The Burma National Army (Burmese language: ဗမာ့အမျိုးသားတပ်မတော်; Burmese pronunciation: [bəma̰ əmjó ðá taʔ mədɔ̀]) served as the armed forces of the Burmese government created by the Japanese during World War II and fought in the Burma Campaign. It was originally organized by, and fought alongside the Imperial Japanese Army, but later changed sides and fought alongside the Allies.
In 1940, Japanese military interest in Southeast Asia increased, because the British were overtly providing military assistance to Nationalist China against which Japan was fighting in the Second Sino-Japanese War. In particular, they were sending war materials via the newly opened Burma Road. Colonel Suzuki Keiji, a staff officer at the Imperial General HQ in Japan, was given the task of devising a strategy for dealing with Southeast Asia. He produced a plan for clandestine operations in Burma, which was then a British colony.
The Japanese knew little about Burma at the time and had few contacts within the country. The top Japanese agent in the country was Naval Reservist Kokubu Shozo, who had been resident there for several years and had contacts with most of the anti-British political groups. Suzuki visited Burma secretly in September 1940, meeting with political leaders Thakin Kodaw Hmaing and Thakin Mya. The Japanese later made contact with a Burmese student activist in China named Aung San. Aung San had left Burma in 1940 and had entered China in an attempt to make contact with communists in the country. He reached Amoy, where he was detained by Suzuki.
Suzuki and Aung San flew to Tokyo. After discussions at Imperial General HQ, it was decided to form an organisation named Minami Kikan, which was to support Burmese resistance groups and to close the Burma Road to China. In pursuing those goals, it would recruit potential independence fighters in Burma and train them in Thailand or Japanese-occupied China. Aung San and the first Thirty Comrades were trained on Hainan Island. Another early recruit was Bo Ne Win. Thakin Tun Oke was selected to be a political administrator and organizer when the group entered Burma. Suzuki assumed the Burman name, "Bo Mo Gyo" for his work with Minami Kikan.
Actions of the Burma Independence Army
On 7 December 1941, Japan attacked the United States and Britain. On 28 December, at a ceremony in Bangkok, the Minami Kikan was declared dissolved and the Burma Independence Army was formed in its place. The BIA initially numbered 227 Burmese and 74 Japanese. Some of the Burmese soldiers were second-generation residents in Thailand, who could not speak Burmese. The BIA formed several small units which were assigned to participate in the invasion of Burma in January 1942, initially as intelligence-gatherers, saboteurs and foragers.
As the Japanese entered Burma, many Burmese volunteers joined the BIA. By the time the Japanese forces reached Rangoon on 8 March, the BIA numbered 12,000, and eventually swelled to 18,000. Many of the volunteers who joined the BIA were not officially recruited, but rather individuals or gangs who took to calling themselves BIA to further their own activities. The Japanese provided few weapons to the BIA, but they armed themselves from abandoned or captured British weapons.
Battle of Shwedaung
One action in which the BIA played a major part was at Shwedaung, near Prome, in Southern Burma. On 29 March 1942, a detachment from the British 7th Armoured Brigade commanded by Brigadier John Henry Anstice was retreating from nearby Paungde. Another detachment of two Indian battalions was sent to clear Shwedaung, which lay on Anstice's line of retreat and was held by the II Battalion of the Japanese 215th Regiment, commanded by Major Misao Sato, and 1300 men belonging to the BIA under Bo Yan Naing, one of the Thirty Comrades. Two Japanese liaison officers named Hirayama and Ikeda accompanied the BIA.
With Anstice's force and the Indian troops attacking Shwedaung from two sides, the roadblocks were soon cleared, but a lucky shot from a Japanese anti-tank gun knocked out a tank on a vital bridge and forced the British to retreat across open fields where Bo Yan Naing ambushed them with 400 men.
Eventually the British and Indian force broke free and continued their retreat, having lost ten tanks, two field guns and 350 men killed or wounded. The BIA's casualties were heavy; 60 killed, 300 wounded, 60 captured and 350 missing, who had deserted. Hirayama and Ikeda were both killed. Most of the BIA's casualties resulted from inexperience combined with over-enthusiasm, and lack of equipment.
Though Burmese political leader Ba Maw and others eulogised the BIA's participation in the battle, the official Japanese history never mentioned them.
Some units were involved in attacks on minority populations (particularly the Karens) and preyed on Indian refugees. The worst atrocities against the Karens in the Irrawaddy Delta south of Rangoon cannot however be attributed to dacoits or unorganised recruits in that rather they were the actions of a subset of regular BIA and their Japanese officers. The top leadership did eventually stop the actions against the Karens in the delta.
Disputes between the BIA and the Japanese military police, the kempeitai were not related to the BIA's excesses against civilians however, but rather were over the BIA's attempts to form local governments in various towns in Burma. The Japanese intended to form an administration on their own terms. The first such dispute had been over the administration of Moulmein. The Japanese 55th Division had flatly refused Burmese requests to form an administration in the town and even forbade them to enter the town.
Establishment of the Burma National Army
After operations ceased in the spring of 1942, the BIA was disbanded. In its place, the Japanese created the Burma Defence Army (Burmese: ဗမာ့ကာကြယ္ေရးတပ္မေတာ္) along with civil organisations designed to guide Burma toward nominal independence. A new force of 3,000 men were recruited and trained by Japanese instructors as regular army battalions during the second half of 1942.
In August 1943, the State of Burma was granted nominal independence by Japan. Ba Maw, a politician imprisoned by the British before the war, became premier. Aung San became Minister of Defence in the new regime, and also Commander-in-Chief of the renamed Burma National Army, with the rank of Major General.
The BNA eventually consisted of seven battalions of infantry and a variety of supporting units with a strength which grew to 11,000. Most were from the majority Bamar population, but there was one battalion raised from the minority Karen people.
Although Burma was nominally self-governing, it remained under Japanese military occupation. The resulting hardships and Japanese militaristic attitudes turned the majority Burman population against the Japanese. The insensitive attitude of the Japanese Army extended to the BNA. Even the officers of the BNA were obliged to salute the lowest-ranking privates of the Imperial Japanese Army as their superiors.
Change of sides
During 1943 and 1944, the BNA made contacts with other political groups inside Burma such as the communists who had taken to the hills in 1942. Eventually, a popular front organisation called the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO) was formed with Thakin Soe, a founder of the communist party in Burma, as leader. Through the communists and a Japanese-sponsored force known as the Arakan Defence Army, the Burmese were eventually able to make contact with the British Force 136 in India. The initial contacts were always indirect. Force 136 was also able to make contacts with members of the BNA's Karen unit in Rangoon through agents dropped by parachute into the Karenni, the Karen-populated area in the east of Burma.
In December 1944, the AFO contacted the Allies indicating their readiness to launch a national uprising which would include the BNA. The situation was not immediately considered favourable for a revolt by the BNA by the British and there were internal disputes about supporting the BNA among the British. The British had reservations over dealing with Aung San. In contrast to Force 136, some prominent Civil Affairs officials in South East Asia Command (SEAC) HQ wanted him tried for his pre-war activities, and for murder over a case in 1942, in which he had personally executed a civilian of Indian ancestry.
The first BNA uprising occurred early in 1945 in central Burma. In late March 1945, the remainder of the BNA paraded in Rangoon and marched out ostensibly to take part in the battles then raging in Central Burma. Instead, on 27 March, they openly declared war on the Japanese. BNA units were deployed all over the country under ten different regional commands. Those near the British front-lines on or near the Irrawaddy River requested arms and supplies from Allied units operating in this area. They also seized control of the civil institutions in most of the main towns.
Force 136 had issued Aung San along with others a safe pass, and on 15 May, he met with Lieutenant General William Slim commanding the British Fourteenth Army in Burma. Thakin Soe and Aung San hoped for the BNA to be accepted as allied forces and the Anti-Fascist Organisation to be acknowledged as the provisional government of Burma. Slim refused to accept the AFO as a government and insisted that the BNA submit to being disarmed by British forces in areas where the fighting was over. The AFO agreed to this in return for recognition as a political movement and promises that the officers and men of the BNA would be incorporated into the new Burma Army. The BNA was renamed the Patriotic Burmese Forces (Burmese: မ်ဳိးခ်စ္ဗမာ့တပ္မေတာ္), and cooperated in driving the Japanese from Southern Burma.
Eventually, the AFPFL (political party successor to the AFO) was brought into the Civil Government of Burma. The PBF was disarmed after much negotiation and its personnel were recruited to form the basis for three new battalions of the reconstituted postwar Burma Army. Other ex-BPF/BNA soldiers were formed into Aung San's PVO party militia organisation.
SEAC saw the alternative to cooperation with the AFPFL to be a difficult counterinsurgency campaign in Burma at a time when British troops were being withdrawn from Asia, and the Indian Army could no longer be counted on to impose British rule in places like Burma. The structures they put in place allowed the British a graceful exit from Burma but set the stage for insurgencies in 1947 and then a full civil war in Burma in 1949.
- Bayly and Harper, p.170
- Allen, pp.62-63
- Bayly and Harper, p.172
- Allen, Louis (1984). Burma: The Longest War 1941-45. J.M. Dent and Sons. ISBN 0-460-02474-4.
- Bayly, Christopher; Tim Harper (2005). Forgotten Armies. London: Penguin. ISBN 0-14-029331-0.
- Latimer, Jon (2004). Burma: The Forgotten War. John Murray. ISBN 978-0-7195-6576-2.
- A History of the Minami Organ, Sugii, 1956 (Published in Rangoon)
- Burma Defense Army, Nippon News, No. 119. in the official website of NHK.
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