The Man Behind the Burma Independence Army
By The Irrawaddy 27 March 2022
In 1940, Colonel Keiji Suzuki, a Japanese intelligence officer dubbed “Asia’s Lawrence of Arabia”, traveled to Yangon to lay the groundwork for his country’s invasion of Myanmar, then known as Burma. He made contact with a group of young nationalists who would later become prominent politicians and independence heroes, including members of the legendary Thirty Comrades. With this group he established the Burma Independence Army, the forerunner of today’s Tatmadaw, in 1941. Suzuki served as its first commander-in-chief, with Aung San serving below him as chief of staff. To mark Myanmar’s 77th Armed Forces Day today, The Irrawaddy revisits this 2017 profile of Suzuki.
He came to Yangon as a correspondent for the Yomiuri Shimbun, but his real mission was to lay the groundwork for the Imperial Japanese forces’ invasion of Myanmar.
Keiji Suzuki, a Japanese intelligence officer at the rank of colonel, was known as a dynamic officer passionate about his covert operation.
He was part of the Minami Kikan, a secret intelligence organization set up in Feb. 1941 to carry out special operations—a household name among former soldiers who once fought in Myanmar’s independence struggle.
In 1940, Col Suzuki took the name Minami Masuyo and arrived in Yangon, where his colleagues set up a secret office at 40 Judah Ezekiel Street and established contacts with young nationalists in Myanmar.
Suzuki was described as “genuinely concerned” for countries in Asia colonized by Europeans.
The Japanese colonel, who was dubbed “Asia’s Lawrence of Arabia,” attended Japan’s prestigious General Staff College, spoke fluent English, and was known to identify with independence struggles throughout the continent.
Recruitment of Young Nationalists
The Japanese Imperial Army, however, had no interest in saving Myanmar from the British: the Japanese wanted to cut off the Burma Road, through which the British were sending military assistance, supplies and weapons to China.
Before coming to Yangon, Keiji Suzuki developed connections with prominent members of Myanmar’s thakin movement —nationalist activists and students pushing for Myanmar’s independence—as well as those living in Japan.
The irony is that the thakins—meaning “masters,” to indicate that they were masters of their own nation—found that they had more in common with the Chinese nationalists than Japanese militarists.
In fact, many progressive, educated and left-leaning thakins, including young Thakin Aung San, father of Daw Aung San Suu Kyi, did not agree with what Japanese forces had done in their invasion of China.
However, they were pragmatic, and that played a major role in their quest for independence. To achieve this, Myanmar nationalists were ready to accept assistance from any quarter.
Meanwhile, the Japanese propaganda machine was in full swing in British-occupied Myanmar; Japan’s slogan of “Asia for Asians” intersected with growing anti-British sentiment in the country.
In Yangon, Col Suzuki met Myanmar nationalists who were willing to take up arms. They were naïve, but idealistic and committed. A decade later, those young nationalists became prominent politicians and independence heroes.
Aung San—already a leading figure in the underground movement—was contemplating armed struggle to regain independence, but would require outside assistance. A fugitive from the British authorities, Aung San left Myanmar secretly to seek help abroad.
According to the book “Burma and Japan Since 1940,” by Donald M. Seekins, the then head of the Japan-Burma Friendship Society Dr. Thein Maung said that a Japanese diplomat planned Aung San’s escape to Amoy, now known as Xiamen, in southern China.
In her biography of her father, “Aung San of Burma,” Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wrote that his original intentions were to procure support from communists in China, and not from Japan.
In any case, Aung San and a colleague, Than Myaing, were stranded for months in Amoy. Suzuki sent out Japanese agents to rescue the duo and fly them to Tokyo.
In Tokyo, Aung San made the decision to work with the Japanese.
Dr. Maung Maung, a subordinate and biographer of Gen Ne Win, interviewed 62-year-old Keiji Suzuki at his home in Hamamatsu, Japan in the 1950s. He wrote of Suzuki’s account of Aung San and Than Myaing’s arrival in Tokyo in November: they were dressed only in summer clothes and had no passports. He told Dr. Maung Maung that among Myanmar nationalists there were two schools of thought on seeking foreign aid: one was to form an alliance with China or Russia, and another favored Japan. The first group was in the majority, he believed.
Suzuki’s observation of Aung San was that he was honest and brave, but that the then 25-year-old lacked maturity. He asked Aung San to draft a blueprint for a free Burma. Some scholars later questioned whether the blueprint that was forwarded to the Japanese headquarters was originally written by Aung San, or whether it had been modified by Suzuki in an effort to please his superiors.
The young Aung San learned to wear Japanese traditional clothing, speak the language, and even took a Japanese name. In historian Thant Myint-U’s “The River of Lost Footsteps,” he describes him as “apparently getting swept away in all the fascist euphoria surrounding him,” but notes that his commitment remained to independence for Myanmar.
Suzuki’s relations with his own military headquarters were also in question. Some historical accounts suggest that there was no higher-level interest in Aung San and his colleague Hla Myaing: Suzuki reported the arrival of the two Myanmar activists in Japan to General Staff but was initially told no support would be provided. Suzuki began to receive serious attention from the imperial headquarters when the British reopened the Burma Road to send supplies to China. Only then did a plan to liberate Myanmar begin in Tokyo.
Aung San and other young nationalists—mostly Burmans—were secretly brought to Hainan Island to receive intensive military training in mid-1941, months before the Pacific War began with the Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor on Dec. 8 of that year.
Those with Aung San included Bo Let Ya, Bo Set Kya, and Bo Ne Win, all in their 20s. They were among those later known as the “Thirty Comrades.”
According to one of the Thirty Comrades, Kyaw Zaw—then 21, and later a leading army officer in 1950s—the training was harsh. At times, they thought of rebelling or joining Chinese communist insurgents hiding out on the island. In his memoirs, he mentioned that at one point, a Japanese officer brought out a Chinese prisoner of war on whom to practice bayonet training. The practice was later documented in Myanmar when Burmese independence fighters captured suspected criminals and collaborators with allied forces.
The Burma Independence Army (BIA) was formed in December 1941 in Bangkok, before the Thirty Comrades’ return to Myanmar. Suzuki was the group’s commander in chief, with the rank of General, and Aung San served below him as Chief of Staff.
The Japanese promised that as soon as the forces crossed Myanmar’s eastern border and reached Moulmein (now Mawlamyine), independence would be announced. It was not.
Before entering Myanmar, the Thirty Comrades and Suzuki chose noms de guerre: Aung San became Bo Teza.
Suzuki also chose a Burmese name: Bo Mogyo, or “Thunderbolt.” There was a reason behind it: a popular ta baung, or Burmese prophecy, widely shared among Myanmar people suggested that a thunderbolt would eventually strike down the umbrella, a symbol of British colonial rule.
Suzuki not only identified himself as this savior, but also spoke of being a descendent of Prince Myingun, who was exiled from the Burmese royal family.
Before they marched on Myanmar, the Thirty Comrades held a thwe thauk ceremony in a house in Bangkok, a tradition among soldiers in which a small amount of their blood was mixed with liquor and then consumed by the group.
The initial BIA forces included Myanmar exiles and hundreds of Thai of Burmese origins. When the imperial headquarters asked Suzuki how he wanted assistance and arms for the BIA, Suzuki replied that he would need arms and equipment for 10,000 men but did not require any Japanese troops.
According to Suzuki, when they entered Myanmar they had 2,300 men and 300 tons of equipment.
Along with Japan’s 15th Army, they entered southern Myanmar and swiftly moved toward Moulmein. Suzuki and Aung San wanted to reach Yangon first—by March, the capital fell to Japanese forces. Speaking later to Dr. Maung Maung, Suzuki said that Aung San’s “patriotism and honesty won over all of us in Japan, as well as on our march.”
Before troops arrived in Yangon, Japanese planes bombed the city, forcing people to flee to the countryside. British and Indian populations—including soldiers, officers and civil servants—retreated west, to India. Shocking tales of a new “master” traveled fast to Yangon, including stories of Japanese solders’ abuses, including rape, torture, gruesome interrogations, lootings and extrajudicial killings. British and Indian troops destroyed strategic roads, bridges, and hospitals leaving little which could be of use to the enemy.
When the young Burmese nationalists’ aspirations of independence failed to materialize, they confronted Suzuki. He famously told then politician U Nu—who later became the Prime Minister—that one could not beg for independence, but rather, had to proclaim it. Suzuki allegedly suggested that the Burmese forces form their own government and revolt against Japan. Aung San reportedly replied to him that as long as Suzuki was in the country, he would not undertake such a move.
In his own account to Maung Maung, Suzuki said he called in his own officers and asked they would follow him if he turned and fought the Japanese.
It is unclear why Suzuki would have encouraged such action—whether he wanted the BIA to remain as his own army, away from the command of the Imperial Japanese forces, or whether he deeply romanticized the Myanmar nationalist struggle.
Either way, it did not go down well with Japan. In 1942, Suzuki was called back to Tokyo and Aung San became war minister.
The BIA—originally formed in Japan—was re-organized into the Burma Defense Army (BDA), of which Aung San was the head. Japan declared independence for Myanmar from the British, but the Burmese continued to struggle for freedom from foreign domination, this time by the Japanese.
Massacre Under Japanese Occupation
Before departing Myanmar, Suzuki witnessed and was reportedly involved in volatile ethnic and racial conflict that remains a scar on the country today.
When BIA troops marched across the Thai border, Burmans frequently welcomed them, but ethnic minorities remained apprehensive. Many groups had large numbers of recruits by the British, including the Karen, Karenni, Chin and Kachin. As the British retreated, promising to return, Karen soldiers went back to their homes. BIA troops then came to disarm them, and confrontation was inevitable.
According to one account in Donald M. Seekins’ book, Suzuki ordered the BIA to destroy two large Karen villages, killing all the men, women and children with swords. It was an act of retribution, after one of his officers was killed in an attack by forces resistant to the Japanese. The same account was also described in Brig-Gen Kyaw Zaw’s memoirs, as he served under Col Suzuki when BIA and Minami Kikan officers ordered attacks on ethnic Karen villages in the Irrawaddy Delta.
The incident, Seekins wrote, “ignited race war,” with massacres continuing “on both sides,” until the Japanese army could “rein in the hooligan element in the BIA,”
In Myaungmya, South of Pathein in the Irrawaddy Delta, 400 Karen villages were destroyed and the death toll reached 1,800, according to Martin Smith, author of “Burma: Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity.” Members of the Thirty Comrades like Kyaw Zaw, as well as other independence era politicians, describe in their memoirs the crimes of this period, now remembered as the Myaungmya Massacres.
In some cases, BIA troops wanted to restore law and order as they saw fit. When they arrested suspected British collaborators, they simply put them on court martial and executed them in public, frequently with bayonets, as the Japanese had done.
Just before Myanmar gained its independence, Aung San himself was accused by a political rival of carrying out the summary execution of a village headman in Mon State who was accused of aiding the British as BIA troops moved into Myanmar.
In any case, the conflict was not confined to Karen State.
In April 1942, Japanese troops advanced into Rakhine State and reached Maungdaw Township, near the border with what was then British India, and is now Bangladesh. As the British retreated to India, Rakhine became a front line.
Local Arakanese Buddhists collaborated with the BIA and Japanese forces but the British recruited area Muslims to counter the Japanese.
“Both armies, British and Japanese, exploited the frictions and animosity in the local population to further their own military aims,” wrote scholar Moshe Yegar, in his book “Between Integration and Secession: The Muslim Communities of the Southern Philippines, Southern Thailand, and Western Burma/Myanmar.”
Communal strife and retaliation ensued between the two communities as thousands were killed or died of starvation under Japanese occupation—Moshe Yegar estimates that as many as 20,000 people were lost regionally in the conflict. If this happened today, it would undoubtedly demand international intervention.
When countering Japanese and BIA forces, the Muslims of Arakan, wrote Moshe Yegar, played a valuable military role in reconnaissance missions, intelligence gathering, the rescue of downed aviators and raids on Japanese collaborators.
This support arguably enabled the British to recapture Maungdaw and later, all of Rakhine. Soon after independence, the Arakanese began a struggle for an independent state of their own, and Muslims began the Mujahid movement to join East Pakistan (Bangladesh).
Today, conflict and division in the region continue.
When Aung San turned against Japan in 1945, the Karen, Kachin and Karenni and other minorities received arms and assistance from the British to fight against retreating Japanese forces.
“Karen and Karenni guerrillas were later estimated to have killed more than 12,500 Japanese troops retreating through the eastern hills,” according to Martin Smith.
The majority of offensives were carried out by allied forces and Gen William Slim, who led the 14th Army and the campaign that eventually defeated the Japanese.
Suzuki’s protégé and former war minister Gen Aung San was assassinated in July 1947 at age 32. Seven years after they met in Tokyo, the young student activist had developed and demonstrated the qualities of a statesman as he matured and gained a stronger understanding of the complexities facing his country.
Bo Let Ya, one of Aung San’s more favored colleagues and a leading member of the Thirty Comrades, became the deputy minister of War Affairs and also served as Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Defense under Prime Minister U Nu’s administration. He was jailed by Ne Win shortly after the coup in 1962. After serving his prison term, he fled to the Thai-Myanmar border to join resistance forces and fight against Gen Ne Win’s regime. Karen rebels in the jungle killed him in 1978.
Bo Ne Win’s assignment in the BIA was to lead an advanced team into Myanmar to create disturbance and work behind enemy lines. In Hainan, he received training in sabotage and intelligence gathering; in 1962 he staged a coup and became head of the Revolutionary Council. Under his leadership, he built a much feared spy network throughout Myanmar.
Gen Ne Win has been condemned as one of the most repressive dictators in Asia. He ran—and arguably ruined—the troubled country until 1988 when his government faced a massive uprising. Disgraced, he resigned and died quietly in 2002 while his grandsons served lengthy jail terms under the military regime he had handed power to in the political turmoil of 1988.
Ne Win maintained close relations with Suzuki and Minami Kikan members until Suzuki passed away in 1967. Ne Win had invited him to Burma in 1966, one year earlier.
In 1981, Ne Win bestowed the remaining six veterans of the Minami Kikan with honorary awards—the Aung San Tagun, or the “Order of Aung San”— at the presidential palace in Yangon. Col Suzuki’s widow came to the ceremony.
After his coup, Ne Win still needed Japan’s assistance. Myanmar received more than US$200 million from 1955 to 1965. In addition, Tokyo’s Official Development Assistance (ODA) served as a vital lifeline to the Ne Win regime and its successors.
The country depended on Japan’s war reparations and ODA. Even after the 1988 massacre and bloody coup, Tokyo recognized the regime then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council.
Even after he resigned as Burma Socialist Programme Party chairman in 1988, Ne Win held gatherings of old Minami Kikan members into the mid-1990s. It is believed that the Minami Kikan remained in contact with Myanmar governments until 1995.
In a 2014 trip to Japan, the Myanmar Army’s Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing visited the tomb of Col Suzuki to pay his respects. In the minds of many Myanmar Army officers, Suzuki remained a key figure: the man behind the clandestine beginnings of the BIA and the nucleus of the legendary Thirty Comrades. A controversial figure to both his own mission and his country’s top brass, Suzuki continues to be remembered as influential in Myanmar’s history—his and Japan’s direct involvement in Myanmar’s independence movement has had far reaching consequences.
Members of the thakin movement were originally unarmed, but these young politicians and activists soon found a resourceful foreign ally who was ready to assist them in liberating Myanmar. This no doubt changed the political dynamics in a country where some ethnic groups had once enjoyed relative autonomy and peace under British rule.
Today, all of the legendary Thirty Comrades have died, and many of Myanmar’s problems and complexities remained unresolved. The irony was that liberation brought more chaos, rebellion, and division, and a state run by the army, not the nation’s people.
Suzuki’s legacy lives on among the Burmese and the military generals, as does the notorious war machine and lingering conflict.