Between December 1941 and August 1945, Japan and the United Kingdom fought an extraordinarily brutal war over control of Southeast Asia. In the larger arc of World War II history, this campaign is often treated as a sideshow, as it had neither the glory nor the decisive character of the Eastern Front or the drive across the Pacific. In the United States, the campaign is understood in specifically American terms; we know about Joseph Stilwell and the problems SE Asia presented for the China theater, and we know that Errol Flynn and a few American paratroopers liberated Burma, and we of course know that William Holden facilitated the self-actualization of Obi Wan Kenobi, but we don’t know a lot else. In fairness, there is some good cause for the neglect of the theater; had the British failed utterly in their efforts to recapture Burma, Japan would still have surrendered in August of 1945. In Forgotten Armies, Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper make the case that while the campaign was not decisive in terms of victory or defeat in World War II, it did firmly set the direction of the British Empire following the war.
Bayly and Harper do a fine job of detailing the contours of the campaign. The Japanese conquest of British SE Asia was astonishingly swift. With the benefit of bases in French Indochina and Thailand, the Japanese were able to capture an enormous chunk of British territory within a few months. The destruction of the most important Pacific units of the Royal Navy on December 10, 1941 meant that the Imperial Japanese Navy had free rein to conduct amphibious assaults and support land offensives against British targets. Malay was captured through the former, while Singapore and Burma largely through the latter.
The SE Asian reaction to the swift Japanese conquest was ambivalent. In Malaya, the British Empire lay lightly over a set of older governing institutions. Popular discontent against the British was quite mild, and the Japanese promise of “Asian for the Asians” didn’t resonate as loudly as it could have. The Malay elite believed in the British Empire, and believed it could protect them from enemies internal and external. Moroever, many Malays had close connections with the ethnic Chinese community, and that ethnic Chinese community had close connections with various kinship networks in China. The brutality with which the Japanese were conquering China produced considerable local suspicion about Japanese motives in the rest of Asia. It didn’t help that Japanese occupation policies would have made Paul Bremer look like a genius; in at least one case, Japanese administrators required local Muslims to pray in the direction of Tokyo, before a portrait of Emperor Hirohito. Unsurprisingly, Japanese hopes for a general declaration of jihad against the British Empire went unheeded.
In other parts of Asia the situation was different. In Burma, where the British had replaced the native dynasty, Japanese propaganda was received much more enthusiastically. It was also received enthusiastically in parts of India, where early British defeats were met with declarations of jihad by various tribes in the northwest. The war and the resulting disruption of trade helped produce a famine in India, and contribute to considerable discontent. This grafted on to existing Indian social resistance movements, resulting in a very touchy situation for the British in 1942 and early 1943. Indian soldiers, who made up the larger part of the British forces in SE Asia in 1941 and 1942, returned with stories of unbeatable Japanese soldiers coming to liberate all of Asia. The Indian Nationalist Army, made up of surrendered Indian soldiers and local recruits, played an important role in the conquest and later defense of Burma. Of course, enthusiasm for the promise of Japanese liberation didn’t long outlast actual Japanese liberation.
The early defeats were a tremendous blow for British prestige in Asia, amongst both those favorably and unfavorably disposed towards the Empire. British power depended on the perception of British supremacy, and the Japanese shattered that image in the early months of 1942. The British didn’t help themselves over much; even at the height of the Japanese offensive, British military briefings in India began with the situation in the Northwest tribal areas. The British also had a difficult sale; while there were some in SE Asia who would welcome the return of the Empire, even those nationalist groups who disliked the Japanese resented the British. The British regained their empire, but only for a short while; they would largely be gone from the Japanese conquered territory by 1958.
The British eventually recovered, solidified their hold on India, and began a counteroffensive against the Japanese in Burma. This counteroffensive, much like the Japanese offensives of 1942, was extraordinarily brutal. The struggle between the British and the Japanese grafted onto a series of local ethnic conflicts, and since both the British and the Japanese employed local proxies, score settling was common. The brutality of the war in SE Asia reminded me of John Dower’s War Without Mercy, which detailed the racial animosity present in the Pacific War. I wouldn’t say that the SE Asian experience invalidates Dower’s thesis about American racism and the conduct of the war (Dower allows more general Western colonial racism and, of course, Japanese racism as causes as well), but I think it does render an account that focuses specifically on how the American conducted the war incomplete. American racism led to brutal conduct by American soldiers, but British, Japanese, Indian, and Burman soldiers engaged in conduct just as brutal, if not more so. On the larger stage of World War II, I think it’s fair to conclude now that the relatively cordial and law-of-war-abiding relations between the European Axis and the Western Allies were the exception, and not the rule. Most of the war, in most parts of the world, was conducted with unrelieved brutality.
Forgotten Armies is an altogether fantastic book on a part of the war that deserves more attention. I highly recommend it.