Myanmar’s Black Hole: Fascist Roots, Rewritten Histories (Part 2)

ASIA--PACIFIC, 21 Oct 2013

Maung Zarni – Asia Times

This is the second article in a three-part series.

Part 1: Evolution of a Mafia State

One of the best known historical facts about Myanmar’s armed forces is that it was originally the product of fascist Japan’s military strategy to recruit, train and arm local nationalist elements in Asia against British and Allied forces during World War II.

Subbas Chandra Bose of the Congress Party and Aung San of the Burma Freedom Bloc, the respective founders of the Indian Independence Army (IIA) and the Burma Independence Army (BIA), both rose to prominence under Japan’s strategic patronage. While Tokyo’s efforts at using the IIA as its local proxy to repel the British out of the Indian sub-continent ultimately failed, Japan’s sway over the nationalists they trained and armed to become the nucleus of the BIA was successful but short-lived in the country then known as Burma.

It was only three years, from 1942-45, before the Burmese turned against the Japanese. Upon entering and replacing British colonial rule with its own military occupation, Tokyo reneged on its promise to grant independence in exchange for local assistance to its war effort under the fascist banner of “Asia for Asians”.

The original Burmese admiration for Japan as the most dominant non-European global power was based primarily on its military victory in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905. But 40 years after its victory over Tsarist Russia, Japan had not only lost its political and military independence to the United States but also its standing in the eyes of the Burmese.

Despite the special psychological ties with its former Burmese military proxies, which some Japanese veterans maintained decades after World War II ended, Japan’s influence over the Myanmar military was minimal after the humiliation of its “total surrender” to the United States and Allied Forces in August 1945.

Even if Japanese veterans aspired to revive old military ties, it would have been inconceivable under Japan’s US-imposed constitution, which barred Tokyo from maintaining its own national armed forces. Instead, Burmese nationalists, both civilians and their military comrades, looked to the new victors, namely the US, as a source of support and new great power inspiration.

The Cold War indelibly shaped Myanmar’s military as a standing armed organization, as did developments outside the military’s institutional boundaries. These included relations and competition with other constitutive elements of the new modern state, including political parties, business and commercial elites, autonomy or independence-minded ethnic minority groups, and an armed communist resistance movement.

While the civilian democratic government of U Nu was a prominent player in the then newly hatched Non-Aligned Movement, military leaders such as Brigadier Maung Maung, a personal staff officer assigned to Aung San during the Japanese occupation period, were developing ties with and seeking support from the US and, to a lesser extent, the UK. They sought outside assistance specifically for the military’s expansion, qualitative upgrades of its weaponry, and the build-up of a human resource base of cadets and officers.

As powerful head of the Directorate of Military Training (DMT), Maung Maung was hugely influential in shaping a new generation of military officers as he presided over the founding of both the military’s most prestigious Defense Services Academy (DSA) and most advanced staff college, the National Defense College (NDC), in the mid-1950s. Many members of the faculty in these institutions were drawn from Burmese graduates of Britain’s Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst and the US’s Staff and Command Colleges.

The fact that the military, then under the leadership of commanders and directors who received their training from the Japanese, made a conscious decision to model the military’s command structures, its human resource development and intelligence training on the United States’ military discounts explanations of the institution’s current unseemly conduct on its original links to fascist Japan.

For its part, the US more or less embraced mildly socialist, nationalist civilian politicians such as U Nu, Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein – all of whom were staunchly anti-Communist and lead efforts to squash underground and above-ground communist movements. Even if senior military leaders such as Ne Win felt the need to strike a balance in its external relations by maintaining cordial ties with both eastern and western bloc countries and their militaries, the rank and file officers of the military have long been pro-US.

According to a Voice of America interview in April 2011 with former General Tin Oo, defense minister under Ne Win in the mid-1970’s and later co-founder of Suu Kyi’s National League for Democracy party, many officers were unhappy with Ne Win’s decision to reject out of political concerns the US’s offer of sophisticated fighter-bombers stored at US Air Force bases in Thailand for a mere US$1 million per plane after the US ended its military involvement in Vietnam.

Forgotten legacy

In addition to this near complete break from its Japanese fascist roots, the military also moved away from the fragile legacy of its founder and national independence hero, Aung San. In particular, the military totally abandoned Aung San’s commitment to keep the military under the control of civilian politicians and political revolutionary leadership.

As evidenced by the re-naming of the national holiday “Resistance Day”, in reference to resistance against Japan’s fascist military occupation from 1942-45, to “Armed Forces Day”, the military has over the past 50 years made concerted efforts to rewrite its own institutional history, as well as that of the country’s nationalist movement.

It continues to portray itself incorrectly as the sole vanguard of the country’s liberation struggle against first British imperialism and later Japanese fascist military rule. The revolutionary leadership which led the well-timed armed resistance against Japan’s military occupation in the hot season of 1945 arose from Burmese Communists such as Thakhin Soe and Thakhin Than Tun, as well as from the then head of the Burma Defense Army, Aung San.

Aung San himself cut his political teeth as a Marxist-influenced student agitator at Rangoon University and was one of the five founding members of colonial Burma’s first communist cell. Under these men’s leadership, local resistance commands were formed along the communist resistance model, according to which military commanders were answerable to the political commissars attached to their commands.

Shortly after the end of World War II, Lord Louis Mountbatten invited Aung San and a group of nationalist leaders including prominent communist leaders such as Than Tun and Thein Pe to Kandy, Ceylon (as Sri Lanka was previously known), where Mountbatten was headquartered as the supreme commander of the Allied Forces in Southeast Asia. They met to discuss inter alia the future of the Japanese-trained army under Aung San’s military leadership.

As the British had restored colonial rule over Burma post-World War II, Aung San was presented with a choice between staying on as the uniformed head of the soon-to-be-downsized Burmese nationalist army, or relinquishing his military post and becoming a national, civilian politician.

Under the British proposal, only a certain number of qualified Burmese officers would be given “direct commission” in a significantly downsized military, with their old ranks transferred automatically into the newly restructured military along the British model of a professional armed forces.

Aung San’s communist rivals pressured him to stay on as head of the new Burma Army so that political leadership of the post-World War II popular nationalist movement – and conceivably the power to shape the future course of post-colonial Burma – would no longer be in his hands. Against their advice, Aung San chose the civilian politician role, giving up official military titles and ties with the newly restructured Burma Army.

Instead, he handed over command of the military to Colonel Letyar, his close comrade and long-time friend from his Rangoon University student agitator days. Following this arrangement, Aung San was no longer officially the “General”, but the Burmese public continued to address and refer to him as “Bogyoke”, or Commander in Chief, until his assassination on July 19, 1947.

Despite the official uses of hagiographic tales of Aung San by his close personal aides and comrades-in-arms, there have been no known attempts to restore his legacy of keeping the military as a professional organization accountable to a civilian democratic leadership during the past half-century of authoritarian and unaccountable military rule.

Aung San’s British-involved assassination was tragic not only for the country’s ethnic relations but also because early attempts by this remarkable nationalist revolutionary to professionalize the military in the soon-to-be independent British colony were buried with his remains in 1945.

At the time, his daughter Suu Kyi was barely two years old. Relying on her secondary knowledge of her father’s political legacy, including his short-lived and little known efforts to keep the military a professional force under civilian control, she is now advocating from her weak position in the political opposition for the reform of the military along more professional and honorable lines. It is a reform call that has fallen on deaf ears for the past 22 years since she first asked the question “Whose military is the Tatmadaw?”, whereby she stated specifically that the army of her father should be the people’s national army.

The generals were not the only ones who felt the need to keep the military at a healthy distance from the country’s necessarily messy democratic politics during the decade that immediately followed independence in 1948. Armed rebellions by both Burmese communist parties and non-Burmese ethno-nationalist organizations such as the Karen National Defense Organization inadvertently ensured that the military’s political influence, including over civilian leadership selections, remained vital throughout the parliamentary period spanning January 1948 to March 1962.

As the Cold War raged on, the intellectual and ideological climate in the US and Western Bloc was such that academics and policy-makers portrayed anti-communist soldiers in the newly independent countries of the “Third World” as “bureaucratic modernizers” and “efficient nation-builders” vis-a-vis “incompetent” “quarrelsome” and “argumentative” civilian politicians within their necessarily messy parliamentary and political contexts.

In Burma, the West was known to be concerned about the ability of prime minister U Nu to keep the country safe from insurgent communists at a time when Washington’s main preoccupation was to prevent communist “dominos” from tumbling across Southeast Asia.

Thus when the Burmese military sought active US support for its institution-building efforts, including the training of military personnel in various areas including intelligence gathering operations, Washington was a willing partner. The US Central Intelligence Agency and other allied agencies in Taiwan and Israel helped to train officials in the dark arts of espionage and domestic surveillance.

The US Pentagon, meanwhile, brought Burmese officers to US command and staff colleges for further training under the US International Military Exchange Program during the Cold War. During the administration of Jimmy Carter, arguably the most pro-human rights of all US presidents, Washington provided the Burmese military with civilian dual-use aircraft, including Bell helicopters, ostensibly to combat opium production. The craft were promptly refitted upon delivery with weapons systems that were duly used against communist and ethnic armed resistance groups.

When Ne Win ended Burma’s 12-year-old experiment in parliamentary democracy in a March 1962 coup, the event was not deemed headline news by the Western media. Four years later – after Ne Win locked up over 100 democrats, judges, journalists and other prominent Burmese deemed a threat to military rule, US president Lyndon Johnson hosted an official welcome dinner to the visiting Ne Win and Madam Ne Win at the White House.

Towards the later phase of Ne Win’s military rule, British banks, insurance companies and other commercial interests maintained their Burma-based businesses as usual. At Buckingham Palace, the Burmese general was even a welcome guest of Queen Elizabeth, who sipped tea with him and even thought the general to be a “nice chap”, according to Derek Tonkin, former Burma desk officer at Britain’s Foreign and Commonwealth Office and retired British ambassador to Thailand.

The West’s pursuit of strategic symbiosis with Ne Win’s coup-installed regime was then viewed as a useful bulwark against the spread of communism. But Western support abetted the militarization of Burmese society, a legacy of military rule that survived subsequent Western-led sanctions and will inevitably be strengthened by the West’s latest round of unconditional diplomatic and strategic engagement initiatives.


Maung Zarni, Associate Fellow, the University of Malaya. Dr. Maung Zarni is a member of the TRANSCEND Network for Peace, Development and Environment, founder and director of the Free Burma Coalition (1995-2004), and a visiting fellow (2011-13) at the Civil Society and Human Security Research Unit, Department of International Development, London School of Economics. His forthcoming book on Burma will be published by Yale University Press. He was educated in the US where he lived and worked for 17 years. Visit his website

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