April 23rd 2005

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Articles from this issue:


EDITORIAL: Telstra: the latest push for privatisation

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Howard to use Canberra power against states

EDUCATION: Cutting university places in the not-so-clever country

TRADE: Where do we go next with Japan?

FAMILY LAW: 'No-fault' principle undermines marriage

HISTORY: The Vietnam War - 30 years on

STRAWS IN THE WIND: A society of hoons? / The Nobel committee's Syllabus of Errors / The triumph of Roma

ASIA: China's burgeoning naval power

ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT: Taiwan's high-tech industry: lessons for Australia

INDONESIA: Obstacles to an Indonesian partnership

CLIMATE: Kyoto: why we should be sceptical

BOOKS: FORGOTTEN ARMIES: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945

BOOKS: Despite the Barking Dogs, by Stanislaw Gotowicz

Books promotion page

FORGOTTEN ARMIES: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945

by Michael Daniel (reviewer)

News Weekly, April 23, 2005
FORGOTTEN ARMIES: The Fall of British Asia, 1941-1945
By Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper

London: Allen Lane / Penguin. Hardback. RRP $65.00

At the end of the 1930s, British rule in Southeast Asia seemed secure. Although there was a push for independence in India, and Burma had obtained some autonomy, the British presided over largely stable and economically prosperous colonies.

However, by 1945, when Britain reasserted its control over areas that had been occupied by the Japanese, there was little doubt that its rule would be short-lived.

Forgotten Armies examines the history of Britain's Southeast Asian possessions, particularly Burma and Malaya during World War II, beginning with a profile of the situation before the war.

Ironically, the economic prosperity of these areas was partly due to extensive Japanese investment. Much of the intelligence-gathering prior to the Japanese invasion was done by the resident Japanese.

Independence movements were emerging, to the extent that some of their leaders had been imprisoned by the British. In some instances, leaders such as the Burmese Aung San fled to Japan and were trained by the Japanese.

Japan's entry into World War II left Britain largely unprepared, as demonstrated by the rapid fall, first of Malaya and Singapore, then of Burma.

Britain's defence relied upon the "Singapore Strategy" which predicated holding out for some three months against a seaborne invasion until a relief fleet should arrive.

Japan's advance, however, was via the mainland, which Britain wrongly believed to be impenetrable jungle; and the ease of advance surprised even the Japanese commanders. For example, the Japanese expected it would take three months to breach the British line of defence in northern Malaya, whereas it was accomplished in 15 hours.

The Japanese advance into Burma was likewise swift. In its wake, thousands attempted to flee overland into India, with many dying of starvation and disease.

The rapid success of the Japanese dispelled belief in British power in the eyes of the local people and was to be one of the chief catalysts in the push for independence following World War II.

Weakened standing

Similarly, Britain's inability to prevent famine in Bengal in 1943 weakened Britain's standing amongst Indians.

These aspirations for independence were encouraged by the Japanese, who presented themselves as liberators and backed indigenous groups, some of whom - such as the Indian Independence Army - fought alongside the Japanese against the British.

However, the local people soon learnt that the Japanese were the real masters and were ruthless in their control. Hence, guerrilla elements, for example communist units, emerged in the jungles.

Forgotten Armies also details Britain's campaigns to wrest control of Burma from the Japanese, the real advances beginning in 1944 and culminating in the recapture of Rangoon in 1945. The British were assisted by various underground movements which fought the Japanese at critical moments in the campaigns.

While the British drew up plans for the re-occupation of their Southeast Asian colonies, they soon realised that their hegemony was coming to an end as India, for example, becoming, for example, achieved independence in 1947.

This monograph is a very interesting and informative overview of this period of history. Perhaps its greatest strength is that it analyses key events and trends from the perspectives of all parties - the British, the local populations and the Japanese.

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