THE WORLD WAR II AND JAPAN OCCUPATION
Some Burmese nationalists saw the outbreak of World War II as an opportunity to extort concessions from the British in exchange for support in the war effort. Other Burmese such as the Thakin movement, opposed Burma’s participation in the war under any circumstances. Aung San with other Thakins founded the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in August 1939. Marxist literature as well as tracts from the Sinn Fein movement in Ireland had been widely circulated and read among political activists. Aung San also co-founded the People’s Revolutionary Party (PRP), renamed the Socialist Party after the Second World War. He was also instrumental in founding the Bama htwet yat gaing (Freedom Bloc) by forging an alliance of the Dobama, ABSU, politically active monks and Ba Maw’s Sinyètha (Poor Man’s) Party. After the Dobama organization called for a national uprising, an arrest warrant was issued for many of the organization’s leaders including Aung San, who escaped to China. Aung San’s intention was to make contact with the Chinese Communists but he was detected by the Japanese authorities who offered him support by forming a secret intelligence unit called the Minami Kikan headed by Colonel Suzuki with the objective of closing the Burma Road and supporting a national uprising. Aung San briefly returned to Burma to enlist twenty-nine young men who went to Japan with him in order to receive military training on Hainan Island, China, and they came to be known as the “Thirty Comrades”. When the Japanese occupied Bangkok in December 1941, Aung San announced the formation of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) in anticipation of the Japanese invasion of Burma in 1942.
The BIA formed a provisional government in some areas of the country in the spring of 1942, but there were differences within the Japanese leadership over the future of Burma. While Colonel Suzuki encouraged the Thirty Comrades to form a provisional government, the Japanese Military leadership had never formally accepted such a plan. Eventually the Japanese Army turned to Ba Maw to form a government. During the war in 1942, the BIA had grown in an uncontrolled manner, and in many districts officials and even criminals appointed themselves to the BIA. It was reorganised as the Burma Defence Army (BDA) under the Japanese but still headed by Aung San. While the BIA had been an irregular force, the BDA was recruited by selection and trained as a conventional army by Japanese instructors. Ba Maw was afterwards declared head of state, and his cabinet included both Aung San as War Minister and the Communist leader Thakin Than Tun as Minister of Land and Agriculture as well as the Socialist leaders Thakins Nu and Mya. When the Japanese declared Burma, in theory, independent in 1943, the Burma Defence Army (BDA) was renamed the Burma National Army (BNA).
It soon became apparent that Japanese promises of independence were merely a sham and that Ba Maw was just a puppet. As the war turned against the Japanese, they declared Burma a fully sovereign state on August 1, 1943, but this was just another facade. Disillusioned, Aung San began negotiations with Communist leaders Thakin Than Tun and Thakin Soe, and Socialist leaders Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein which led to the formation of the Anti-Fascist Organization (AFO) in August 1944 at a secret meeting of the CPB,the PRP and the BNA in Pegu. The AFO was later renamed the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League(AFPFL). Thakins Than Tun and Soe, while in Insein prison in July 1941, had co-authored the Insein Manifesto which, against the prevailing opinion in the Dobama movement, identified world fascism as the main enemy in the coming war and called for temporary cooperation with the British in a broad allied coalition which should include the Soviet Union. Soe had already gone underground to organise resistance against the Japanese occupation, and Than Tun was able to pass on Japanese intelligence to Soe, while other Communist leaders Thakins Thein Pe and Tin Shwe made contact with the exiled colonial government in Simla, India.
There were informal contacts between the AFO and the Allies in 1944 and 1945 through the British organization Force 136. On March 27, 1945, the Burma National Army rose up in a countrywide rebellion against the Japanese. March 27 had been celebrated as ‘Resistance Day’ until the military renamed it ‘Tatmadaw (Armed Forces) Day’. Aung San and others subsequently began negotiations with Lord Mountbatten and officially joined the Allies as the Patriotic Burmese Forces (PBF). At the first meeting, the AFO represented itself to the British as the provisional government of Burma with Thakin Soe as Chairman and Aung San as a member of its ruling committee. The Japanese were routed from most of Burma by May 1945. Negotiations then began with the British over the disarming of the AFO and the participation of its troops in a post-war Burma Army. Some veterans had been formed into a paramilitary force under Aung San, called the Pyithu yèbaw tat or People’s Volunteer Organisation (PVO), and were openly drilling in uniform. The absorption of the PBF was concluded successfully at the Kandy conference in Ceylon in September 1945.