Burma 1946 - 1948

Contributed by Jim Herlihy

Chapter 1
Burmese Bridge knocked out
In 1946 the country known as Burma was starting a process of recovery after four years of Japanese occupation and a bitter and bloody military campaign which had left it desolate.

Regarded by the uninformed as a more or less homogenous entity, it was, in fact, anything but. The central and coastal areas were, it was true, inhabited largely by ethnic Burmese. They thought the whole country ought to belong to them. They had a written language, taught in monastic schools where the education was largely of a religious nature. They were Buddhists of the Theravada School, but many illogically managed to combine their adherence to this tolerant and benevolent religion with a fervent nationalism, a high degree of xenophobia and a tendency to periodic violence. Not all the monks who were their preceptors discouraged the nationalism, the xenophobia or even the violence.

This was the position in the lowlands of the country. However, in a large semi-circle around them were mountainous and inaccessible areas inhabited by a variety of hill tribes, some primitive. Pre-eminent and most developed among these were the Karens, who not only lived in their Karenni Hills but were scattered over Burma proper, particularly in the Delta. They had been exposed to Christian missionaries, and many could speak and write English. They had long provided most of the personnel of the military and police, being a disciplined people more reliable than the volatile Burmese. Another large and scattered tribe were the Lahu, many of whom were also mission-educated and who made good soldiers. In the Shan States, a chequer-board of little kingdoms were run by their hereditary Shan rulers, the Sawbwas. They were in theory autonomous rulers, but British Residents and Assistant Residents had for many years been stationed in their areas as 'Advisers' and to keep an eye on their activities. The Japanese had, in general, not bothered them. The former system had now been re-established. The Sawbwas were content enough with the arrangement, which allowed them to continue their traditional rule in conditions of security. Their subjects, apart from the Shans who constituted the aristocracy, included Palaungs, Padaungs, Toungthu, Wa, and various other tribes all with their own customs, dress and languages. The Wa had never been entirely cured of a habit of headhunting, which was said to continue in the less accessible of their mountain strongholds. Further north were the lands of the Kachin, the Chin, and the Nagas, the latter also head-hunters. The only thing which all these diverse peoples had in common was rule by Britain and a dislike and distrust of the Burmese.

The conquest of the country by the Japanese had been welcomed by many Burmese, who relished the hasty departure of their Colonial masters. Burmese nationalists and criminal elements welcomed the advent of lawlessness. Some of the more extreme took advantage of the situation by conducting massacres of those Karens living in areas in which the Burmese were a majority. Their welcoming attitude soon changed when they realised that their 'liberators' were not the benevolent fellow-Asians they claimed to be. They also rapidly discovered that, by their cultural standards, the Japanese were a primitive race; one custom which had particularly offended them was the Japanese habit of bathing naked in public. They had also disapproved of the attitude of the soldiery to their women. Furthermore, they discovered that the Japanese were harder taskmasters than the colonial oppressors had been, and would deal with any form of disobedience in drastic fashion. They dealt with one village which had incurred their displeasure by throwing the male population down the village well and posting an armed guard on the wellhead until there was no possibility of any survivor and the well had been well and truly poisoned, thus denying the village their source of drinking water.

Aung San
Nevertheless, some Burmese had collaborated fully with the occupying power. Among these had been a young politician, Aung San. He managed to convince the Japanese of his anti-British zeal, and had been helped by them to form a small 'Burmese Army'. He was placed in theoretical command of this, in spite of his total lack of military knowledge, and was rewarded with the grandiose title of 'General'. When he later saw which way the wind was blowing, he changed sides and turned on his former masters enough to be accepted by the British, in turn, as an ally. He could thus later claim to his compatriots to be the hero who had thrown out the Japanese, and who proposed to treat the British in the same way. In pursuit of his political objectives he formed a party for which he coined the name 'The Anti Fascist People's Freedom League'.

Aung San and his followers had been unwisely allowed by Lord Louis Mountbatten, then Commander in Chief, South-East Asia, to retain their weapons after the war. This had given great impetus to an age-old habit of young Burmese men, the equivalent of football in other cultures. This was 'dacoity' - armed robbery often of a rather nasty and brutal kind. Maung Ba Tin, as the noble lord was known colloquially, thus contributed greatly to the problem of post-war peace-keeping, although no doubt this was not his intention.

Aung San had a following among the young, but was regarded with misgiving by the more moderate and as a young and dangerous upstart by the older Burmese politicians.
Attlee and Aung San
The British Government had agreed to invite him to a meeting in London convened to discuss the future of Burma. A meeting he had with Clement Attlee, the Prime Minister, convinced him that the intention was to hand over power to him personally within a year. Whether or not this interpretation was correct, rational persons of all shapes, sizes and colours assumed that what was intended was the reconstitution of the Legislative Council which had existed before the war, in which the Burmese - and others - would play an increasingly important part until some workable Constitution acceptable to all parties could be agreed. Eventually the British could leave the country in a state in which it might survive as a political and economic entity. The minimum time-scale for this would, optimistically, have been some twenty to thirty years. In competition for political plums would be not only the older politicians, but the leaders of various emerging groups with more or less vague political platforms, including the Red Flag Communists and the White Flag Communists. The ideology behind these bodies, and the differences between them were obscure, and it is doubtful if they had any clear idea themselves.

Rangoon, the capital, was a mess, its disorganised state typical of the country as a whole. The previously prosperous little city, not only a centre of Government but a thriving port through which rice, teak, oil and rubies had formerly been exported, had declined under Japanese control into a squalid inertia. Almost everything was in short supply, particularly transport, for which even essential services were largely dependent on the Army. Thus although in that fertile country there was no shortage of food, its distribution was a major problem in areas not served by waterways. There was no public transport, except for an unreliable railway service which only covered parts of the country. Private cars or taxis were virtually non-existent, and the few that had survived the war were in dreadful condition. There were few shops open. The streets were almost empty of traffic, and there was none of the bustle normal in the centre of a city of that size. The indigenous population seemed to consist of lethargic Burmese civilians, and large numbers of yellow-robed monks either walking in line carrying wooden begging-bowls in which they collected their rations for the day or strolling from place to place under parasols. Dignified of bearing, they were treated with great respect. Quite a few troops were in evidence. These were the remains of General Bill Slim's 14th Army. This had consisted of troops from the British and Indian armies, who had succeeded in keeping the Japanese out of India and had conducted a hard campaign against them culminating in the re-occupation of Burma. Most of those now remaining were from British regiments. Many of them seemed poorly turned-out and rather depressed. Perhaps their morale was still suffering from the fact that their efforts had been largely ignored in the world press, resulting in their bitter reference to themselves as the 'Forgotten Army'. Events in Europe and the Pacific had distracted attention from the fact that, with their Indian comrades, they had inflicted on the Japanese their largest defeats on land of the war. In sharp contrast to them were the alert and impeccably dressed Gurkhas, who even when off-duty seemed to be marching in a soldierly manner, and who seemed happy and carefree.

Also evident were squads of Japanese prisoners of war, employed on menial tasks of various kinds or marching smartly from place to place under their own NCO's, supervised by unarmed British soldiers to whom they bowed respectfully when addressed. They were short, muscular men, and looked very fit. They were said to have been in poor shape when they first surrendered, but by now had been well fed for some time. They had continued to fight bitterly until Japan had capitulated and they had been ordered to surrender. While the fighting continued the capture of a live Japanese soldier had been extremely rare, surrendering not being one of their customs.

Chapter 2
Post War Rangoon
The first necessity was to restore or re-create the pre-war infrastructure. The elements of this still existed, and it was necessary to build on these foundations at every level. A start had been made. Once again a Colonial Administration was headed by a Governor responsible to London. An Inspector-General of Police was busily re-forming Civil and Armed Police units and a para-military Frontier Constabulary. Provinces, Districts and Sub-divisions were once again under the control of Commissioners responsible to the Governor's Secretariat. These senior ranks were mostly European, Burmese or Indian members of the Colonial Service who had escaped from the Japanese invaders and had spent the occupation in India preparing for their return. They were now being augmented by a new batch of younger men recruited in Britain from the disbanding Armed Forces. These, although mostly new to the country, had solid backgrounds of service and could thus be flung immediately into whatever role appeared most suitable without the training for which there was neither time nor facilities. Those with an Army background were given immediate command of Armed Police or Frontier Constabulary units which it would be their responsibility to train and command. They were thus in the forefront of the struggle to maintain law and order in the anarchic vacuum left by the war.

Also again present on the ground were representatives of the commercial firms who had been largely responsible for the country's pre-war prosperity. Burmah Oil was active, as was the Bombay-Burma Trading Corporation which had engaged in the thriving export trade of teak, rubies and rice.

Government at all levels concerned itself with the rebuilding of roads, the re-establishment of the rail system, and the maintenance and movement of the water-borne transport on which trade in the rice-rich Delta depended. The waterways soon once again saw long strings of laden barges travelling between the mills and granaries of Bassein and the port of Rangoon.

The general atmosphere amongst those working with practical problems on the ground was one of optimism. Progress was being made. Law and order was an ever-present problem but was at least being tackled actively. The border with China was once again being secured against the inroads of the remnants of Chang Kai Shek's forces in Yunnan, now little more than bandits living off the countryside. There were moderate elements among the Burmese, and even Aung San after his return from London seemed to have lost at least some of his arrogance. There were reports that he was seriously considering the possibility of an independent Burma as a member of the British Commonwealth, a big change from some of his earlier pronouncements. Even some kind of rapprochement between the Burmese and the Hill tribes did not seem totally inconceivable.

The announcement of self-rule for India encouraged the view that some similar arrangement might be made for Burma. True, the position of the two countries was vastly different. India had large and efficient Armed Forces in which Indians held senior rank. The same applied to its Police Forces. The Indian Civil Service was a functioning entity. Although the favoured method of Higher Education was via the traditional British Universities, it was possible for the Indian-born to complete an effective education to degree standard within their own country. Only the most recklessly optimistic could maintain that Burma was in a similarly favourable position.

At this point an event occurred which de-stabilised the situation. Aung San was assassinated. Investigation of the tragedy established a story with large elements of farce.

Accommodation in the Secretariat, the seat of Government, had been made available for Aung San's personal use. Here he had been holding a meeting of his 'cabinet', the senior members of his party. Outside the door was a sentry from his personal - and heavily armed - bodyguard, on which he had insisted, scornfully rejecting suggestions that the British should be responsible for his safety. The remainder of this elite force were in a room next door. A jeep arrived at the entrance to the Secretariat grounds, containing four Burmese in jungle green bush jackets and trousers, one armed with a Thompson sub-machine carbine, the others with Sten Guns. They explained to the Police on duty that they were members of the bodyguard, and had been permitted to enter. Making their way to the conference room, they shot the sentry on the door, entered and sprayed those inside at close range. The only survivor was the oldest person present, who was also the quickest thinking, having dived beneath the table as soon as he heard the shot killing the sentry. The remainder of the bodyguard remembered urgent business elsewhere, and left at high speed. Three of the assassins piled into their jeep, which took off at high speed, with the fourth running behind and shouting to the driver to wait for him. The jeep left via the rear entrance to the grounds, which was not guarded in any way. Their pedestrian colleague slowed to a more sedate pace and also made his escape by boarding a passing bus.

Within minutes the only people unaware of what had happened were the senior British Officers still working away in their offices on the other side of the building. The first intimation that anything was amiss was when the Chief Clerk of one of them, an Indian, burst into his office making for the open window which led onto a fire escape. Before disappearing via this route, he shouted "Sir! Flee! The Secretariat is being attacked by armed men!" Somewhat puzzled, since he could hear no sounds of battle, the officer looked out of the window to see the well-manicured Secretariat lawns covered by a mass of escaping Burmese and Indian staff, moving with unaccustomed alacrity and negotiating the high railings with commendable agility. Convinced by now that something was definitely happening, he went outside to join his colleagues standing in the corridor of the deserted and silent building. A rather bewildered discussion took place before somebody thought of searching the rest of the building. The discovery of the dead sentry led them to the conference room containing the dead bodies and the sole survivor, the latter still beneath the table which had served him so well.

A stunned silence descended on Rangoon as its population awaited clarification of what had happened and what it might portend. Over the next few days, a number of things happened. The bodies of Aung San and his senior lieutenants were removed to a hall in the city, where they were displayed to receive the respects of the population. Not all visitors to this temporary shrine were respectful, or lacked a sense of humour, as was evidenced by the appearance after the first night of Burmese graffiti which translated as "This lot is beginning to smell. Get rid of them and make room for some more".

More importantly, the author of the assassination plot was identified. He was U Saw, one of the older Burmese politicians, who was annoyed at the fact that Aung San had usurped what he saw as his rightful place as a national leader, and had decided to remove his rival by traditional means. This incompetent individual, whose enmity towards Aung San was widely known, had apparently grossly over-rated his public support and made no particular plans for a countrywide takeover. His only preparations for his 'coup' had been to collect a supply of weapons which he had concealed - not very skillfully - in his back garden. A prime suspect, he was immediately arrested - by a senior European Police Officer - and the weapons discovered. He was given a fair trial before being hanged.

Investigations disclosed that the main source of the weapons had been U Saw's next-door neighbour, one Captain Vivian. This nasty little man, a British Army Ordnance Corps Officer, had been seconded to the Burma Police as Force Armourer. One of his main activities was to travel round the country inspecting Police weapons, and removing any he considered defective or in need of major repair. By falsifying the paper work he had stolen a number of perfectly sound weapons, which he had passed on to his neighbour. He received payment in rubies, which were found in his house when he was arrested. Disowned by the Army, he was tried in a civilian court and sentenced to a long term of imprisonment. He was still in Insein Jail some years later, when the town was taken by the Karens during their post-independence fighting with the Burmese. He was released and remained with the Karens, to whom his skills were no doubt useful until his later death in some skirmish.

Aung San was replaced by U Nu, an older and more experienced politician, reputed to be a good Buddhist and a reasonable man. He assumed the role of spokesman for the Burmese people in discussions with the British Government about the future of the country. Acceptable to the Burmese and British he might be, but he was certainly not so to the other indigenous races who populated large areas of the country. These remained unconsulted and unrepresented. The Burmese regarded them as inferiors, the British Government had probably never heard of them, and those British officers who might have pleaded their case were not of sufficient influence to have a voice in London. Indeed, these people had no united voice at all, consisting as they did of an uncoordinated mass of disparate tribal entities.

Chapter 3
Arrangements for the final departure of the British from Burma ground on relentlessly. U Nu was now the recognised leader of Aung San's Anti Fascist Peoples Freedom League, and several of the minor politicians and parties dotted around the country flocked to his banner. An election under British supervision was held, which showed almost unanimous support for him. It only remained to set a date. For good or ill the die was now cast.

By now only the most convinced and blinkered optimists could have remained confident of a good outcome, particularly once the adverse results of the partition of India became evident. The new Burmese Government started its life with the refusal of minority elements to recognise it. Almost immediately it found itself in a state of Civil War with the numerous, well-trained and well-armed Karen minority, who at one stage were within reach of Rangoon and whose opposition was to last for years. The ultimate outcome was a Burmese military dictatorship which has a well-established reputation for brutality and corruption and which in 2010 shows no signs of relinquishing its hold on power. May that unhappy country and its amazingly diverse inhabitants finally find their way to peace.

Imperial Flag
map of Burma
Map of Burma
Burma Frontier Constabulary
Burma Colony Profile

Armed Forces | Art and Culture | Articles | Biographies | Discussion | Glossary | Home | Library | Links | Map Room | Sources and Media | Science and Technology | Search | Student Zone | Timelines | TV & Film | Wargames |

by Stephen