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Burma and Japan Since 1940: From “Co-Prosperity” to Quiet Dialogue

Reviewed by Bertil Lintner

Burma and Japan Since 1940: From “Co-Prosperity” to Quiet Dialogue, by Donald M. Seekins. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies. 181 pages. £33.40.

During the present crisis in Burma, pro-democracy activists and others have made appeals to the United Nations, the United States, China and the Association of Southeast Asian Nations to intervene. Japan is almost totally absent, putting aside the diplomatic demarches over the murder of photojournalist Kenji Nagai. That is quite remarkable considering that Burma once was one of Japan’s closest development partners in Southeast Asia. But it was a very peculiar relationship. Until the last round of upheavals in 1988, prosperous and democratic Japan poured massive amounts of development aid into a grossly mismanaged, authoritarian socialist state. The regime, which was set up when General Ne Win seized power in 1962, would most likely have collapsed without Japanese aid. When Ne Win, the man who took Burma from prosperity to poverty, died in December 2002, he was almost forgotten—and so was most of Japan’s influence in Burma.

Today, the influence of Beijing has eclipsed that of Tokyo, as the Japanese have had to downplay their erstwhile friendly relations with Burma so as not to irritate the Western democracies. They have kept contacts with the Burmese regime at a minimum since the massacres of antigovernment demonstrators in 1988, and the subsequent, brutal suppression of the country’s pro-democracy movement. Tokyo’s policy of a “quiet dialogue” rather than sanctions and punishment has further marginalized Japan, as it has led to a policy that Donald Seekins says has been “criticized for its ambiguity.” Meanwhile China has become the most important foreign player in Burma, as it takes advantage of Western boycotts to wield overwhelming leverage over its southern neighbor.

Mr. Seekins, a professor of Southeast Asian studies at Meio University in Okinawa, examines the history of Japan’s once special relationship with Burma from a very critical point of view. Japan was indeed instrumental in fostering a nationalist movement in Burma. Before the Japanese invasion in 1942, Japan trained, armed and equipped independence hero Aung San’s legendary “thirty comrades,” who became the core of the Burma Independence Army. Among them was Ne Win, then a young activist called Thakin Shu Maung, who underwent intelligence training in Tokyo in the early 1940s. They became the leaders of the nominally independent Burma, which the Japanese occupiers created in 1943.

But, as Mr. Seekins argues, because of Tokyo’s policy of self-sufficiency in its occupied Asian territories, the unusually large number of Japanese soldiers stationed along the frontline to British India—300,000 men—essentially lived off the land. The Japanese secret police, the Kempeitai, conducted a reign of terror that was so harsh that even the head of the pro-Japanese puppet government, Ba Maw, had to intercede with the highest military commanders to curb the worst excesses. In the end, Aung San and his Burmese nationalists turned against the Japanese and allied themselves with Britain, the former colonial power, on March 27, 1945—a date that is still celebrated officially as Armed Forces’ Day, although the present Burmese regime has given it a completely different meaning. Today, it honors Burma’s ancient warrior kings rather than the heroes of the country’s more recent independence struggle.

In any event, Mr. Seekins takes issue with the notion that the Japanese smashed colonialism in Asia, and thus paved the way for eventual independence for countries such as Burma. Rather, he argues, “by the late 1930s, most intelligent people in Britain and the colonies alike knew that the ‘Age of the Empire’ was drawing to a close. This would have been true even if the ‘Greater East Asia War’ had not spread to Southeast Asia.”

There was not much state- or nation-building in Japanese-occupied Burma either, according to Mr. Seekins, who argues that Japan left behind a number of unsavory legacies. It is generally assumed that the Burmese Army builds on British traditions because of its colonial past and the paraphernalia and structures of the country’s military. But according to Mr. Seekins: “There are more than superficial resemblances between the tatmadaw’s [the Burmese military’s] ‘Four Cuts’ policy against ethnic minority rebels (depriving rebels of recruits, funding, supplies and information) and the Japanese army’s sanko seisaku or ‘three all’ policy in China (‘kill all; burn all; destroy all’).”

After all, Gen. Ne Win—the architect of the Four Cuts policy—was trained by the Kempeitai and other sections of Japan’s security apparatus, as were many of the ministers who later served in his 1962-88 Burma Socialist Program Party governments. Among them was Maung Maung Kha, Burma’s prime minister from 1977-88, and Dr. Maung Maung, president for a few weeks during the upheavals of 1988. A closer look at that element of Burma during the 1962-88 period would have been a useful addition to Mr. Seekins otherwise very well-researched account of Burmese-Japanese relations.

There were also some quite irrational reasons why Burma and Japan became partners after World War II. For many years, Japan had a strong Burma lobby, consisting of war veterans to whom Burma was a magic land, eulogized in Michio Takeyama’s 1946 novel, Harp of Burma, one of postwar Japan’s great bestsellers. Thus, Burma had a very special place in many Japanese hearts; it was never forgotten that Japan lost 190,000 soldiers in the country, three-fifths of the men who were sent there, or 13 times the number of Allied dead.

The erstwhile influential Burma Lobby was led by Nobusuke Kishi, Japanese prime minister from 1957-60, and his private secretary and son-in-law, Shintaro Abe, foreign minister from 1983 to 1986 and the father of Shinzo Abe, Japan’s prime minister until September this year. Another influential Japanese belonging to the Burma Lobby was Tadashi Ohtaka, Japan’s ambassador to Burma from 1987-90 and whose wife has been chairperson of the Japan-Burma Association. During his tenure as ambassador in Rangoon, Mr. Ohtaka was the only diplomat given regular access to Ne Win, who remained a powerful force behind the scenes for a few years after 1988.

The Japan-Burma Association counted among its members 11 trading companies allowed to operate in various aid projects in Burma prior to 1988. In the 1960s, Burma was the eighth-largest recipient of Japanese aid, but by 1980 it advanced to the fourth-largest. In 1986, Japanese aid peaked at $244 million, or 6.3% of all Japanese overseas assistance—at the same time as Burma’s economy deteriorated rapidly, which eventually led to the crisis of 1988. Evidently, it was a tremendous waste of aid money.

Japan let emotions and bad planning override sound fiscal practices, and it did little or nothing to use its influence in Burma to promote economic and political development. Today, that influence is history, and many Japanese resent having “lost” Burma to China to some extent because of Western polices and pressure—but also because of its own inept development strategies. Burma has fallen into China’s sphere of influence and there is little the outside world can do about it. But Mr. Seekins has nevertheless presented us with a very important study of Burma’s relations with what used to be its closest, if seemingly unusual, ally.

This review first appeared in the Far Eastern Economic Review, October, 2007

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