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A brief military history of Burma.


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Field Marshal Sir William Slim, General Officer Commanding Fourteenth Army in Burma, 5 March 1945.
At the end of the First Anglo-Burmese War in 1826, the Arakan and Tenasserim regions of coastal Burma were annexed to British India. In 1852, after the Second Anglo-Burmese War, the remainder of Lower Burma was taken by the British. In 1862, British Burma was formed as a chief commissionership of British India. In 1885, after the Third Anglo-Burmese War, Upper Burma was annexed by the British. In 1886, Upper Burma was incorporated into British Burma, which was then elevated to the status of a lieutenant-governorship. Although the Burma in this period of British rule saw tremendous economic growth overall, the growth was arguably detrimental to the better portion of the population of Burma. As Burma was developed into a major rice producer for the British Empire, the influx of Indian workers increased unemployment for the locals, while European land owners slowly expanded their holdings. In terms of treatment of the local peoples, the British systematically uprooted entire villages and transported them to other areas of Burma in an attempt to disrupt the resistance movement. The British did employ some locals, namely the Karen people, which made up of about 25% of the population; the animosity that between the Karen minority and the Burmese majority had already existed prior to the British entry, would be further developed during this time period, and lasting into the modern era.

In the 1920s, reforms in British Burma began to give the Burmese people more power in the colonial government, while a university was established to improve the education system. While these reforms somewhat calmed the resistance movement, the very essence of the colonial government itself continued to stir nationalist sentiments. The 1930s saw the development of student groups and political groups dedicated to anti-British causes. In 1937, British Burma was separated from British India, forming a colony of its own; Ba Maw became the first prime minister of the colony. In 1938, Anglo-Burmese tension escalated as strikes and protests which began in the oil fields of central Burma spread across the entire colony, resulting in several deaths as protestors and the police clashed. Ba Maw was succeeded by his political rival U Saw in 1939.

The pre-war population of Burma was just over 16 million. 10 million of which were Burmese, four million were Karen, and the remaining two million were of Shan, Kachin, Naga, Mon, Chin, Chinese, and Indian ethnicities.

Military responsibility for Burma was unorganised in the late 1930s and into the early 1940s. Until 1937, the defence of British Burma fell under the jurisdiction of British India. Between 1937 and 1940, various British chiefs of staff oversaw its defences. In 1940, Burma was transferred under the Far Eastern Command based in Singapore. Finally, starting in late 1941 after the outbreak of the Pacific War through early 1942, Burma fell under the command of ABDACOM. The four separate commands, each with its own prerogatives and priorities, caused none of the defence preparation to be carried out in full. In addition, at least according to the British, not all Burmese administrators working for the colonial government were reliable; in one instance, some Burmese officials approached William Slim to request him not to engage the Japanese in the exclusive Sagaing Hills near Mandalay where many of the elite maintained homes; many of the officials also fled without orders, hampering the British evacuation efforts. The Japanese largely secured Burma by May 1942. The British attempted to attack as early as Sep 1942.

As the British and Indian troops expected, the most notable animal in Burma was the elephant. At the time the war began there were about 20,000 domesticated elephants and about 6,000 in the wild; when the war ended, about 18,000 of the 20,000 domesticated elephants would be killed as the result of combat, exhaustion, or simply slipping and falling into deep ravines while carrying heavy military equipment. Mules were also used, not only in this first military campaign into Burma but throughout the entire length of the war as they were found to be useful for travelling through the thick jungles that characterised large portions of Burma. Natural predators such as tigers, leopards, and rhinoceros were noted dangers, but many British, especially the ill-equipped who hastily retreated from the advancing Japanese in early 1942, cited poisonous snakes as the most dangerous. Many would recall snakes small enough to sneak into backpacks, shoes, and even radio equipment. The weather of Burma was much less a direct threat but it played a more decisive role in war, as the monsoon season, which typically lasted from mid-March to mid-October, on average produces 200 inches of rainfall in the Arakan area.

The first campaign into Burma was halted by late 1942 and early 1943. While the British continued to train regular troops in India for a potential second assault in the future, Brigadier Orde Wingate launched two long range penetration raids into Burma; while these operations suffered very high casualty rates while destroying little, they provided the Allies in the region the much-needed morale boost. The second Chindit, the name given to Wingate’s irregulars, operation overlapped a great Japanese offensive from Burma into eastern India, which was blunted by stubborn defence by British and Indian troops in the Imphal - Kohima region, and made unsustainable as the monsoon season and the jungles made supplying a large attacking force difficult. The Allies launched another invasion of British Burma in earnest in 1944, and the city of Mandalay was captured by Mar 1945, leading to a nationalist uprising starting on 27 Mar. The capital, Rangoon, was captured in early May.

The Japanese occupation approached the Burmese people as liberators. Japan helped organise a Burmese military in mid-1942, and on 1 Aug 1943 formed a nominally independent State of Burma with Ba Maw at its helm. Right from the start, the Japanese had no intention of giving power to the locals. The Burmese military, for example, was intentionally kept at a size that was large enough to appear powerful, but small enough that, if necessary, would be easily wiped aside by the Japanese troops stationed in Southeast Asia. The Japanese pressed Burmese civilians of various ethnicities into construction projects to build roads and railways; ill-treatment, particularly those projects deep in the jungles, suffered very high fatality rates due to disease and malnutrition. A number of massacres also took place in Burma between 1942 and 1945.

After the war, the British colonial administration returned, and it faced stiff resistance from various nationalist groups. In Sep 1946, the police force in Rangoon went on strike to protest against the British, and sympathy strikes soon grew into a general strike all across Burma. Hubert Rance, the British governor since mid-1946, met with Aung San, one of the resistance leaders, and began a process which would ultimately lead to talks of Burmese independence, which was achieved on 4 Jan 1948; before independence was realised, Aung San was assassinated, which was plotted by U Saw. The newly formed Union of Burma chose not join the British Commonwealth due to general anti-British sentiment in the country. In 1962, a coup d’├ętat by the Burmese military overthrew the republic; General Ne Win would maintain dictatorial control over the country for more than 20 years.

Source: Frank McLynn, The Burma Campaign