Burmese Independence Army

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Flag of Burma (1943)

The Burmese Independence Army (BIA) led the Burmese State to liberation from British rule in Burma with the help of the Japanese in 1941. The Burmese Independence Army was the first national Burmese Army. The Freedom Bloc or Thakins, an anti-colonist political party decided to involve a foreign country to gain access to weapons and funding and to ensure that Burma would be freed from British colonization. With its revolutionary leader Aung San at the forefront, Burma moved towards independence.[1]

Conditions under British Colonization 1824-1940[edit]

British rule in Burma began in 1824 after which time the British steadily infiltrated the country and changed its infrastructure. Within Burma, the British created significant changes to the government and the economy.[2] The British removed the king and separated government operations from Buddhism. This significantly changed the dynamics of Burma’s government and broke down the strength of the country’s identity. The British tightened their grip over time, for example, in 1885 under the Colonial Village Act, all Burmese, except for Buddhist monks, had to Shikko (a greeting used only for important elders, monks and the Buddha), to British officers. These greetings illustrated the respect and power the demanded by the British from Burmese and demonstrated the Burmese submission to British rule. In addition, the act stated that Villages would provide lodging and food upon the arrival of colonial military or civil officers. Lastly, the British implemented changes to the village structure by implementing new heads to the towns that aligned with British ideals. This meant the end of the village having a leader that was on their side in favor of working with the British for the villagers' interest. Therefore, under the British rule changes to Burma included the establishment of land titles, payment of taxes to the British, births and deaths recorded, and a census that included personal information, including information pertaining to jobs and religion.[3] The census was especially hard on Burmese identity due to the variation of names and the habit of villagers to move between various families. These traditions were very different from Western culture and not at all compatible with the census. However, British insistence upon western medicine and inoculation was particularly distasteful to the residents of native residents of Burma. These changes led to a greater distrust of the British by the Burmese and harsher mandates by the British as they became aware of Burmese resistance.

Land Alienation[edit]

Another large issue of the early 1900s was land alienation by moneylenders who were taking advantage of the economic situation in the villages. This led to the first nationalist group based which focuseds on agrarian issues, the General Council of Burmese Associations.[4] The association set up village courts. It rejected the British courts of law claiming that a fair trial had a better chance and under the control of Burmese people. This led to boycotting of foreign goods for a return to traditional and domestic goods. The result induced the British to impose restrictions on free speech and an increase in the British police force.[5]

Hsaya Rebellion[edit]

The first organized armed rebellion occurred in 1930 to 1932 and was called The Hsaya Rebellion. Hsaya San sparked a rebellion by taking the complaints of peasants about the disrespect of Buddhism by the British from 1927 to 1928. Hyasa San used understandable language and symbols that mobilized peasants in rural Burma to join the rebellion.[6] The Burmese army under the British rule only included minorities such as the Karen, Chin and Kachin and isolated the Burmese population.[7] Therefore, as more people joined the rebellion, it became harder for the British to contain the rebellion without their additional reinforcements. The rebellion sparked the transition to anti-colonist politics leading to the efforts of making the BIA to fight off the yoke the British rule.[8] Therefore, British imperialism undermined of the Burmese identity and a nationalization movement began. The Burmese people were propelled forward into action and the need for an army to overthrow the British power was born.

Influence of Aung San and Japan[edit]

Aung San was a nationalist leader working for the cause an independent Burma. While at university, he became an influential political leader and created a new platform for educated students who were nationalistic and intent upon a Burmese Independent state. In 1938, he joined the Dohbama Asi-ayone (We-Burmese Organization). This group was influential in creating political ties to move up the ranks of various groups and begin creating the Burmese Independent Army.[9] After World War II broke out, Aung Sung combined the Dohbama party with another group to become the Freedom Bloc or Thakins. This political party proposed to the British Parliament that the Burmese Army align with the British for independence. However, the British did not agree and Aung Sun and the Burmese government turned to another country for assistance.[10]

After the British refused to the conditions the Freedom Bloc offered, they solicited the Chinese and the Japanese for help. Aung Sun flew to China to speak to generals about investing in the Burmese Army to provide weapons. However, through controversial circumstances, Aung Sun was intercepted and met with Japanese colonial Suzuki.[11] The Japanese were interested in Burma due to the economic and military benefits they stood to gain. Burma is rich in oil, a resource desired by Japan. In addition, the Japanese wanted access to an important road to provide supplies to Japanese armies in China.[12] Therefore, Colonial Suzuki agreed to supply armed forces and weapons. In addition, he set up training for Burmese troops that is commonly called “The Thirty Comrades.”[13]

Thirty Comrades[edit]

Thirty Burmese men, also known as the Thirty Comrades, were recruited and secretly left Burma to Hainan Island to become the core of the BIA in 1941. They were trained in espionage, command, combat, guerrilla warfare, and political tactics.[14] The men were chosen to be become the core of the Burmese Independence Army. The decision was governed by availability, and by a desire to appease contending factions with the Thakin party.[15] This became an issue in the future due to the disregard of ethnic minorities. Therefore, the center of the BIA became the Thakins, a young nationalistic, Burmese group that mostly did not include other ethnic minorities.[16] This led to the influence of the Burmese Independence Army being mostly made up of young Burmese men without other ethnic minorities. Aung San, Hla San, Hla Pe, Tun Ok, and Aung Than were trained in high command and administration.[17] These same thirty young people supported and influenced the Japanese invasion. They were moved to the outskirts of Siam and began recruiting other Burmese men to form the BIA.[18]

Independence Army Formation[edit]

The BIA was formed from the core of the Thirty Comrades while recruits of over ten thousand units scattered throughout Burma. The recruits were largely from lower Burma without the Asian minorities. The army was an ethno-nationalist force and their goal was an independent Burmese country.[19] However, by aligning with the Japanese forces the army was able to infiltrate Burma and establish the first national army of Burma.[20] On December 11, 1941 the Japanese attacked Pearl Harbor. This momentous event changed the dynamic of how the attack was to occur and reshaped the Pacific influence in World War II. From the time of the attack, changes began to occur quickly as Aung Sun worked with Colonial Suzuki to organize the BIA into units and to recruit more followers from places like Thailand with Burmese settlers.[21] On December 31, 1941 in Thailand Bangkok, Aung Sun, along with the Thirty Comrades and new recruits took a pledge to the army and the independence movement by drinking blood and “pledging their eternal loyalty and eternal comradeship.”[22] This oath declared the official existence of the BIA. The army participated in the Japanese tradition called shutsu-jin-shiko (leaving-for-the-front ceremony) where they dressed in their uniform while carrying the new Burmese flag. The leaders of the army were declared with Colonial Suzuki as commander in chief of the BIA and Aung Sun as major general.[23]

Acceptance of Suzuki[edit]

General Suzuki organized and established the plan of attack for the invasion. With propaganda from Aung Sun and his administration, Suzuki was welcomed into Burma due to the thinking that, “Bo Mogoyo (Suzuki) was a decedent of Myingun, a Burmese prince in the direct line of succession to the Burmese throne who had been exiled in Saigon and was to lead the resistance movement to restore the throne, soon spread throughout Burma.”[24] This helped to provide a format for the Burmese villagers to agree with the existence of Japanese help with the overthrow of the British.

Structure of the Army[edit]

The BIA was broken into six different units. Suzuki led the first two units, with the combat arm that included Aung Sun, Set Kya, and Thakin Tun Ok. They took the Mae Sot route into Burma with most of the Japanese forces that would invade the country. The third unit was in command of Bo Ne Win with Lt. Tanaka acting in secret relying upon guerilla warfare. This unit would infiltrate Rangoon and cross into Burma. The fourth unit, under Bo Hpone Myint, would carry out relations with the Burmese people together with the Fifty-fifth Japanese Division. The fifth unit, under Bo Let Ya, Bo La Yaung, and Captain Kawashima, would leave for Kanchanaaburi to enter Burma from Nat Eidaung near Tavoy. The sixth unit was under the command of Bo Yang Naing, Bo Lin Yone, Bo Min Gaung, and Lt. Hirayama. It would go through Ranong and enter at Victoria Point, the southern tip of Burma.[25] By 1942, all of the units had invaded and crossed into Burma.[26]

Invasion into Burma[edit]

Troops of Japanese Fifteenth Army on the border of Burma

On December 11, 1941, the Japanese began their invasion of Burma with an attack on an airfield in Tavoy in the south of Burma. By December 15, 1941, the southern tip of the country by Victoria Point was taken over and the forces began to move north. By the end of January, the entire Tenasserim Division, with its strategically important ports and airfields in Mergui, Tavoy, and Moulmein was in Japanese control. With the attacks on Rangoon on December 23 and 25, many Indians fled from the region and return to India. Regions began to fall quickly as Rangoon fell on March 8, Toungoo on March 30, Promo on April 2, Magwe on April 16, Lashio on April 29, Mandalay on May 1, and finally Myitkyina on May 8, 1941.[27] The BIA worked with the Japanese in full support due to the agreement of independence. The troops attacked the British and created an underground movement that would ruin British activity and gain information and resources. In addition, they would gain support from the Burmese civilian population. This caused the BIA’s numbers to constantly grow. When the BIA reached Rangoon in March 1942, it had grown to over 10,000 men.[28]

Tension between Japanese and BIA[edit]

However, as the war continued more and more Japanese began to infiltrate into Burma. These groups began to disregard the importance of the Imperial Diet Agreement within the empire of Japan on January 21, 1942. This agreement stated that if the Burmese aligned with the Japanese with the war effort, Burma would be granted independence.[29] However, as the administration was to be set up in Burma, the Japanese Government of Japanese Southern China Area Army (SAA) began using Japanese generals and undermining the Burmese government.[30] This led to the BIA and civilian political leaders to realize in 1942 that the Japanese government could not be trusted and the revolution against imperialistic power would continue. Direct conflict began to start against the BIA and the SAA after the Japanese army had already occupied the city of Rangoon and began setting up a Japanese administration. In March 1942, Aung Sun wrote to Colonial Suzuki requesting that the BIA administration be changed to Burmese men.[31] Therefore, the BIA was reorganized into Aung San as commander in chief and Bo Let Ya as chief of staff.[32] After the switch of leaders in the BIA, the leaders realized that more of the country needed to relate to the army so that a representative government could be set up. Therefore, Aung Sun tried to show the true mission of the BIA, which he believed was not just a military group composed of the Thakins, but an army of “true patriots irrespective of political creed or race and dedicated to national independence.”[33] Therefore, many new recruits joined the BIA in May 1942. While they were very under armed and not very well trained, they continued to rebel against the Japanese.[34]

Transition to Burmese Defense Army[edit]

Because of the power and prestige that the Japanese Army had gained within Burma, the BIA was ordered to succumb to Japanese power by changing and reorganizing the unruly BIA. With the little direction and training of the BIA, many of the units became gangs that would harass and attack ethnic minority villages and take advantage of their situation in the army. Therefore, under the leadership of Aung Sun, the shaky government of Burma decided to align with the Japanese for the moment so that they could gain access to more resources and be reorganized.[35] On July 27, 1942 the BIA was disarmed and dispatched and reformed to become the Burmese Defense Army.[36]

Significance of the Burmese Independence Army[edit]

The BIA became the base of the revolt in Burma to become its own country without colonial powers involved. While, the result never occurred under the BIA, the army’s formation helped to create strong ties between the military and the government that is still present today within Burmese culture. In addition, the BIA resulted in the first recognition of ethnic minorities and the need to unite the Burmese state under one country instead of many different regions.[37] Many scholars attribute the failure of the BIA due to the loss of recourse, lack of strong administrative control, and the failure to include both the highland and lowland regions of Burma. However, the BIA became the first Burmese national army that remains a strong part of Burmese culture today.[38]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Carey, Peter (1997). Burma : the challenge of change in a divided society. New York: Macmillan Press. pp. 2–5. 
  2. ^ Callahan, Mary P. (2003). Making Enemies. Cornell University Press. pp. 24–30. 
  3. ^ Charney, Michael (2009). A History Of Modern Burma. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. p. 17. 
  4. ^ Nyunt, Khin Maung (April 1968). "Supannaka Galuna Raja". GMR. II. 
  5. ^ Charney, Michael (2009). A History of Modern Burma. Cambridge University Press. pp. 7–15. 
  6. ^ Maitrii V. Aung-Thwin. "British Counter-Insurgency Narratives and The Construction of a Twentieth Century Rebel". PhD Disssertation. 2001. University of Michigan. 
  7. ^ Fredholm, Michael (1993). Burma: Ethnicity and Insurgency. Westport: Praeger Publishers. p. 24. 
  8. ^ Fredholm, Michael (1993). Burma: Ethnicity and Insurgency. Westport: Praeger Publishers. p. 28. 
  9. ^ Beeikman, Sarpay (1972). "Dobama Asi-ayong Thamaing". I and II. 
  10. ^ Suu Kyi, Aung San (1984). Aung San. Queensland Press. pp. 7–9. 
  11. ^ Suu Kyi, Aung San (1984). Aung San. Queensland Press. pp. 11–13. 
  12. ^ Fredholm, Michael (1993). Burma: Ethnicity and Insurgency. Westport: Praeger Publishers. p. 34. 
  13. ^ Callahan, Mary (2009). Making Enemies. Cornell University Press. pp. 47–51. 
  14. ^ Callahan, Mary P. (2003). Making Enemies. Cornell University Press. p. 48. 
  15. ^ Suu Kyi, Aung San (1984). Aung San. Queensland Press. p. 12. 
  16. ^ Fredholm, Michael (1993). Burma: Ethnicity and Insurgency. Westport: Praeger Publishers. p. 36. 
  17. ^ Suu Kyi, Aung San (1984). Aung San. Queensland Press. p. 12. 
  18. ^ Suu Kyi, Aung San (1984). Aung San. Queensland Press. p. 14. 
  19. ^ Fredholm, Michael (1993). Burma: Ethnicity and Insurgency. Westport: Praeger Publishers. p. 36. 
  20. ^ Callahan, Mary (2009). Making Enemies. Cornell University Press. p. 46. 
  21. ^ Naw, Angelene (2001). Aung Sun and The Struggle for Burmese Independence. Thailand: Silkworm Books. p. 77. 
  22. ^ Gaung, Bo Min. Bogyoke Aun Sun. pp. 195–200. 
  23. ^ Naw, Angelene (2001). Aung Sun and The Struggle for Burmese Independence. Thailand: Silkworm Books. p. 78. 
  24. ^ Naw, Angelene (2001). Aung Sun and The Struggle for Burmese Independence. Thailand: Silkworm Books. p. 76. 
  25. ^ Maw, Ba. Breakthrough in Burma. pp. 140–141. 
  26. ^ Naw, Angelene (2001). Aung Sun and The Struggle for Burmese Independence. Thailand: Silkworm Books. p. 81. 
  27. ^ Trager. Burma: Japanese Military Administration. p. 10. 
  28. ^ Than, Ba. The Roots of Revolution. pp. 25–26. 
  29. ^ Than, Ba. The Roots of Revolution. pp. 29–30. 
  30. ^ Yoon. Japan's Scheme. pp. 40–41. 
  31. ^ Thutaythana, Ye Baw. Ye Baw Thone Kyeik. p. 24. 
  32. ^ Trager and Yoon. Burma: Japanese Military Administration. pp. 11, 16. 
  33. ^ Than, Ba. The Roots Of Revolution. p. 33. 
  34. ^ Naw, Angelene (2001). Aung Sun and The Struggle for Burmese Independence. Thailand: Silkworm Books. pp. 81–89. 
  35. ^ Than, Ba. The Roots of Revolution. p. 36. 
  36. ^ Naw, Angelene (2001). Aung Sun and The Struggle for Burmese Independence. Thailand: Silkworm Books. pp. 84–92. 
  37. ^ Fredholm, Michael (1993). Burma: Ethnicity and Insurgency. Westport: Praeger Publishers. p. 35. 
  38. ^ Carey, Peter (1997). Burma : the challenge of change in a divided society. New York: Macmillan Press. p. 5. 


  • Callahan, Mary P. (2003). Making Enemies. Cornell University Press. 
  • Carey, Peter (1997). Burma : the challenge of change in a divided society. New York: Macmillan Press. p. 5. 
  • Charney, Michael (2009). A History Of Modern Burma. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press. 
  • Fredholm, Michael (1993). Burma: Ethnicity and Insurgency. Westport: Praeger Publishers. 
  • Naw, Angelene (2001). Aung Sun and The Struggle for Burmese Independence. Thailand: Silkworm Books. 
  • Silverstein, Josef (1977). Burma: Military Rule and the Politics of Stagnation. Cornell University Press. 
  • Smith, Martin (1991). Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London and New Jersey: Zed Books Ltd. 
  • Suu Kyi, Aung San (1984). Aung San. Queensland Press. 
  • Tucker, Shelby (2000). Among Insurgents. Penguin Books.