The press has been full of opinions about the current crisis in Rakhine State having its roots in the Second World War. Here is a sample of what has been said:
ISCI’s fieldwork reveals a persistent memory in some sections of the Rakhine community of historical animosity between the communities, for example massacres of both groups in 1942-43 in the context of World War Two, when the Rohingya fought with the British and the Rakhine with the Japanese.
As per the AFP news agency, the British colonists favoured Muslims at the expense of other groups. They recruited them as soldiers during World War II, pitting them against Buddhists aligned with the Japanese as the war played out on Burmese soil.
During the Second World War, for example, the Rohingya sided with the British while Myanmar’s nationalists supported the Japanese.
Worse still, the Rohingya sided with the British against the Japanese in WWII while the dominant Burman ethnicity was barred from joining the military. Rohingya engaged in armed combat with Burmese Buddhists who supported the Japanese against the British, which degenerated into cycles of retributive violence on the village level.
The perception of the Rohingya as outsiders and illegal immigrants grew during this period and was only exacerbated when the British armed local Muslims during World War II to fight the Arakanese, who largely sided with the Japanese.
During the Second World War, Rakhine was the front line between the Japanese invaders and allied forces. Muslims and Rakhine Buddhists were on opposing sides; most of the former remained pro-British, while the latter supported the Japanese until a last-minute switch enabled the eventual allied reoccupation of Rakhine. Both communities formed armed units and attacked the other, with accounts of massacres on both sides in 1942-1943. Muslims fled to the north, where they were the majority, and Rakhine Buddhists moved south.
The rationale for this post is to provide readers with some new research with which they can consider the veracity of the excerpts above. What follows is a study of a Special Operations Executive (SOE) / Force 136 operation in the Arakan (today’s Rakhine), involving Burmese nationalists recruited as agents and their experience in liberating Burma from the Japanese.
In the space between two armies, and the consequent withdrawal of authority, law and order, there is time for anarchy. During this gap between the withdrawal and restoration of governance, atrocities can happen. When the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942, they came with Daw Aung San Su Kyi’s father, Aung San. He had been contacted by Japanese agents before the war started and, after training by the Japanese Army, came to liberate Burma from the British as head of the Burma Independence Army (BIA). The BIA was by no means a huge army of nationalist Burmese come to overturn colonial rule with Japanese help, but its 5000 or so recruits managed to inspire stories of a Fifth Column in Burma which perhaps had a disproportionate strategic influence on the campaign. In the Irrawaddy Delta area and in Karenni, as the British withdrew, the BIA committed ethnically motivated massacre, for example at Myaungmya. In some British circles, the BIA became the BTA, Burma Traitor Army. As the British and Empire Army retreated, stories of stragglers being hacked to death with the dahs of Burmese bandits abounded, adding an extra layer to the fog of war. Thus, the BIA, as well as individuals or groups of criminals, took advantage of the power vacuum. It should be noted that these people were not only Burmese, but other ethnicities too. For example, there was an anti-British Karen group called the Thompson Po Min movement who are known to have fired at Allied troops during 1942.
Just as the atrocities were carried out in central and southern Burma, in Arakan too, different groups took advantage of the war situation. Before the war reached the Arakan, British officials arrested local Burmese nationalists; in February 1942 Po Hla and Tun Sein were detained under the Defence of Burma Rules. Men such these were taken beyond the reach of the advancing Japanese and imprisoned as ‘”Special” class prisoners’ in India. Tun Sein and Po Hla were both propaganda officers in the Arakan National Congress, which had been formed in 1939. They were also known to have links to the Thakin Party, and are noted in their SOE record as being friends with Thakin Thein Pe and Nyo Tun.
Thakin Thein Pe was a nationalist leader who, with Tin Shwe, decided to trek out of Japanese occupied Burma in mid 1942. His destination was India and the British authorities there, who he hoped to prevail upon for help in freeing Burma from newly installed Japanese control. The Burmese nationalist leadership had fractured between those who believed that the Japanese were still their best hope for independence and those who thought that they needed to work with the British. The British reaction to Thein Pe was not even lukewarm as they contemplated the disaster that had just occurred in Burma, and indeed across Southeast Asia, over the last six months. There were some British officials, particularly colonial administrators from Burma and some in the Army, who regarded nationalists such as Thein Pe as traitors, and as such that they should be put on trial.
It was not only the British who worried about Burmese nationalism. British intelligence intercepted a message to Tokyo in late June 1942 which revealed fears that the Burmese could ‘swing around to hatred of Japan’, and that the BIA was considered a liability which should be ‘buried in oblivion‘. Thein Pe arrived in India a few weeks later. While the Japanese made concessions to Burmese nationalism to stabilise their occupation of Burma, the British pondered how to use Burmese nationalism to do the opposite. In 1943, the British finally decided to act; the Special Operations Executive would see if there was any advantage to running Burmese nationalists as agents against the Japanese. Thein Pe was given the code-name of Merlin.
In December 1943, Thein Pe’s companion Tin Shwe, now code-named Lancelot, was landed on the Arakanese coast by SOE. His mission was to make his way to Rangoon overland, and contact the Thakin Soe, now code-named Arthur, a prominent nationalist leader. His operation was successful and he returned to India in February 1944 with valuable intelligence, and another nationalist called Nyo Tun (soon to be code-named Galahad). This was the start of Operation Billet, an operation that grew into one of SOE’s biggest commitments in Burma.
Nyo Tun, alias Khin Oo and Hla Maung, was born in 1913 and came from Kyauktaw. His father was a rice miller and land owner. His record describes him as ‘slightly anti British and very nationalistic’ as well as a ‘senior member of Thakin So’s [sic] anti-Jap party’. He was the nationalist leader for the Arakan region, described as ‘the man to whom all anti-Japanese Arakanese are looking to give them aid against their enemies.’ His interrogation report from March 1944 reveals that he avoided arrest at the start of the war by going into hiding. After the Japanese arrived he reappeared, and was attached to the Japanese General Staff as an adviser between May and August 1942. His British interrogators had ‘no doubt of [the] genuineness’ of the intelligence with which he and Tin Shwe returned to India in February 1944, so plans began to be made to return him to Rangoon with a W/T set.
The W/T operator was Ram Das, a Chin from the Falam area of the Chin Hills north of the Arakan, bordering India. Ram Das was 23 in 1943, and had previously worked as a Telegraphist for the Burma Post Service in Kalewa. Ram Das joined SOE in August 1943. By March 1944 he had completed paramilitary training and the advanced signals course at Meerut in India.
When Nyo Tun returned to Rangoon, he was to take Ram Das with him, but the pair required a ‘cut out’ as security for Nyo Tun, who would be masquerading as a pro-Japanese nationalist. As a result, SOE recorded on 3 March 1944 that ‘We are investigating possibility of extracting two contacts of GALAHAD’S from COMILLA Jail to assist him.’ The two men that Nyo Tun had asked for were Po Hla and Tun Sein, the two propaganda officers of the Arakan National Congress. Nine days later, the two men were released to Major Newhouse. Four weeks after their release from prison, on 31 March 1944, they left Calcutta to begin their operation, code-named Billet 1. Their conducting officer was Major Frederick Wemyss, a former Burma policeman, now working for SOE.
At a place called Satpaung, Nyo Tun was almost shot when a local policeman recognised him as a person to be ‘shot on sight for three activities at PALETWA during Jap occupation in 1942/1943.’ Nyo Tun tried to bribe the policeman and was then imprisoned. Wemyss was able to persuade the local Civil Affairs officer not to shoot Nyo Tun, assuring him that Nyo Tun ‘was now a reformed character’, but if Nyo Tun misbehaved he was Wemyss’ responsibility.
Also at Satpaung, a fifth man joined the operation. Tha Aung, alias Tin Maung, was a Burman who was working as a revenue clerk in the office of Superintendent de Glanville. Wemyss asked for Tha Aung to be released for a fortnight so that he could act as a guide to help take the party through the lines. Tha Aung was keen to help, but did not want to lose his job. Wemyss reported that Tha Aung struck him ‘as being quite a good type’, but de Glanville said that he suspected Tha Aung of being a spy. Worried that letting Tha Aung go on operations ‘would affect his prestige when dealing with his charge [sic] who were all anti-Thakin’, de Glanville told Wemyss that he could have Tha Aung permanently. Wemyss agreed, and Tha Aung was employed as a guide as well as a cut out between V Force and the Billet 1 party.
It turned out that Tha Aung was friends with Nyo Tun. Tha Aung was able to tell Nyo Tun that his contacts had moved from Daletme and Paletwa to Kyauktaw and Kaladan. Armed with this intelligence, the party travelled on to Lemro (Lemyochaung), where they arrived on 15 April. From here the story gets a little more complicated to follow precisely, but the party split up because there were too many of them and not enough dugouts for hire to take them further south. Tha Aung and Nyo Tun went ahead, leaving Ram Das, Tun Sein and Po Hla in a village. By this time, ‘Tun Sein was a changed man’, worrying about his cover story ‘an awful lot.’ He ‘seemed to realise the great difficulties [he would] be up against but [was] confident of trying to live underground.’
Meanwhile, Nyo Tun had gone ahead with Tha Aung to try and find some of Nyo Tun’s contacts. They were able to send out some potential recruits to India, but then Nyo Tun went down with fever. Given some quinine by a contact called Bo Aung, Nyo Tun recovered and moved on to Setwaytha, where they stayed with Kyaw Tun Oo and U Seinda. By this point Nyo Tun apparently ‘had found his companion [Tha Aung] to be a liability, and a garrulous liability in addition.’
The rest of the party were at a place called Watchaung, where Nyo Tun instructed them to wait for Bo Aung. It seems the nationalists in the Arakan were as divided as their colleagues in central Burma, for when Bo Aung arrived he delivered a message from Kyaw Tun Oo. According to Tun Sein’s account, given in July 1945, Bo Aung told them ‘that it is not easy to revolt against the Japanese who used to take drastic action against against the anti-Japanese. He advised us to collaborate with the Japanese and if we did not submit ourselves to his advice he would have to arrest us.’ The three agents said that they ‘would carry out anti-Japanese campaign at our own risks and that we wanted him only to report to the Japanese that we were jailbirds who had flown away from the “Dinajpur” jail in India’. Kyaw Tun Oo apparently consented, and went to see if he could ‘win over the Japanese to receive us back in Arakan as refugees.’
Kyaw Tun Oo told the Japanese the truth about the party, ‘but to save us’ had also told the Japanese that they ‘were unwilling to help the British and ready to collaborate with the Japanese’. They were instructed to give up their W/T set, which they did, and then the Japanese imprisoned them for the next three months before taking them to Rangoon for further interrogation. Tun Sein’s account continues:
‘At Rangoon we were locked up at the J.M.P. Office for about four and a half months and were released on giving a guarantee that we would collaborate with the Japanese. We three and eight other Burmans were then removed to a house in Kokkine Avenue and made to work on odd jobs for the Japanese that lived in that house. About a month later, the 2nd: Officer in charge of us took me away to Leiktho, east of Toungoo, in a motor car to search for British parachutists. After searching in vain for two days I was taken back to Toungoo where I spent two days. Then I had to follow him to Shwegyin and thence to Ley-Wa, east of Shwegyin, in search of 1000 British paratroops.’
Back in Arakan, Nyo Tun had heard about the arrest of the rest of his group so he and ‘his rather useless companion’ returned, with some difficulty, to British lines. In November, they heard that Ram Das, Tun Sein and Po Hla were being taken to Rangoon, so U Seinda attempted an ambush on the Taungup Pass. Whether or not the ambush went ahead is not recorded, but the transfer to Rangoon was obviously successful.
Nyo Tun and Tha Aung made it back to India by June 1944. Tha Aung, having worked for SOE but no longer required, was posted to India to look after stores to keep him out the way. For Nyo Tun, more operations were planned. After parachute training at Chaklala in India and para military training in Ceylon, Nyo Tun was dropped by parachute into Arakan on 27 December 1944 as part of further Billet operations, this one code-named Camel. This time he went with British officers and a British sergeant W/T operator, plus four Arakanese. Major Carew, Captain Cox and Sergeant Sharp were met by all Burmese teams who had been parachuted in ahead of them. The future of SOE operations with nationalist Burmese rested on the success of Camel to a large extent. It was a success, so during the first six months of 1945, Billet teams of nationalist Burmese, often accompanied by three man Jedburghs (two British officers and a Sergeant W/T operator) were dropped across central Burma, and played a not insignificant part in assisting XIV Army’s success in taking Meiktila and Rangoon.
What of Tun Sein, Ram Das and Po Hla. Tun Sein was able to escape the Japanese and joined a British unit at Madauk. Hearing that Wemyss was in Prome, Tun Sein made his way there to report. He reported that Po Hla and Ram Das ‘were left behind at the house in Kokkine Avenue and I have not heard of them since.’ Neither Ram Das’ or Po Hla’s record reveal their fate, but Tun Sein believed they had been ‘evacuated to the hills’ based on what friends told him.
After reading this account, I leave it to the reader to return to the press releases presented at the beginning of this post to make your own mind up about how far the current Rohingya crisis is being reported accurately in the historical sense, particularly in terms of the Second World War.