By Phil Thornton*
If the violence unleashed by the military on unarmed civilians shocked the world, it wouldn’t have shocked those who were familiar with the Tatmadaw. Operating for decades from the shadows of various state apparatuses, the Tatmadaw has spent decades establishing a climate of fear, using a vast network of security agencies, militia, informers and neighborhood spies to instill a sense of paranoia. Soldiers are indoctrinated to hate civilians, especially ethnic villagers, and brutality is rewarded. Today, its military officers, including its coup leader, General Min Aung Hlaing, are protected under an immunity clause in the 2008 constitution that guarantees the military amnesty for all crimes, including genocide.
With this constitutional protection, the military has unleashed its campaigns of terror—killing and raping— first against ethnic Karen, Shan, Kachin and Rohingya communities, now against the whole country. As the former Karen National Union politician, soldier and scholar David Tharckabaw said of the Tatmadaw, ‘They have the true character of a fascist’.
That character goes back to the Tatmadaw’s very origins as a brainchild of the Imperial Japanese Army during the Second World War. ‘The scorched-earth strategy used against the Karen is based on the Japanese army’s sanko seisaku—“Kill all, burn all, destroy all”,’ said Tharckabaw.
Many books and studies comment on wartime Japanese military influence on the modern character
of the Myanmar army—unconditional loyalty to superiors, obeying orders without question, training that brutalises its soldiers and officers. In a conversation with me at a Karen army camp on the edges of the Moei River separating Thailand from Myanmar, Tharckabaw said that stories of the cruelty of the Burma army officers towards its soldiers were true. ‘They’ve always been brutal. They modelled themselves on the Japanese [army]. Officers beat new recruits. The one above
can even discipline the one below with death. They don’t regard others [and] outsiders … as equals, as human beings.’
The history of the Tatmadaw stretches back to the 1930s, when Japan’s spies in British Burma began contacting and infiltrating underground nationalist groups. A Japanese intelligence officer, Colonel Keiji Suzuki, received orders in 1939 to recruit Bamar nationalists to help him destroy supply routes to China from Burma. Suzuki had studied at the Imperial Japanese Army’s prestigious Nakano School. Graduates learnt the necessary skills for running covert operations in enemy territory—foreign languages, espionage, cryptography, guerrilla warfare and mobilising fifth columnists among independence movements. After turning up in Rangoon, today’s Yangon, as a newspaper correspondent—a cover that allowed him to gather intelligence on potential recruits—Suzuki launched a training unit of his own. Around thirty Japanese officers formed the Minami Kikan (Southern Agency) to train recruits and run espionage operations in Burma.
In 1940, while Nazi Germany attacked Europe, a rising nationalist leader named Aung San was taken by Minami Kikan operatives to Japan. There, Suzuki convinced him that the Japanese Imperial Army would help him be the one to finally liberate Burma from Britain’s colonial chains. He returned to Burma four months later and recruited dissident Thakins (a nationalist group) who became the fabled Thirty Comrades. This cabal formed the core of the Burma Independence Army—lauded for liberating the country and restoring its national dignity.
The six months of intense military training under Suzuki and Minami Kikan instructors laid the groundwork for the Tatmadaw’s brutality. The wartime Japanese army drilled into its recruits unconditional loyalty to superiors and its dehumanisation tactics. By the time the Thirty Comrades finished their training, swore their allegiance to fascist Japan and left to hide out in Thailand, the seeds of today’s brutal army had been planted.
In 1941, in the months leading up to the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor, Suzuki and the Thirty Comrades undertook a blood ritual and oath to cement their loyalty to the BIA—ta-pyi, ta than, ta-meint, (one blood, one voice, one command)—still used by Myanmar’s military today. As the inexperienced BIA made their way into Burma in January 1942, they made contact with underground nationalist groups. They quickly added thousands of willing, but mainly undisciplined, Bamar recruits to their ranks and went about setting up underground cells in preparation for the uprising. Hideki Tojo, the Japanese prime minister, added substance to Suzuki’s promise to Aung San when he announced in Tokyo, ‘The aim of the Japanese advance into Burma is to liberate all Burmese people from exploitation and suppression and to support their independence’.
The Japanese attacks in Burma were quick, brutal and decisive. After months of intense aerial bombing, Rangoon was taken on 8 March 1942, effectively cutting off the Burma Road supply route to China. By May, Mandalay was reduced to a burnt shell; 500,000 refugees tried to reach India, with tens of thousands dying on the way from malaria, starvation, dysentery and drowning. By June 1942, the Japanese occupation of Burma was complete and the British were driven out.
While the Japanese forces battled the British and their Chinese allies, the BIA went about setting up local collaborators to head village administrations. Now in positions of power, Bamar nationalists started taking revenge on ethnic people loyal to Britain. With the British defeat, discharged Karen soldiers returned to protect their villages in the Irrawaddy delta, but soon became targets of pumped-up BIA recruits, eager to impress and out for revenge. Attacks on ethnic villagers escalated into an orgy of killing, looting and burning.
Despite their lack of military professionalism, the BIA were welcomed by enthusiastic Bamar populations as Burma’s liberators. In Breakthrough in Burma, Memoirs of a Revolution, 1939-1946, Ba Maw, Burma’s prime minister under both British and Japanese rule, described the impact: ‘Those first days were like a prayer fulfilled. They felt as though they were being swept forward upon a tide that had kept on steadily rising since the first Japanese victories in Burma.’
The legend of a BIA victorious against Burma’s British overlord was a potent one. Ba Maw explained that BIA soldiers ‘brought back to our people for a brief euphoric period past dreams and memories, of kings and conquerors who had once built great Burmese empire and armies. The Burmese army symbolized all this nostalgia for the past and dreams for the future, and so the people rose to welcome it rapturously.’
The rapture had a dark side. Though the BIA no longer had an enemy to fight, Suzuki ordered them to maintain troop strength, letting ‘loose upon the country a swarming horde … with no one to attack, except their own people’, recounted Ba Maw. For Karen, Chinese and Indians who served and fought with the British, reprisals by the BIA—which now included thousands of released prisoners—were brutal. During an armed clash between BIA and Karen former soldiers, a Japanese officer close to Suzuki was killed. In retaliation, Suzuki ordered the BIA to burn two Karen villages and kill all their inhabitants—men, women and children—by sword.
Kyaw Zaw, one of the Thirty Comrades and a leader of two BIA platoons, accompanied Suzuki to Myaungmya to retrieve his friend’s body and avenge
the killing. In a 1997 interview with the Irrawaddy, he described the attacks on Karen villages. Suzuki, he said, ‘directly ordered my officers to kill everyone in the villages if they resisted. I ordered my officers only to attack resisting villages, for other villages my orders were just to disarm them. I didn’t think many were killed then. Only when I got back to Rangoon … I realized too many Karen villagers were killed.’
Kyaw Zaw blamed his youth and lack of experience for carrying out Suzuki’s orders for the Myaungmya massacres. ‘I was just following his orders. But I was responsible for what happened and if I had some political experience back then I could have avoided the whole massacre. Instead of killing all the villagers who resisted I should have handled the situation better by just burning only a few Karen villages.’
Former Karen soldiers retaliated against the slaughter of their people by attacking and killing Bamar villagers. The BIA responded by arresting Karen villagers and holding them hostage in Myaungmya’s jail. Each day twenty ethnic prisoners were taken out and executed by BIA soldiers. The official report by the Myaungmya district office—shared by Ba Maw in his memoirs— estimated that the army destroyed 400 Karen villages and killed 1,800 villagers in the massacre. The killing stopped only when the Japanese Imperial Army moved into the Myaungmya area and took control of the BIA.
The Myaungmya massacre would influence Karen memories and shape the destiny of future generations. For the Burma Army, meanwhile, the Karen and ethnic people would remain targets for generations to come.
With the defeat of Britain in June 1942, the administrative structure also collapsed, leaving a governmental void. BIA leaders, supported by Suzuki, pushed the Japanese military command to fulfill its promise of granting independence and letting them form a government. Senior officers of the Imperial Japanese Army, however, regarded Suzuki as an undisciplined maverick who could no longer be trusted. They claimed Suzuki had lost focus and his promise to the Thakin nationalists had now become an obsession. Sugii Mitsuru, an officer in the Minami Kikan, reflected that growing unease, describing Suzuki as a ‘ruffian with an extremely strong personality … an outlaw … a yakuza’.
By then it was too late for Myanmar. The nation would reap what Suzuki had sowed for decades to come. By now, the BIA ranks had grown substantially. Estimates of its size vary from 10,000 to more than 50,000, and it was composed primarily of ethnic Bamars. The expanding BIA was undisciplined and out of control. Robbery and murder cases were twenty and seven times higher, respectively, than pre-war rates. Alarmed at the lawlessness and ruthless communal violence sweeping parts of the country, the Imperial Japanese Army command blamed Suzuki and his protégés. Determining that Suzuki had reached his use-by date, they sent him back to Japan in July 1942.
With Suzuki out of the way, the Japanese military began dismantling the BIA, culling what it called a criminal element. By late July, it had been reduced to 2,000 and was rebadged as the Burma Defence Army. Strict entrance exams were introduced to exclude many former BIA soldiers from joining the BDA. The Japanese also set up an Officers’ Training School near Rangoon, intending to instil loyalty to their own war plans. Japanese army instructors and bureaucrats ran the OTS, cadets wore Japanese uniforms and the harsh training went from morning to night, with instruction only in Japanese. The framework of the BDA was straight from the Imperial Japanese Army handbook.
Japanese officers had overall authority over the BDA, but Aung San remained its commander-in-chief, and the Thirty Comrades retained control of its battalions. Many of the Thirty Comrades were members of the ultranationalist Thakin group, and as Japan moved ahead with its plans, talk began to focus on how to achieve independence from Burma’s newest colonisers.
In response to the growing pressure to deliver on its promise of independence, Japan on 1 August 1943 nominally declared the British colony the ‘State of Burma’. It installed a puppet government led by Ba Maw as chief administrator, and named Aung San as war minister. The BDA was to be reorganised and renamed the Burma National Army.
Building on its Japanese militarist foundation, the BNA quickly began to heighten its own Bamar nationalist identity. In his memoirs, Ba Maw recounted warning Aung San that his army was showing signs of militarist paranoia and contempt for civilian authority. ‘Remember that the army belongs to the state and not the state to the army’, Ba Maw told him.
By late 1943, relations between the Thakin Bamar-led factions in the government and Japanese militarists were deteriorating. Aung San, nationalists, communists and socialist factional leaders concluded that if they wanted real independence from the Japanese, they would have to fight for it, as Suzuki had urged them.
All the while, the tide of the war was slowly shifting. In March 1944, the Japanese suffered morale-sapping defeats to the Allies at Imphal and Kohima. When the fighting had stopped, more than 80,000 Japanese and 17,000 Allied soldiers were dead. The ethnic Karen and Kachin soldiers fighting alongside the British began to run riot against the Japanese, with a kill ratio of one to twenty-five.
The war had now turned in the Allies’ favour, and as the Japanese army suffered growing defeats by reinvigorated British Allied forces, Bamar loyalty began to dissipate. In August, senior members of the Communist Party of Burma, the socialist People’s Revolutionary Party and nationalists in the Burmese National Army met to form what would become the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL).
In early March 1945, Aung San and his army took the salute and paraded in front of Imperial Japanese Army senior officers in Rangoon. It was to be the last time they would do so. Later that month, the BNA, while still wearing Japanese army-styled uniforms, demonstrated their loyalty to the Allies and turned their guns on their Japanese sponsors. The day was first commemorated as Resistance Day. It is now an annual public holiday known as Armed Forces Day.
It would take until 24 October before senior Japanese officers surrendered to the British. With the Burma army joining the Allies, the puppet government collapsed, and Ba Maw fled to Japan. He was captured by US troops in January 1946 and jailed until the end of the year.
In his memoirs Ba Maw is scathing of the Thakins’ politics and their lack of commitment to broad political ideals like independence. He concluded that the political landscape in Burma was now in the hands of militarists within the AFPFL, who changed sides to suit their interests. ‘A great many of them who were in the AFPFL soon confused the revolutionary goal with the revolutionary gains, especially when those gains were for themselves or their factional following.’
After the war, the British set up a military administration to run Burma and rebuild the country’s infrastructure. Elements within the British government and among the Bamar nationalists wanted Aung San tried for war crimes, but, fearful of his political popularity, dropped the case. He was asked to join the executive council, where he continued his campaign for independence. In January 1947, he led a delegation to London for talks to make Burma an independent sovereign nation. It was agreed and awarded under the Aung San-Atlee Agreement on 27 January 1947.
Days after his return from England, Aung San attended the Panglong Conference in Shan state. Chao Tzang Yawnghwe, son of the first president of the Union of Burma, notes in his memoirs, The Shan of Burma, that the Panglong Agreement signed on 27 February recognised ‘the right of self-government and autonomy of the Shan states, and agreed to the autonomous status for the Kachin and Chin in the approaching unification of Burma’.
But that autonomy was never to see the light of day. On 19 July 1947, Aung San and eight cabinet members were assassinated. A political rival, U Saw, a prime minister under British rule in 1940, was found guilty of planning the murder and hanged.
In an interview, Kyaw Zaw said he believed the British to be responsible and listed three reasons why he believed Aung San was killed: ‘Firstly, Bogyoke Aung San was the leader who could organize and unite the whole country so they were afraid of the whole of Burma uniting. This was the main reason. Secondly, Bogyoke Aung San could reunite with the Communist Party of Burma. They were worried about that too. And finally, they supposed that they could handle Burma more easily if they removed him. These were the reasons why he was killed.’
Rangoon police reports noted that British officers had stolen hundreds of guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition and sold them to U Saw. The weapons were later found submerged in a lake at his house, and the guns that killed Aung San and his ministers were found to be British army issue. Adding to the intrigue are reports that U Saw sent letters from his prison cell to British diplomats and intelligence agents saying that if they didn’t help him, he would disclose all. His pleas went unanswered.
On 4 January 1948, the new independent republic was named the Union of Burma. But the fledgling nation quickly faced the danger of disintegrating as communists, ethnic minorities and army regiments rebelled. Amid the fractures, Ne Win, one of the Thirty Comrades, was appointed head of the armed forces a year later. In 1958 he became prime minister. Four years later, he launched the coup that would end Burma’s brief period of democracy.
For the next twenty-six years, Ne Win would rule Burma with an iron fist, demolishing protests and killing, jailing and torturing his political opponents. The groundwork laid during Ne Win’s time in power persisted for decades. Even after Myanmar began a series of political reforms in 2011 aimed at opening the country, the nation remained divided and the Tatmadaw in control.
It is only now—as the coup has exposed the horror of the Tatmadaw to the nation and the world—that there are signs of a possible cohesion. For the first time, ethnic groups persecuted for their differences and Bamar civilians hunted down for daring to object to military rule are starting to unite and seek a way to topple their common enemy.
The brutality of today’s Tatmadaw speaks to decades of successful imprinting. And the father of it all, Suzuki, would not be forgotten by his Thirty Comrades or Burma’s army. Fourteen years after Suzuki’s death, Ne Win honoured the late leader and members of his Minami Kikan with the Order of Aung San at the presidential palace in Rangoon. At a trade conference in Yangon in 1998, General Khin Nyunt, the powerful former prime minister and head of military intelligence, paid tribute to Japan for its wartime support when he told delegates, ‘We shall never forget the important role played by Japan in our struggle for independence … we will remember that our Tatmadaw was born in Japan.’
More recently, in 2017, Japan hosted the first visit from a Myanmar commander-in-chief since Ne Win’s visit in the 1960s. The army leader and senior officers made a pilgrimage to Suzuki’s former home and tomb to pay their respects. Who was that leader? None other than Min Aung Hlaing, architect of the 2021 coup.
* Phil Thornton is the author of Restless Souls
**This article was first published in the Mekong Review and was republish here with their kind permission – https://mekongreview.com