“This is Burma, and it will be quite unlike any land you know about…”—Rudyard Kipling
Ask the average American 8th grader (I did in a class I substitute teach for), and most won’t be able to tell you where Burma was, or that it is now called Myanmar. And we are not just picking on the kids, either. I recently asked a group of adults (ages ranged from 23 to 39) about the nation, and no kidding, the only answer I got back was, “Oh wait! Isn’t that the country that Rambo ripped up in the movie remake?” The sigh that I let out hopefully expressed how much I wanted to suplex the guy who said it into the queso dip.
Given this info, it stands to reason that with much of the world’s media focused on ISIS, Bruce Jenner, and the Jade Helm/Walmart world-takeover plot, the ongoing ‘small war’ between Myanmar and their much larger neighbor, China, has escaped our collective attention. Hopefully, this three-part article, co-authored with SOFREP member YankeePapa, will help to remedy that.
With this series, we will look at the history of Myanmar, the country’s little-known conflict with China, and the present/future dynamic that could have a lasting effect on the region.
“Fighting has ramped up in recent weeks between government troops and the MNDAA, who are fighting along Myanmar’s border with China under ethnic Chinese leader Peng Jiasheng to reclaim the Kokang region, which they had controlled until 2009.
Ethnic Kokang lawmaker Kyaw Ni Naing, who represents the regional capital Laukkai, told RFA on Friday that of more than 100,000 refugees who have fled across the border to China’s Yunnan province since the fighting began in February, around 60,000 refugees remain in camps there.
The fighting has also spilled across the border in recent months, with several bombs mistakenly dropped by Myanmar’s air force on Chinese soil, killing Chinese civilians and raising tensions between Naypyidaw and Beijing…”—Radio Free Asia
Burma, (called Myanmar in later years) is about the size of Texas. Its highest elevation is a mountain on the Tibet/China border (19,295 feet). The country borders China, Thailand, Bangladesh, India, and Laos. Its rivers flow from north to south, the largest of which is the Irrawaddy—navigable from about 60 miles from the Chinese border to the Bay of Bengal.
The nation sits between India and China, and the rivalry between them influences Myanmar. They also share a 1,300-mile border with Thailand, an ally of the United States and a country that Burma’s leaders view as a potential enemy. Thai and U.S. joint exercises, called ‘Cobra Gold,’ are viewed as a threat by Myanmar.
In spite of the many advantages that should have long ago turned Burma into one of Asia’s ‘economic tigers,’ the country is instead one of the poorest nations on earth. The average annual income for a citizen of Myanmar is less than $300 per year. They have the second worst health care and are tied with Somalia for having the most corrupt government on the planet. On the other hand, the Burmese army, the Tatmadawa (“tap ma taw”), is reputed to be the sixth largest.
Burma/Myanmar might best be described as a beautiful North Korea, complete with 60,000 armed insurgents, the longest-running counter-insurgency war in modern history, and a thriving tourism industry. The government is alleged to be working on developing chemical weapons, and there is reason to believe that North Korea is aiding it in efforts to obtain nuclear weapons capability.
Pre-colonial times and the British Colonial period
Burma has had a rich culture going back more than a thousand years. While paying tribute to China, they were a power in their own region. The feud with China notwithstanding, their main adversary has often proved to be Thailand. Burma proved to be extremely fertile ground for Buddhism, and Burmese kings closely allied themselves with the faith. As testimony to this, their chief advisor was usually the chief monk in the country.
Burma only became a colony in 1885 and had the shortest colonial experience of any Southeast Asian country. (Independence was gained in 1948.) Colonialism happened upon Burma for pretty much the usual reasons: commercial greed, adventurism, Burmese assumptions of military superiority marked by the British empire’s conquered territories, and menacing British dependencies. Then too, France was moving towards Burma, and ultimately Thailand would remain independent to act as a buffer state.
Cultural misunderstanding played its part as well. Most famously, the British delegation refused to take off their shoes in the palace, disturbing “the rightness of everything.” To this day Burmese/Myanmar leaders not only claim Buddhist order, but are deeply influenced by astrology. (The government holds elections only on ‘auspicious’ days.) The Burmese army was brave, but outmatched. These days, it seems that nations that spend the most time blaming their poverty on colonialism are also the ones that manage to be the poorest and most poorly run. So it is with Burma.
Not to say they didn’t have anything to complain about. Until 1937, the British insisted on running Burma as part of India. This was a bad idea for many reasons. The British imported many Indians into Burma because they were hard working, used to dealing with the British, and spoke English.
The Indians eventually controlled large parts of the economy. Worst of all, Burmese farmers had no experience with credit or debt. Indian moneylenders wound up owning more than half the farmland in Burma after the Great Depression hit. Even when Burma was separately administered, the British did not trust the Burmese majority. The British Burmese Army was small and mostly consisted of minorities. Only about 10 percent were native Burmese.
Still, colonialism was not without some benefit. For generations after independence, older Burmese would wax nostalgic about trains that ran on time, utilities that did not break down, authorities that did not have to be bribed, and an extremely aggressive and effective suppression of theft and banditry. It was also during this time that the British developed the Irrawaddy delta into the largest rice-exporting region in the world.
World War Two
The Japanese invaded Burma. They were treated almost as liberators. British forces endured a long and cruel retreat to India. Vast numbers of Indians fled as well. Lack of water, food, and medicine, the harsh conditions, and the enemy action devastated the Indians and left the route littered with thousands of skeletal remains.
The Japanese raised Burmese forces mostly to function as a domestic enforcement arm. While some Japanese officers fervently endorsed the ‘Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere’ and were all for Asian solidarity, too many of their commanders were arrogant and treated even potential allies like a conquered people. Burmese troops were often treated harshly and civilians worse, especially the tribal minorities.
The native Burmese population took advantage of the Japanese presence to massacre as many Karens as possible in the Delta area. The Karens, the Kachins, and some other tribal groups (alike in some ways to Vietnam’s Montagnards) decided not to follow suit. They would kill any Japanese soldier caught trying to pillage, rape, or acquire forced labor. The same fate awaited any Burmese collaborating forces.
The Allies had been run out of Burma, and these tribes ultimately proved to be a godsend. The British got some teams out among the tribes—at first for intel and downed pilot rescue—then later for direct action missions. At the same time, the American OSS (Office of Strategic Service) were looking for a place to show their stuff. They were still learning in England prior to actions on ‘The Continent’ (Europe). J. Edgar Hoover had talked FDR into keeping the OSS out of Latin America, and MacArthur refused to have them in his command area. So Burma it would be.
The first team sent in was codenamed Detachment 101. In reality, this was really the only team, but the hope was to mislead the British (who saw right through it). The Allied teams and the Karens, Kachins, and others hit it off splendidly right from the start. The indigenous personnel proved to be quick learners, were brave, efficient, and absolutely trustworthy—the perfect material for a modern A-Team. Eventually, they became outstanding and highly disciplined guerrilla fighters.
The British team commanders passed on British promises to the tribes that a new Labour government after the war would ignore. A Burmese soldier by the name of Aung San had commanded troops and then became minister of defense of the puppet regime. But unlike many of the collaborators, he was concerned with Burma first.
By March of 1945, with the Red Army closing in on Berlin and starving remnants of Japanese divisions retreating from highly effective British offensives, Aung San was able to convince the Burmese regime to switch over to the Allied side. Many Allied officers were not enthusiastic about welcoming men who largely loathed them, but the war effort came first.
The war had devastated large swathes of productive regions of Burma, and it would take more than a decade to rebuild. By the 1950s, some of the relatively junior Japanese officers who believed in Asian solidarity were now in positions of authority in Japanese business and government, and arranged for large reparation payments to Burma. As a result of this gesture, some lifelong friendships were made.
At the end of the war, the Labour government became all about starting the long process of offloading colonies—ready or not—and if they were going to lose India, they certainly had no interest in keeping Burma. Aung San’s genuine patriotism put a good face on handing power to those who were Britain’s enemies and had so eagerly welcomed and worked for the Japanese.
The fact that he was the one high-ranking leader who was trusted by the tribes also helped hide the fact that the new British government was throwing them under the bus. It did not augur well for the country’s future that those who served in the collaborator military would later claim that as Burmese (and later Myanmar) officers, they were the ones really responsible for independence.
At 4:20 a.m., January 4, 1948 (time picked by Burmese astrologers as being the most auspicious), Burma officially became independent. Aung San had negotiated independence, but he did not live to see it, as a Burmese socialist assassinated him on July 14, 1947. It seemed that, without him, there would be no peace. Nearly 70 years of guerrilla warfare would rage in and around the tribal areas as a result.
As part of their independence, the tribes were to take ten years to decide if they wanted to secede. From the moment of independence, the Burmese Army tried to subdue, kill, or drive off the tribes. Unfortunately for the Burmese forces, these tribes were not only naturally gifted warriors, but had been very well trained during the war, and had also gained lots of combat experience against the Japanese Army. From time to time, Burma/Myanmar announced peace, but in reality, there were no treaties, just verbal agreements that gave both sides a chance to catch their breath.
Various tribes would at times get aid from foreign sources. India shipped goods to the Kachin and Karen, and East Pakistan (later the nation of Bangladesh) armed Moslem residents of Burma who were being treated as aliens no matter how long their families had lived there. The Chinese supported various tribes and, in a bizarre effort, the United States supported Chinese nationalist troops in Northern Burma.
In 1949, most nationalist Chinese troops had either gone over to the communists or fled to Taiwan, but 16,000 fled into Burma. It was during that time that planners at the CIA had the idea that these troops might serve as a cadre force when the time came to take China back. In fact, the efforts made at crossing the border seemed to always end badly. The nationalist general in command became little more than a warlord. At first, the Burmese army could do nothing, but finally, in 1961, 20,000 communist Chinese troops and 5,000 Burmese chased them off. Many survivors were ultimately evacuated to Taiwan, but others crossed into remote parts of Thailand and became drug lords.
Opium production had already been pushed into Burma, in part out of sheer criminality, and the tribes took it up because eventually it was their only means of purchasing weapons and other critical supplies. Elsewhere in Burma, opium production had been legal and taxed in the colonial days, and was almost entirely a local issue—confined mainly to ethnic Chinese. It was not officially outlawed in Burma until 1958.
Politically, the civilian government was one of the first to recognize Red China and the state of Israel. Meanwhile, Burmese power, both civilian and military, was largely a function of people with large followings. By 1958, Burma was facing the possibility of a civil war (beyond the tribal areas). The military went to Prime Minister U Nu and announced a coup, and he countered with an offer to let the military run things for six months.
The military junta stayed in power for 18 months, and Burma had its last (respected) free election. In 1960, U Nu was reelected and the military stood down, but it should be noted that during their brief period running the country, they were actually somewhat efficient. This brief time in the limelight would lead to many erroneous conclusions and mistakes in the future.
(Featured image depicts Detachment 101 of the Office of Strategic Services [OSS]—the predecessor of today’s CIA—in Burma during World War II. Courtesy of cia.gov)