Democracy with a Tommygun by Wilfred Burchett

The Burmese and their Problems

Since for over a hundred years Burma was administered as a province of India, it is usually accepted abroad that Burmese are "sort of Indians." Nothing could be further from the truth. The Indians are mainly Aryans and Dravidians; the Burmese are Mongols. There is as much difference between Burmese and the main races of India in background, culture, religion and language, as there is between the Mediterranean Italians and the Baltic Swedes. They have one common interest, however the desire to rule their own countries.

Your typical Burman townsman is a plumpish, orange-complexioned person, lively, good-humoured and easy going. His country cousin is a browner, leaner version, with the same genial temperament. The Burman has neither the passivity of the Indian nor the energy of the Chinese. He has been fairly accurately described as a bridge between the peoples of India, China and Malaysia. His nearest racial relatives are in Thailand and parts of Indo-China. Burmese women are slim, sprightly and beautiful, with a natural exquisite taste for dress and decoration. Throughout the East they are known for their shrewdness in business dealings, their independence, and the fact of their higher social status than any of their sisters in Asia.

Burma was separated from India in 1935, had progressed farther along the road to independence than had India, and by the time World War II broke out, it seemed Burma was within measurable distance of self-government within the Empire. In fact, in July, 1940, Secretary for India and Burma Amery had declared, that at the end of the war:

"His Majesty's Government will grant Burma a constitution which will enable her to take at once her due place as a fully self-governing and equal member of a Commonwealth or Federation of free nations that may be established as a result of the war."

Burma's problems are simpler than those of India. The population is almost entirely Buddhist; there are no communal problems; no caste systems; no Jinnahs with demands for a separate nation within a nation. But although Burma was progressing towards political independence, her people were losing their economic independence. The largest rice-exporting country in the world, Burma's economy is based on peasant agriculture with 75 per cent, of the people tilling the soil. But the peasants were losing their land. By 1940 more than 50 per cent. of the main rice-growing areas were already owned by absentee landlords, and few of these were Burmans. The great majority of the land-holders were the hated Indian Chettyars, immigrant money-lenders from Madras province. It was not difficult for them to get control of the land.

Money comes in but once a year for the peasant, at harvest time. Even for the provident ones, and Burmese are notoriously improvident, it is almost impossible to put away enough money from one harvest to last a whole year till the next one. The Chettyars were eager to lend money at anything from 15 to 50 per cent. on the security of home and land, till autumn came and the crops harvested. A couple of bad seasons with low prices and the peasants would fall behind with their payments. The Chettyars, with the law standing behind them, would seize the farm and either keep the Burmese family on as landless laborers or, as this was usually the case, install some miserable relative to run the farm for a monthly pittance.

The inroads by the Indians on their peasant economy was a source of bitter hatred towards all Indians in Burma. It was the real reason behind the anti-Indian riots which broke out from time to time the latest one in 1938 resulting in about 200 Indians killed. Even during the great Tharawaddy riots of 1930/31, when the fanatic Saya Saw, after giving his followers charms against bullets, led them in an uprising that cost 2,000 lives, it was mainly the Indian population that suffered from their killing and looting. Incidentally, there have never been riots against the British or Europeans as such in Burma, nor have there been any political assassinations of Britishers as in India.

For the great mass of Burmese peasants, the real enemy has seemed the near enemy the Indians who grabbed their land. British government was fairly remote a shadowy force in the background with which the majority of the people had no contact. There was even a good deal of mutual admiration and respect between lots of the Burmans and English administrators. Even at the height of the Burma campaign, when the British were being thrown out of the country lock, stock and barrel, it was safe for a British civilian to go anywhere in Burma unarmed. He would, nine times out of ten, be treated with the kindliness and courtesy which are the natural traits of the Burmese people.

But not so the unfortunate Indians. Poor coolies and market stallholders, most of whom had nothing to do with money-lending or expropriation of farms, were beaten up and robbed, many of them murdered, during the course of their fifteen hundred mile trek back to India. It was pitiable to see them, in family groups, with their possessions on their backs or piled into hand-carts, most of which were abandoned half way, women and children in the centre, males armed with staves and spears in front and rear to protect the group from murder and pillage. Doubtless most of the wealthy Chettyars skipped out by ship or plane, but to the Burmans who had so long suffered from grasping moneylenders, one Indian looked much like another, and with the breakdown of law and order in Burma, they took their revenge in full.

While the peasants seemed to regard the real enemies as neither the British nor the Japanese, but the Indians, to the townspeople and intellectuals from whom the Thakins were organised, the picture looked different. They resented the fact that the British were there at all. Merchants and budding Burmese capitalists resented the fact that British firms had a virtual monopoly in exploiting the timber, mineral and oil reserves, in shipping, banking, insurance and rice-exporting businesses. With no clear idea of what they wanted as an alternative, at least they knew they wanted the British out.

There were divisions of thought amongst the Thakins. There were those influenced by Marxist theories who looked towards Russia and were thus anti-fascist and anti-Japanese in outlook. Many of these were locked up long before Russia entered the war because they objected to their country participating in an "imperialist" war. Had they been released when Russia entered the war the Thakins may well have been mobilised on our side during the Pacific war. Others looked towards Japan for help in getting their independence. Though a few were undoubted traitors to their cause and their country, and accepted bribes from the Japanese, most of them genuinely thought they could accept the help of the Japs to drive out the British, at the same time arming themselves to expel the Japs later if they seemed intent on permanent occupation of the country.

The Japs had no intention of allowing the Thakin movement to become strong and well-armed. Disarmament of many of the Thakins who helped in the initial stages of the campaign commenced before the fighting was half completed. The so-called "Burma Independence Army" was reduced virtually to the status of a police force, and the Thakins realised, too late, that they were much farther away from independence under the Japs than they had been under the British.

The Burmese were not prepared for the impact of war, least of all for invasion by the Japanese. For years previous to the attack on Pearl Harbour they were kept in ignorance of what Japan was doing. Carrying on anti-Japanese propaganda was a criminal offence. Chinese war films were banned, and it wasn't till 1940 that Chinese newspapers were allowed to go to print. All this because we were afraid of offending the Japanese in those days. For the same reason we closed the Burma Road for three months in 1940.

After September, 1939, there was some attempt to make the Burmese war-conscious by publicising the European war. One of the most famous posters exhibited was a realistic portrayal of Warsaw in flames. Once our own air defence broke down in Burma, and we had started to retreat, the main effect of the lurid picture of Warsaw's agony was for people to hope the Japs would conquer the country quickly, so that the air bombings would cease.

Our propaganda, once Burma was invaded, was as cumbersome and old-fashioned as our military equipment. We used press and radio, but these reached few people. The Japs had their agents throughout the bazaars, the real information centres of the East. The Thakins went ahead of their armies through the countryside whispering that they were liberating Burma with Japanese assistance. The Japanese must be received as brothers. The peasants were apathetic. They helped us as we retreated with food, water and information. They helped the Japanese as they advanced in the same way. They were bewildered and confused with what went on around them, but one thing they did understand the daily lengthening lines of Indian families filing along the roads, with their handcarts and rickshas piled high with their possessions, leaving Burma. That was something to rejoice at.

Among Burma's border tribes-people the attitude was different. Kachins, Karens, Chins and Nagas are different, harder people than the Burmans. They represent the difference between mountaineers and plainsmen. Their land was not valuable enough for the Chettyars to covet, and they remained free of money-lenders' entanglements. More than 90 per cent. owned their own land. They were much farther from political independence than the Burmans because they belong to the "restricted" areas, outside the Burmese legislature, administered direct by the Governor.

Government officials had close day-to-day contacts with these tough, tribal hill-dwellers, whereas in Burma proper officials tended to be a little remote and god-like, with very formal relations between administrators and administrated. The hill-dwellers liked their land and owned it, were prepared to fight for it. They naturally turned to the administrators for advice when the Japs neared their territory, and it was not difficult for the officials to persuade them the Japs intended grabbing their land. When the Japanese came they fought like the primitive people they are for man's most primitive instinct, defence of home and land. They had fought their neighbours for the same reasons for generations past, and no Japanese intrigues or Thakin agents could make any impression on these colourful, fierce, border tribes-people.

The invasion of Burma was necessary to Japan for several reasons, apart from the general one that Burma fitted in with their overall scheme for expansion. The immediate objectives in Burma were as follows:

(a) Protection of the line of communication between Indo-China, Thailand and Malaya. For the invasion of Malaya the Japs' main supply line was along the railway between Bangkok and Singapore, running within a few miles of the Burma border.

(b) To cut the Burma Road and close the last supply route to China before lend-lease supplies reached there in such quantities as to prolong Chinese resistance.

(c) To control Burma's raw materials, particularly her large resources of petroleum, minerals and rice, and gear them to the Japanese war machine.

(d) To secure a good springboard for the invasion of India in the next phase of Japanese expansion.

Immediately the Japs attacked Malaya the Governor-General begged the officer commanding British troops in Burma to order his troops manning the Burmese section of the long goose-neck which separated Burma and Thailand from Malaya, to move across into Thailand, occupy the few miles of territory between the Burma border and the Gulf of Siam, through which runs the railway which was carrying streams of supplies and reinforcements to the Japanese in Malaya. A glance at the map will show what such a move would have accomplished. Unfortunately General McLeod considered he was unable to move without express approval from his immediate chief, Air-Marshal Brooke-Popham, down in Singapore.

For several days in succession the Governor-General repeated his demands to the General, offering to accept full responsibility himself as direct representative of British government in Burma. Communications between Rangoon and Singapore were very bad, and in any case Brooke-Popham had plenty to worry about nearer home.

The reply didn't come for many days, during which the Japanese poured train-load after train-load of troops and equipment through the undefended goose-neck. By the time permission was given, the Japs had occupied the area, and the few companies of Burma Rifles we sent in were cut to pieces long before they reached the railway.

Such an incident couldn't affect the outcome of the fighting in Malaya and Burma, where we were caught so completely unprepared both physically and mentally. At worst it hastened the end by perhaps a few weeks, but it did illustrate the unwieldiness of the defence command and the sort of difficulties that arose from time to time between the military and civil government in Burma. Burma command was soon taken away from Air-Marshal Brooke-Popham and restored to India Command, General McLeod was replaced by Lieut.-General Hutton, who was afterwards replaced in turn by General Sir Harold Alexander.

Within a few days after the Japs spearheaded by a few hundred armed members of the Thakin party invaded Burma from the very point at which the Governor had suggested we invade Thailand, they had attained their first objective.

Guided by a few Burmans who knew elephant trails and jungle tracks unmarked on any military map, they advanced with little difficulty through Tenasserim division south of Rangoon. With the occupation of Mergui, Tavoy and Moulmein by the end of January, they removed any potential threat to their communications with Malaya. This danger removed, they could afford to pause and finish off their Malayan campaign, meanwhile urging the Thakins to carry on their work of demoralisation. They guessed, correctly, that Burma would be ready to fall like a ripe plum by the time they could switch their full weight to the attack.

The story of procrastination in the south was repeated in the north, where Chinese troops had been sitting on - the Yunnan-Burma border from the day Burma was invaded. Scattered from the frontier back to Kunming were more Chinese troops than we had British troops in the rest of Burma, and their arms were about equal to ours. For weeks, while we retreated up the Tenasserim coast, the Chinese sat patiently on the frontier, giving artistic touches to the bamboo camps they had built, weaving themselves new hats and sandals, laying out vegetable gardens for the next comers, awaiting the word to move into Burma. British officers at the front fumed with impatience, wondering when the Chinese would come to their assistance. Chinese officers at the frontier fumed with impatience wondering why they were not allowed to cross the frontier. Chunking fumed. Rangoon fumed, and messages were flashed to and fro with no apparent effect.*

Meanwhile, Malaya was about finished, and the Japanese prepared for an all-out push to cut the Burma Road at Pegu and isolate Rangoon. By the time the signal was given for units of the crack Chinese 5th Army to move into Burma, the Burma Road was cut, and hope of further reinforcements of men or material for the defence of Burma was finished.

It was interesting to watch the behaviour of Chinese troops in Burma and the reactions of Burmese to their presence there.

Chinese-Burmese relations were generally good. Whereas all other races were regarded as "foreigners" in Burma, the Chinese had been looked upon as relatives. They were, after all, fellow Mongols and fellow Buddhists. There were cultural affinities between the two nations, and a long record of peaceful trade. Chinese who migrated to Burma generally settled there, married, and raised a family. The money they earned stayed in the country, as distinct from the Chettyars and seasonal workers who returned to India after harvest time, with their carefully hoarded earnings. The Chinese had a good reputation as faithful husbands and affectionate fathers. The offspring of the many marriages between Chinese men and Burmese girls were usually credited with combining the best qualities of both races. (This, incidentally, is a noteworthy feature of Chinese mixtures with other races in various parts of the East, including Hawaii.) The Chinese, on the whole, were the best respected "outside" people in Burma.

Nevertheless, they weren't 100 per cent. popular. They had a virtual monopoly of the government liquor stores and opium dens. They were suspected of smuggling in opium and cocaine. They owned most of Burma's pawnshops and incurred the odium which usually pertains to owners of pawnshops. Once, in 1931, there had even been riots against the Chinese.

With the opening of the Burma Road and its subsequent importance as China's last link with the outside world, more and more Chinese entered Burma thousands of business men, officials and truck-drivers. The Burmese began to have fears that perhaps China really wanted to annex the country and secure for all time a back door to the sea. Towards the end of 1941 the Burmese legislature signed a treaty with China the first Burma had ever negotiated in her own rights with a foreign power to limit the flow of immigrants over the frontier. To take the sting off this limitation of Chinese immigrants, there were exchanges of goodwill and cultural missions between the two countries at about the same time.

This vague fear of Chinese penetration was cited as one reason why Chinese troops should not be allowed in the country, even if they were there to repel the Japs. "If we use the Chinese to drive out the Japs, who is going to help us to drive out the Chinese?" was the plaint in some quarters.

The Chinese armies, however, behaved splendidly in Burma, except for a certain amount of justifiable looting of food by some starving troops during the final stages of the retreat. Burmese-speaking political officers preceded the soldiers into the villages, explaining why the troops were coming. Benefiting from lessons learned from the Communist armies in China, they promised the food required would be paid for, that any misdemeanors by Chinese soldiers should be reported by the villagers and the culprits would be punished. There were very few incidents between Burmese and Chinese, except a few times when Chinese intervened to prevent unfortunate Indian refugees being looted. It was not healthy, however, for a Burmese to be caught near the front lines or suspected of contacting the Japs.

The Chinese 5th Army and one division of the 66th Army fought well and gallantly. If their 6th Army collapsed under the first real Jap assault and disintegrated, hastening the final collapse in Burma, it could be partly excused as consisting of untried troops, fighting in a strange land on a front far too extended for the troops at their disposal, and without the artillery and air support at first promised.

It was not until the Chinese troops entered Burma and some sort of a line was established across the parallel Toungoo and Prome roads leading north from Rangoon, with the British manning the Prome, the Chinese the Toungoo roads, that an orderly defence was organised. Before that time our troops had been pulling back fighting sporadic, unorganised battles wherever the enemy found us.

There have been sufficient books written about the Burma campaign to absolve me from the task of describing our defeat here. Suffice to say that we were outnumbered in troops and planes; outmanoeuvred in political as well as military strategy; that we never recovered our balance from the initial shock of our own unpreparedness. Official lethargy and military ineptitude were equated by the courageous, dogged, fighting retreat of British, Indian and Chinese troops, through many hundreds of miles of foodless, waterless, often trackless jungle. Mistakes were made which hastened our defeat, but given the conditions under which the campaign started and British commitments elsewhere, it seems inevitable that Japanese occupation of the whole country could not long have been delayed.

After the fall of Malaya, when Japan could concentrate all her strength in planes and tanks against Burma, the issue was not long in doubt.

But Japan only succeeded in part of her objective. She did protect her communications between Malaya, Thailand and Indo-China. With the subsequent building of a link between the Malaya-Thailand and Burma rail systems at the cost of many lives of British and Australian war prisoners, she vastly improved Burma's communications with the pools of Jap troops and planes in the South-East Asia hinterland. She did cut the Burma Road, but within a few months supplies were already being flown into China from India, and a new road was under construction with a fair chance of completion before the Japs could push far enough into Yunnan to render it abortive. Japan did get control of Burma's considerable mineral, oil, timber and rice supplies, but due to the constant and ever-increasing activities of British and American air forces in India, and the constant reduction of Japan's merchant shipping, it is doubtful if much of Burma's wealth was reaching the Japanese war machine. Japan's fourth objective, to transform Burma into a base from which the occupation of India could be launched, failed completely.

What were the consequences of Japanese occupation of Burma? One of the most important is that Burma perforce had been opened up to the outside world. Before the war she had no rail connection with any of her neighbours. Now there is direct communication between Rangoon, Bangkok and Singapore. (Now that the Japs have been driven from Burma the situation in China demands completion of the Rangoon-Kunming railway). Burma had no overland routes to India. Now she has the new road built by American and Chinese labour linking the Indian railhead at Ledo with the Burma railhead at Myitkyina. She has new roads built by the British in Central Burma from Imphal towards the Chindwin river, and in the south along the Arakan coast to Akyab, and doubtless eventually to Prome on the Rangoon-Mandalay railway.

These new lines of contact with the outside world have as much significance as the development of air transport has for the rest of the world. Next to the Japanese invasion itself, the new transport routes are the most important thing that has happened to Burma since the British first occupied the country. But they are the only items on the credit side of the ledger of Japanese occupation.

Burma's cities have been shattered, first by Jap bombings then by ours. The peasant economy has been a heavy casualty because, on the one hand, Jap shipping difficulties made purchase and distribution of the rice crop impossible; while on the other hand scarcity of trade goods sent prices sky-rocketing. Farmers receiving only a fraction of what they normally got for their rice harvest had to pay many times normal prices for necessities like cooking and fuel oil, cloth for loongyis, salt and flour.

"Self-government" had been a mockery with Jap forces garrisoning every town, rigidly controlling the entire economy of the country.

But still Burma hasn't suffered from the war like China has, and like countries in Europe have. There has at least always been plenty of rice to eat. Damaged homes are not so important when the climate is mild enough the year round to sleep without a top covering. There have been no transfers of population for slave labour fortunately Japan's war factories were too far away. If there have been food shortages that is mainly a matter of distribution, and can be quickly corrected now that Japan is defeated. After three years' Allied hammering at rail and road bridges, locomotives and river steamers, internal transportation must be fairly well shattered. But the peasants still have their lumbering ox-carts and the cattle to draw them, and the river-dwellers still will have barges or rafts on which to float rice from the areas of plenty to villages of scarcity. Peasant villages of thatch and bamboo matting are easily repaired or rebuilt; there are still plenty of poles in the forest, and plenty of bamboo thickets.

Burmese abroad are looking forward to the day when they can return to help in the building of a new Burma. Many of them were fighting with British forces inside Burma, helping to win their land back. What sort of a new Burma were they fighting for?

The original demands of Burmese nationalists will probably have been tempered by the hard fact of Japanese occupation for over three years, and the other hard fact that British and Allied troops have done most of the work in winning back the country. With the departure of the Japs, the country is occupied by British troops, so it would not seem the Burmese have much bargaining power, except by appeal to a collective Allied conscience if such a thing exists. Their minimum demands are going to be something like this:

(a) Immediate self-government. Free elections to be held as soon as they can be organised.

(b) Inclusion of the tribal areas, including Shan States, Kachin, Chin and Naga areas, in the Burma legislature.

(c) Some measure of State control over Burma's natural resources of oil, timber, silver, lead, tungsten, etc.

After much discussion with many Burmese nationalists I think these are three points on which there is the greatest degree of unanimity. Many, of course, want complete independence, but for reasons of defence most of them, I think, would be satisfied with the same status as Australia, Canada, etc., that of a self-governing dominion with powers to make and break treaties, draft their own land laws, regulate social legislation and finance. The question of Burma's natural resources is a tender subject, as they are controlled almost entirely by British capital. Many Burmans favour expropriation with compensation, but few have clear ideas where the money will originate from.

With the new trade routes to China and India, both of which countries are desperately short of oil and many of the minerals Burma produces, forward-looking Burmans hope to convert a much higher proportion of the country's wealth into its development and improved social services.

There has been no statement yet which sets out exactly what Britain has in mind, but after having visited Burma government in Simla several times, I think the following would be a fair summary of the maximum they can offer the Burmese:

(a) Stricter control of government at the top by a British governor with greater Burmese participation in district and village administration. This would operate until Burma's economy was set in order again.

(b) A restatement of the dominion status offer, with possibly a definite time limit set, such as "End of war plus..."

(c) No change in the "restricted" status of the tribal areas but some sort of educational programme laid down and preparation of Burmese officials to assist in the border area administration. A period of gradual "preparation for self-government."

(d) No change in the ownership of natural resources or the means of their exploitation, but perhaps a greater "rake-off" for Burma in the way of increased royalties.

To make the British offer more palatable there will be a definite plan for rebuilding towns and cities, repairing roads and railways; a comprehensive scheme of public works, including plans for hydro-electric power for greater electrification of the country. A new deal for education with emphasis on secular schools rather than the present system of tuition by hpoongyis in the Buddhist kyaungs. In other words, as Governor Dorman-Smith promised in the nearest thing to a definite statement yet made on British policy:

"We intend to set Burma's house in order before we hand the country back to the Burmese."

Burma's future trade will probably be more with her neighbour countries than with England. In the pre-war years 60 per cent. of her exports went to India carried in British ships. With the industrialisation of China's rich south-west, there will be a great demand for Burma's oil and minerals and reciprocal trade in coal from China. Burma will provide a market for trade goods which an increasingly industrialised India should find it profitable to supply. Burma probably will increase her import trade with India from the meagre 7 per cent. of pre-war years to something nearer her export figure of 60 per cent. Burma's rice will flow across the newly-made roads into India's rice-deficient provinces of Assam and Bengal, returning trucks carrying India's cottons and silks for loongyis and blouses that formerly came from Japan.

But we are a long way ahead of the story. To bring it back to its proper chronological place in the book, we should be back along the Indo-Burmese frontier trudging along a leech-infested tunnel through the undergrowth, on a track which leads from the malaria-ridden Hukawng Valley to Ledo in Assam.

It was along this track that I tramped 130 miles back to India after following British and Chinese troops during four months' fighting from the Salween river in South Burma till the Japanese chased them across the Irrawaddy and virtually ended the Burma campaign.

After a few weeks' spell nursing my malaria in Calcutta it was time to return to Chungking and find out how China was reacting to our further defeats. General Doolittle, meanwhile, had bombed Tokio, and we had won our first naval victory against the Japs in the battle of the Coral Sea, so there were a few cheerful points to discuss with the Chinese.


*In an earlier book, "Bombs Over Burma" (Cheshire, Melbourne), the author has dealt at length with the reasons for the delay.