‘With the campaign in Burma successfully concluding, it is possible to make a Statement of Account, showing the pre-war attitude of the Burma Peoples vis-a-vis the British, as compared with now. On balance, is there a debit or a credit………’

Thus opens a nine page report entitled ‘Commonwealth of Nations – Burma Account’, written some time in mid 1945, which sought to gauge how well the British would be received by the various peoples of Burma once colonial control was re-established. It was considered ‘important to understand’ that Burma had the fourth largest population in the Empire, but that its 17 million inhabitants included ‘many divergent peoples, languages and cultural traditions.’

Force 136, like every other Allied contingent in Burma, would have been acutely aware of this, and the associated problems that were already manifest by the time Rangoon was recaptured on 3 May 1945. Arguments about which Burmese races SOE/Force 136 should have recruited and trained to fight the secret war had already become acrimonious and entrenched by this time. Those arguments about the rights and wrongs of arming Nationalist Bamar and the Hill Peoples were to rattle on through the subsequent decades.

The report describes the two million people living in the north of Burma as ‘primitive Hill-peoples’ who ‘inevitably cherish[ed] individualistic tribal customs’ which set them in opposition to the ‘BUrmese speaking people of the plains’ in particular. In the East of the country, 1.5 million Shan people lived in 42 federated states which were ‘administered individually by each local chief according to customary law.’ It then goes on to describe the 1.5 million Karen as ‘at least three distinct races’ who were different to other Burmese races because they were able to embrace Christianity. It was estimated that there were just under a million Indians resident in Burma, and around 200,000 Chinese. The point is made that for every ten people in Burma, ‘the traditions of approximately four are strongly opposed to those of the other six.’

The British claimed all of Burma after three Anglo-Burmese wars. The first of these, 1824-26, was apparently one of the most costly of all the wars that the East India Company fought, in terms of both men and money. The territory claimed afterwards was the coastal areas of the Arakan and Tenasserim. A second war in 1852-53 led to the annexation of lower Burma, leaving the proud Konbaung dynasty confined to Upper Burma with their palace in Mandalay. In 1885, after a short war, King Thibaw was defeated and exiled to India; all of Burma now became part of the British Empire. It should be noted that the final war was prosecuted by the Crown, not the East India Company, which had taken control of India in 1858 as a result of the Indian Mutiny of 1857.

After 1858, the report divides British control into two distinct phases which the author labelled ‘the unenlightened and the enlightened’. The judgement is that during the unenlightened phase, the opportunity to unite the country was missed because the Burmese monarchy and Buddhism ‘were ignored or suppressed’. This led to ‘a dispersal of the people’s allegiances, in the true tradition of divide et impera’, as well as allowing Buddhist monasteries to become ‘centres of discontent and hostility.’

Another key aspect of the ‘unenlightened’ phase was the commercial imperative which caused few Britons to acknowledge Burma’s diverse population and their traditions. As a result, six of every ten people were more inclined to violent nationalism, while the other four remained ‘politically inarticulate.’ The six of every ten were of course the Burmans, and it was they who were apparently ‘particularly ready’ for Japanese propaganda which hopefully meant ‘Burma for the Burmese’.

While the six in ten allied themselves to the Japanese, the British ‘acquired a greater knowledge and awareness of the four in ten than ever in the years of peace.’ This was fostered through ‘British officers operating behind the Japanese lines’ – a reference here to SOE/Force 136. A brief account of SOE and Chindit operations in Burma, and the heroism of the four in ten then follows, after which Burman collaboration with the Japanese is described. This collaboration did not last long, however, as the Burmans quickly came to resent the Japanese and had ‘no desire to substitute Japanese for British masters.’

Despite the Burmans running a puppet government under faux Japanese independence from 1943, and their pre war experiences in politics from 1937, the author of the report opines that the Burmans were ‘politically immature’ and that ‘the returning governor [was] unlikely to have to face any immediate consolidated claims from rival political parties.’ The challenge, so it was thought, would come from three sources: firstly, the political immaturity of the four in ten and their fierce protection of their customs and traditions; second, the influence of China; third, ‘the evolution of communist theory among the Burmese.’ Hope is expressed that the plans of Dorman-Smith to produce a new constitution by 1948 will have ‘a sufficient measure of support’, especially since ‘it seems clear that the Burmese themselves are thankful enough, at present, to hand over the shattered economy of their country.’ The four in ten remained pro-British and welcomed the restoration of law and order.

Although it was recognised that the Burmans were impatient people and that trouble between the six and the four in ten might arise out of the relative difference in political maturity, it was thought that ‘the immediate future seems assured.’ In this enlightened period, there should be more ‘cooperation and goodwill from the peoples of Burma than they enjoyed before they left.’ The retention of this goodwill, it was warned, would depend on how rapidly promises of independence were realised per the Atlantic Charter.

The lack of provenance for this report makes it all the more interesting – who wrote it? For whom? When exactly? Why has it ended up in an SOE file? Aside from these usual questions about origin, to what extent did it influence anyone or anything?

Perhaps more interestingly, what did the report get right, and what did it get wrong? While not so detailed about the period it designated as ‘enlightened’, the argument could be made that, similar to the period of neglect in the ‘unenlightened’ era, a preoccupation with India in the immediate post-war years led to a failure to look after Burma. Any positive side of the ledger, identified by the author, that may have existed, quickly dissipated as the Attlee government sought solutions for India and struggled to cope with the conflict in Palestine, Greece, and Indonesia. Burmese politics might have been immature, but their Nationalism wasn’t: King Thibaw and Burmese independence was well within living memory and Britain’s loss of Imperial prestige and inability to be strong everywhere was there to be exploited.

The wartime governor, Dorman-Smith, and his planned constitution did not make it to 1948. Sir Reginald Dorman Smith was replaced by General Herbert Rance in August 1946. Where Mountbatten is well-known and remembered as the last Governor-General of India, Rance is much less well known as the last Governor of Burma (even given that he was not related to the royal family). On 4 January 1948, the Burmese won their independence, and left the Commonwealth severing most of their ties with Britain. The author of the report got it right regarding impatience – but this impatience was true of both the Burman and British side.

Of the three threats to Burma’s stability idenitfied in the report, all three have come to pass, just not in the predicted timeframe. The four in ten, on the whole, did not accept the Burman dominated Government of the Union of Burma as protector of their culture and identity, and civil war has raged since independence. The Communist threat was defeated by the Karen element of the four in ten in 1948, but the first Prime Minister of Burma, U Nu implemented a policy which blended Buddhissm and Socialism, at least until the 1962 coup of Ne Win.

The third threat, identified as Chinese interests in Burma, was an overt threat to British control throughout the war years as far as SOE was concerned. Attempts at subversion and territorial acquisition plagued Operation Spiers in the Kokang area, and Operation Hainton/Heavy in the Southern Shan States also suffered from Chinese intrigue which significantly hampered fighting the war. Chinese influence in Burma has continued to be a geopolitical issue throughout the decades since the Second World War up to the present day, as chapters by Enze Han and Ho Ts’ui-p’ing demonstrate in War and Peace in the Borderlands of Myanmar.

While the Western world’s media is dominated by the war in Ukraine, conflict continues in Myanmar since the February 2021 take over by Burma’s military junta. There are, however, encouraging signs that the opposition to the junta is finally allowing the many peoples of Myanmar to unite in their defiance of the generals. Elsewhere on this website, I have endeavoured to show how Force 136 employed any of the many races from Burma in the pursuit of victory during the Second World War. They all worked together then against a common foe. Maybe the population of Myanmar can find ways to strive for freedom together again. Then, some time in the not too distant future, they can live together and know peace and security; a peace and security which many of them have never known in their lifetimes.

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