ON 1 JANUARY 1942, soldiers of the Burma Independence Army celebrate their entry into Burmese territory during the Japanese invasion of the British colony. The invasion, part of a Japanese offensive throughout East and Southeast Asia in the weeks following the bombing of Pearl Harbour, was intended to disrupt overland supply routes to China through the “Burma Road.”
The BIA, officially formed four days earlier in Bangkok, was meant to raise local recruits and support Japanese forces. It was commanded by Keiji Suzuki, an intelligence officer who had established contact with several prominent Burmese nationalists since 1940. These included Aung San, who had secretly left the colony to seek external aid for the struggle against the British. Suzuki facilitated Aung San’s travel to Tokyo and successfully lobbied Japanese imperial authorities to support the establishment of the BIA. On 3 February 1941, Japan pledged to recognise a provisional Burmese government as soon as it established a foothold in the colony. Over the next few months, a core of nationalist leaders who would come to be called the Thirty Comrades were smuggled out of Burma for military training.
Upon entering Burma, the BIA attracted thousands of recruits from the majority Bamar community. It carried out violent reprisals against communities perceived to be aiding the British: Indians, Chinese and numerous ethnic minorities, particularly Karens. In July 1942, with the British having retreated, Japanese authorities disbanded the BIA and replaced it with the Burma Defence Army, formally commanded by Aung San but virtually indistinguishable from the Japanese army. When nominal independence was granted the following year, it was reconstituted as the Burma National Army. Disillusioned with the Japanese, Aung San and other BNA officers struck alliances with communist and antifascist groups—and, eventually, the British. In March 1945, the BNA launched a nationwide uprising against Japanese occupation. Burma secured independence on 4 January 1948.