That Is the End of the British Empire

Singapore and Burma

Certainly the blood-soaked partition wrecked hopes that the British might in fact strengthen their eastern empire by setting India free. Wavell and others had claimed that “Britain should not lose, but on the contrary, may gain in prestige and even in power, by handing over to the Indians.”1The idea was that partnership would succeed trusteeship. There would be cooperation in matters such as trade, finance and defence. Both new dominions would have a common loyalty to the Crown. But none of this came to pass. Partition alienated Pakistan and India from Britain and entrenched enmity between the two fledgling states. Nehru made India a republic and it only remained in the Commonwealth because that body, the ghost of empire, could change its shape at will. So, lamented Lord (formerly Sir John) Simon to Winston Churchill in 1949, Nehru and Cripps had won after all. Nehru had got advantages without responsibilities, thus enabling Cripps to achieve “his ambition to ‘dissolve the British Empire.’”2 The Islamic Republic of Pakistan broke in two, the eastern wing becoming Bangladesh, and their governments forged links with other Muslim countries. As India’s economy developed, commercial ties frayed along with bonds of sentiment. Nehru kept his country neutral during the Cold War, seeming more hostile to capitalist than to Communist imperialism. Most important of all, after the Indian army was split between India and Pakistan, the subcontinent could never again be an English barrack in the oriental seas. When the Raj ended, said Field-Marshal Lord Alanbrooke, “the keystone of the arch of our Commonwealth defence was lost and our imperial defence crashed.”3 The earth shook. Neighbouring colonial edifices in Malaya, Burma and Ceylon were no longer safe. Unlike the Roman Empire, which survived in the east for a millennium after it had vanished in the west, the British Empire in Asia crumbled first. Its swift collapse, which resulted as much from war as from decrepitude, began with the fall of Singapore—an event comparable to the sack of Rome by Alaric the Goth.

Singapore, which means Lion City, was a byword for strength. An emerald pendant at the tip of the Malayan peninsula, it had been acquired by Sir Stamford Raffles because of its strategic position. About the size of the Isle of Wight or Martha’s Vineyard, it guarded the Malacca Strait, the main route from the Indian Ocean to the China Sea. By the inter-war period it had become the fifth largest port in the world, supporting a business community of more than half a million people. Chinese, the women in cheongsams but the men quick to adopt western dress, outnumbered native Malays, in their sarongs, bajus (blouses) and songkok caps, by three to one. But the city, its skyline of spires, domes, minarets and towers dominating the southern shore, pullulated with alien nationalities. Indians, Ceylonese, Javanese, Japanese, Armenians, Persians, Jews and Arabs filled the streets with a cacophony of accents and a medley of colours. Wearing blue cotton pyjamas and conical straw hats, barefoot coolies pulled rickshaws under bamboo poles hung with washing and between the bicycles and bullock carts of Orchard Road to Asian markets smelling of squid and garlic. Turbaned Sikhs in yellow Ford taxis dodged green trolleys along Serangoon Road, its pavements splashed crimson with betel juice, en route to Indian bazaars scented with coriander, cumin and turmeric. In slums foul with poverty, malnutrition and disease, rickety children in rags scoured the gutters for cabbage leaves and fish heads. British officials in dinner jackets drove their Buicks from rustic bungalows wreathed in jasmine to the cream-walled, red-roofed Raffles Hotel, standing among palm trees near the waterfront “like an iced cake.” Here they were greeted by a head waiter with the “manners of a grand duke.” Here they dined and danced amid whirling fans and rustling ferns. Here they called repeatedly, “Boy…Tiga whisky ayer.”4 European tuans besar (big bosses) wore their confidence like a cuirass. They had some reason to do so. For in Singapore they possessed an “impregnable fortress,”5 newspapers reiterated, the greatest naval base in the southern hemisphere. They were masters of the “Gibraltar of the East…the gateway of the Orient…the bastion of British might.”6

Since ending the alliance with Japan in 1922, governments in London had spent over £60 million on reinforcing Singapore. Admittedly the cash had come in dribs and drabs. This was because of the post-war disarmament, the pre-war Depression and what the cabinet secretary, Maurice Hankey, called the inter-war “orgy of extravagance on social reform.”7 Hankey asserted what became the conventional wisdom: the loss of Singapore would be “a calamity of the first magnitude. We might well lose India and the faith in us of Australia and New Zealand would be shattered.”8If Britain ceded mastery in the East to Japan, General Smuts warned the Dominions Office in 1934, she would “go the way the Roman Empire had gone.”9 But by 1939 it seemed that the immense naval station constructed on the north-eastern side of the island, facing the Johore Strait which provided twenty-two square miles of deep-sea anchorage, could counteract the local superiority of the Japanese fleet.

To build it a major river had been diverted. Mangrove forest enmeshed in dense foliage was cleared. Millions of tons of earth were moved and thirty-four miles of concrete and iron piles were driven though mephitic swamp to meet bedrock at a depth of one hundred feet. Inside the base, which was ringed by high walls, iron gates and barbed wire, were barracks, offices, stores, workshops, boiler-rooms, refrigeration plants, canteens, churches, cinemas, a yacht club, an airfield and seventeen football pitches. There were huge furnaces, vast crucibles and troughs for molten metal, enormous hammers, lathes and hydraulic presses, massive underground fuel tanks, a crane capable of lifting a gun turret out of a battleship, and a floating dock large enough to accommodate the Queen Mary. This arsenal of democracy was bursting with ammunition, gun barrels, propellers, hawsers, radios, sandbags, aeronautical equipment, steel loopholes for pillboxes and spare parts of every kind. Some thirty batteries protected the position, the most powerful of which were five 15-inch guns capable of blowing Japan’s heaviest warships out of the water. Contrary to myth, these guns could be swivelled to face the land (though their shells, armour-piercing rather than high explosive, were ineffective against troops). But the jungles of Malaya were supposed to be impenetrable. Almost everyone expected that an assault on Singapore would be seaborne and thus easily repelled. In the thirteen-storey Cathay Building, known as “Propaganda House,” British broadcasters, who were encouraged by the Ministry of Information at home to play up the potency of Singapore, fostered popular contempt for the Japanese. If they arrived it would be in sampans and junks. Their aircraft were made of bamboo shoots and rice paper. Their soldiers were bandy-legged dwarfs too myopic to shoot straight. All told, the sons of Nippon were mimetic products of a counterfeit civilisation.

Further confirmation of the island’s invulnerability was the British government’s pledge to dispatch a fleet there in the event of hostilities with Japan. When Churchill became First Lord of the Admiralty in 1939 he emphasised that Singapore was a “stepping-stone” to Australia and New Zealand.10 It was also the linchpin between the Antipodean dominions and India. As the war threatened to encompass the world, General Sir John Dill, Chief of the Imperial General Staff, said that Singapore was “the most important strategic point in the British Empire.”11 So although Churchill was by now giving priority to the Middle East, he overruled the Admiralty and dispatched two capital ships, Prince of Wales and Repulse, accompanied by four destroyers, to the Far East. This flotilla, code-named “Z Force,” arrived in Singapore on 2 December 1941. Its task was to deter the potential foe and it seemed to those on the quayside “a symbol of absolute security.”12 The powerful new battleship Prince of Wales, which had been damaged in action against the Bismarck, was known as HMS Unsinkable. The advent of Z Force encouraged the Commander-in-Chief in the Far East, Air Chief Marshal Sir Robert Brooke-Popham, to announce that Japan did not know which way to turn and that “Tojo is scratching his head.”13 But the Japanese Prime Minister, Hideki Tojo, had already made his fatal decision. On 7 December aircraft from carriers in Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto’s Combined Fleet bombed Pearl Harbor and the first troops of General Tomoyuki Yamashita’s 25th Army landed on the north-eastern shores of the Malay peninsula. The following day, stating that Britain was at war with Japan, the London Times printed an article headlined “Singapore Prepared.” The island’s garrison consisted of soldiers from many parts of the Empire. There were “sturdy British infantrymen, Scottish Highlanders, bronzed young giants from Australia, tall, bearded Sikhs, Moslem riflemen fresh from service on the North-West Frontier, tough little Gurkhas, Malays from the Malay Regiment.” The uniforms in the streets, the persistent drone of aeroplanes overhead, the wail of sirens to signal air raid drills, the nocturnal spectacle of searchlights playing over the water, the overwhelming presence of the Royal Navy—all proclaimed that Singapore was “the core of British strength in the Far East.”14

It soon became apparent that the core was rotten. This was partly because the British community in Singapore had been softened by imperial self-indulgence. They dwelt in a world of servants, curry tiffins requiring two-hour siestas, lazy afternoons of golf, cricket or sailing, cocktail parties and fancy-dress balls. Despite its nickname, “Sin-galore,” the city was not as much given to vice as Shanghai. Brothels were illegal and cinemas were far more popular than opium dens. Luxury was preferred to profligacy. Singapore was a place of “high living and low thinking,”15 where the idea of rationing was to serve game on meatless days. It was a “cloud-cuckoo island”16 in which it seemed perfectly natural for a woman to refuse to assist with war work because she had entered a tennis tournament. It was an enclave of smug inertia, summed up in the Malayan term ti’d-apa (why worry). The prevailing torpor was often attributed to the overwhelming humidity—Kipling had said that even the plants perspired and the tree ferns “sweated audibly.”17 But Duff Cooper, whom Churchill sent to Singapore as Resident Minister in 1941, attributed its malaise more to illusion than to accidie. He reported that

the civil population appears to have been asleep in a comfortable dream that the Japanese will not dare to attack and have been lulled into a sense of false security by misleading reports of their impregnable fortress from the effete and ineffective Military Intelligence.18

In fact, Duff Cooper himself was hardly aware of the imminent peril hanging over the island and, frustrated by his relative powerlessness, he entertained dinner parties with ribald imitations of its bickering leaders. However, he was not far wrong about Brooke-Popham (“Old Pop-Off”), whom he thought “damned near gaga.”19 The Air Chief Marshal, supposedly the first man to fire a gun from an aeroplane (in 1913), was “pretty tired”—General Pownall’s euphemism—and “quite out of business from dinner-time onwards.”20 Duff Cooper was equally disparaging about the Governor of the Straits Settlements, Sir Shenton Thomas, who was “the mouthpiece of the last person he speaks to.”21 Again this was a fair verdict. Others thought that the convivial Thomas, “sanguine to the verge of complacency,”22 was best suited to be the headmaster of a preparatory school. Having insisted that proper authorisation must be obtained for taking air raid precautions, so as not to cause unnecessary alarm, Thomas ensured that no sirens sounded and no blackout occurred when the first Japanese bombers struck Singapore on the night of 8 December. Duff Cooper experienced another enemy bombardment a few weeks later, just as he was about to fly home. In what seemed a suitable ending to his mission in Singapore, he was hustled into “an air-raid shelter made entirely of glass.”23

The Prince of Wales and the Repulse might just as well have been made of porcelain, for they sailed to intercept Japanese transports without fighter protection against dive-bombers and torpedo bombers. Z Force’s commander, Admiral Sir Tom Phillips, was a diminutive and pugnacious sailor whom Winston Churchill nicknamed “the Cocksparrow.” He had so little sea experience that a fellow admiral, Andrew Cunningham, said that he hardly knew one end of a ship from the other. Moreover, Phillips took the traditional naval view (shared by Churchill himself) that armoured leviathans were more than a match for mechanical harpies. On 10 December 1941 that belief cost him his life—having called for his best hat, he went down with his ship—as well as the lives of over eight hundred seamen. Undaunted by the radar-controlled pom-poms, known as “Chicago pianos,” Japanese aircraft sank both his great vessels. Their loss gave Churchill the greatest single shock of the war and filled Singapore with a “sense of utter calamity.”24 This was “a catastrophe of gargantuan proportions,” wrote an English serviceman, and “we felt completely exposed.”25Morale fell further when it became clear that the fast, agile Mitsubishi Zero could make mincemeat of the RAF’s menagerie of Buffaloes, Wildebeestes and Walruses. Aptly known as “flying coffins,” these cumbersome and obsolete aeroplanes quickly ceded control of Malaya’s skies to Japan.

So, less than a week after the outbreak of war in the East, the British were reduced to defending the peninsula with a single service. Their army was ill trained and poorly equipped for the purpose. Unlike Yamashita’s three divisions, which had acquired the art of swift manoeuvre when fighting the Chinese, it had little experience of combat. Many of the green Indian troops had never seen a tank until they encountered those of Nippon, which were arrayed against Rolls-Royce armoured cars of Great War vintage, real “museum pieces.”26 In fact the British had plenty of other motor transport, but this kept them glued to the roads that ran through the rubber estates, banana plantations and palm groves beside Malaya’s jungle-clad mountain spine. The Japanese travelled light, riding bicycles (on the rims when the tyres punctured) and wearing canvas shoes (which did not harden like English boots when drenched by the monsoon). Thus they constantly outflanked their scattered foes, who fell back in disarray. As one officer supervising the retreat quipped, his business was a running concern. Apart from the 2nd Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders, who had done bush exercises, British and imperial units simply could not stem the advance. Compared to the Japanese veterans, said one Australian gunner, “we were babies.”27

The contrast between their leaders was equally marked. The brutal Yamashita enforced “discipline as rigorous as the autumn frost”28 and earned his title, the “Tiger of Malaya.” The British commanding officer, General Arthur Percival, never got a proper grip on his subordinates, who knew him as the “Rabbit” of Singapore.29 Actually his buck teeth, his receding chin, his apologetic little moustache and his high, nervous laugh belied his character, for Percival was both clever and brave. But unlike the tough, bulky Yamashita, who believed that Japanese who traced their descent from gods must defeat Europeans who traced their descent from monkeys, he was also painfully shy and woefully irresolute. His calls for popular resistance were more of an embarrassment than an inspiration. Lacking personality, conviction and dynamism himself, he failed to galvanise Singapore. He could not control refractory generals under him such as the Australian Gordon Bennett, who was said to have a chip on each shoulder. He did nothing about bundles of pamphlets on anti-tank defence that were found lying unopened in a cupboard at his headquarters, Fort Canning, nicknamed “Confusion Castle.” He opposed the training of Malays and Chinese for guerrilla operations because “a scheme which admitted the possibility of enemy penetration would have a disastrous psychological effect on the Oriental mind.”30 Indeed, he shared the standard British view that Malays possessed no “martial qualities”31 and Tamils did not “make soldiers.”32 As the Japanese seized Penang and Kuala Lumpur, he did not impose an efficient scorched-earth policy to deny them supplies—communicating by telephone, he even suffered the indignity of being cut off by the operator when his three minutes were up. At first Percival refused to establish fixed defences on the north shore of Singapore island because it would be bad for civilian morale. Then he announced that it would be done, revealing his secrets, in Churchill’s angry opinion, like a convert at a Buchmanite revival.

Still horrified by the discovery that Singapore was not the fortress that he had imagined, the Prime Minister urged Percival to mobilise its population and fight to the finish. But, as Yamashita prepared his final assault, the island remained in a state of fantasy and apathy. Cinemas were crowded, bands played on club lawns and dancing continued at Raffles Hotel. Censors forbade journalists to use the word “siege.” When a colonel arrived at the Base Ordnance Depot to collect barbed wire he found that it had shut for a half-holiday. When a major tried to turn the Singapore Golf Club into a strong point its secretary said that a special committee meeting would have to be convened. When an architect in the Public Works Department used bricks from a colleague’s patio to construct an air-raid shelter, he “caused a most acrimonious altercation.”33 When the civil defence authority began to dig slit trenches as protection against the heavy bombing, the government objected that they would become breeding grounds for mosquitoes. Some Australian troops refused to dig trenches themselves because “it was too bloody hot.”34

It was decreed that labourers going to work in danger areas could receive no extra payment because this would lead to inflation. So Tamils needed to build coastal redoubts went on scything grass verges inland. British units crying out for detailed maps of Singapore island at last received them, only to find that they were maps of the Isle of Wight. There were real concerns about a local fifth column. Some doubted the loyalty of the Sultan of Johore, who had been banned from entering Singapore where he caused trouble over his favourite hostess, a Filipino called Anita, in the dance hall at the “Happy World” fairground. One serviceman “definitely saw lights at night from the Sultan’s property…which could have guided enemy aircraft.”35 Equally sinister in the eyes of the authorities was the fact that the Sultan had given Lady Diana Cooper a parrot that spoke only Japanese. All told, Sir Charles Vyner Brooke, last hereditary white Rajah of Sarawak, was surely right to stigmatise Singapore officials as “lah-di-dah old-school-tie incompetents.”36 Still more striking was the comment of a schoolboy at Raffles College when the Johore causeway, connecting the island to the mainland, was loudly (but not completely) demolished. When the headmaster asked what the explosion was, Lee Kuan Yew, the future Prime Minister of Singapore, replied: “That is the end of the British Empire.”37

As it happened, Percival so bungled his dispositions that he handed victory to the Japanese on a plate. Having dispersed his troops round the shore, he placed the weakest formations in the north-west, where the Johore Strait narrowed to a thousand yards and the landings duly took place. He kept no central reserve to counter-attack. He deployed no military police to round up deserters, stragglers and looters—when the Singapore Club’s whisky was poured away to deny it to the enemy, Australian soldiers were seen “with their faces deep down in the open monsoon drain scooping up as much Scotch as they could.”38 Percival also instructed his artillery to fire only twenty shells a day in order to conserve supplies for a long struggle. It turned out to be a brief encounter. As demolition teams set fire to the naval base, filling the sky with a pall of oily smoke, the Japanese used terror to create panic. They mounted a murderous attack on a military hospital, even bayoneting a patient on the operating table, and cut the city from its reservoirs. Europeans made frantic efforts to escape from the shattered harbour, often shoving Asians off the boats. Echoing Churchill, who exhorted officers to die with their troops for the honour of the British Empire, Percival declared: “It will be a lasting disgrace if we are defeated by an army of clever gangsters many times inferior in numbers to our men.”39 Had he employed all the resources of Singapore, Percival might have lived up to these sentiments, for the Japanese were dangerously short of ammunition. But on 15 February 1942 he surrendered. George Washington caught 7,200 combatants in his mousetrap at Yorktown; Yamashita’s juggernaut secured more than 130,000 in Singapore. Churchill, who had given his reluctant consent, famously wrote that this was “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history.”40 He regarded it as particularly disgraceful when contrasted with the sustained American resistance to Japanese forces at Bataan in the Philippines (though here, too, defenders outnumbered attackers). Subhas Chandra Bose, who would recruit prisoners taken during the Malayan debacle into the Indian National Army, described Singapore as “the graveyard of the British Empire.”41

In military terms, as Churchill had always said, the acquisition of America as an ally more than compensated for the depredations of Nippon as an enemy. Moreover, so barbarous was its occupation of Malaya that Britain’s imperial system seemed refined by comparison. The first major crime that the Japanese committed was “Operation Clean-up,” the “purification by elimination” (sook ching) of some 25,000 Chinese. Their treatment of white captives was also notoriously cruel and they made special efforts to humiliate Britons before their former subjects. They forced emaciated men to sweep the streets in front of newsreel cameras and displayed naked women in shop windows. Such indignities did more to discredit their authors than their victims. Furthermore, Japan’s ruthless exploitation of Malaya’s resources undermined all propaganda about the Greater East-Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere. Characteristically, the Emperor Hirohito’s New Order paid for rubber and tin in worthless scrip, known from its central motif as “banana money.” In Syonan (“Light of the South”), as the Japanese rechristened Singapore, they also threatened to behead anyone who misspelled the Emperor’s name. For these and other reasons, people in Malaya (especially the Chinese) welcomed back the old colonial order in 1945 with “wholehearted and unstinted joy.”42

Yet nothing could be the same again. After the loss of Z Force, the British had tried to hold the Singapore naval base largely for reasons of imperial pride. So its loss was primarily a loss of face, a terrible blow to their prestige. White superiority had been the basis of their rule and Yamashita smashed it in a campaign lasting a mere seventy days. The one Japanese slogan that continued to resonate after the atom bombs fell on Hiroshima and Nagasaki was “Asia for the Asiatics.” In the words of Lee Kuan Yew, who became Prime Minister of independent Singapore in 1959, “When the war came to an end in 1945, there was never a chance of the old type of British colonial system ever being recreated. The scales had fallen from our eyes and we saw for ourselves that the local people could run the country.”43 The shock of Singapore’s fall was felt well beyond the Orient. It even reverberated in the remote recesses of the North-West Frontier, where Pathans expressed “disdain that so grave a reverse should have been suffered at the hands of such foes.”44

At home intellectuals now blamed themselves for having “undermined confidence”45 in the Empire by deriding the principles of force on which it was built, just as the philosophes had sapped the ancien régime before the French Revolution. In The TimesMargery Perham called for an urgent adjustment of colonial administrations, especially in the field of race relations: Britons were “earning the reproach, while we blamed Hitler for his policy of Herrenvolk, that we were denying full equality within the Empire.”46 Australians felt betrayed by the mother country and, as their Prime Minister John Curtin famously declared, they now looked for protection to the United States “free of any pangs as to our traditional links or kinship with the United Kingdom.”47 Two days after Singapore fell, Henry Luce published his article “The American Century” in Life magazine, which stated that the United States must occupy the place once filled by great powers such as the Roman and British Empires. But America would reign benevolently, providing aid, culture, technology, democracy and peace. Critics dismissed this as “Luce Thinking,”48 messianic froth about a new world order that might well be worse than the old. But whether high-minded or woolly-minded, Luce was influential in forming opinion. He helped to define America’s future role at the very moment when Britain seemed poised to lose its Empire.

Even American aid, in the shape of General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell’s Chinese armies and General Claire Chennault’s “Flying Tigers,” could not stem the simultaneous Japanese advance in Burma. Once again the British retreat had all the characteristics of a rout. And as in Malaya, it had a fatal impact on the standing of the colonial power. The Governor, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, who had to leave behind his large collection of top hats, said that the British would never be able to hold up their heads in Burma again. For they could neither defend themselves against Japanese infiltration nor protect the civilian population from ground and airborne assault. Early in April 1942, for example, a heavy raid almost obliterated Mandalay. The first strike destroyed the Upper Burma Club, where a luncheon party was taking place. Bombs killed hundreds of people, blowing some of them into the moat of Fort Dufferin. They also sparked off fires that gutted bamboo-and-thatch houses in seconds and smashed most of the more substantial buildings such as the hospital and the railway station. As an Indian official, N. S. Tayabji, observed in his unpublished memoir, such an onslaught “doomed any lingering sense of loyalty or sympathy for the British cause among the Burmese and Chinese elements of the local population.” Tayabji helped to organise the evacuation of 400,000 Indians and others from Burma. He catalogued the dreadful circumstances of the overland trek: the monsoon-sodden jungle swarming with leeches; the muddy mountain paths choked with panic-stricken humanity; the filthy refugee camps rotten with cholera, dysentery and malaria; the clouds of gaudy butterflies hovering over bloated corpses. He witnessed the effects of Japanese high explosive: “Dismembered limbs and tattered pieces of clothing littered the area, presenting a ghastly sight.” He also noted that whites took priority even in flight and complained of “blatant discrimination.” By the end of May the Japanese occupied the entire country. They had, in Tayabji’s words, “destroyed the myth of western invincibility and with it whatever tenuous links may have survived the 100 odd years of exploitation and mindless domination.”49

This was fair comment since the Burmese*11 had always resented, more bitterly than most colonised races, their bondage to Britain. From the first they had felt “very rancorous”50 towards their conquerors and the annexation of 1885 filled them with “a passion of insurrection, a very fury of rebellion against the usurping foreigners.”51 What fundamentally antagonised them was the sudden attack on a social, political and religious system that had prevailed in Burma for three hundred years. It was hierarchical in structure, supported by a hereditary elite and dominated by the King. Behind the machicolated, red-brown brick walls of his Mandalay palace and under the graceful tiered spire that topped his Hall of Audience, the theocratic monarch reigned and ruled. He alone could display the peacock emblem and wear brocaded silk garments, velvet sandals, precious jewels and twenty-four-strand gold chains. He shaped every aspect of life, lending money, fostering commerce, regimenting monks, patronising the arts and determining etiquette. He also bestowed rank, signified by clothes, ornaments, appropriately hued umbrellas and suitably sized spittoons. The royal writ was supposed to run from the Kra Isthmus to the marches of the Himalayas, from the green Bengal plains to the purple Shan uplands. But the last Burmese king, Thibaw, only exercised a tenuous suzerainty over the Karen, Kachin, Shan, Chin and other clans of the mountains that ringed the arid upper reaches of the Irrawaddy Valley. And even in that valley lawlessness prevailed. The British therefore plumped for deposition and direct rule, and they determined to coerce their three million new subjects.

It took the invaders five years to crush the opposition. Patriots combined with bandits and freedom fighters merged with terrorists to sustain the resistance. Burmese dacoits, armed with razor-sharp dahs (long knives) and a burning faith that magic charms and tattoos of reptiles, ogres and monsters made them invulnerable, earned a fearsome reputation for brutality. They were quite capable of pouring kerosene over women and setting fire to them or pounding babies in rice mortars to “a literal jelly.”52 Counter-demonstrations of violence did not necessarily intimidate the Burmese, who had “a great eye for the comic element in the terrible.” A unit of the Naval Brigade discovered this when it tried to teach them a lesson by executing twelve dacoits one by one.

The first man was placed standing with his back to a wall; a conical ball striking him between the eyes, carried off the whole top of his head, which disappeared in a strange, grotesque, unexpected way. His comrades, standing near, awaiting their turn, screamed with laughter at the sight; they laughed as they went one after the other to be shot in rotation, treating the whole affair as an extraordinary joke.53

Even after the British had gained mastery, crime increased to an alarming degree. Doubtless it was often a form of freelance revolt. At any rate Burma remained, in the view of successive Viceroys, not so much a province of India as a nation of rebels. As one of them wrote, his officers attempted to “substitute penal discipline for social order.”54

The British rule of law was more oppressive than the Burmese yoke of custom, not least because it was so strictly imposed. As late as the 1930s a hundred hangings took place each year, a shockingly high rate in a population of less than seventeen million—George Orwell classically depicted the horror of such executions. British income tax was more intrusive than the levy on property. The new system of local government destroyed the old sense of community. The traditional gentry gave way to British-appointed village headmen who never commanded the same allegiance, even when they were ceremonially equipped with silver-mounted dahs and gilt-flapped red umbrellas. The headmen themselves answered to their new overlords, so much so that boys in the paddy fields chanted: “It is not fit, it is not fit that foreigners should rule the royal Golden Land.”55 The British never won Burmese hearts and minds, their propaganda being often quite inept. Attempts to promote loyalty to King and Empire, for example, ignored the Burmese tradition that popular heroes were those who defied authority.

Even positive British endeavours—railway expansion, public health work, agricultural improvement and so on—gained little favour with the masses. Admittedly, one or two members of the tiny educated elite thought this kind of progress “a historical necessity.”56 But they too hated the abrupt imposition of an administrative system that, while breaking with Burma’s past, denied its ablest sons future scope to be more than clerks. As a senior white official wrote, uncongenial reforms had not taken root in Burma or promoted the growth of national life.

This is why we remain aliens wherever we go. This is why our cut and dry civilisation goes only skin deep. This is why our schemes of self-government find no genuine support among the populations of the East. Our heads are hot and busy, but our hearts are cold as stone.57

Sympathy was everywhere lacking—save perhaps in the realm of football, the English version superseding the Burman game and allegedly becoming “the chief item on the credit side”58 of imperial governance. Yet even football provided an outlet for virulent anti-European feeling, as Orwell himself recalled: “When a nimble Burman tripped me up on the football field and the referee (another Burman) looked the other way, the crowd yelled with hideous laughter.”59

Other issues provoked greater passions. The British ruthlessly exploited the country’s teak forests, oilfields and ruby mines. Their favours to tribal people such as the Karens, who were given a degree of autonomy and recruited into the army as members of a “martial race,” infuriated the Burmese. So did the influx of Indians, for it changed the face of the country. Coolies from the subcontinent helped to drive back the snake-infested, insect-ridden jungle in the Irrawaddy delta, planting rice on an industrial scale and creating “a factory without chimneys.” Rangoon became a predominantly Indian city, with coolies crowded into foetid barracks or sleeping in the streets, “so tightly packed that there was barely room for a wheelbarrow to pass.”60 Other Indians became money-lenders, fattening on Burman debt and gaining a substantial stake in the land. Still others took plum jobs on railways and steamboats, in gaols, mills and offices. They virtually monopolised communications—before King Thibaw’s time the Burmese had set up a telegraph system and adapted Morse code to their own alphabet, whereas afterwards it was impossible to use the telephone without a knowledge of Hindustani. Alien influence also seemed to menace the Burmese religion, symbolised by the Shwedagon Pagoda, its spire reflected in the water of the Royal Lake and piercing the sky above Rangoon like a “shaft of gold.”61 Already English-speaking secular and mission schools were weakening the influence of the Buddhist order of monks (sangha). The British failure to sustain it undermined the central pillar of Burmese civilisation. It was no accident that the Young Men’s Buddhist Association (YMBA), founded in 1906, provided the first major nationalist impulse since the fall of Thibaw, last “Defender of the Faith.”62

The YMBA, an oriental echo of the YMCA, began as a student organisation devoted to spiritual matters but it soon developed cultural interests which promoted patriotism. Efforts to revive Burmese art and literature led to a reassertion of national identity. During the First World War, which dislocated the country’s economy, President Wilson aroused desires for self-determination. In 1919 Burmese antipathy towards the British took the form of insisting that they doff their shoes before entering pagodas. The colonial masters made Burmese come into their presence barefoot and this was a tit for tat. Refusing to be humiliated, however, the British simply shunned the sacred precincts. They even boycotted the Shwedagon Pagoda, “the shrine of our nation’s hopes,” as one Burman leader said, “reflecting in its golden beauty, mortal man’s tireless striving after the infinite.”63 When Lady Diana Cooper took off her stockings and high heels to visit this temple in 1941, she recorded that her white hosts were horrified by the adventure: “It may, apparently, lose us Burma.”64 Certainly the pagoda issue had prompted Burmese to join the wave of resistance that broke over the British Empire after the Great War. In Rangoon monks turned their gaze from visions of heaven to prospects of earthly salvation. The fiercest political pongyi was U Ottama, a saffron-robed revolutionary who preached that souls could not achieve nirvana unless bodies were freed from slavery. He and his ilk were often imprisoned for sedition and the Governor, Sir Reginald Craddock, rebuked them for sacrificing “the veneration of the ages for the nine days’ applause of a gaping multitude.”65 In fact, “people thrilled to the marrow of their bones to hear such bold talk from their brave leader.”66 According to a Christian missionary of the time, nationalist agitation “breathes the air of mountain tops and calls to the imagination brilliant pictures of an uncertain but…wonderful future.”

It became more focused and more secular when the British, having dismissed the possibility of self-rule along Irish lines, denied Burma even the constitutional advances offered to India. The India Office argued that government could not be made responsible to the Burman people because the Burman people did not exist. They were not a homogeneous entity. This assertion caused outrage and led to the establishment of Wunthanu Athins, or “Own Race Associations,” in many of the country’s eleven thousand villages. Members took an oath, vowing to keep it on pain of everlasting torment in Hell: “I will work for Home Rule heart and soul without flinching from duties even if my bones are crushed and my skin torn.”67 The athins resisted taxation, opposed the legalised sale of alcohol and opium and freely turned to violence. In 1923 the British banned them and set up a system of dyarchy on the Indian model. The new Legislative Council was a broadly representative body elected by householders, though there were communal and other restrictions on its membership. And despite contributing two ministers to the Governor’s Executive Council, it had strictly limited powers. The Governor himself, for example, administered the tribal regions and controlled defence, finance and law and order. This taste of democracy scarcely satisfied the nationwide appetite for freedom. Indeed, its main achievement was evidently to provide a fresh field of corruption. The graft was ubiquitous—like that pervading the cabinet of Abraham Lincoln, whose Secretary of State would reputedly steal anything but a red-hot stove.

Most people shunned the polls in disgust and political agitation continued. During the late 1920s it found expression in bodies such as the Dobama Association. Meaning “We Burmans” in imitation of Sinn Féin, it began by boycotting western cigarettes, hairstyles and clothes. Members urged the merits of white Burmese cheroots. They extolled the beauty of agate-sleek locks garlanded with scarlet dak blossoms, orchid sprays or jasmine stars. They hymned the virtues of rose-pink lungyis and apple-green pasohs (types of skirt) made of Mandalay silk, and of damask gaung-baungs (headscarfs) brocaded with amber. The global Depression, which caused a slump in rice prices and a spate of foreclosures that transformed many Burman landowners into tenants, increased communal tension. In May 1930 anti-Indian riots convulsed Rangoon, men being hunted through the streets like vermin and women ripped to pieces. At the end of the year, in which Gandhi marched to the sea for salt, nationalist fervour erupted into rebellion. Its leader was a self-proclaimed saviour-king called Saya San, who took the title of Galon Raja. The galon was a fabulous bird that would, with the aid of village magicians (weiksas) and local spirits (nats), kill the British snake (naga).

Although the Galon Raja attracted widespread support, he was crushed in the powerful coils of his adversary. For gongs, spells, amulets and cabalistic signs made little impression on ten thousand imperial troops armed with machine guns. But the courage of Saya San’s disciples was contagious and their message was compelling: “Burma is meant only for Burmans, but the heretics took away King Thibaw by force and robbed him of Burma. They have ruined our race and religion and now they have the effrontery to call us rebels.”68 New leaders emerged, notably two ambitious lawyers who defended Saya San (unsuccessfully) in his treason trial. They were the flamboyant, westernised Ba Maw and the uncouth, gangsterish U Saw, both of whom would become Prime Ministers under British rule and seek to end it with Asian help. Old antagonisms grew more venomous. Nationalists railed against foreign arrogance, typified by exclusive enclaves such as the Pegu and Gymkhana Clubs. More exasperating still was the racial bias of the law. When a drunk British officer seriously injured two Burman women in a car crash, his sentence of imprisonment was overturned on appeal and the magistrate who passed it, Maurice Collis, was moved to another job. Collis’s account of the episode may well have been the germ of Julian Maclaren-Ross’s classic short story, “A Bit of a Smash in Madras,” with its reiterated imperial imperative: “Boy, bring Master a large brandy.”69

As the economic blizzard continued to rage, nationalists also excoriated alien capitalism. Rangoon exemplified its evils, being nearly as bad as Bombay, Calcutta, Singapore and Shanghai, “a garish show on top and a pretty stinking world underneath.”70 The city’s centre boasted art deco buildings and neo-classical offices with Corinthian porticoes; but white tycoons went home to the lush suburb of Golden Valley while brown workers dwelt in noisome dockside slums. In the delta region, where the Irrawaddy poured forth more water in a day during the rainy season than the Thames did in a year, dyeing the ocean brick red a hundred miles out to sea, the British had not even managed to construct a proper sewage system. Indeed, matters had worsened since Victorian times, when thousands dwelt in hovels on swamps, with “the most disgusting filth piled up in heaps or fermenting in pools at their very doors.”71 The health of Burmese minds was neglected as much as that of their bodies. The educational system had deteriorated since the reign of Thibaw and Rangoon had only a single public library, which spent £10 a year on books. During the early 1930s, therefore, ardent young radicals of different political persuasions (some Marxist) began the Thakin movement. Thakin meant Sahib and Burmans adopted the title in defiance of their colonial masters, against whom they directed strikes, boycotts and demonstrations. The outstanding Thakins were U Nu (to give the first Premier of free Burma his most familiar name) and Aung San, the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, leader of the opposition to the country’s military junta today. Aung San was a tempestuous revolutionary, willing to adopt almost any course to break the imperial bond. Not to be outdone, older politicians such as Ba Maw denounced the “race enslavement” of his countrymen. He declared that “Our first task is to get rid of the ogre riding on our backs.”

The ogre clung on tenaciously, changing its grip as circumstances demanded. Ba Maw attended the 1933 Round Table Conference in London, which the India Office organised to quiet the recalcitrant Burmese. He found the atmosphere formal, frigid and even hostile, and thought that his hosts were entirely cynical in devising means to save an Empire which “they knew deep within themselves to be historically doomed.” His account of their tactics was characteristically subtle:

The colonial power was faced with the recurrent colonial dilemma of trying to give and yet not to give, of taking with an air of giving, of moving forward and yet remaining in the basic things where it was; and, to solve this dilemma as best it could, it had to resort to its usual devices of dividing to rule and delaying to defeat, of inventing escape clauses and conditions which would make a good deal of whatever it had been forced to give empty when given.

What Britain gave, by the Government of India Act of 1935, was the greatest measure of self-rule inside the Empire (excluding the dominions) as well as separation from India. Burma actually got more than India for, although the two constitutions were similar, the princes prevented the operation of a national assembly in Delhi. By contrast, Rangoon received a two-chamber parliament. And the House of Representatives, to which the cabinet answered, was elected by a quarter of the Burman people. But nationalists voted without enthusiasm. For although Ba Maw became Prime Minister in 1936, the Governor still had the last word. Having Indian forces at his disposal, he retained extensive powers of veto and full control of the tribal areas—40 per cent of Burma’s territory. Ba Maw, who combined egalitarian rhetoric with totalitarian pretensions, was known as the “proletarian Pharaoh.” But he and venal successors such as U Saw could achieve little, even though they mustered private armies with exotic names such as the Green Army, the Steel Army and the Army of Knives.

With increasing impatience the Thakins called for bolder measures to unseat the British. Aung San, who came from a family of rural gentry in Upper Burma, was only twenty-four in 1939 but he had already established himself as the sea-green incorruptible of this nebulous party. He was austere and upright, lived in a simply furnished suburban house and dressed modestly in a white singlet and a tartan lungyi. A slight, lean figure with a close-shorn bullet head, he had a diamond-sharp mind, a chiselled bronze face and a barbed tongue. He was a man of moods, sometimes sullen and menacing, sometimes bubbling with boyish laughter, and in the service of nationalism he veered from Communism to Nazism. He was willing to fly either the hammer and sickle or the swastika provided that he could do so over a free Burma. Thus in September 1939 Aung San joined forces with Ba Maw to create the Freedom Bloc, in imitation of Subhas Chandra Bose’s organisation. According to Ba Maw its object was to oppose Burma’s participation in the war against Germany and to fight Britain with its own weapons—the ideals of liberty, democracy and fair play. But the Freedom Bloc had a hidden agenda which Ba Maw was not prepared to divulge. When Sir Stafford Cripps asked him in 1940 what the Burmese would do, he answered: “The Burmese will act in the Burmese way.” “What is the Burmese way?” Cripps persisted. Ba Maw replied, “That’s a Burmese secret.”72

The secret was wrapped up in a slogan, “Eastward Ho!”73 Ba Maw and others looked to Japan, which they expected to enter the conflict, as a means of breaking the imperialist hold. But as the Freedom Bloc’s campaign against the British war effort grew more aggressive, its leaders were arrested. A virtuoso of faction fighting, the new Prime Minister U Saw took particular pleasure in imprisoning his old rival Ba Maw. Aung San went underground and was mortified to find that the British had offered a reward for him of only five rupees, “the price of a fair-sized chicken.”74They should have offered more. In August 1940 Aung San escaped disguised as a coolie and made his way to Japan. The following year the War Office in Tokyo arranged for his clandestine return to Rangoon. Here he recruited a cadre of Thakins and others to undergo a ferocious course of military training under Japanese instructors in China. The Thirty Comrades, as they were called, attained a legendary status—comparable to that of Horatius and his companions on the bridge, who saved Rome from the legions of Lars Porsena. In December 1941 Aung San’s Comrades assembled in Bangkok, where they enlisted other expatriates to form the thousand-strong Burma Independence Army (BIA). There they invested themselves with extravagant titles: Aung San was hailed as “Fire General” and Ne Win (Burma’s future military dictator) became “Sun of Glory General.” Finally, they took an ancient warrior’s oath. The Thirty Comrades ritually slit their fingers, poured the blood into a silver bowl from which they drank, and swore to liberate their homeland.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister U Saw proposed to visit Churchill and obtain a promise of independence in return for full Burmese cooperation in the war effort. Before setting off he sought spiritual aid, though not by the usual means of climbing barefoot up one of the four great staircases to the Shwedagon Pagoda. Instead, U Saw uttered “vows and supplications” while flying in his private Tiger Moth around its glittering finial, known as “the jewelled umbrella.”75 Of course, he obtained nothing from the embattled Churchill; and Roosevelt, whom he visited next, was equally noncommittal. So, having witnessed, en route for home, the wreckage of Pearl Harbor the day after it was attacked, U Saw made overtures to the Japanese. But the British intercepted his message and arrested him. What this episode illustrates is the gravitational pull exerted on oriental nationalists in European colonies by the rising sun of Nippon. As the Japanese stormed up the Irrawaddy Valley, wrote Ba Maw, “Burmese hearts beat wildly.” Each Asian victory seemed to be another nail in the coffin of the British Empire. It is true that Burma, at war with Japan by British decree, was utterly ravaged during the conflict. Alexander’s forces scorched the earth as they retreated and Stilwell’s Chinese armies disintegrated into gangs of bandits. Aung San’s BIA, its ranks swelled by dacoits and “political vermin,”76 pillaged everywhere and provoked a communal war with pro-British Karens in the delta. The Japanese killed, raped, looted, tortured, slapped faces, extorted labour, desecrated pagodas, turned churches into brothels and transformed Rangoon cathedral into a sauce and saki factory. Within months the common saying was that “the British sucked Burman blood but the Japanese went to the marrow of the bone.”77 Yet, unlike the British, the Japanese gave Burmans their hearts’ desire—freedom.

Needless to say, it was a mirage. Burma’s Declaration of Independence, which Ba Maw promulgated on 1 August 1943, was the political equivalent of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, an illusion designed to conceal the reality of Japanese domination. Ba Maw himself was merely the false front of Japanese power. He took the Sanscrit title Adipadi (“He Who Stands First”) and mouthed the watchwords of fascism: “one blood, one voice, one leader.”78 He even adopted the manners and trappings of royalty. For example, he appeared in

a glossy, black long-sleeved silk shirt under a blood-red silk waistcoat, bloodred silk pyjamas tightened at the waist and ankles with elastic and black velvet Burmese slippers. The strange tout ensemble was completed with a black beret and both his cheeks were rouged.79

Burmans ridiculed Ba Maw’s androgynous looks and regal airs, saying of him: “If you’re marvellous, you’re marvellous; if you’re crazy, you’re crazy.”80

The Japanese were more contemptuous still, not even bothering to consult Ba Maw about ceding border areas of Burma to their ally Thailand. They ritually humiliated the Adipadi, scolded him, kept him waiting, refused to let him occupy Government House, a neo-Gothic monstrosity of red brick and white stone nicknamed St. Pancras Station by the British and said to be the second ugliest building in Rangoon. Yet Ba Maw stubbornly resisted Japanese efforts to make him behave as a puppet. According to his Foreign Minister, U Nu, a quixotic figure who recognised “the ‘Made in Japan’ stamp”81 on his own forehead, the Adipadi refused to let his military masters pull the strings. This so enraged them that they tried to have him assassinated. As courageous as he was meretricious, Ba Maw continued to assert the rights of his country. Burmese nationalism was forged on the anvil of the anti-British struggle but tempered in the furnace of Japan’s war. For if Ba Maw’s 1943 Declaration was spurious, it was also glorious. It stated that Burma had resumed “her rightful place among the free and sovereign nations of the world.”82

In the vain hope of making these words mean something, Ba Maw refused to desert Nippon, though he did connive at the growth of a secret resistance movement led by Aung San. Curiously enough, the Japanese military had more faith in this volatile young man than in the Prime Minister. They were especially struck, at an early meeting, by Aung San’s torn shirt and impassive mask, indications of a samurai spirit. He gave further evidence of that spirit by using his sword to execute a village headman during the war—an act of “real justice,” he later claimed, since in “such slave states as Burma it cannot be said that conformity with the law is justice.”83 So although the Japanese shattered Aung San by disbanding his unruly BIA, they made him a major-general and gave him command of a smaller, better disciplined force called the Burmese National Army (BNA). Its soldiers, who wore Japanese uniforms and badges of rank as well as the blue peacock emblem of Burma, adored him. Aung San also became Defence Minister and the Emperor Hirohito presented him with the Order of the Rising Sun (Third Class). None of these stopped him from conspiring with Communists, Karens and other anti-fascist guerrillas as soon as the tide of battle turned against Nippon.

On 27 March 1945 the BNA marched out of Rangoon to music played by Japanese military bands, with the avowed purpose of fighting against the Allies. It then vanished into the jungle and began to kill the soldiers of the sun. Aung San declared: “We are now at war.”84 A week earlier General Sir William Slim’s 14th Army had taken Mandalay (destroying the remains of Thibaw’s palace in the process) and it now thrust southwards. Regarded by its commander as “the Cinderella of all armies of the Empire,” it had fought its way through what he called “the world’s worst country” with “the world’s worst climate” amid “some of the world’s worst diseases.”85 As lines of communication lengthened, Slim’s forces learned how to improvise, using jute parachutes, surfacing roads with strips of bitumen-soaked hessian (“Bithess”) and making log rafts that looked like Noah’s Arks. They even fed themselves by breeding ducks in the Chinese fashion, hatching the eggs in rice husks. So, marginally assisted by the BNA, the 14th Army just managed to beat the monsoon to Rangoon. When Slim met Aung San a couple of weeks later he was impressed by his genuine patriotism, despite his Japanese uniform and sword, and afterwards wrote that he might “have proved a Burmese Smuts.” But at the time Slim could not resist twitting Aung San with changing sides only because the Allies were winning. He replied, “It wouldn’t be much use coming to you if you weren’t, would it?”86

Aung San claimed to represent the Burmese Provisional Government, formed by those coordinating resistance to the Japanese. Slim did not recognise this government and told his visitor that he was lucky not to be arrested as a traitor and a war criminal. But it became plain that only Aung San could galvanise popular support for the Allies in Burma. So Mountbatten, the Supreme Commander in South-East Asia, backed him. It was a swift, bold decision. And it set Mountbatten on a collision course with the exiled Governor. Dorman-Smith was planning to “make Burma an Empire gem,” as Ernest Bevin urged, and to lead its people, in a process lasting several years, to “the full stature of nationhood.”87 Churchill was suspicious, charging Dorman-Smith with wanting “to give away the Empire.”88 Impatient liberal critics accused Dorman-Smith of having “learned nothing and forgotten nothing.”89 But in May a government White Paper, couched in grim “Whitehallese,”90 endorsed his policy. Dorman-Smith maintained, therefore, that it was “sheer madness” to build up Aung San. Mountbatten insisted that sustaining him was a military necessity and he threatened to court-martial anyone who tried to sabotage this strategy. So at the Victory Parade held on 15 June 1945, the BNA joined Allied contingents and goose-stepped through the ruins of Rangoon. And Mountbatten treated Aung San, still in his Japanese uniform, “as an ex-rebel who has seen the light.”

What Aung San actually saw was that Mountbatten had a million men under arms, making full cooperation with him essential. But after Japan’s sudden surrender in August, the Allied forces were quickly demobilised, whereas Aung San strengthened his private army. This was, according to one British observer, a cross between the Home Guard and the British Legion. But it enabled Aung San, now also heading a political coalition called the Anti-Fascist People’s Freedom League (AFPFL), to exert pressure on Dorman-Smith, who returned to Rangoon in October 1945. “We Burmese are not the Burmese of 1942,” Aung San declared, “and if we have to use force and fight we are fully prepared.” So while Dorman-Smith tried to implement the White Paper, Aung San tried to make the country ungovernable. Asserting that there was no difference between British and Japanese imperialism, he stirred up violent agitation for immediate independence. The ailing Dorman-Smith dithered, sometimes wanting Aung San on his Council, sometimes wanting him in prison. Mountbatten thought that his “idiotic and vacillating policy was the worst piece of work ever done in Burma.” In May 1946 Attlee concluded that the Governor had lost his grip and recalled him. Dorman-Smith quipped, “I depart ‘Unhonoured and Aung San.’”

By the time that Mountbatten’s protégé, Major-General Sir Hubert Rance, took up residence in Government House, lawlessness had become chronic. As usual, it was hard to distinguish crime from terrorism—miscreant heads were brought in for identification and the British hoped that “the bandits were dead before decapitation.”91 In September the police went on strike, protesting about low pay at a time of rampant inflation. The AFPFL encouraged them and soon civil servants, postal workers, railwaymen, gaolers and others followed suit. The nation was on the brink of chaos. The Governor inveighed against the “evil genius”92 of Aung San, yet it was clear that he “had the country behind him.” So Rance bowed to the inevitable. He reached an accord whereby Aung San ended the strikes (on conditions favourable to the strikers) and the AFPFL received in return a majority of seats on the Executive Council. This revolution in government, said a senior official, marked “the effective passing of power from British to Burmese.” True, the British were slow to grasp the fact: in November 1946 they sent twenty probationers to swell the ranks of the Burma Civil Service, only to ship them home again within a few months. But in his new position as Defence Minister, Aung San was able to demand swift progress towards self-determination, hammering home his points with a mailed fist.

Rance could no longer draw on Indian troops. And in Whitehall the Chiefs of Staff warned that British forces, already at full stretch in Palestine, Malaya and elsewhere, could hardly maintain security in Burma, let alone crush a rebellion. In any case, the cost would be prohibitive. Burma, which lacked Malaya’s vital dollar-earning capacity, was more trouble than it was worth. Attlee disliked making concessions to the dictatorial AFPFL which, though preferable to the Communists, might oppress non-Burmese minorities. But his only option was to abandon the White Paper and seek accommodation with Aung San. Churchill growled about the haste. And in due course he composed a variation on his famous indictment of Gandhi: “I certainly did not expect to see U Aung San, whose hands were dyed with British blood and loyal Burmese blood, marching up the steps of Buckingham Palace as the plenipotentiary of the Burmese Government.”93

Other English auguries were unfavourable. At one dinner the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin, said to Aung San with a great belly laugh: “So we are going to give Burma away to you, are we? Well, you know what they say about the British, they gives something with one ’and and they takes it back with the other.”94 Nevertheless, in January 1947 an agreement was signed setting out the procedure by which Burma would become a sovereign state. When Aung San returned home he tolerated no delay. In effect he ran the government, vainly trying to destroy the Frankenstein’s monster of violence to which he had given new life—it dominates Myanmar to this day. British officials left Burma in droves. Shan, Kachin and Chin minorities agreed to help form a united Burma, though Karens determined to fight for their own independence. In the April general election for the Constituent Assembly, the AFPFL won 204 out of the 210 seats. But Aung San was not to reap the fruits of his long struggle. On 19 July 1947, in pelting monsoon rain, several men wearing army uniforms drove Jeeps up to the Secretariat Building where he was holding a Council meeting and burst into the chamber firing Sten guns. They killed Aung San together with five of his colleagues and fled.

Shock and grief overwhelmed the nation. Huge crowds gathered to see Aung San’s embalmed body lying in a glass-lidded sarcophagus at the Jubilee Hall. Ba Maw and other opposition figures were arrested. In due course U Saw was charged with the murders, found guilty and hanged. Meanwhile, Rance had acted swiftly, inviting U Nu, President of the Consituent Assembly, to form a new Executive Council. It was haunted by a spectral presence. As a visiting British minister observed, “Aung San dead is an even greater influence in Burma than alive.”95 Despite Rance’s blandishments, therefore, U Nu fell in with his lost leader’s wishes and took the country out of the Commonwealth. At 4:20 a.m. on 4 January 1948 Burma became an independent republic. Rance found the time highly inconvenient but it was prescribed by the stars—the devout U Nu had supposedly consulted every astrologer in Rangoon. The usual ceremonies took place amid widespread rejoicing. Popular dramatic performances represented “a free people dancing in a rain of gold and silver.”96

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