By the end of WWII the troops of the British Empire reconstituted the great crescent of land that Britain had occupied before 1941, and then fanned out beyond it. In 1945 South East Asia Command was apparently determined to deploy Indian troops not only in Burma, Malaya and Singapore, but also in Thailand and what had been French Indo-China and Dutch Indonesia. By 1946 however as we have seen, Colonial Asia became a connected arc of protest. Everywhere local nationalists borrowed the words and emulated the deeds of neighbors, and the language of the Atlantic Charter and the San Francisco Declaration became a common tongue for all.
In early 1946 Indonesia 's struggle was first raised in the United Nations, and this made it a test case for the rights of fledgling nations everywhere. In British Asia, nationalists followed events in Indo-China and Indonesia as if their own future were being decided, which it effectively was. In Malaya the cause of the Indonesian republic captivated not only the Malays, who felt tied to it by kinship and language, but the whole of Malayan society, whose trade unions, youth and women's movements all took up its slogans. The Chinese population caught up in the fighting in Semarang and Surabaya appealed directly to the community in Malaya, and many fled there as refugees. Once more events in India changed the situation in Burma and sent shock waves speeding towards Malaya. Following Gandhi and the Indian Congress's great victories in the March 1946 elections, it had become obvious that the Indian Army could not be used to put down a revolt in Burma.
In early June 1950, prime minister of Burma, U Nu, began a course of meditation, and retreated into meditation centre and vowed not to emerge until he had attained a certain stage in vipassana meditation.’Until then', he told his ministers, 'do not send for me even if the whole country is enveloped in flames. If there are flames, you must put them out yourself’. When told of his practice Nu's closest foreign friend, Jawaharlal Nehru remarked: 'That seems to me as good a way of governing Burma as any.’
One of the main components of the state of the consciousness which Nu believed that he had attained that summer was 'freedom from fear'. But as the Korean War entered a critical phase and the threat of global nuclear conflict grew ever closer, this was no easy goal. By the middle of the year, Allied forces in Korea seemed on the verge of conquering the whole peninsula and a major war with China and the Soviet Union loomed. In Britain Attlee broadcast to the nation of further preparations for war in Korea and also against Russia, 'if another world war is to follow’. In Delhi, Nehru, urged the US to draw back, arguing that war solved nothing. In his alarm, he seemed to be conjuring up again the non-violent maxims of the late Mahatma Gandhi. Attacked by the Americans for appeasement of totalitarianism, Nehru was equally suspect in China and Russia for his suppression of Indian communists.
The period 1950 to 1953 was one of reconsolidation in Burma. The government's authority began to reassert itself, even if many of the failures which would eventually drive Burma to the margins of the new world order were also present: corruption, an arbitrary military and botched measures of economic development. One sign of the changing mood was the attempt of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) to compromise with the Rangoon government. After their striking successes of 1949, the red-flag communists of the CPB and their Karen allies had abandoned their policy of trying to take and hold the towns. They now became more 'Maoist' in their strategy, basing themselves in villages and eliminating landlords. They were never again to seize the initiative. The government may have been weak, and its army underpaid and undersupplied, but it had kept its hold over Rangoon, the sole remaining financial prize in the country. It had done so because foreign financial and military aid, particularly small arms, had reached it in large quantities. Even in 1948 and 1949 Burma had never collapsed into total anarchy. In most districts notables and important men still held sway. They were generally suspicious of the communists and hostile to the Karens and other minority group rebels. Provided the government directed some cash, some local offices and, best of all, arms to them, they were prepared to come back into Rangoon's fold.
Under the surface of the government's resurgence, however, the balance of power was shifting irrevocably towards the military, though Nu hardly noticed it as he flew around the world on missions of peace and sanctity in the early 1950s. The army had appropriated more and more of the country's diminished wealth. It benefited from the feeling that Burma was a threatened country in the midst of an armed camp, with the Chinese, the rump of the British Empire or even India greedily surveying the remains of its assets of oil, timber and rice.
The first coup against the civilian government finally came on 26 September 1958. Nu returned to power briefly in the early 1960s but his grip was never firm. A second coup occurred in 1963 and Nu went into a long exile. Ne Win and his family were to hold power in Burma for much of the next forty years. The consequence was that a country once fabled for its natural wealth and promise isolated itself increasingly from the world. Burma fell further and further behind its Southeast Asian neighbors, suffering international sanctions and continuing local rebellions. Only the new wealth spilling into the country from a booming China in recent decades seems capable of ending its long stagnation.
In 1951 the wartime administrator of Singapore, Mamoru Shinozaki, returned to the island, or at least to its harbor, where, unable to land, he received guests on board a freighter. Later Shinozaki was to lead the way in confronting the past with a memoir, published in English in Singapore, of his wartime experiences: Syonan: My Story. It acknowledged the atrocities of the sook ching massacres, but also highlighted his role and his contribution to the welfare of Singapore 's people. These returns generated considerable anger in the Chinese press. But, with the encouragement of key figures such as Malcolm MacDonald, they persisted. In April 1952 the first senior Japanese to visit MacDonald arrived at Bukit Serene with a letter from the Japanese prime minister. The visitor was nervous. The cook at Bukit Serene wept - his parents and sister had been murdered by the Japanese in China - but, it was observed, he did his duty. By 1954 the flagship Japanese departmental store, Echigoya, where a pre-war generation of Asian clerks had bought their cheap office ducks and toys for their children, reopened, as did the Singapore Japanese Association, which had been such a prominent feature of the island's social scene before the war. The old Japanese expatriate community began to return as 'advisers', often exploiting their wartime connections. Some still saw Malaya as their home, and a sense of rootedness began to return with the refoundation of the Japanese School.
Several Allied soldiers, recounted how they had to dig deep into their reserves of Christian faith to find forgiveness for the brutality of their Japanese captors. But as early as ten years after the war, soldiers on both sides were beginning tentative meetings for the purposes of reconciliation and creating a true record of the terrible events they had witnessed. For their part, the Japanese were also haunted by what they had seen in Southeast Asia. The author of the Harp of Burma, a bestselling novel in post-war Japan, was a former soldier who drew on his wartime experiences to tell of a disillusioned man whose battered faith in the search for enlightenment is reinvigorated by the earnest folk Buddhism of Burma. His hero becomes a wanderer, a kind of forest monk, typical of the region, moving from village to village playing his Burmese harp and telling fables.
Other vivid fictional recreations of the Second World War sparked controversy. In 1954 the first English translation appeared of Pierre Boulle's novel Le Pont de la Riviere Kwai". The French author, himself a former prisoner of the Japanese, depicted a group of British POWs being forced to build a bridge on the Burma-Siam railway. The fictional senior British officer, Colonel Nicholson, after a protracted and painful battle with his Japanese jailer about officers' honor and dignity, becomes obsessed with the creation and perfection of the bridge, at the same time as British special forces are doing all they can to destroy it. At first sight it seemed an odd thing for a Frenchman to write a novel about the hidebound British military mentality, although his story undoubtedly served as a good illustration of the futility of war. But Boulle had worked on rubber plantations in Malaya before and after the war and had had ample opportunity to observe the waning British Empire at close hand. In 1957, just after Britain and France 's occupation of the Suez Canal, the controversy about the book was revived, with an American movie starring Gregory Peck…
By 1955, the tenth anniversary of the formal end of the Second World War, the mood was changing. This was a year when the rhetoric of the Bandung Conference - of development, non-alignment and peace - concealed both the onrush of aggressive nationalism and the slow expansion of the crescent's new capitalism. Yet it was also the year of memory, when people began to take stock of events in that terrible year a decade before: the year of the atom bomb, the fierce campaign of the 14th Army, the death of Subhas Chandra Bose and Aung San's revolt against the Japanese. A whole series of commemorative ceremonies were held. In Rangoon and Mandalay, people celebrated Independence Day, Aung San's birthday and Union Day with particular fervor that year. Ominously, people noted that the highlight of that year's Independence Day festivities was the 'participation of a larger number of armed forces personnel in the march past before the President of the Union '. As yet 'Army Day', the celebration of that momentous event in April 1945 when Aung San had led his Burma Defense Army into the jungle to fight the Japanese, had not assumed the significance in the calendar of Independence Day. As the Burmese army became increasingly autonomous and powerful, the meaning of this festival became a source of debate and controversy. Ceremonies to mark the tenth anniversary of the end of the war were more muted in India. But Subhas Chandra Bose's birthday saw celebrations across the subcontinent, particularly in Calcutta. The veterans of the Indian National Army, still uncertain of their status in independent India, drilled and marched with particular pride. The simplest ceremony of all was held on 6 August 1955 at 8 a.m. in the city of Hiroshima. At the exact moment the bomb had fallen ten years before, the mayor of the city, himself a survivor, released 500 doves into the air and inaugurated a peace centre.
A huge numbers of Thai, Burmese, Malayan and Burmese civilians however remained without named graves. Their bodies had simply been thrown into huge lime pits.
Many people's memories were very personal, almost picaresque. When he was in northern Burma the writer Norman Lewis met a cheerful Burmese former soldier who had served in the forces fighting alongside the Japanese. He took Lewis to a tree where, he said, Chinese soldiers had tried to hang him as a traitor following his capture. Laughing heartily he explained how the Chinese were too 'weak from semi-sickness and starvation' to hoist him off the ground. His proposed execution, according to Lewis, degenerated into 'a lurid Disney-like farce' with the Chinese attempting to pinion him while hoisting him into the air. Eventually he escaped, but the memory was not so easily defeated. It is unlikely that Lewis was the only person he look back to his hanging tree to marvel at the wound on the branch where the rope had rubbed it raw.Thus also, ten years on from the end of the war the Governor General of Australia however observed, an authoritarian power once again overshadowed Asia. He was referring, of course, to China.
If in 1955 people's memories of the Second World War were still raw, with much suppressed or forgotten, the present was in some ways a disappointment of those dreams of independence which had entranced them a decade before. As India struggled with the problems of statehood, Nehru was personally in a more optimistic mood in 1955· It was only with the resurgence of severe economic difficulties in the late 1950’s and the conflict with China in his last years that his outlook darkened. But in objective terms the problems that faced independent India remained vast. If famine did not reappear as frequently as it had under the Raj, the country's food problems seemed no nearer solution.
And many millions continued to live in the direst poverty while the first Hush of wealth from the new industrialization faded. Perhaps, indeed, Nehru's very adherence to a Soviet model of gargantuan 'socialist industry' had worsened the poverty of the countryside. The Punjab 's Sikhs and people in the south who did not speak Hindi, the new national language, vociferously demanded special status within the constitution. Refugees from East and West Pakistan had not been fully absorbed into India 's massive, ramshackle cities. On the frontiers, particularly in the northeast, militant groups such as the Nagas, who had been armed and radicalized by the war, continued to fight the central government in Delhi. India 's 'most dangerous decades' were looming.
The Bengali-speaking politicians of East Pakistan chafed under what they saw as the semi-colonial domination of their leaders in the western capital of Islamabad. Refugees continued to surge across the borders in both directions, Hindus to the west, Muslims to the east, creating new pools of privation in the poverty-stricken countryside and declining cities. Even on Pakistan's and India's most easterly frontier with Burma, conflicts between Muslim and Buddhist, Hindu and Muslim, separatists and centralizers continued to kill hundreds and terrorize remote villages.
Many of the acute problems that faced the new nations could be traced directly to the nature of British rule and the corroding, radicalizing effect of the Second World War. They represented the other face of freedom from the beaming crowds and proud processions on independence days. They were also testament to the continuing role of the great Western powers in Asia and the coming of age of the new leviathans, the USSR and China, which were determined to play their own Great Game for South and Southeast Asia. As Nehru leaned towards the USSR, shunned by the anti-communist USA, so the Soviet leadership flattered his wishes and the Soviet security services began to infiltrate the country. Communist China, for its part, fresh from its great success in bolstering Ho Chih Minh in Vietnam, began to play politics in Burma, Pakistan, and Indonesia, though it was impotent to affect the course of the war to the south in Malaya. The Cold War gave new life to old fantasies of imperial dominance.
The tenth anniversary of the climacteric of the Second World War in the region did not witness that era of peace and prosperity that many Asians had envisaged when they had still been under the yoke of Japanese occupation and colonial rule. For one thing, full-scale armed conflict had only temporarily ceased in Indo-China and the bloody denouement there spread waves of apprehension across the whole region. At DienBien Phu, in April 1954, the French suffered an epochal defeat at the hands of Viet Minh forces supplied with artillery and modern weapons by the Chinese and Russians. The Western fight against communist advance seemed to be deeply compromised, at least on this front. An American officer, Colonel Edward Lansdale, landed on 1 June 1954 in Saigon, which was on the point of becoming the capital of a vivisected South Vietnam under the peace accords signed between the French and the Viet Minh in Geneva. Lansdale drew heavily on the British experience of counter-insurgency in Malaya while he was working in the Philippines and Vietnam.
After Adlai Stevenson, who had a close shave when his helicopter crash-landed, vice-president Richard Nixon flew to Malaya where Templer impressed the need to wean Russia and China apart, and John and Robert Kennedy, who did not impress hardened American residents with their lack of sympathy for the British imperial cause. But the traffic went in both directions. Malayan officials had flown in to visit the villages where disarmed Huk rebels were settled, gathering information for their own 'New Villages' on the peninsula. Lansdale's journey to Saigon signalled the beginning of the era of deep US involvement in Vietnam. The looming conflict was also marked in fiction by Graham Greene's novel The Quiet American, published in 1955.A New York Times reporter just happened to be on the spot at the vital moment. Photographs of people maimed in the attack were speedily published under a headline blaming Ho Chi Minh for the violence.
By 1955 Lansdale was certainly working hard to put in place a third force to take over from the French as a bulwark against the communists. In that year he helped organize a coup which placed the city of Saigon in the hands of the future dictator of South Vietnam, Ngo Din Diem. This final act of the unending war, the American struggle with North Vietnam, would run its bloody course to 1975. Meanwhile General Douglas Gracey, who had reinstalled the French in Saigon in 1945 and managed another post-colonial armed struggle between India and Pakistan in Kashmir, retired from his post as commander-in-chief of Pakistan's army.
Britain and the USA retained the largest economic and political stakes in the region. Both countries still counted the new states as important partners in trade. Even though India, Pakistan and Burma had erected high tariff barriers against foreign goods, the whole organization of the world economy continued to put them at a massive disadvantage which would persist until the early twenty-first century. Writing from Changi jail in 1959, James Puthucheary, once again a detainee, penned a classic analysis: Ownership and Control in the Malayan Economy. It argued that the British still dominated 'commanding heights and much of the valleys' of the Malayan economy, and that the British had removed much of the sting of this by bringing in Malay directors and Chinese investors. As is now acknowledged, 'crony capitalism' - the scourge of modern corporate Asia - cut its teeth in the British and Japanese periods. The imperial past still shaped borders. The exclusion of Singapore from the Malayan federation was to be briefly reversed in 1963, when, with North Borneo and Sarawak, it joined the Federation of Malaysia. Although this experiment was not predetermined to fail, the reasons for Singapore's departure in 1965 - the alarm of Malay elites that its volatile Chinese politics would upset the delicate balance of power on the peninsula was foreshadowed by events in 1946 and 1947. The political compromises of the transfer of power were to, unravel as ethnic tensions rose, and in 1969 Malaysia experienced race riots on a scale it had not seen since 1945. It would face the need for a second, deeper decolonization in which the state would affirm the centrality of the Malay language and culture and drive forward the ethnic distribution within the economy. In Singapore the new independent regime of the People's Action Party would also have to seek new ways to reconstruct Singaporean society and shift the course of national development.
Chin Peng who in December1949 helped to write a declaration of intent of the Malay Communist Party: the establishment of a People's Democratic Republic of Malaya, later conceded, this was perhaps a mistake: 'Our battle-cry should have been: Independence for Malaya and all Malayans who want independence.' (Naw, Aung San, pp. 191-2).
In 1998, fifty years after the outbreak of the Malayan revolution, Chin Peng began a series of journeys. At this point his countrymen had seen only four images of him: at the victory parade in January 1946 when Louis Mountbatten pinned the Burma Star on his jungle fatigues; a grainy photograph on the poster that offered a quarter of million dollars for him, dead or alive; then there was Chin Peng at Baling, looking like a young clerk on his day off in baggy trousers and a short-sleeved shirt; then nothing for thirty-four years until he appeared at the Haadyai peace talks of 1989, an elderly man now, a little overweight, in a smart business suit, but entirely composed in the full glare of the world's media. There, in fluent Malay, he had pledged allegiance to the King of Malaysia, and his deputy Abdullah C. D. urged Malaysians to unite in the cause of social justice. But in June 1998, on the fiftieth anniversary of the Emergency, Chin Peng appeared in London. This excited some comment in the British press, but was unreported in Malaysia, and the subject of only a short notice in the Singapore Straits Times. There he travelled to the Public Record Office at Kew; where, in a curious circumlocution of history, the insurgent entered the imperial archives surrounded by dozens of other visitors researching their family histories, Chin Peng began a paper trail through his own past. He took pencil notes from the newly opened files of Special Operations Executive; of missions of which he had been a part during the war; of the first agreements in the Malayan jungle between the Malayan Communist Party and South East Asia Command, signed by the traitor Lai Teck; and other names, other betrayals. It began a short odyssey of meetings and interviews with writers and scholars in London, Canberra and, eventually, even Singa pore, many of them adversaries, retired policemen and soldiers. Some years later, with the heavy editorial hand of a retired correspondent of the Daily Telegraph, his memories would be woven into a memoir entitled My Side of History.
Permission for Chin Peng to return home however, was refused – and seeking to fulfill his obligation to honor his parents' graves - was forced in 2004 to challenge the government of Malaysia in the Malaysian courts with breaking the Had-yai agreement. He has yet to have his day in court. As this controversy rumbled on, in 2005, a Malay writer and film-maker, Amir Muhammad, born after the Emergency had ended, shot a documentary that traced, through interviews and music, a voyage from Chin Peng's childhood home of Sitiawan and other parts of Perak to the veterans' villages in south Thailand. Chin Peng himself did not appear. The film, Lelaki Komunis Terakhir, 'The Last Communist', was released in the wake of the sixtieth anniversary of the ruling party, UMNO. Its old veterans warned that 'old wounds will bleed again', and the film was eventually banned in Malaysia.
In Burma it was a combination of unending internal conflict and foreign intervention which led to the rise and seemingly endless rule of the military in a country which had once been one of the brightest hopes for Asian prosperity. Burma had all but become one of the first 'failed states', as piously categorized by Western political scientists.
In February 2007, the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA), suffered a serious split when a high-profile general defected this February, just a few months after the death of former leader Bo Mya. But despite decades of fighting, and the undoubted hardships that local villagers have suffered as a result, there is still an amazing level of civilian support for the KNLA. Part of this support is undoubtedly due to the fact that currently the KNLA is primarily a defensive force, and spends a lot of its time helping Karen civilians across the border to safety. This poses a difficulty for Thai politicians, for after they are caught by the Thai authorities refugees are often made to wait for days without food and water before they are deported back to Burma. Also in Bangkok, where many Karen’s hold official UN refugee status identification, they are still subject to searches and bribes by the police there. The resettlement programme in third country is a very lengthy process and only special cases will be considered seriously. But it is also Thai business owners, who do not like to register illegal workers because it's not in their interest to pay proper wages.
One solution of course would be to make Burma safer for minorities to return but none of the neighboring countries China India and Thailand to mention three, feel they ‘gain more economically’ by supporting the Burmese Military.
In 2005 however Thailand did pass a law trough that refugees can go to a local school, as far they exist. Pictured Feb. 2007, Karen students at Ban Sop Moei, most of whom are without citizenship, line up before school:
On 23 March 1947, standing beneath a huge illuminated map of the continent, Nehru opened the Asian Relations Conference with the words: 'When the history of our present times comes to be written, this Conference may well stand out as the landmark which divides the past of Asia from the future.' From the Levant to China was represented: there were delegations of Jews and Arabs from Palestine; commissars from Soviet central Asia; courtiers from the Kingdom of Thailand; hardened communist guerrillas from Malaya, and polished Kuomintang diplomats. The greater number of delegates were from the lands of Britain 's imperial crescent, and the official language of the meeting was English, but the largest individual contingents were from Southeast Asia. Few of the 200 delegates and 10,000 or so observers were known to each other. Nehru and many other Indian leaders felt that they had brought Asia to the threshold of a new millennium. (T.A. Keenleyside, 'Nationalist Indian attitudes towards Asia: a troublesome legacy for post-Independence Indian foreign policy', Pacific Affairs, 55, 2,1982, pp. 210-30).
The closing session was addressed by Gandhi, who arrived following a tour of Bihar and Bengal, where he was trying to stem the tide of communal violence. 'He looked', recalled one witness from Malaya, Philip Hoalim, 'very tired and extremely frail'. The Mahatma was an inspiration, but, in the words of Abu Hanifah from Sumatra: 'We thought the idea of turning the other cheek was silly. We had then preferred the ways of Kemal Ataturk”--the WWI hero of what later came became known as Turkey. (Abu Hanifah, Tales of a revolution: a leader of the Indonesian revolution looks back, Sydney, 1972, p. 236).
The regional entity that was later to emerge, in the shape of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations in 1967, in fact was much smaller, and next three years Nehru was plagued with doubts about whether India would survive at all. Lasting well into coming November 1947, riots and killing continued marked by military precision and unbelievable sadism: in some cases whole train loads of innocents were burned alive or disemboweled. In spite of the conspiracy theories that abound about it; Sir Cyril Radcliffe was dependent on maps and on the evidence given to him by the local political parties, with all their communal and factional biases. Whatever he ruled, most Muslims were likely to be outraged and no one would be entirely satisfied. (Joya Chatterji, 'The fashioning of a frontier: the Radcliffe line and Bengal 's border landscape, 1947-52', Modern Asian Studies, 33, I ,1999, pp. 185-243).
The British boundary force policing the division ordained by Sir Cyril Radcliffe's commission was too small and ineffective to make much difference. Also in northeastern India, members of recently armed and self-aware nationalities such as the Nagas, Lushai and Chin, sought autonomy and looked with suspicion on the new nation-states. Local politicians agonized over the fate of what had come to be called India 's 'Mongolian fringe'. (Statesman, Calcutta, 5 May 1947).
Hindu politicians in Assam felt they had a 'refugee problem' as poor Muslim squatters from eastern Bengal grew in numbers, allegedly enticed into the province by the local Muslim League to bolster its case for Assam to be incorporated into East Pakistan. (Statesman, 10 May 1947).
Burmese Arakan suffered not only separatist and communist movements, but also the attempts of Muslim parties to annex their populations to East Pakistan. Nowhere down the length of the crescent did relinquished or devolved British authority pass quietly into the hands of homogeneous nation-states. The divisions of colonial politics were to scarify the region for two generations. In Bengal people came only slowly to understand the imminence of partition and even after the event most could not believe that their homeland had been irrevocably sundered into a crazy geographer's nightmare, preferring instead to believe that their Hindu or Muslim leaders would see their error and help to unite the region again. Somewhat surprisingly, support for this sort of idea came from the leader of the local Muslim-dominated ministry, H. Suhrawardy. The chief minister, the local Muslim League and allied politicians were acutely aware that millions of Muslim peasants would suffer if partition actually came about. They feared, correctly, that any 'East Pakistan' without Calcutta would be an economic disaster area. The partition agitation, asserted Suhrawardy, was a move by the 'propertied classes' to serve their own interests. (Statesman,1 May 1947).
He even managed to prevail on Jinnah to moderate his demands that Pakistan should include the whole of Bengal to see whether the unity plan got off the ground. Bose and Suhrawardy were both to be disappointed. The majority of the middle-class Hindu politicians opposed any move that would maintain a Muslim preponderance in Bengal 's politics. Their most vocal leader, Shyama Prasad Mookherjee, denounced the 'ten year communal raj' that the Muslims were said to have imposed since the 1935 constitutional reforms. Throughout the early part of 1947 the Hindu middle classes presented petitions and held public meetings to demand partition. The main Hindu organization, Hindu Mahasabha, the Bengal Chamber of Commerce, and the vast majority of local associations in which Hindus predominated pressed for separation. Mookherjee characterized the Bengali 'paradise to come' promised by Suhrawardy as simply more of the 'hell that exists in Bengal today', the result, he argued, of the chief minister's well-documented maladministration and the Muslim League's 'campaign of hatred’. (Statesman, 2 May 1947)
Bengal indeed remained a kind of hell. If the conditions of ordinary people hadnot been so desperate it is possible that the Bengal assembly might not have voted for partition later in the summer. By now, though, even the representatives of the poor, low-caste Hindu peasants of the east of the province who had previously shared interests with the Muslim peasantry were alarmed and apprehensive. Communist organizers tried to persuade the peasantry that it was an alliance of bosses, imperialists and landlords who were fomenting the communal rioting. They had some success in northeast Bengal. Curfews were regularly imposed on Calcutta and other cities while magistrates banned groups marching in shirts of 'a certain color', presumably a reference to the green and saffron hues favored by Muslim and Hindu agitators, respectively. (People's Age, Bombay, 20 April, 18 May 1947).
By 1947 probably a majority of Nagas were Christian, and American Baptist missionaries protected them against the British civil administration and encouraged them to evolve an identity as a chosen people of God, distinct from the pagans of the Assam valley. An excellent account of this can be found in Julian Jacobs with Alan Macfarlane, Sarah Harrison and Anita Herle, Hill peoples of northeast India, the Nagas: society, culture and the colonial Encounter (Stuttgart, 1990, pp. 151-70).
This sense of separate identity had been strengthened during the war when many of them had fought against the Japanese on the Allied side. British officers had armed them and taught them that they were independent people and owed nothing to the seditious nationalists of the plains. Naga political associations gradually came into being, some pressing for local autonomy, some for outright independence. In July 1947, a delegation came to meet the Congress leadership and seek guarantees for an independent Nagaland. Initially Gandhi seemed to accept this, stating that Congress wanted no one to be forced into the Indian Union. But by August the Congress leaders were rattled by the prospect that riot and secession would fragment the whole subcontinent. Their position hardened, provoking some Naga leaders to declare their own declaration of independence on 14 August. In contrast to the wild celebrations elsewhere in India, very few attended the flag hoisting in Nagaland. The messianic prophetess Gaidiliu, who had led a Naga rebellion against the British in 1930, remained in prison until 1948 at the behest of the suspicious Indian authorities.
In the northeast meanwhile Dacca was designated the capital of East Pakistan. Already tense from minor communal incidents, the town was sadly lacking in facilities for the large number of Muslim clerks and officials who were congregating there from all over Bengal. The residence of the former Nawab of Dacca was commandeered as Government House while a British army barracks became the secretariat building and dormitory home for 3,500 disgruntled clerks.
Independence in Bengal was an even more shambolic affair than it was in Delhi. A few days before 15 August the Calcutta Corporation renamed three streets in the city centre 'Netaji Subhas Bose Street', souring the occasion for the British. C. Rajagopalachari, the moderate Madras Congressman who had been nominated governor of West Bengal, also showed little inclination to respect British traditions. He entered the splendor of the throne room of Government House for his swearing-in dressed simply in homespun dhoti and cap. Perhaps it was just as well. On 15 August a huge crowd waving Congress flags and shouting 'Jai Hind!' invaded the building, stirred to action, it was rumored, by Sarat Bose. They swarmed through the governor's quarters seizing everything from door handles to table ornaments as mementos. The police removed them only after several hours by throwing tear-gas canisters into the building. In the meantime, the outgoing governor and his family beat a hasty and ignominious retreat. As Arthur Dash recalled it, 'someone who recognized him jammed a Gandhi cap on his head and the last British Governor went out of Government House by a side door so crowned and with his wife waving the new Dominion (late Congress Party) flag.(Dash, Bengal Diary, vol. IX, p. 106, Centre of South Asian Studies, Cambridge).
Historian Tapan Raychaudhuri related that out in the district town of Barishal his father had kept awake throughout the night of 14 August with a gun in his hand. The disturbances he feared did not come that night, but they came soon enough. (Quoted in Romonthon Atharba Bhimratipraptar paracharit cllarcha, Calcutta, 1993, p. 98).
On his way to London, Aung San flew on ahead of the delegation to meet Indian leaders and stayed at Nehru's house in Delhi between 2 and 6 January. Nehru and Aung San had struck up a friendship when the RAF 'reds' had flown the Indian leader into Rangoon on his way to meet Mountbatten. Nehru eulogized Aung San to the Indian press. Wavell, now in his final weeks as viceroy, invited him to lunch. He was less complimentary: 'He struck me as a suspicious, ignorant but determined little tough.'(Angelene Naw, Aung San and the struggle for Burmese independence (Copenhagen, 2001), p. 186).
This underestimated Aung San's growing political sophistication. Passing through Karachi, he had arranged to meet Jinnah. In fact Aung San remained suspicious of British intentions, replying in a non-committal way to Indian journalists' questions about whether he would resort to non-violent or armed rebellion should the London talks fail. He also alluded to the contemporary situation in Indo-China, where Ho Chi Minh's Vietnamese republic was fighting for its life against French reaction. (Dawn, Karachi, 6 January 1947).
The end of the war had revived the Burmese fear of being 'swarmed' by Indian immigrants, as one of their delegates later put it. At his press conference, Aung San declared that 'Indian vested interests -like any vested interests - are not in favor of independence.' (New York Times, 6 January 1947).
The critical point during the India-Burma Committee Cabinet meeting on 22 January 1947 in London according to Kyaw Nyein, was not so much British commercial interests in Burma as the status of the hill areas. It was no use getting independence unless these territories and peoples were firmly welded to the new state. Three generations of British officials, commercial agents and missionaries had sought to deny it - control over the ethnic minorities. As with the Indian princes, though not the Indian Muslims, the British simply abandoned their long-term clients in the face of political reality. Aung San was deeply suspicious of the British Frontier Service officers and Tom Driberg increased his alarm by saying that even one British government representative at Panglong might encourage the more recalcitrant sawbwas or minority tribal leaders to hold out for too much. (Hugh Tinker (ed.), Burma. The struggle for independence 1944-48, vol. II: From general strike to independence, 31 August 1946 to 4 January 1948, London, 1984, pp. 271-84).
Economic disagreements were significant, too, even though they seemed less pressing than the security issues. The AFPFL wanted a full-blown nationalization plan as any compromise on this might hand the communists a propaganda victory. The British cabinet wanted enterprises such as Burmah Oil to remain private. Apart from the question of profits, ministers noted that Burmah Oil was currently dependent on another British company, the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, for marketing and distribution. The last thing anyone needed that bitter winter in a shivering and malnourished Britain and Europe was an interruption of fuel supplies. (Tinker, Burma, vol. II, pp. 242-3).
Nationalization was to remain a contentious issue between the British and the Burmese for several years. Nationalization was to remain a contentious issue between the British and the Burmese for several years. Thakin Nu even complained to Rance that the British were dropping arms to the Karens as a preliminary to a full-scale revolt, a rumour that Rance had explicitly to deny. On 27 January, the British government announced the successful conclusion of the negotiations for Burmese independence. A smiling Aung San, accompanied by Attlee and Tin Tut, emerged onto the steps of 10 Downing Street to speak to the world's press. Burma would be independent in January 1948. (Naw, Aung San, pp. 188-9)
The night before he returned to Burma Aung San had met Tom Driberg who said that it would be best to slay in the Commonwealth, and Aung apparently answered that he could not persuade his people. (Tom Driberg, Ruling passions, London, 1978, p. 217).
Meanwhile Burma Governor Rance was to bowe to force majeure, noting that 12,000 Indian troops were scheduled to leave Burma in February 1947 and there would be no replacements. He urged the immediate passage of a House of Commons amending bill to expand the powers of the present govcrnmcnt to include those formerly retained by the governor. Thus the AFPFL leadership was abruptly invited to London after New Year. (Rance, in Tinker, Burma, vol. II, pp. 139-44).
Meanwhile Than Tun, the most outspoken of the communist leaders, announced a parting of the ways: 'Yes, all Communists must put party first and AFPFL second. Party to them meant the true welfare of the peasants, the workers and their sympathizers, who constituted the country.’ Justifying their own position, the AFPFL leadership accused the communists of starting a 'whispering campaign' against Aung San and, less believably, of ganging up with the British military and civil administration against the 'socialists', that is, the moderates. The only reason that the AFPFL leaders were prepared to allow the split was that most now really believed that Attlee's government would concede independence early in the new year. Moreover, they could see that the communists were splitting into personal and ideological cliques. Thakin Soe, who had done much to build up communist cells in the north of the country, had begun to accuse Than Tun and Thein Pe of collaboration with the British and of 'right-wing deviationism'. He had been suspicious of much of the leadership since they had gone along with the deal that Aung San had worked out in Kandy back in September 1945 for the absorption of the BNA into a reorganized British force. (Extract from The Burman, 3 November 1946, 643/38, TNA, cited in Tinker, p.105).
Burmese supporters in London were put on their guard in October when a Karen 'goodwill mission' arrived in town and was entertained at the exclusive Claridge's Hotel by no less a luminary than Pethick-Lawrence. And as the AFPFL leadership considered the constitutional endgame, British intelligence warned that the situation was even worse than it had been in early October. Though this had no immediate impact on Burmese politics, the rise of communism throughout Asia weighed heavily on the minds of the British and the AFPFL leadership. Equally alarming was Hindu-Muslim and Muslim-Sikh conflict in India. Burma had seen comparable 'communal' outbreaks between Buddhists and Muslims in the 1930’s. In a lengthy interview with Reuters, Aung San deplored China 's civil war and India 's communalism. Events in China might lead to a Third World War, he said, while both conflicts would 'retard Asiatic unity and security'. (Reuter interview with Bogyoke Aung San, 16 December 1946', in Tinker, Burma, vol. II, p. 194).
On 13 December General Harold Briggs, the army commander in Burma, had sent a particularly gloomy assessment of the situation to his superiors. For political reasons, Indian troops could not now be used, he said. Burmese troops were of 'doubtful reliability'. And the British forces were 'weak' and could not hold the situation. The evidence suggests that Briggs painted the situation to be as dire as he could because he agreed with Rance and, more distantly, Mountbatten on the need for an immediate statement about the date of independence. (John H. McEnery, Epilogue in Burma, 1945-48, 1990, pp. 75-90).
By October 1946 the Burmese furthermore were sorely aware that the British had effectively handed power to India. And Aung San returned to the old sore point of the position of Indians in Burma and intimated vaguely that the Burmese could not have Indians and other 'foreigners' voting on their constitution. Privately, Churchill was furious that a British government was even considering parleying with someone whom he regarded as a 'quisling' and a 'fascist' such as Aung San. (McEnery, Epilogue in Burma, pp. 95-6).
Before the Japanese surrendered in August 1945, their last political act was to recognize a more radical government in Hanoi led by Ho Chi Minh. The incoming Chinese forces of Chiang Kai Shek also preferred a friendly independent Vietnamese government to the re-establishment of colonial rule. From the balcony of Hanoi 's baroque opera house, Ho proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam under the leadership of the Viet Minh nationalist coalition. He mixed the language of the American Declaration of Independence with violent invective against the French: 'They have built more prisons than schools. They have mercilessly slain our patriots; they have drowned our uprisings in rivers of blood ... To weaken our race they have forced us to use opium and alcohol.' For nearly nine months the new regime was to act as a sovereign power, organizing elections, redistributing land to peasants and trying to combat the dreadful poverty that followed the famines. The ruling groups that emerged in distant Saigon were formally subordinate to the new regime in Hanoi. The two major leaders in the south were the communists Tran Van Giau and Dr Pham Ngoc Thach, the heads of the shaky local Viet Minh coalition which jostled for power with other armed popular groupings. The nationalists in Saigon tried to persuade Count Terauchi to arm them: 'You are defeated, now it is our turn to fight the white imperialists.Terauchi refused to surrender Japanese arms, but seems to have allowed French ones to find their way to the Viet Minh. The situation was extraordinarily tense. The new government had some arms but had little sway beyond the outskirts of Saigon. In Cholon, Saigon 's twin port city, French and Chinese business communities subsisted uneasily with a mafia-like organization called the Binh Xuyen. Up towards the mountain-goddess shrine of Tay Ninh on the Cambodian border it was the Cao Dai, a religious sect armed by the Japanese, who held power. (David Marr, Vietnam 1945, Berkeley, 1995, p. 135- 458; See also John Springhall, “Kicking out the Vietminh: how Britain allowed France to reoccupy south Indochina', Journal of Contemporm History, 40, I, 2005, pp. 115-30).
June 1945 more than 35,000 Japanese POWs had been repatriated to Japan; the same number, however, remained behind and they were increasingly used as strike breakers and guards as the internal situation deteriorated. The graves of more than 8,000 Thai laborers could be identified. But alongside these 15,000 known victims were the unmarked graves of anything from 30,000 to 80,000 Burmese, Chinese, Indian, Malayan and Indonesian laborers. Most of them had been forced into service. They had died of disease, starvation or as a result of Japanese brutality. And in Singapore, the Upper East Coast Road, a site of the massacres during the Japanese 'screening' of the Chinese, was a telok kurau, a haunted hill. The absence of remains was an obstacle to the performance of rites to appease the 'hungry ghosts' of the ancestors. An atmosphere of acute psychic crisis arose. Taoist priests, according to a report in the Straits Times, 'peered into the underworld' and saw 'thousands of naked hungry and discontented ghosts roaming about the earth, their wrath threatening calamity to the land'. (See Fujio Hara, Malayan Chinese and China, Singapore, 2003).
In India British officers where to contemplated the once unthinkable demise of the Raj were beset by mounting worries. Nehru's emotional attachment to the princely state of Kashmir seemed the most likely cause of conflict between the two new dominions, no one knew whether it was going to join India or Pakistan. While in Burma Governor Rance bowed to force majeure, noting that 12,000 Indian troops were scheduled to leave Burma in February 1947 and there would be no replacements. He urged the immediate passage of a House of Commons amending bill to expand the powers of the present government to include those formerly retained by the governor. Thus the AFPFL leadership was abruptly invited to London after New Year. (Rance, in Tinker, Burma, vol. II, pp. 139-44).
The goal was to keep Burma within the Commonwealth and out of Soviet clutches. If they were to go to London, Aung San and his supporters had to be assured of total success. Any temporizing by the British would compromise them completely. It would mean handing the leadership of Burmese nationalism to one or other of the communist factions. British power was already declining rapidly, but this was a decisive moment in the history of Burma and, arguably, in that of South and Southeast Asia as a whole. If Burma had become a communist state on independence, as later happened in Vietnam, the Cold War in Asia might have taken a very different course. Certainly, with the 'cold weather' of 1946-7 approaching, the communists were in a restive mood. Their aim, like their confreres in Vietnam, was to take over and dominate a coalition of nationalist forces. If they could not do this, they would adopt the tactics of the communists in China; they would go underground and fight the nationalists, denouncing them as stooges of imperialism. Fortunately for the AFPFL, the Burmese communists split into ideological and personal factions, with neither the Vietnamese nor the Chinese model triumphing. In the longer term it was to be military nationalists who would win out. As relations between the moderates and the communists worsened with the collapse of the strikes during October, the AFPFL voted to expel the communists. (Angelene Naw, Aung San and the struggle for Burmese independence, Copenhagen, 2001, pp. 177-81).
By October 1946 the Burmese would be sorely aware that the British had effectively handed power to India. And Aung San returned to the old sore point of the position of Indians in Burma and intimated vaguely that the Burmese could not have Indians and other 'foreigners' voting on their constitution. At the same time the British saw turmoil all around them. India was convulsed by the INA trials and communal violence. Malaya was fighting off a British constitutional settlement and gripped by communist-inspired labour strife. British troops had barely extricated themselves from the unrolling civil war in the Dutch East Indies and French Indo-China. The army was 'gloomy'. The British civilian services were on the whole in favor of independence, but were now concerned about the welfare of their wives and children and their own future employment.
Than Tun, the most outspoken of the communist leaders, announced a parting of the ways: 'Yes, all Communists must put party first and AFPFL second. Party to them meant the true welfare of the peasants, the workers and their sympathizers, who constituted the country.’ Justifying their own position, the AFPFL leadership accused the communists of starting a 'whispering campaign' against Aung San and, less believably, of ganging up with the British military and civil administration against the 'socialists', that is, the moderates. The only reason that the AFPFL leaders were prepared to allow the split was that most now really believed that Attlee's government would concede independence early in the new year. Moreover, they could see that the communists were splitting into personal and ideological cliques. Thakin Soe, who had done much to build up communist cells in the north of the country, had begun to accuse Than Tun and Thein Pe of collaboration with the British and of 'right-wing deviationism'. He had been suspicious of much of the leadership since they had gone along with the deal that Aung San had worked out in Kandy back in September 1945 for the absorption of the BNA into a reorganized British force. (Extract from The Burman, 3 November 1946, 643/38, TNA, cited in Tinker, p. 105).
Burmese supporters in London were briefly put on their guard in October when a Karen 'goodwill mission' arrived in town and was entertained at the exclusive Claridge's Hotel by no less a luminary than Pethick-Lawrence. And as the AFPFL leadership considered the constitutional endgame, British intelligence warned that the situation was even worse than it had been in early October. Though this had no immediate impact on Burmese politics, the rise of communism throughout Asia weighed heavily on the minds of the British and the AFPFL leadership.
In fact events were now moving very fast. When Sir Gilbert Laithwaite, was sent to Burma to discuss the AFPFL leaders' visit to London and concluded of Aung San: 'I think business could be done.' Churchill was furious that a British government was even considering parleying with someone whom he regarded as a 'quisling' and a 'fascist' such as Aung San. (McEnery, Epilogue in Burma, pp. 95-6).
On 13 December General Harold Briggs, the army commander in Burma, sent a gloomy assessment of the situation to his superiors. For political reasons, Indian troops could not now be used, he said. Burmese troops were of 'doubtful reliability'. And the British forces were 'weak' and could not hold the situation. The evidence suggests that Briggs painted the situation to be as dire as he could because he agreed with Rance and, more distantly, Mountbatten on the need for an immediate statement about the date of independence. (John H. McEnery, Epilogue in Burma, I945-48, 1990, pp. 75-90).
Equally alarming was Hindu-Muslim and Muslim-Sikh conflict in India, Burma had seen comparable 'communal' outbreaks between Buddhists and Muslims in the 1930’s. In a lengthy interview with Reuters, Aung San deplored China 's civil war and India 's communalism. Events in China might lead to a Third World War, he said, while both conflicts would 'retard Asiatic unity and security'. (Reuter interview with Bogyoke Aung San, 16 December 1946', in Tinker, Burma, vol. II, p. 194).
In fact the British saw turmoil all around them. India was convulsed by the INA trials and communal violence. Malaya was fighting off a British constitutional settlement and gripped by communist-inspired labour strife. British troops had barely extricated themselves from the unrolling civil war in the Dutch East Indies and French Indo-China. The army was 'gloomy'. The British civilian services were on the whole in favour of independence, but were now concerned about the welfare of their wives and children and their own future employment.
But it was India that hovered gruesomely before Aung San’s eyes as he set off to London on a British Overseas Aircraft Corporation flight on the second day of 1947.
In 1955 few could argue that Malaya was 'not yet ready' for independence. One of the first public functions of the new chief minister, with six of his colleagues, was to represent the government at the diamond jubilee of Sultan Ibrahim of Johore. When Ibrahim succeeded his father in 1895, the Malay States had not yet entirely submitted to British rule. He had inherited from his father a vigorous, reforming monarchy, and in accepting British 'protection', he still retained many of his privileges and even his own armed forces. The sultan had spent little time in Malaya since the war, having been mostly away in Europe. He had returned briefly in 1951 only to complain of the 'most damnable' noise of RAF flights over his palace, and had requested them to avoid his capital altogether; it reminded him too much of 1941. Less than six weeks after his return he set sail again for England. (The Times, London, 3 October 1951).
But in 1955 he was met with a splendid gathering; the crowds that streamed across the causeway from Singapore were so immense that traffic could not cross. The sultan gave a speech in his trademark mixture of English and Malay. He spoke in forthright tones, striking the floor with the end of his sword as he did so. 'I don't like it at all,' he said. 'My head is disturbed. I say if I remain here, I shall probably go mad - thinking of my people.' He continued: It is easy to say I want independence. I want to be happy. I can buy slaves. I myself do not buy slaves. But I know there are people who buy human beings. It is not that we do not want to ask for Merdeka. We too, do not want to ask for Merdeka? We ask for it - Then we ask for independence. But what? Why do we want independence? Where are our warships? Where is our army? Where are our planes which can repel an invading army? ('HH the Sultan of Johore's speech', in MacGillivray to Lennox-Boyd, 19 September 1955, COI030/374, TNA).
In Singapore a coalition led by the Labour Front of David Marshall achieved a similar status. On arriving to begin work, both of the new chief ministers found that the British had not seen fit to provide them with offices. Marshall - who horrified the governor of Singapore with his trademark open-necked bush jacket and the bare feet and sandals of some of his ministers - only prevailed when he threatened to set up shop 'under the old apple tree' outside the government offices in Empress Place. It was here that he introduced his ministers to the people. (Chan Heng Chee, A sensation of independence: a political biography of David Marshall, Singapore, 1984, pp. 93-4).
But however constrained the new regimes were, across the Thai border the MCP leadership realized that they placed in jeopardy the legitimacy of their claims to fight for the nation. Through intermediaries, Secretary general of the Malayan Communist Party Chin Peng (Communist liaison officer with Force 136 in Perak), sued for peace. Initially the Chinese for 'Force 136', were recruited from Kuomintang circles; in Chiang Kai Shek's capital, Chungking. They were, by definition, staunch enemies of the communists, but on landing in Malaya the Malayan Communist sent some of its most committed cadres to join them. The communist leadership was represented by, a man the British called 'the Plen', and who signed the agreement as 'Chang Hong'. During a meeting, in mid April 1945, it seems that British officers of 'Force 136' promised that, in return for support, the Malayan Communist Party would be able to operate legally as a political party after the war. The Malayan Communist Party, was under the leadership of a man known as 'Mr Wright' alias 'Chang Hong' who led the April 1945 negotiations. This was later disavowed, but most communists assumed that the concession had been won, and so too did many British officials.
The fighting units
drew back, and with a small bodyguard Chin Peng, the Malay leader Rashid Maidin and another veteran of the wartime resistance, Chen
Tian, were met at the jungle fringe by an old Force 136 comrade, John Davis. On
28-29 December 1955 a meeting took place in the frontier town of Baling, in a
schoolhouse commandeered for the purpose. It was a condition of the gathering
that Chin Peng, on whom the British had already placed a $250,000 reward, would
not be allowed to speak to the press. A young Malay correspondent of Utusan Melayu, Said Zahari, was a witness: 'In the midst of the dashing lights
of photographers' cameras, I saw apprehensive looks on the faces of the
communist leaders. Chin Peng and Rashid Maidin looked
straight and stiff, while Chen Tian turned rapidly to the left and to the right
as if to avoid the cameras.' (Said Zahari, Dark
clouds at dawn, Kuala Lumpur, 2001, p. 285.).