As I wrote in my previous post on Myanmar Troops in WW1, large-scale Bamar enlistment in the British Indian army was not a common feature of colonial warfare in Burma.
The Indian army in Burma was mostly comprised of Indian troops with a smattering of ethnic minorities such as the Shan, Kachin, and Karen to round out the core.
Even after the separation of Burma from India in 1937, the number of ethnic Bamar serving in the new Burma Army was only 23 percent despite being 75 percent of the population of the colony (Mary Callahan, Making Enemies, p. 42).
In fact, the Burma Army stopped recruiting Bamar in 1927 altogether, and only started again in earnest when the exigencies of the Japanese Invasion in WW2 required them to do so.
Thereafter, only three battalions of the Burma Rifles contained Bamar troops – the 5th, 6th and 7th – and the first two only contained one company apiece (The Burma Campaign).
Recently, however, Richard Duckett’s insightful blog The Special Operations Executive in Burma has unearthed records of 79 Bamar men who served in British SOE intelligence units during the war.
These were mostly farmers recruited by British officers in the field, who trained as soldiers in India and then parachuted back into Burma to fight the Japanese. There were also a few career soldiers such as Kyaw Ohn, who had completed seven years of army service by 1945, and Maung Shwe, who had served in the Burma Sappers and Miners.
A number of Bamar recruits distinguished themselves in the field, such as Maung Ba Aye, whom his commanding officer described as “a grand fellow, full of good humour, and eccentricity, and outstandingly brave.”
Among these recruits was also Thakin Ko Ko Gyi, a nationalist who succeeded in convincing the BIA forces at Mandalay to betray the Japanese.
Many Bamar soldiers worked on Operation Character, a guerilla operation against the Japanese in the Karen hills. Duckett writes: “Contrary to what is, perhaps, a common perception, many Burmans…formed the nucleus of Special Groups on Operation Character, demonstrating that Karen and Burman fought the Japanese together – and that Character was not only a Karen operation.”
Records like these highlight the Bamar military contribution to the Allied cause in WW2. Too often historians have portrayed the Bamar as either automatic collaborators with the Japanese or else as an invisible population pushed back and forth between two warring armies.
There is no doubt that many Bamar collaborated with the invading Japanese, including the nationalist leader Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, but life during wartime was never so simple as good guys vs. bad guys, black vs. white, especially for occupied peoples.
When caught in the middle of a conflict between empires with little concern for their safety or national self-determination, many Burmese people exercised their agency to choose sides like anyone in a similar situation might do.
And their contribution to history is poised to be lost. Thankfully, attempts have been made to track down and interview the veterans who fought on the Allied side, most notably for a new film from Grammar Productions entitled Forgotten Allies. But more needs to be done to catalog the experiences of veterans on both sides of the conflict as this generation quickly disappears.
Their stories are a reminder that the Burmese people were not always pawns in an imperial game, but that they actively sought to shape their own destiny and fulfill their own vision of what they wanted a post-war Burma to look like.