- Burma and Japan Since 1940: From ‘Co-Prosperity’ to ‘Quiet Dialogue’
This book examines the bilateral relationship between Burma/ Myanmar and Japan since 1940, or rather, the onset of World War II. The book itself is divided into three major sections that chronologically fit the three main periods that Seekins thinks marks major policy shifts in the relationship. The first period spans from 1941 to 1945 and takes into account World War II and the Japanese occupation of Southeast Asia; the second period from 1954 to 1988 when the bilateral relationship was primarily economic in nature, underpinned by Japanese Official Development Assistance (ODA); and finally, from 1988 onwards. Readers familiar with political developments in Myanmar will realize the importance of 1988 in the country’s political calendar. That year marked the collapse of the Burma Socialist Party Programme (BSPP) government that came into power in 1962 following the military coup led by General Ne Win. It should be noted at the outset that Seekins makes it clear that Japan has initiated the changes in the relationship — an unsurprising observation given the disproportionate endowments of power and prosperity between the two countries.
In the first chapter, Seekins begins by outlining what life was like in colonial Burma under British rule. He notes the variegated nature of the cultural life in the urban areas and compares it to Furnivall’s description of “plural societies” where there is public disengagement from civic behaviour and the self-government that the British sought to initiate. There existed a measure of rational tolerance while mutual suspicions and anxieties between the different communities were rife. He then goes on to document how some of the liberal immigration policies introduced by the British for Indians and Chinese led to open conflict, especially between locals and Indians. Another important structural feature of colonization that he draws our attention to was the British division of Burma into the lowland areas or “Burma Proper” and the “Frontier Areas” that were inhabited by hill tribes.
The Japanese invasion and occupation led to a number of important developments. Among these, Seekins highlights the Burmese nascent conception of a post-colonial state, albeit the conception was not necessarily a holistic one involving all the different peoples. Secondly, the importation of a large quantity of weapons into the [End Page 144] country, both by the Allies and the Japanese, led to an early and inseparable linkage between arms and political power (p. 15). The chapter also spells out in detail how the Burmese freedom fighters who sought Chinese training to defeat the British were instead trained by the Japanese and became useful allies to the Japanese during the invasion and subsequent occupation. The group that trained the Burmese “Thirty Comrades”, the Minami Kikan, played an extremely active role in maintaining a very positive bilateral relationship between the two countries after 1945. As well, there is discussion of how during and immediately after the war, indiscriminate killings of ethnic minorities became important markers for some of the communities in their perceptions of each other.
The second chapter explores Burmese and Japanese war narratives. In the case of the former, Seekins highlights how the narrative has been captured by the tatmadaw (the Burmese armed forces) after 1988 as an episode when the army united in defence of the country from imperialism after defeating the British. The theme is essentially one of unity and patriotic fulfillment of the higher goal of keeping the country safe from foreign domination. As for the Japanese variant of the narrative, the emphasis is on bravado in the face of difficult situations and conflict, living in harmony with the Burmese prior to the British counter-offensive, and the warmth of the Burmese in helping Japanese soldiers who were caught near the Thai-Burmese border area. Seekins observes how the narrative, which bears little correlation to historical reality, is meant to be a story about “self” rather than the “other” (p. 51). Such popular perceptions and the linkage provided by the Minami Kikan led...