British policy in Southeast Asia after the war was concerned primarily with its major economic interests in Malaya and Singapore, especially the dollar earning power or the Malayan rubber and industry. The decision by U Nu's government to reject membership in the then British Commonwealth underscored the weakness of the relationship. In as much as it was the British Indian army which had garrisoned British Burma, the major consequence of Burma's independence was a much sought after reduction in post-war expenditure. The wartime destruction and post-independence decline of several colonial era industries in Myanmar, such as oil, timber and mining, and the restrictions that the post-colonial governments placed on foreign investment, meant that British commercial interests also rather withered away to be completely eliminated after the Revolutionary Council came to power in 1962.

Britain's initial post-independence relationship was primarily concerned with the defence of the country in the Cold War and the future of the ethnic minorities, for which some individuals felt a personal concern growing out of the alliances that many Kayin, Chin and Kachin had developed with the British forces against the Japanese. However, the Attlee Labour government which governed during the first years of Myanmar 's independence, tended to ignore those concerns which were taken up by the Conservative opposition. When the Conservatives came to power in the 1951 general election, they also, however, tended to ignore the interests of the minorities for the maintenance of existing treaty and other commitments with the AFPFL government of U Nu. As a significant number of Burmese students continued to come to the UK during the 1950s, people-to-people relations remained cordial and eventually, to Britain's advantage as the country became a net importer of Myanmar doctors and other medical personnel. The initial defence relationship, the Britain-Burma Defence Agreement, popularly known as the Let Ya-Freeman accord, negotiated in 1947, became a model for Britain in its subsequent decolonization efforts. Through a treaty reached with the transitional Myanmar authorities prior to formal independence, Britain undertook continuing but limited defence responsibilities for Burma. This "run-down agreement" provided a modest amount of security for the country until Burmese forces were organized as well as serving "to emphasize the amicable nature of the parting." (Phillip Darby, British Defence Policy East of Suez 1947-1968, London: Oxford University Press for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1973, p.13).

The joint services mission which Britain was committed by the treaty to send to Myanmar was to "provide instructional and other staff for service with the Burmese forces" as well as assist with procurement. (Phillip Darby, British Defence Policy East of Suez 1947-1968, London: Oxford University Press for the Royal Institute of International Affairs, 1973, p.13.) See also Robert H. Taylor, "British Policy toward Burma (Myanmar) in the 1920's and 1930's: Separation and Responsible Self-Government", in Essays in Commemoration of the Golden Jubilee of the Myanmar Historical Commission, Yangon: Myanmar Historical Commission, 2005, pp. 149-75. British support was implied also if Burmese were attacked by a hostile power, China, as the major potential threat. The agreement was terminated four years after independence, largely as a result of the belief by General Ne Win and other members of the officer corps that the British were to pro-Karin and not providing adequate support for the army as such. Even before that, however, the effectiveness of the British Services Mission was undermined by their implication in the assassination of General Aung San and cabinet colleagues, just months after the Let Ya-Freeman agreement was signed.

As the Cold War developed in Southeast Asia following the Geneva Conference on the future of Indochina and the American proposal in 1954 to establish the South East Asian Treaty Organization (SEATO) as part of its policy of containment in Asia, Britain undertook to determine whether the five member countries of the Colombo Plan, which included Myanmar, would be interested in joining the organization. (Mary P. Callahan, Making Enemies: War and State Building in Burma, Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 2003, pp. 120, 166-68.)

U Nu's government made it clear, as did India, Sri Lanka, and Indonesia, that its neutralist foreign policy precluded any such move. The earlier formation of the Colombo Plan had come about in part as a vehicle to assist Myanmar during the initial years of the post-independence civil war without compromising its neutralist credentials or expecting it to join the Commonwealth.

British relations prior to 1988 often were largely of a nostalgic nature. As Britain's aid donations were dwarfed by those of Japan and Germany, and its potential military support withered, trips by Lord Mountbatten of Burma or various personages from the British Royal family, as well as General Ne Win's occasional visits to London, shaped the relationship. For example, Japan provided on averaged US$150 million per year in foreign economic assistance between 1983 and 1987; West Germany, US$42 million per year; France and the USA, US$8 million per year; and the United Kingdom, nothing. Indeed, repayments on earlier assistance during this period meant that net payments were - US$2.5 million per year. OECD, Geographical Distribution of Financial Flows to Developing Countries, 1986/87, reprinted in Thailand, Burma Country Profile, 1989-90, London: Economist Intelligence Unit, 1989, p. 67.

Mountbatten, for example, visited Yangon on four occasions between 1956 and 1972, on each of which he met with U Nu or General Ne Win. When greeted by Ne Win on the arrival in 1967 and being whisked away from the airport in the Chairman of the Revolutionary Council's Mercedes Benz, Mountbatten was impressed to find two Tommyguns on the floor in front of his and Ne Win's feetY The final visit largely concerned Ne Win's temporary "divorce" from his wife Katie and Mountbatten's failed efforts to convince the General of the utility of sending two Burmese children to the United World College in Wales. Ne Win apparently thought the school, because of its American financial backing, was some sort of imperialist plot. For this see Philip Ziegler, ed., From Shore to Shore: The Final Years, the Diaries of Earl Mountbatten of Burma, 1953-1979, London: Collins, 1989, pp. 229-32. As British relations ebbed away in largely symbolic and trivial exchanges, diplomacy between the two countries was largely concerned with the rituals of state to state relations. Ambassadors came and went and the British consigned Myanmar even lower down its list of foreign policy priorities. As for having a policy toward Myanmar, live and let live probably would sum it up if anyone ever got around to articulating it. For example, the referendum on and introduction of the 1974 one-party socialist constitution was viewed rather benign.

After the occupation and the end of the war following the Japanese surrender in 1945, Japan retained a special place in Burmese political developments. The immediate reason for this sentimental attachment was the fact that it was Japan that had trained the "Thirty Comrades" who were the core of the Burma Independence Army (BrA) which actually fought against the British and contributed towards gaining independence. The short duration of less than two-and-a half years between the Japanese surrender and the declaration of Burma's independence in January 1948 meant that Japan was able to re-establish ties with Burma's post-independence elite rather swiftly. And although Aung San was assassinated very early on, members of the "Thirty Comrades" and in particular, Ne Win, who came to power after the military coup of 1962, ensured that Japan had special relations with Burmese political elite. This special relationship allowed Japan to craft the ambiguous policy that balanced economic aid and grants with political pressure on the Myanmar Government towards democratization.

Post-war relations between Japan and Burma officially started from April 1955, when a peace treaty was signed and an agreement on war reparations went into effect. It took nearly four years for negotiations to re-open formal diplomatic ties between the two countries, since Burma did not take part in the 1951 Treaty of Peace with Japan (also referred to as the San Francisco Treaty). However, even before these negotiations, unofficial relations through economic exchanges had existed since 1949, a year after the independence of Burma. Since Japan lost its colonies such as China, Korea and Taiwan, which had supplied a huge amount of rice in the pre-war period, the country was faced with a serious food shortage in the post-war period. Japan 's agricultural sector was in a terrible situation after the war and there was no other way but to import rice from abroad to avoid domestic famine.

Burma was among one of the countries that Japan imported rice from. In 1949, Japan purchased 70,000 tonnes of rice from Burma. Given the situation of not having any official diplomatic relations, Japanese buyers from trading companies utilized ex -members of the Minami Kikan (a special Japanese military unit which existed from 1941 to 1942 aimed at weakening British rule in Burma by clandestinely providing arms and military training to young Burmese nationalists such as Aung San, Ne Win and Let Ya) as go-betweens. Members of this unit had strong linkages with the Burmese nationalist elite during the wartime period and these elite subsequently became the leaders of newly-independent Burma. In order to persuade the Burmese Government to approve the sale of their rice to Japan, this unique wartime connection made by the members of Minami Kikan helped Japan a lot.

The amount of rice that was purchased increased sharply in the immediate post-war period. Japan bought 170,000 tones of rice in 1950, and the amount rose to 300,000 tones in 1954. Some of these purchases were undertaken without open tenders in order to arrange for prices lower than those at the international rice market. Although from Burma 's point of view there was no reason to sell their rice by giving such special priority to a country with which it had no diplomatic relations, it responded positively to Japan 's urgent request. This special arrangement indicated the existence of strong linkages between Japanese members of the ex-Minami Kikan and Burmese political elite after independence. Following the resumption of official diplomatic relations between the two countries, the Japanese Government paid 72 billion yen (which was then the equivalent of US$200 million) over the decade spanning 1955-65 in goods and services in accordance with the agreement on war reparations. Japan also paid an additional US$50 million for technical assistance as well as investment in joint ventures between Japanese private firms and the Burmese public and private sectors. A new agreement between the two countries in 1963 called the Economic and Technical Cooperation Treaty provided for another US$140 million which was in reality a continuation of the war reparations (it was called "quasi-reparations").

A major portion of the Japanese war reparations to Burma was used for the construction of the Baluchaung hydroelectric power plant which was built along the Salween River in the Karenni (Kayah) state. Another major portion of it was used for the so-called "four major industrialization projects", which consisted of light vehicle production, heavy vehicle production, farming machinery production, and electrical machinery production. These projects began in 1962 and lasted until 1988 and changed in character from projects associated with war reparation to those of "quasi-reparations". It was then finally transformed into commodity loans from 1969 as a part of Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA).

Japan's ODA to Burma, which actually replaced war reparations, began from 1968 in the form of yen loans. The grant aid was also started from 1975. The amount of ODA towards Burma was small in the beginning as Ne Win, who ousted U Nu in a military coup in 1962, nudged the country towards self-sufficiency under a regime called the " Burmese Way to Socialism" (1962-88). However, from the latter half of the 1970s, Burma altered its position to actively receive ODA in order to overcome its seriously stagnant domestic economy. From the onset of this policy change, ODA from Japan rapidly increased. Burma received ODA funds for large-scale projects, mainly for the development of social infrastructure such as electric”, power, transportation and irrigation. It also received commodity loans such as the aforementioned "four major industrialization projects" which included funds for procuring parts from four specific Japanese companies: Hino (for truck assembly), Mazda (for small-sized automobiles), Kubota (for farm machinery) and Matsush~'ta (for electrical appliances).

The total amount of Japanese ODA to Burma from the time Japan began its funding until 1988 amounted to 511. 7 billion yen (18.4 per cent). This amount comprised 403 billion yen (78.8 per cent) for loan aid, 94.1 billion yen for grant aid and 14.6 billion yen (2.8 per cent) for technical cooperation assistance. This total figure is extraordinarily high compared with Japanese ODA to other countries. Burma ranked seventh in terms of aid receipts from Japan during this period. More than sixty to seventy per cent of the total bilateral aid which Burma received between 1978 and 1988 came from Japan.

Though it was mainly hidden from the public view, in the discourse among influential Japanese in diplomatic and economic matters, they constantly refer to a "special relationship between Japan and Burma", or the "historically friendly relationship" between the two countries. The thinking behind this discourse is that while Japan brought a great deal of inconvenience to Burma during World War II, it also made significant contributions to the country. Young nationalists such as the "Thirty Comrades", which included Aung San and Ne Win, were educated and trained by Japanese army officers of the Minami Kikan, leading to the birth of the Burma Independence Army (BIA). This army subsequently developed into the Burma National Army (BNA). Japan also accepted many Burmese students, providing them with scholarships during the war. Many such students (military and civilians) rose to positions of national leadership in post-independence Burma. Therefore, when these returnees were entrusted to build a new Burma, the general feeling of Japan 's policymakers was they should be supported.

At the same time, we need to realize that the Burmese did their part to foster this idea of a special relationship with Japan. According to a Japanese diplomatic document made public in 2003, when Brigadier Aung Gyi, and his team visited Japan in January 1963 as a representative of Ne Win's Revolutionary Council to negotiate for an increase in war reparations (which resulted in the "quasi-reparations" put into effect from 1965), he made a speech in front of Japanese officials and politicians on the first day of his trip. In the speech, he mentioned that his trip was not for the negotiation of war reparations but rather "as a younger hrother" consulting about a certain family problem to his "elder brother". l Ising the metaphor of "younger brother" for Burma and "elder brother" for Japan had been a cliche in Burma during the Japanese Occupation period though it became a politically incorrect expression for Japan to IIse in the post-war period. However, the Burmese delegation did use this vxpression in 1963. This speech in turn made such a strong positive impression on the Japanese Government that it felt the need to reciprocate positively to the Burmese demand (Diplomatic Record Office of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Japan, E02-003-001-002).

Another example can be seen in the views of the Burmese Government regarding their struggle for independence as written in school textbooks ar'ler independence and particularly after 1962. These views centre around Ihe Minami Kikan and the birth and activities of the BIA. Although the historical significance of the all-out revolt against the Japanese Army by lhe BNA in 1945 led by Aung San is strongly stressed, the Minami Kikan, which gave birth to and guided the BIA, is described as a group of Japanese people who understood the Burmese nationalists' aspiralion for independence.

In 1980, the Ne Win government publicly announced the achievements of the Minami Kikan by decorating former members with the Order of Aung San. Also, in March 1983, during a visit to Burma by then Japanese Foreign Minister Shintaro Abe, Burmese President San Yu told him that, in one sense, Japan had helped Burma to achieve independence. San Yu also openly stated that the Japanese Army made it possible for the young Burmese nationalists to acquire political skills. At a later date, Foreign Minister Abe wrote that during his talks with important people in the Burmese Government, he could sense "their strong friendliness and great expectations with Japan". (In H. Sakuma, "Introduction", Modern History of Politics in Burma, Tokyo: Keiso-shobo, 1984). The reasons for such statements by the Burmese governments might include an attempt at obtaining as much aid from Japan as possible, but it in turn helped to justify the perculiar Japanese understanding of Japan-Burma bilateral relations. It is worth noting that every Japanese ambassador to Burma in the 1960s, 1970s and early 1980s enjoyed better access to Ne Win than ambassadors from all other nations.

The Japanese Government was also among the first nations to recognize the military junta in February 1989. The Japanese Government expects the Burmese military regime to change on its own, even though it has sometimes been irritated by the regime's stubbornness. Although Japan does not ignore the importance of Aung San Suu Kyi and her political party, the National League for Democracy (NLD), it does not express strong support towards them either. In this regard, Japan has made a clear break from the severe attitudes against Myanmar adopted by the United States and the European Union.



For updates click homepage here