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The Odd Couple

By Bertil Lintner

How early Japanese support for Burma developed into a policy of ambivalence

Burma and Japan Since 1940: From 'Co-Prosperity' to 'Quiet Dialogue', by Donald M Seekins. Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, Copenhagen, 2007. 181 pages

For years, Japan and Burma were considered the oddest couple in Asia. Japan, a prosperous, modern democracy gave massive amounts of development aid to Burma before 1988, at a time when Burma was a grossly mismanaged, authoritarian socialist state. Many outside observers have argued that the Ne Win regime of that period would have folded without Japanese aid.

Today, the influence of Beijing has eclipsed that of Tokyo, as the Japanese authorities have felt obliged to downplay their relations with Burma so as not to irritate the West, which has kept its contacts with Rangoon at a minimum since the massacres of 1988 and the subsequent, brutal suppression of the country’s pro-democracy movement. However, Japan’s solution is a “quiet dialogue” rather than sanctions and punishment, which, according to Donald Seekins, has led to a policy that is “criticized for its ambiguity.”

Seekins, a professor of Southeast Asian Studies at Meio University in Okinawa, Japan, examines Japan’s special relationship with Burma in his most recent study of the topic, and he does that 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. Burma was also granted nominal independence in 1942.

But, as Seekins emphasizes, because of Tokyo’s policy of self-sufficiency in its occupied Asian territories, the large numbers of Japanese soldiers in Burma— 300,000—essentially lived off the land. The Japanese secret police, the Kempetai, conducted a reign of terror that was so harsh even the head of the pro-Japanese puppet government, Dr 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.

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-building in Japanese-occupied Burma either, and Seekins asserts that Japan left behind a number of other, more unsavory legacies. “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 Kempetai and other sections of Japan’s security forces, as were many of the ministers who later served in his post-1962 Burma Socialist Program Party governments. Among them were Maung Maung Kha, Burma’s prime minister from 1977-1988, and Dr Maung Maung, president for a few weeks in 1988. A closer look at that element of Burma during the 1962-1988 period would have been a useful addition to Seekins otherwise very well-researched account of Burmese-Japanese relations.

There was also a strong Burma lobby in Japan, consisting of war veterans to whom Burma was a magic land, eulogized in Michio Takeyama’s 1946 novel, Harp of Burma, one of post-war Japan’s great bestsellers.

Burma had a 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. By comparison, almost the same number of Japanese died when the two atom bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in 1945.

For many years, the 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 Japan’s current prime minister, Shinzo Abe.

Japan’s ambivalence towards Burma is, therefore, not that difficult to understand. More importantly, the Japanese resent having “lost” Burma to China to a large extent because of Western policies and pressure. But what is there to be done? As Seekins points out, neither Tokyo’s “quiet dialogue” nor the West’s more critical, sanctions-oriented policies have succeeded in influencing the behavior of Burma’s ruling junta. The country has fallen into China’s sphere of influence and there is little the outside world can do about it. But Seekins has nevertheless presented us with the first thorough account of Burma’s relations with what used to be its closest, if seemingly unusual, ally.

This review first appeared in The Irrawaddy, May, 2007

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