In 1940 a group of patriots led by Aung San went to Japan for secret military training. They formed themselves into the Burma Independence Army [BIA] and supported the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1941. Aung San was made commander in chief of the BIA.
When the Japanese overran Burma they granted Burma independence but this turned out to be in name only, as the Japanese continued to rule the country. When Aung San realised this, he made covert contact with the British who by now had mostly withdrawn to India. In 1945 the BIA fought openly alongside the British and helped them to drive the Japanese out of Burma.
Burma became independent from Great Britain and became a Republic on January 4th 1948. However Aung San [the father of Aung San Suu Kyi] never lived to see the Independence of Burma because he was assassinated six months beforehand on July 19th 1947.
In 1962, General Ne Win mounted a coup d’etat and arrested the prime minister U Nu and several cabinet members. He then set up a ruling Revolutionary Council consisting of senior Military officers. All large businesses were nationalized. He declared the Burmese way to Socialism, a programme of military rule combined with the state control of all economic enterprises.
In 1988 there were serious pro-democracy demonstrations. That year General Saw Maung took over the reins of power and initiated a military crackdown to stop the demonstrations.
A military regime ruled Burma from 1988 to 2010, ignoring the results of elections in 1990, which were overwhelmingly won by the National League for Democracy led by Aung San Suu Kyi. A new constitution which guarantees continued domination by the military of Burma’s government was adopted by referendum in May 2008, in what was widely regarded as a rigged vote. The regime held elections in 2010 in which the government’s USDP won 80% of the vote, but some genuine opposition candidates were also elected. Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy did not compete. Following the release of a large number of significant prisoners in late 2011 and early 2012, on 1 April 2012, a bye-election for 45 seats was held, and the NLD and Aung San Suu Kyi, who had been released from house arrest, contested it, winning 43 of them. They have taken their seats in Parliament in Naypyidaw where legislation is under discussion. There are still political prisoners, although sporadic releases continue. Although the new government is making a more active attempt to broker sustainable peace deals, fighting still continues in some ethnic areas, particularly Kachin state.
Many visits have been made by International politicians and new elections are due in 2015
World War 2
When the guns fell silent in Europe in May 1945, two Indian Divisions were on the high seas heading for Ramree Island and the Arakan on the west coast of Burma. The guns in the Far East would not fall silent until the middle of August making the Burma Campaign the longest fought by the British Commonwealth Forces in either World War. The Burma Campaign can boast the longest list of Victoria Crosses, the greatest number of Battle Honours and at that time the longest Bailey bridge ever constructed, across the River Chindwin.
The Japanese had invaded Burma and fallen upon the 17th Indian Division at the Sittang Bridge in February 1942. The Japanese soldier, ferocious, professional and confident, drove the Allied Forces right back into India. The priority for the British Command was to maintain a link with China and to make plans for an early re-invasion of Burma. The early adventure in the Arakan was a disaster and seemed to reinforce the view of Japanese invincibility. This early set back caused all the immediate plans to be cancelled with the exception of Orde Wingate’s first Chindit Operation behind the lines. (Chindit was a corruption of the Burmese word ‘chinthe’ the brave lion figure which guards pagoda steps). The campaign saw the innovation of aerial re-supply in the Arakan Campaign, pioneered by the Chindits, an irregular special force of twelve thousand that operated behind enemy lines for long periods.
With General “Bill” Slim in command of the 14th Army, plans were made for the re-invasion of Burma and this included forging together Servicemen and women from the many nations which made up the British Empire e.g. Ghurkhas, East and West Africans, Burmese, Karens and Kachins plus Americans, Chinese and many others.
The Japanese, realising Bill Slim’s plan, attempted to strike first and with extensive lines of communication they entered India heading for Imphal and Kohima. Lord Mountbatten said that the battle of Kohima was one of the most important battles of history because it was in fact the Battle for Burma. The fighting was vicious and at times almost medieval, the soldiers having to fight face-to-face.
Troops fought in jungles, across mountains, through mangrove swamps and across the Burmese plain, which was baked dry with incessant dust in the summer. The terrain and the climate favoured no-one, and disease and infection took a terrible toll. Malaria, leeches, “jungle ulcers” and tick-borne scrub typhus were ever present problems. And then there was the monsoon! The mud infested soldiers’ boots and marching soon caused feet to rub raw with no prospect of respite until the weather changed. Sores and prickly heat rapidly worsened to disable troops and the constant rain and humidity could literally rot the clothes off a soldier’s back.
The Royal Navy and the Royal Air Force also made huge contributions to the successful outcome of the campaign, which ended with the total defeat of the occupying Japanese Army in August 1945. The Burma Campaign saw amphibious landings, large scale parachute drops, ferocious tank battles, deception plans of great ingenuity, massive river crossings, desperate assaults and equally desperate defence, Army and Air Force cooperation and Naval bombardments; and all of this in some of the most hostile terrain in the world.
But the cost was enormous with huge loss of life, heavy casualties and life-long after-effects for many who fought there. TAUKKYAN is the largest of the three war cemeteries in Burma with six thousand three hundred and sixty eight servicemen buried there. In addition the ‘Rangoon Memorial’ commemorates a further twenty six thousand six hundred and thirty eight men and women who fought and died during the campaign in Burma and Assam and who have no known grave – “Known Only Unto God”. There is also a memorial to one thousand and forty nine officers and men whose remains were accorded the last rites of their religion – committal to fire.
The Commonwealth War Graves Commission maintains the cemetery beautifully. Graves from four battlefield cemeteries, which were difficult to access and maintain, were transferred to Taukkyan from Akyab, Mandalay, Meiktila and Sahmaw cemeteries. Sahmaw was an original “Chindit” cemetery which contained many of the casualties from the battle of Myitkyina.
The smaller Rangoon cemetery contains the graves, in the main, of those who were killed in March 1942 when the Japanese entered the city, those who died in the infamous Rangoon jail or those who were executed as secret agents. Most surviving Servicemen and women who served in the Burma Campaign are members of the Burma Star Association. This special charity headed by Viscount Slim continues to support the needs of Burma Star members and their families.
The Kohima epitaph recited at the Burma Star reunions and in other gatherings of Remembrance will ensure that the exploits of those who served in the Burma Campaign are never forgotten.