Burma National Army

Burma National Army

The Burma National Army served as the armed forces of the Burmese government created by the Japanese during World War II and fought in the Burma Campaign. It was originally organised by, and fought alongside the Imperial Japanese Army, but later changed sides and fought alongside the Allies.


After the opening of the Burma Road in 1940, Japanese military interest in South-East Asia increased. It increased because the British were covertly and overtly providing military assistance, including supplies and training, to the Chinese whom Japan was fighting. Colonel Suzuki Keiji, a staff officer at the Imperial General HQ in Japan was given the task of devising a strategy for dealing with Southeast Asia. He produced a plan in 1940 for clandestine operations in Burma, which was then a British colony. The Japanese knew little about Burma at the time and had few contacts within the country. The top Japanese agent in the country was Naval Reservist Kokubu Shozo, who had been resident there for several years and had contacts with most of the anti-British political groups. Suzuki visited Burma secretly in September 1940 meeting with political leaders Thakin Kodaw Hmaing and Thakin Mya. The Japanese later made contact with a Burmese student activist in China named Aung San. Aung San had left Burma in 1940 and had entered China in an attempt to make contact with communists in the country. He reached Amoy, where he was detained by Suzuki.

Suzuki and Aung San flew to Tokyo. After discussions at Imperial General HQ, it was decided to form an organisation named Minami Kikan, which was to support Burmese resistance groups and to close the Burma Road to China. In pursuing those goals, it would recruit potential independence fighters in Burma and train them in Thailand or Japanese-occupied China. Aung San and the first "Thirty Comrades" were trained on Hainan Island. Another early recruit was Bo Ne Win. Thakin Tun Oke was selected to be a political administrator and organizer when the group entered Burma. Suzuki assumed the Burman name, "Bo Mo Gyo" for his work with Minami Kikan.

Actions of the Burma Independence Army

On December 7 1941, the Japanese entered the war by attacking the United States and Britain. On December 28, at a ceremony in Bangkok, the Minami Kikan was declared dissolved and the Burma Independence Army formed in its place. The BIA, numbering initially 227 Burmese and 74 Japanese, formed several small units which would participate in the invasion of Burma in January 1942. These units were initially tasked to act as intelligence-gatherers, saboteurs and foragers, but quickly took on other tasks and on occasions fought direct battles against British forces. They fought with determination during the invasion and constantly recruited new soldiers.

With the fall of Rangoon on March 8, the BIA was rapidly expanded by an influx of Burman volunteers. Many of these "volunteers" were not officially recruited but rather individuals or gangs who took to calling themselves BIA to further their own activities. They continued to assist the Japanese in their campaign to drive the British from India. Some took to dacoitry (banditry) and were involved in attacks on minority populations (particularly the Karens) and preyed on Indian refugees. The worst atrocities against the Karens in the Irrawaddy Delta south of Rangoon cannot however be attributed to dacoits or unorganised recruits in that rather they were the actions of a subset of regular BIA and their Japanese officers. The top leadership of the BIA did eventually stop the actions against the Karens in the delta.

Disputes between the BIA and the Japanese military police, the kempeitai were not related to the BIA's excesses against civilians. The disputes were rather over the BIA's attempts to form local governments in various towns in Burma and the intention of the Japanese to form an administration on its own terms. The first such dispute had been over the administration of Moulmein. The Japanese 55th Division had flatly refused Burmese requests to form an administration in the town and had further disallowed the BIA from even entering the town.

Establishment of the Burma National Army

After operations ceased in the spring of 1942, the BIA was disbanded. It its place, the Japanese created the Burma Defence Army along with civil organisations designed to guide Burma toward nominal independence. A new force of 3,000 men were recruited and trained by Japanese instructors as regular army battalions during the second half of 1942.

In August 1943, Burma was granted nominal independence by Japan. Ba Maw, a politician imprisoned by the British before the war, became premier. Aung San became Minister of Defence in the new regime, and also Commander-in-Chief of the renamed Burma National Army, with the rank of Major General.

The BNA eventually consisted of seven battalions of infantry and a variety of supporting units with a strength which grew to 11000. Most were Burmans, but there was one battalion of Karens. The BNA took little part in the fighting during 1944.

Although Burma was nominally self-governing, it remained under Japanese military occupation. The resulting hardships and Japanese militaristic attitudes turned the majority Burman population against the Japanese. The insensitive attitude of the Japanese Army extended to the BNA. Even its officers were obliged to salute Japanese private soldiers as their superiors.

Change of sides

During 1943 and 1944, the BNA made contacts with other political groups inside Burma such as the communists who had taken to the hills in 1942. Eventually, a popular front organisation called the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO) was formed with Thakin Soe, a founder of the communist party in Burma, as leader. Through the communists and a Japanese-sponsored force known as the Arakan Defence Army, the Burmese were eventually able to make contact with the British Force 136 in India. The initial contacts were always indirect. Force 136 was also able to make contacts with members of the BNA's Karen unit in Rangoon through agents dropped by parachute into the Karenni, the Karen-populated area in the east of Burma.

In December 1944, the AFO contacted the Allies indicating their readiness to launch a national uprising which would include the BNA. The situation was not immediately considered favourable for a revolt by the BNA by the British and there were internal disputes about supporting the BNA among the British. The first BNA uprising occurred early in 1945 in central Burma. In late March 1945, the remainder of the BNA paraded in Rangoon and marched out ostensibly to take part in the battles then raging in Central Burma. Instead, on March 27 they openly declared war on the Japanese.

BNA units were deployed all over the country under ten different regional commands. Those near the British front-lines on or near the Irrawaddy River requested arms and supplies from Allied units operating in this area. They also seized control of the civil institutions in most of the main towns. The British had reservations over dealing with Aung San. In contrast to Force 136, some prominent Civil Affairs officials in South East Asia Command HQ wanted him tried for his pre-war activities, and for murder over a case in 1942, in which he had personally executed a civilian of Indian ancestry.

Allied cooperation

Force 136 had issued Aung San along with others a safe pass, and on May 15 he met with General Slim commanding the British Fourteenth Army in Burma. Thakin Soe and Aung San hoped for the BNA to be accepted as allied forces and the Anti-Fascist Organisation to be acknowledged as the provisional government of Burma. Slim refused to accept the AFO as a government and insisted that the BNA submit to being disarmed by British forces in areas where the fighting was over. The AFO agreed to this in return for recognition as a political movement and promises that the officers and men of the BNA would be incorporated into the new Burma Army. The BNA was renamed the Patriotic Burmese Forces, and cooperated in driving the Japanese from Southern Burma.

Eventually, the AFPFL (political party successor to the AFO) was brought into the Civil Government of Burma. The PBF was disarmed after much negotiation and its personnel were recruited to form the basis for thethree new battalions of the reconstituted postwar Burma Army. Other ex-BPF/BNA soldiers were formed into Aung San's PVO party militia organisation.

SEAC saw the alternative to cooperation with the AFPFL to be a difficult counterinsurgency campaign in Burma at a time when British resources were being withdrawn from Asia and the Indian Army could no longer be counted on to impose British rule in places like Burma. The structures they put in place while allowing the British a graceful exit from Burma set the stage for insurgencies in 1947 and then a full civil war in Burma in 1949.

ee also

*Military of Burma


* "A History of the Minami Organ", Sugii, 1956 (Published in Rangoon)
* " Burma: The Forgotten War", Jon Latimer, John Murray, 2004; ISBN 978-0719565762
* "Burma: The Longest War 1941-45", Louis Allen, J.M. Dent and Sons, 1984; ISBN 0-460-02474-4

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