Cut off clean by a single sword stroke the severed head of 32-year-old Colonel Hata Kawashima of Imperial Japanese Army 15th Corps fell to the ground.
It bounced once and slowly rolled down into a small depression a couple of yards away and rested on blindfolded face. The kneeling body with the elbows tightly bound behind stayed horribly still except for the quiet hissing sound of two spouting streams of blood from the severed neck-arteries. The headless body then slowly fell sideways to the ground and lay there lifeless.
As Captain Htun Hla the 20-years-old CO of the guerilla battalion 108 of the renegade Burmese National Army began to wipe the blood off the ancient steel blade of Colonel Kawashima’s own Muramasa sword, two Burmese privates waiting nearby dragged the headless body by the legs to the freshly dug hole. The body went down the big hole in the ground followed by the head.
Meanwhile a small group of young Burmese officers standing guards over the remaining six captive Japanese officers kneeling together on the ground nearby began to bayonet their bounded prisoners as if the execution of the highest ranking Japanese officer by the CO was a signal to finish the rest as planned.
The Burmese had completed the massacre of seven Japanese officers in less than an hour just after the first light hit the grassy ground of the killing field as the rising sun came over from the eastern foothills of the Pegu-Yoma range. Bodies were thrown into the deep pit and covered quickly with loose soil and rocks. The tall grass amongst the wild banana plants and green bamboo brushes would eventually grow over the mass grave and forever hide the tragic remains of the slain.
The date was 27 March 1945 just a week since the newly formed guerilla battalion hastily left Rangoon on 19 March for the thick jungles of lower-middle Burma as soon as the Great Marching Parade of the Burmese National Army in Rangoon’s vast Cantonment Park was over.
In his parade speech to his army General Aung San commanded them to find the nearest enemy and ruthlessly eliminate them. For the group of senior Japanese officers standing behind the podium the nearest enemy was to be the advancing British 14th Army on the western front. But for the Burmese troops on the parade ground it was a code word for their Japanese masters. The long-awaited rebellion had started and that day of 27 March later became the celebrated Armed Forces Day of the Union of Burma.
The Second World War was almost over as the hopelessly defeated Japanese Army was retreating in disarray from the Burma-India border. The Field Marshall Slim-led British 14th Army had successfully stopped their advance into the Indian sub-continent and were now on an aggressive march into Burma.
The Axis’s grand plan to enslave the world by fully encircling it by the Imperial Japanese Army from the East and the Nazi German Army from the West and then meeting their two mighty forces at the Caucasus was already in tatters. The advancing German army was stopped and then repelled by the Red Army at Stalingrad and the Japanese by the British at Imphal and Kohima on the border.
After reading the prevailing political and military situations correctly, General Aung San, the 30-year-old willing ally of the invading Japanese, secretly met with British Field Marshall William Slim and sold his former masters into the hands of rapidly approaching British 14th Army.
Aung San’s last minute switch would also enable him to become a key player in the future political theatre of Burma rather than to be defeated and prosecuted later as a war criminal by the victorious British keen to get their big hands on him as a revenge for their defeat and withdrawal from Burma in late 1941.
To execute his well-timed treachery Aung San sent all the battalions of his Japanese trained Burmese National Army to the rural areas on the pretext of fighting against the rapidly advancing British Army.
To participate in this historic rebellion the guerilla battalion 108 was formed overnight mainly with the 300 odd strong Burmese student cadets and the Burmese staff of the Japanese Military Academy in Mingaladon, the garrison town on the outskirts of Rangoon.
(The predecessor of modern DSA (Defense Services Academy) the wartime Academy established by the Japanese Imperial Army produced many hundreds of Burmese graduate officers who later became the leaders and the backbone of the modern Burmese army. General Tin Oo of NLD fame, ex-army-chief General Kyaw Htin, ex-President Colonel “Butcher of Rangoon” Sein Lwin, and ex-President Dr. Maung Maung are just some of the Academy’s many graduates. Almost everybody who was powerful during Ne Win’s long rule is an Academy graduate.)
Himself an early graduate of the Academy, Lieutenant Htun Hla, the most senior Burmese instructor of the Academy and a veteran of the war of independence for almost four years, was quickly promoted to Captain and appointed the battalion CO.
The nine serving Japanese instructors of the academy including the Japanese Principal of the academy Colonel Hata Kawashima were made the military advisors and the whole battalion quickly marched out to their assigned area at the foothills of Pegu-Yoma. The battalion was under the direct command of General Aung San who was also the divisional CO of the First Military Division.
Apart from the orders detailing the battalion’s assigned duties Captain Htun Hla was also given a special envelope directly from General Aung San with a strict instruction to open only at the designated location in the jungle. Contents were for his eyes only: the envelope bore the special warning on it.
So as soon as they arrived at the jungle location and after setting up temporary arrangements for the battalion quarters, Htun Hla opened the envelope and the contents of the single page letter inside shocked him to the bone. With three lines in a single paragraph in his own handwriting, Aung San ordered young Htun Hla the immediate arrest and execution of all the Japanese officers attached to his battalion.
Only Colonel Kawashima, Aung San’s old comrade since his early Academy days in Japan, must be given an honorable Bushido death but the rest were up to him to be disposed of in whatever ways he fancied.
Htun Hla immediately called all Burmese officers into his small command tent and worked out a plan and issued the orders to arrest the nine Japanese officers. The time was well into the dark night and the Japanese were quickly jolted out of their small beds, tightly bound behind by their elbows, also bound by their shins, and blindfolded.
Once bound and tied two together inside their respective field tents except for the Colonel Kawashima alone in his tent the guards were posted outside each of the five small tents as the plan was to execute them at dawn.
A young cadet officer named Kyaw Htin was assigned as the guard officer for the night. Only 16-years-old he was a lanky boy-soldier who eventually became a tall general and the Chief of the modern Burmese Army in the late 1970s and the whole of the 1980s.
During that long night he was tremendously bothered by his assignment tomorrow to bayonet Lieutenant Itoe Sakura, his allotment of the nine Japanese officers. Diminutive Sakura was almost 10 years older than him and one of the rare breed of wartime Japanese infantry officers for he was a kind and fair-minded person.
Back at the Academy Kyaw Htin was becoming closer to Lieutenant Sakura than any of his other students and now the thought of having to bayonet him to death after the dark night was over was getting totally unbearable as the night wore on. Just a couple of weeks ago back in the Academy Sakura was sharing with him the private thoughts of going back to his university teaching job, marrying his long-sufering sweet heart, and starting a family back in Tokyo once the war was over. Smart Sakura knew very well that Japan was badly beaten and the big war was nearly over.
Now he had to brutally destroy Sakura’s sweet dreams and Kyaw Htin was facing a shocking moral dilemma of whether to obey the brute order and kill him or else to boldly let his dear teacher and close friend escape from the certain death by his own hands. It took him more than four hours thinking while walking non-stop up and down along the line of Japanese tents to make the decision. Finally he bravely decided to do the right thing.
He walked up to the tent where Sakura and another young Japanese lieutenant named Sukuma Kato were kept for the night under guard. Kyaw Htin dismissed the boy soldier guard back to his quarters and immediately opened the flap of the green tent and went inside as the boy walked away with a bayoneted-Japanese-rifle taller than him on his narrow shoulder.
He quickly removed the blindfolds and untied the ropes off two Japanese officers shaking with fear in the small tent lit brightly inside by a kerosene field lamp hanging from apex. “You two have to run now. They’re gonna kill you all at dawn!” he just simply said to Sakura and Kato who were now rubbing their arms hard to get their normal blood circulation back.
“How about Colonel and others? Can you let them go too?” Sakura quietly asked. “No, I can’t do that. I am just letting you and Kato go. They assigned me to bayonet you at dawn. If I have to obey that order I don’t think I can live the rest of my life in peace with your blood on my hands. Now just go, before I change my mind!” He tried to rush them out of his sight and they both stood up and got out off the tent.
“Will you get into a trouble? I think you will!” Sakura aired his genuine concern for his beloved student. He was still inside the tent from the entrance with half of his small body already outside and Kato’s plump frame already well out off the tent.
“Don’t worry about me. I don’t think anything bad will happen to me. Captain’s just following the orders from General Aung San. He will understand my feeling and my conscience. You two just run north and try to surrender to the very first English army unit you meet. They will take you in as POWs and let you live. Avoid the Burmese army at any cost. They will just simply shoot you. Now just go, get out out of here!” Kyaw Htin raised his voice and Sakura quickly disappeared. Then was the last time he saw Sakura till they met again in April 1976 in Rangoon, exactly 31 years later.
The day was almost dawning as Kyaw Htin calmly walked up to the CO’s tent, found him sitting up straight on his small bed unable to sleep, and simply told him what he just did. He was right about Htun Hla though. He placed him under guard inside his tent for only that day as the punishment and nothing else.
Later the execution of the seven Japanese left was done as planned and the battalion tried to forget all about the Japanese officers and bury their inner guilt for brutally killing their former teachers and trusted comrades deep inside their unconscious minds.
The year was 1976 and I was still a student at the Rangoon Institute of Technology in then military-ruled Socialist Burma when two members of a Japanese bone collecting team visited our house in downtown Rangoon.
One day in the late afternoon, just back from RIT, I saw two old men sitting in our downstairs living room. One was thin and other one was plump and both were very fair in complexion like Chinese but they were not Chinese.
I had never seen a Japanese person before in my life. So I didn’t know they were from Japan until my mother told me. They were anxiously waiting for my father who apparently was uncharacteristically out of the house for some urgent reason and didn’t come back till very late at night. Conveniently he only arrived back after the two old men had gone back to the Japanese Embassy where they were staying while in Burma.
The next day was the same again as the two old men patiently waited in our dim living room for my father, the soon-to-return, who didn’t even come back that night. This repeated for a few more days and I had to ask my mother about my father’s strange behavior of continuously avoiding the very persistent foreign guests.
She couldn’t enlighten me except that these two old men were his army mates back in the big war, as she hardly knew much about my father’s wartime activities. Like many other hardened and traumatised veterans my father completely shut most of his military past from us as if he was deliberately hiding it.
One thing I didn’t know at that time was that our xenophobic dictator General Ne Win had a sudden wave of nostalgia for his past and impulsively allowed a team of Japanese bone collectors of their war dead for two short weeks into Burma, then tightly closed to the outside world since he violently seized power in 1962.
These two Japanese men were part of that team and they were trying to seek the locations of the war graves of their fallen from my father. They didn’t speak either Burmese or English and also I and my mother didn’t know a single word of Japanese. So everyday they just sat there occasionally drinking tea and nibbling the snacks we provided for them as they patiently waited and waited and waited for my father in complete silence.
But my father deliberately avoided them for the whole 14 days they were allowed in Burma and finally they had to leave Burma empty handed. After roughly knowing the reason for their visits I was seriously baffled by my father’s strange behavior. Later I tried to investigate the reason for my father’s absurd reaction to them.
It took me a while to get to the bottom without his cooperation till I met some of his former soldiers from his old guerilla battalion. From them I knew the whole story and discovered that the two old men patiently and anxiously waiting for my old father’s return in our living room for almost two weeks were the former lieutenants Itoe Sakura and Sukuma Kato. The lucky survivors of the jungle massacre.
Now over the age of sixty they were still trying desperately to locate the remains of Colonel Kawashima and his six officers. At the War Office they met General Kyaw Htin who deliberately sent them to his former CO’s house as he didn’t really know the exact location of the mass grave.
Apparently feeling guilty as the executioner of his former mentor and his old teachers my father had stubbornly refused to help them by not even meeting them.
With advanced malaria already reaching inside his brain my father had a nasty stroke in 1977 and as a result he suffered total paralysis on the left side of his body for almost 3 years. Painfully bed ridden he finally passed away in May 1980 at a rather young age of 55. He had deliberately taken the secrets to his grave.
I do not think he died in peace. And he might now be in hell for all the atrocious murders he committed during the big war and then the long civil war.
Aung San’s Racist Murder
My father was a very violent man. As the eldest son and a rebellious one I bore the brunt of his physical violence all my childhood till well into my early teenage years. He would use his fists, foot, leather belts, canes, and whatever objects nearby he could get hold of to beat me up at my slight disobedience to his strict orders.
Once I got older and bigger and he couldn’t bash me no more he even relinquished the severe punishment to the army boarding school and its sadist Regimental Sergeant Major. Without really knowing his traumatic past I hated him so much that at one stage I even thought of killing him.
The only people he loved in his life were my mother and his Bo-Gyoke Aung San. He adored and hero-worshipped his Bo-Gyoke so much that in our house we didn’t even dare to mention the name Aung San. We referred to him as just Bo-Gyoke. Everything about Aung San was Bo-Gyoke this and Bo-Gyoke that but not his name was ever spoken. Bo-Gyoke was a demigod in our godless communist household.
Every Martyrs’ Day on 19 July we all put on our best clothes and paid our respects to the late Bo-Gyoke first at the Martyrs’ Mausoleum by the Shwe-da-gon pagoda. We brothers had to fall in at the base of Bo-Gyoke’s tomb and salute him at my father’s command. The mausoleum was always crowded on that day and we boys somehow felt humiliated as everybody was staring at us. We then had to walk to Bo-Gyoke’s former house now the Bo-Gyoke Aung San Museum on Natmout Street to pay further respects. For four young boys it was a boring and tedious day-long affair.
My father would weep in Bo-Gyoke’s dimly lit bedroom after seeing the display of old personal items. We children even felt sad as the items like reading glasses and the open book were realistically arranged on the bedside table as if Bo-Gyoke had just slept on his bed last night. My mother also cried there too with tears rolling down her cheeks.
Later that day during the traditional family picnic in the nearby Aung San Park by the Kan-daw-gyi Lake we had to listen to the repeat of all his wonderful stories about his own experiences with Bo-Gyoke, save the gory ones and the atrocities.
He became a member of the Communist Party only because Bo-Gyoke was the first secretary general of the party. He later became a socialist only because his Bo-Gyoke became a socialist. My father had finished only year 4 from the monastery school of his dirt poor village in drought stricken middle Burma and I do not think he knew that he read much about communism or socialism.
The ending of his stories was always why he and his men couldn’t save Bo-Gyoke from the assassins’ bullets as Bo-Gyoke himself did not allow them to guard him all the time. We brothers didn’t dare say a word and at the end we all dreaded the coming of the Martyrs’ Day next year.
Naturally we Burmese were seriously conditioned or rather brain-washed into worshipping the hero of independence and the founder of modern Burma. School textbooks and all the popular literature portray him in brightly adoring lights. Any literature critical of Aung San or his army was strictly not allowed. But there were many underground writings carrying negative aspects of him while Burmese still had access to all sorts of other forbidden works of writings before the army’s complete takeover of Burma in 1962.
After learning about his secret order to my father to execute nine Japanese officers and the subsequent hush-hush of all his wartime atrocities I started having nagging doubts about our late hero. There was a well-documented case of one of his murders. He was accused of the gruesome racist murder of a staunch pro-British Indian village chief in 1942 near the Thailand-Burma border when he re-entered Burma with his BIA (Burmese Independence Army) after the advancing Japanese Imperial Army.
Our Bo-Gyoke was the judge, jury, and the executioner in that case. Being accused of actively helping the British Army brutally suppress the Burmese peasant rebellion in his territory during the t1930s; the Indian headman was sentenced to death. The victim was brought to the nearby town of Tha-Hton for the public execution by his order.
As per usual Japanese practice the condemned was tied to the goalpost in the town soccer field and Aung San himself bayoneted him first and then ordered a line of his soldiers to finish the victim. The whole town was forced to come out to watch the execution. When the grim spectacle was over the corpse was removed and the blood-stained, bayonet-scarred goalpost was left standing to remind the populace as the only fate for the collaborators and the loyal servants of British colonial masters.
The slain headman’s wife bravely filed a formal petition to the British governor of Burma in 1946 just after the war. “General Aung San should be dealt with according to the law for my husband’s murder as the British laws do not differentiate between rich and poor or powerful and powerless,” she pleaded in desperation as even the colonial police didn’t dare to touch the case.
In response Aung San wrote an article in the newspapers justifying his brute acts as the pressure to arrest him for the murder mounted after many witnesses came out calling openly for his arrest. “Those were days of rough justice. The country was in an absolutely lawless condition. It was a clear case in which the villagers had arrested their own headman for oppressing them, and the offences he committed merit no less a punishment than death. So he must be killed and I myself executed him,” he wrote in defiance.
The British colonial government then tried to charge him and prosecute that racist murder but the former Supreme-Allied-Commander Lord Mountbatten intervened and stopped the case for obvious political reasons. Our Bo-Gyoke by then was too popular among the populace to be dragged into a court for a mere murder. It would start a bloodied rebellion and the British didn’t have the stomach for more prolonged fights. By then the war-wearied British were ready to give up Burma into the hands of Aung San and his patriotic-national-socialist army.
After his assassination on 19 July 1947 General Aung San became a martyr and nobody even dared whisper any negative comments of him. He was the national hero after Ah-naw-ya-hta, Ba-yint-naung, and Ah-laung-pha-yar, the founder kings of the first, second, and third Burmese empires respectively. He was made the undisputed father of independence and the sole founder of modern Burma. The well established villains in his assassination plot are always the shady British agents and their power-hungry Burmese collaborator, U Saw.
Another line we’ve been fed forcefully and constantly is that if Bo-Gyoke were still alive we wouldn’t have this brutal civil war and Burma would be heavenly peaceful and prosperous like in the colonial time without the British overlords and the hated collaborators. And his army is the sole defender of our race, our religion, and the union. All the Burmese swallow those lines including the hooks and sinkers.
But for me that blind belief and trust in our hero slowly vaporised as I left Burma for a university in Bangkok and started having access to all sorts of books in English about Burma from the university library. Books like George Orwell’s Burmese Days and other essays were real eye openers for an information-starved Burmese like me. They taught me to see the difficult things objectively without a racial bias and also without the emotional filters.
Then one day I had a rather very long and heated discussion with a visiting Indian Professor who had a very strong blood connection with both pre-war and post-war Burma. His many uncles basically grew up in Rangoon and they were summarily kicked out of Burma by the army in the 1960s and they lost everything. I still remembered the exact wording of his angry remarks about our national hero.
“The real villain is not just the Burmese Army but also their founder Aung San. He gave them the super-inflated-legitimacy and the totally-misguided-purpose as a sole patriotic national institution. A bad institution that is violently-racist, narrowly-nationalist, left-wing army continuing the old marshal tradition of the empire-building brutal Burmese kings from the distant past well before the arrival of British.
He was almost an exact replica of our own Nazi, Subhas Chandra Bose. If the British didn’t stop the Japs on the border in 1944 we Indians would now have Bose’s Indian National Army terrorising us exactly same as what Aung San’s once Burmese National Army is doing now in Burma!”
Even though I was seriously upset at him at that time his angry remarks have forced me to dig deeper into our country’s past to discover more about our Bo-Gyoke. My main question is why Burma is in limbo for so bloody long and still gripped by more than 60 years of hellish civil war since 1948, the year of independence from Great Britain.
I really want to know who our Bo-Gyoke really was and what is his long-lasting legacy over our little country now called Myanmar, the pariah of the civilised world and one of the poorest countries on earth. A true hellhole still burning since the English left Burma and her people to their own devices after the century-long British colonial rule since 1826.
Why has the patriotic-nationalist army he and his famous Thirty Comrades built with the noble intention of serving Burma and her people turned so nasty and so brutally dictatorial now that their own people hate them with unbelievable disgust?
Why are we Burmese as a long suffering people still fearful of this fearsome Burmese army?
Out of all former European colonies in Asia, why has only British Burma ended up rather like Belgian Congo from faraway Africa while British Malaya came out nicely from the long colonial rule and then total Japanese occupation exactly like in Burma and has prospered so much that hundreds of thousands of poor Burmese men and women are now slaving there?
The answer basically lies in the obvious fact that the systemic violent rule of the military class which pervasively controlled every aspect of Japanese society for many, many years till the very end ofthe Second World War was brutally transplanted onto the innocent populace of Burma through Aung San and his army!
The primary fact is that Aung San and his so-called Burmese nationalists and self-proclaimed patriots willingly wearing that Japanese yoke did not foresee the dire consequences for Burma and her people even long after the militaristic Japan was twice nuclear-bombed onto her knees and abruptly turned into a civilian-ruled democracy at gunpoint by the United States!
The fundamental fact is that the rule of law established by the highly-civilised British for over a century of stable colonial rule that made Burma once the most prosperous nations in southeast Asia was abruptly replaced by the rule of force and violence in 1942, the year Japanese Imperial Army overran British Burma!
The very year Aung San’s army came into existence and started the killings which have kept on going till today by Than Shwe for more than 20 years and before him Ne Win for almost 30 long years!
(For privacy reason the Japanese names have been changed.)