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Picture Credit: British Library, IOR L/POS/12/2241
At the beginning of the war against Japan, Chiang Kai-Shek was apparently ‘very anxious to give direct assistance to Burma’ and offered to send the rest of 93 Division to join its regiment already on the Burma frontier. On 16 December, some eight days later, the Chinese Minister for war said he ‘was prepared to send the whole of her V and VI Armies if Burma required them’. There were some conditions, which vary between the British and American accounts of these meetings between Wavell and Chiang. What seems clear is that Chiang wanted Chinese troops to operate within their own area and without integration of Burmese troops.
Wavell has been criticised for not accepting Chinese offers, which might have freed up scarce British units for fighting further south. The explanation that Wavell still expected reinforcements and thought ‘Burma should be defended by Imperial troops if possible’ recurs in the historiography, and the sense of tension between the two sides is made plain. There is, however, something omitted from these accounts that the SOE records add to the situation.
There certainly was tension between China and the Burmese colonial administration. In the 1890s, as Britain consolidated its newly expanded Burmese colony, there were boundary disputes with China. For example, a ‘Modifying Agreement’ of 1897 had pushed the border 64km back, thus placing Kokang in British Burma. The tensions over remote territory in the Shan States continued into the 1930s, when British colonial forces and Chinese troops skirmished in 1937. In 1945, as Force 136 liberated areas from Japanese and Thai control, chiefs and headmen came to visit Operation Heavy’s officers to voice concerns about the Chinese following British forces. According to one Heavy officer, ‘they assured me that the whole countryside would rise up to wipe out the Chinese invader’, just as they had done eight years before.
Operation Heavy had started out as Operation Hainton in March 1944. Its geographical focus was Kengtung, the Wa and the Southern Shan States. From the start, the operation was hampered by Chinese interests. The initial party had a Chinese liaison officer and W/T operator attached to it, and the team soon realised that ‘the Chinese were more interested in obstructing SOE than fighting the Japanese.’ Some of the Hainton team were Chinese agents who had been trained in India. It got to the point where the British officers in charge would not release these agents to do their work because they were too worried that they might meet ‘an untimely end in the jungle.’ It is not clear whether this would have been at the hands of the local Burmese who had come to loathe the predatory Chinese or Chinese themselves.
The locals had come to loathe the Chinese because 93 Division had come into Burma, as agreed in 1942, but had ‘spared no efforts to collect all the loot they could’ in the Kengtung area. The SOE report continues: ‘[f]rom the middle of 1942 until the end of 1944, the Chinese 93 Division settled down to a comfortable life’ where they took what they wanted, as well as living off the land (as they had asked as a condition of Wavell in 1941). Another report describes the Kengtung and Manglun states as a ‘happy hunting ground for Chinese bandits’, detailing forty villages as having been either totally or partially destroyed. One small village was almost wiped out, with 52 murdered. Only eleven survived, and that was because they were not in the village at the time of the attack. These bandit forces were taken on the strength of 93 Division as guerrillas, which did nothing to distance Chiang’s Nationalist Army from these bandits.
As the tide turned and Operation Heavy was able to advance towards Kengtung, Chinese forces followed Force 136. They apparently had orders to occupy the territory and local chiefs and headmen began to disappear. Some were spotted in Chinese internment camps later on, across the border in Yunnan. Force 136 officers asked the Chinese to withdraw, but a map was produced by the Chinese officer which showed the territory as Chinese – ‘[i]n fact there was very little of the Northern SHAN States which did belong to BURMA, according to his map.’
The last three paragraphs of a Heavy report are instructive:
‘I am NOT prepared to move my force south to enter KENGTUNG while the Chinese 93rd Division and Chinese guerrillas are still trying to come into the state in our rear. The people in the KENGTUNG Plain are perplexed at our lack of activity and are losing a certain amount of faith in us. In our rear rumours are being circulated along the border that the frontier is to be substantially changed in favour of CHINA.
18. There is only one satisfactory answer – to forestall any further move in this one-sided territorial game of chess. One battalion of army troops should be sent immediately to KENGTUNG State. MONG YAWNG district, which is occupied by the Chinese, must be given immediate consideration, as also the adjoining western state of MANGLUN.
19. Action must be taken and taken without further delay. The arrival of a regular battalion would undoubtedly solve this side of the problem, apart from fulfilling several other vital issues. It would also release the greater part of my force for the role for which it was intended, – to deal with the enemy.’
What happened to the Hainton/Heavy team was not isolated. SOE operations across the eastern side of Burma reported the same issues with Chinese forces and/or guerrilla bands trying to annex Burmese territory. In the far north, in Kachin lands, where Operation Dilwyn was based, to Operation Spiers in Kokang, SOE had its hands full fighting off Chinese attempts at expansion into Burmese territory.
Fast forward 75 years or so to 2019, and Chinese influence in Myanmar is still very much a live issue. There is a ‘popular belief that the military regime [the Tatmadaw] has survived because of Chinese support’ which has led ‘some Myanmar people to describe China’s presence and influence in their country as a ‘stranglehold’. Anti-Chinese sentiment in the general public has become one of the driving forces in the ongoing political transition in the country.’
Thus, over a century on from the ‘Modifying Agreement’, geopolitical tensions continue between China and Burma/Myanmar.
- Kirby, S. Woodburn, The War Against Japan, Vol.2 (Uckfield: Military & Naval Press, 2004).
- Latimer, Jon, The Forgotten War (London: John Murray, 2004).
- Enza Han, ‘Borderland Ethnic Politics and Changing Sino-Myanmar Relations’ in Sadan, M (ed), War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar (Copenhagen: NIAS, 2016).