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Paper given at a Decolonisation Workshop convened by the Institute of Commonwealth Studies, 10 March 2017.


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‘The Special Operations Executive and the Decolonisation of Burma, 1944-1950’


On 18 August 1950, the Communist newspaper Izvestiya published a story that British officials in the Foreign Office found ‘difficult to scotch’.  The main allegation was that British officers were assisting the Karen in their conflict with the government of the Union of Burma, and the compelling evidence to support this was that the corpse of Captain David Vivian, ‘among others’ was found ‘on the field of battle.’  Furthermore, the paper alleged that these British backed Karen ‘bandits’ were behind the murder of Aung San, and that the new leader of Burma, Thakin Nu, was being forced to collaborate with the British by threatening him with the same fate as Aung San.  

This Soviet propaganda directed at Burma in the years after independence is not dissimilar to Communist propaganda directed towards other former European colonies.  Broadly speaking, it reveals the influence of the global Cold War and the struggle for hearts and minds during the process of decolonisation, reminding us of the importance of International Relations in the debate about the end of empire.  It might also remind us that the process of decolonisation was not something that ended with the lowering of the flag and the raising of a new one upon independence, and that ties with the imperial Metropole, real or imagined, continued after they had, perhaps ostensibly, been cut.  Who was Captain David Vivian?  Was there any substance to the headline of this article which was ‘Intrigues of the British Imperialists in Burma’?  Why was this story an ‘old story’ and why was it ‘difficult to scotch’?  And what, if anything, does it have to do with the secret wartime organisation called the Special Operations Executive?

Studies of SOE have largely focused upon operations into Nazi occupied Europe, or more recently on the women of SOE.  Not so much attention has been placed upon the work of SOE in the British Empire.  SOE was operationally involved in Burma from before the Japanese attack in December 1941 through to at least November 1945 – four years of clandestine operations.  Long enough, perhaps, to have an impact upon the decolonisation of the colony.

Assessments of SOE as a whole have focused not just on its military impact during the war, but also its political impact in the post war years.  The charge made by critics is that, in countries such as Greece and Yugoslavia in Europe, or Malaya and Burma in the Far East, SOE armed groups that were then able to cause political instability.  The essential difference between countries such as Greece and Yugoslavia on the one hand, and Malaya and Burma on the other, is that European countries could be left to their own devices after the war, whereas Empire remained Britain’s responsibility.

In 1942, the nationalist Burma Independence Army (BIA) marched into Burma with the Japanese in the hope that they would achieve independence within a so-called Greater East Asia Co-prosperity Sphere.  As the BIA advanced it picked up more recruits, causing all sorts of rumours and mischief as British forces suffered successive setbacks.  Burmese nationalists thus became traitors in the eyes of many colonial and British Army participants in the first Burma campaign.  A Fifth Column, an effective one in their opinion, had helped inflict yet another humiliation upon the British Army.   

While the mainly Burman nationalists were considered by many British to be traitors, other ethnicities in Burma had remained loyal to the Empire.  The Karen, the Kachin and the Chins, in the main, fought against the Japanese and the BIA as part of the colonial defence forces – the Burma Rifles and Burma Frontier Force – as well as volunteering to fight in hastily organised guerrilla units raised by the Special Operations Executive in 1941 and 1942.  Approximately 6140 out of 20,000 troops in the colonial units made it out to India where they were reorganised and retrained.  Those who did not make it out, including those that SOE had recruited, were ordered to go to their villages and hide their weapons, ready for when the British returned.  SOE was able to return sooner than the army, and recruit these men for operations against the Japanese during 1943 and 1944.  Thus, while many Burman nationalists continued to support the Japanese throughout these years and into 1945, other colonial peoples in Burma continued to resist the Japanese both in a conventional and a Special Operations role.  

Not all Burman nationalists, however, had been convinced by Japanese promises of independence.  Two prominent leaders made the long walk out of Burma to India in 1942 with the aim of convincing the British to contact the Anti-Fascist Organisation, the AFO, and support them in their struggle against the Japanese.   

Officers in the Burma Country Section of SOE were eventually prepared to take the gamble of supporting this avenue of opposing the Japanese, making opening moves to do so in November 1943.  The resulting arguments about the advisability of arming Burmese nationalist forces within British circles were fierce indeed.  Major Eric Battersby, the officer running operations to the Burmese nationalists, described the debate as a ‘prolonged war’.  What ended the ‘war’ for the time being at least, during the first half of 1945, was Mountbatten flexing his muscles as Supreme Allied Commander.  After General Leese, commander of Allied Land Forces Southeast Asia, accepted the argument of the CAS(B) that the AFO and BNA should not be armed in February 1945, Mountbatten wrote to Leese:

Due to an oversight by my staff you were not repeat not informed that I reserve political decisions to myself and in reaching them take into consideration views which the Governor of Burma and his Chief Secretary Sir John Wise have expressed to me from time to time. The advice which you have received does not fit into the broad policy for Burma which I have decided upon.

In view of the above considerations I have ruled that political considerations such as those which have been presented to you are not repeat not to limit the activities of Force 136. I should be obliged therefore if you would issue immediate instructions to Force 136 to proceed with their planned operations so that present moon period is not lost.

Contrary to the allegations made during the war by the Civil Affairs Service Burma, and in post-war publications,  that SOE had acted autonomously and by-passed the normal chain of command, it is clear that SOE acted in consultation with the governor of Burma, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, the SACSEA, Mountbatten, and the Army commander, General Slim in conducting operations to Burmese nationalist forces. This meant that in 1945 there were two very large Force 136 operations deployed into Burma with the aim of facilitating XIV Army’s bid to reconquer the colony.  These two operations are perhaps the best known of Force 136’s work in Burma, and have been described as SOE’s ‘most spectacularly successful military operations of the war.’  These were Operation Character, which worked mostly with the Karen, and Operation Billet, which worked mostly with the Burma National Army and the AFO.    

The fractures in British leadership that had led to Mountbatten’s intervention were mirrored amongst Burmese nationalists.  Their conundrum continued to be how best to achieve independence from the British.  There were those, like Thein Pe, who believed that they should work with the British to defeat the Japanese, in the hope that this would give them political leverage.  They had been encouraged in this belief when, in November 1944, the head of Force 136, Colin Mackenzie, wrote to Thein Pe saying: ‘it is up to the forces of the interior to show their worth, and if they fulfil the trust we propose placing in them, then the civil government will be unable to ignore their demands.’  On the other hand, Ba Maw, the leader of ‘independent’ Burma under the Japanese, advocated staying out of the fighting so that nationalist forces could start a guerrilla war against the British before they could ‘stabilise their hold on Burma again.’  Underneath the senior nationalist leadership, there was, according to U Maung Maung, a ‘second level’ of leaders within the BNA who were on the point of revolting against the Japanese, and who wanted to fight the British afterwards.  Aung San, it seems, was unwilling to commit to any of these options in early 1945.

The British were concerned that if they armed the BNA and AFO, they would turn their weapons upon them, just as Ba Maw and the ‘Young Officers’ of the BNA were planning.  In April 1945, Force 136 managed to infiltrate AFO headquarters in Pegu and obtain a document, written by AFO leader Thakin Than Tun in August 1944.  It contained the order to start an uprising against the British from September 1945.  Another document, dated April 1945 and entitled ‘From Fascism to Freedom’, advocated a peaceful strategy against the British.  Force 136 had argued that gaining the trust of the BNA and AFO would prevent future attacks against the British in Burma.  The only organisation that was in contact with the nationalists in central Burma was Force 136 through approximately 24 Billet operations, so it was surmised by SOE that they had won that trust and averted colonial conflict.  A little later, SOE considered their decision to work with Burmese nationalists further justified when observing events in French Indochina and the Dutch East Indies.

Nonetheless, the argument against SOE’s decision to work with Aung San and the nationalists continued after the war in such works as FSV Donnison’s British Military Administration in the Far East, published in 1956, and Hugh Tinker’s twin volume Burma, The Struggle for Independence published in 1983.  In this work, Tinker wrote that ‘The decision to recognise the AFO, and thereby accept the BNA as a pro-Allied force, was arguably the most important British policy commitment made in Burma’s re-conquest and decolonisation.’  In 1999, Richard Aldrich published an article entitled ‘Legacies of Secret Service’ about SOE’s role in Burma. Like Tinker, he focused on the decision to arm the BNA and the Karen, arguing that wars of insurgency were easy for secret services to start, but difficult to stop. The legacy of secret service made territory ‘ungovernable’, and this legacy had become manifest ‘in a dozen different countries’ around the world by 1948–9.

The reason for the longevity of this argument is to be found in the decades long civil war that has been fought in Burma.  At the end of the war, nationalist Burmese had been armed and trained by both the Japanese and the British.  The BIA’s successor, the BNA, numbered approximately 10,000 men in 1945.  By contrast, other ethnic groups in Burma had fought for the duration of the war on the British side, and around 12,000 Karen had been recruited by Force 136 to fight a guerrilla war.  Burma was ‘awash with weapons’ in 1945, and there were old scores to settle from 1942, from when the Burma Independence Army had carried out massacres in southern Burma.  Leaders such as Kra Hla Aung and Aung San, now enjoying high level political access to the returned British authorities, were accused of having murdered surrendered troops and a village headman respectively.  Add to this the fact that the country had been fought across twice, with all that entails in terms of destruction of infrastructure and resulting commodity shortages, and the potential for instability was huge.

On 15 June 1945 there was a victory parade in Rangoon.  The BNA, rebranded yet again, to Patriotic Burmese Forces or PBF, marched with the Allied army that had fought a long campaign against the Japanese.  At this point, it was anticipated that the war against Japan would last until December 1946, so the PBF was expected to take part in the invasion of Malaya in order to continue to ‘work its passage home’.  The two atomic bombs made this unnecessary, and forced the British into premature political engagement with nationalist leaders.  Across India and Southeast Asia, colonial nationalists prepared for the next stage in their quest for independence.  Equally important as the two atomic bombs for Burmese nationalists was the change of government in the UK, announced on 26 July.  The new parliament was not beholden to wartime promises, and in the new post war era, a pressing priority of the Attlee government was India.

At a time when India was on the brink of national self-determination, it did not seem wise to British officials to use Indian troops to prevent self-determination elsewhere. British experience in Indonesia during 1945–6 demonstrated the risks associated with using Indian troops against nationalist movements. Additionally, the British were aware, due to intelligence gathered on Operation Character, that since about July 1945 the BNA had been spreading propaganda that the British were going to reclaim Burma for the Empire using Indian troops.  In October 1945, during a secret meeting in Rangoon at which Aung San was present, Burmese Nationalists discussed starting a press attack against the conduct of Indian and African troops to help ensure that the British maintained their decision not to use Indian troops in Burma.  India’s independence was important to the extent that any decisions that needed to be made about Burma were shelved if it was thought that it might endanger precarious negotiations with Indian Nationalists. This meant sending Indian troops home.  With British troops also being shipped home after years in the East, restoring order in Burma under the newly returned civil administration was to prove no easy task.

It had long been known that the Karen wanted to establish an autonomous state within the British Commonwealth, thus protecting them from an independent Burmese nationalist government.  One of the important disputes at the centre of the SOE ‘legacy’ is the question of whether or not such a political assurance was made to the Karen in return for fighting the Japanese.  The May 1945 White Paper on Burma seemed to support such an assurance, and there were those in Force 136 who testified to having been ‘ordered to tell Karen chiefs that if they would fight and die for us and get rid of the Japanese we guaranteed their independence.’  As the Attlee government continued to court Aung San through late 1945 and into 1946, steadfast wartime allies became increasingly nervous.  

Many old soldiers of XIV Army, the Chindits, Force 136 and Burma civil servicemen were alarmed at the direction Burma policy was taking.  In January 1947, Aung San  was promised Burmese independence by 1948.  The next month, February 1947, the Panglong Conference was convened to prepare for independence.  Despite present day nostalgia in the press for the spirit of Panglong and calls for a new Panglong, the conference did not represent ethnic solidarity in Burma; Mon, Arakanese, Wa, Naga and Karen were absent.  In July 1947 the Karen National Union formed its military wing, the Karen National Defence Organisation, inevitably with Karen who were ex-servicemen or ex-Force 136.  This was followed by a statement from the KNU on 4 August which declared independence from both Britain and Burma, something echoed by Ian Smith’s Rhodesia 18yrs later.

Meanwhile, on 19 July, Aung San and six other ministers of the Executive Council were murdered.  Two British officers were charged with fraudulently obtaining weapons and ammunition which had been used in the assassination.   One of the officers was found guilty and that officer was Captain David Vivian, the man Izvestiya reported as having been found dead on the battlefield in 1950.  In between the trial in 1948 and his death in 1950, the government of the Union of Burma accused the British, and especially former Force 136 officers, of secret meddling in the decolonisation of Burma, especially in connection to the Union government’s conflict with the Karen.  This story was taken up in 1997, by the BBC’s Timewatch documentary in an episode which featured the Karen as part of a series on ‘Forgotten Allies’, and then in the ‘Renegade SOE’ article referred to earlier.

At the centre of the ‘Renegade SOE’ story is Lt.Col. John Cromarty Tulloch and Major Alex Campbell, both ex Force 136 officers who had led Karen guerrillas in Operation Character.  Tulloch and Campbell allegedly belonged to a group calling itself the ‘Friends of the Burma Hill People’ which had formed in early 1947.  In September 1948, when the Burmese government came into possession of a letter between these two officers which referred to arms shipments being organised to supply Karen forces, it seemed to justify their claims that Britain had been involved in destabilising Burma since the murder of Aung San – and put SOE’s Force 136 right at the centre of it.  Here then is the origin of the story which was ‘difficult to scotch’.
On the face of it, therefore, it seems that SOE had made territory ungovernable by its actions during the war.  SOE had armed different Burmese groups with a long history of conflict between them and made assurances to both sides in order to win the war.  At least two former SOE Burma officers were clearly involved in the country after Burmese independence, and implicated in manipulation of its political future.  Captain David Vivian, the man convicted of gun running for Aung San’s murderers and apparently found dead in 1950, was thought by the Burmese government to have been in Force 136.  This was close, but the man who had been in Force 136 was Captain Godfrey Vivian, who by the time of all this trouble was back in Nigeria on colonial service.  This shows that there were rumours which contributed this idea of a Force 136 ‘legacy’, but to pin a legacy on SOE is surely too simplistic.  The atomic bombing of Japan and its subsequent shortening of the war; the change in government in  Britain and the subsequent change of Burma policy; the preoccupation with the decolonisation of India and the consequent lack of troops to restore order in Burma, as well as the involvement of non-Force 136 British officers means that there is a more complicated story of decolonisation for Burma than Tinker’s allegation that the decision of SOE to work with Burmese nationalists was ‘the most important policy decision affecting Burma’s decolonisation.’

If you like what you see on my website consider clicking HERE, or buying my book HERE