and equipped than the CPB's army ever was.

Although younger generations may view the Pacific War as something that happened in the past with little or no relevance to today's Asia, the impact of the Pacific War can not be underestimated. It paved the way for independence for countries in the region. In Burma, it also led to the world's longest-lasting civil war. Thus, the war never really ended in Burma. The leaders of the Karen rebels, Bo Mya and Tamla Baw, even began their military careers as anti-Japanese guerrillas, and they are still fighting.

It may be 60 years since the Japanese surrendered, but the legacy of the war is still strong. And the Yasukuni Yushukan Museum emphasizes a side of the war that we do not usually read about. After all, it is always the victors who write history.

This article first appeared in The Irrawaddy, August 2005

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