Andrew Thomson discusses Japanese Officer Keiji Suzuki’s role in Myanmar’s independence movement.
When the British ruled Myanmar, there was a popular ta baung, a Burmese prophecy, that one day a thunderbolt would strike down the umbrella − the umbrella being a symbol of British colonial rule. The thunderbolt came, although it wasn’t a flash of lightning accompanied by a crash of thunder, but a man named Keiji Suzuki of the Japanese Imperial Army, more commonly known among the Burmese as Bo Mogyo, the ‘Thunderbolt Commander”.
In May 1940, Colonel Suzuki first arrived in Yangon with orders from the Japanese Imperial Army to organise a fifth column amongst Burmese nationalists and those frustrated with British rule. The 1930s was a period of growing disaffection among the Burmese; the Great Depression had left many penniless and a new generation of Burmese leaders was emerging, frustrated with British rule and willing to engage in agitation, underground movements and mass demonstration to achieve their goals. By 1940, Britain’s involvement in World War II had created an opportunity for Burmese nationalists to achieve their aspirations through armed struggle and Keiji Suzuki was willing to pledge Japanese support to their cause.
Keiji Suzuki was by no means a conventional army officer. He was a graduate of the prestigious General Staff College, spoke English fluently, and was known to sympathize with independence movements throughout Asia, expressing genuine concern for Asians living under European colonial rule. As an intelligence officer, he was tasked by his superiors in the Japanese Army to develop an offensive in British Asia with the aim of closing the Burma Road, a crucial supply line that the Allies used to provide China with weapons and supplies in their war against Japan. Colonel Suzuki was passionate about covert operations and his plan involved enlisting the support of young nationalists in Myanmar to fight the British. To this end he spent much of the 1930s in Bangkok, recruiting a number of Japanese with business and diplomatic experience in South East Asia and travelling to Yangon to establish a network of Burmese nationalists and dissidents, including prominent members of the Thakin movement.
The Thakins were a Burmese nationalist group formed in the 1930s, comprised primarily of young intellectuals disgruntled with British rule. By the early 1940s, many of the Thakins, including Aung San, had come to believe that Burmese independence could only be achieved through armed struggle, and were willing to accept assistance from any nation to make this happen. To secure foreign assistance for a revolt against the British, Aung San travelled to China to obtain help from Chinese Communists but was intercepted by Japanese agents sent by Suzuki. After meeting Aung San in Tokyo and assuring him of Japanese support, Suzuki set about establishing Minami Kikan, a Japanese secret subversion organization formed in 1941 to promote Japanese war aims by providing support to Burmese nationalist groups.
Through Minami Kikan, Suzuki played a critical role in helping Burmese nationalists organize the Burmese Independence Army and training its core leadership, the “Thirty Comrades”. Suzuki would be the mentor and principal trainer of some of Myanmar’s most prominent leaders including Aung San, Ne Win, and Bo Let Ya, propelling these men to the forefront of the Burmese nationalist movement. The Burma Independence Army (BIA) was formed in December 1941 under Suzuki’s leadership as commander in chief, working with his Chief of Staff Aung San to recruit soldiers and organize them into the first national army formed in Myanmar since the twilight of the Burmese Empire.
The Burmese soldiers widely accepted Suzuki as the Commander in Chief of the BIA due to the propaganda circulated by Aung San and his colleagues that Suzuki was a descendant of Myingun, a Burmese prince who was exiled by the British and had returned to lead the struggle against the British. This propaganda would play an important role in legitimizing the presence of the Japanese Army in the eyes of the Burmese. However, Burmese support for Japan’s war aims was conditional on them granting Myanmar its independence. Suzuki had promised the thirty comrades that independence would be declared as soon as the BIA and the Japanese army invaded in January 1942, however this did not occur. Suzuki then encouraged the leaders of the BIA to believe that Japan would grant Myanmar independence and recognize their provisional government if they reached Yangon before the Japanese army. Instead, the Japanese military leadership disbanded the BIA’s interim government in the spring of 1942.
While Suzuki may have generally believed that the Japanese would grant the Burmese independence, the leaders of the Japanese army thought that the military should govern Myanmar until after the war. The army’s main objective was to close the Burma Road to China and to use Myanmar’s natural resources to achieve victory in its war against the Allies, while Suzuki felt that their primary objective should be to assist the Burmese independence movement. These conflicting objectives would be a source of friction between Suzuki and Lieutenant-General Shijiro Iida, the commander of Japanese forces in Myanmar, who would later orchestrate Suzuki’s recall to Japan.
Suzuki’s attachment to the cause for Burmese independence was a source of concern among the leaders of the Japanese army. Of particular worry was Suzuki’s command of the BIA and his willingness to act independently. For example, he had not been authorized to pledge support to Burmese nationalists in 1940, but he had still promised Aung San Japanese assistance. Furthermore, in the eyes of Japanese military officials, Minami Kikan was now obsolete as the Japanese Army was in control of the country and Suzuki’s behaviour was considered to be unacceptable. As a result, in June 1942 the Imperial General Headquarters in Tokyo issued orders dissolving Minami Kikan and recalling Suzuki to Japan, where, for the remainder of the war, he fulfilled the duties of his official role as Head of Shipping. After Suzuki’s recall, the BIA was reorganized under the leadership of Aung San and named the Burmese Defence Army on July 27, 1942.
Before Suzuki left, however, he had one final contribution to the cause of Burmese independence. When U Nu spoke to Suzuki about how their aspirations failed to materialize, Suzuki is reported to have said in May 1942: “Independence is not the kind of thing you can get by begging for it from other people. You should proclaim it yourselves. The Japanese refuse to give it? Very well then, tell them that you will cross over to someplace like Twante and proclaim it and set up your government. What’s the difficulty about that? If they start shooting, you shoot back.”
It is unclear why Suzuki said this. Perhaps he wanted the BIA to remain under his command, independent of the Japanese army. Or maybe, he was truly committed to the nationalist struggle. Either way this advice would foreshadow the decision made by Aung San and other nationalists to revolt against the Japanese in 1945, especially once it had become apparent that Japan would not grant Myanmar true independence, only allowing them autonomy as a puppet state: as the State of Burma.
Keiji Suzuki played a crucial role in the Burmese independence movement by helping to organize and train the Burma Independence Army, which, once reorganized under Aung San as the Burma National Army in 1943, would be the decisive factor in achieving Burmese independence. As the British government recognized the difficulty of governing Myanmar without the cooperation of Aung San and the Burma National Army, they therefore decided to work with the Burmese nationalists. Especially when the alternative was to get involved in a problematic counterinsurgency at a time when Britain was withdrawing their troops from Asia, and the Indian army could no longer be counted on to impose British rule.
The legacy of Keiji Suzuki is noteworthy due to the unusual role he played in the Burmese independence movement. Through the formation of the BIA and the training of the Thirty Comrades, he helped weaken Britain’s military supremacy in Myanmar, paving the way for Britain’s withdrawal and Myanmar’s independence in 1948. With regards to his motives, we may never know whether he was truly committed to Burmese independence or simply took actions that he thought were in Japan’s best interest. Regardless of his motives, Colonel Keji Suzuki has left his mark on Myanmar, both through his actions and the actions of those he trained.
Andrew Thomson has a Bachelor of Commerce from the University of Western Australian and is currently undertaking a Masters of International Development at the same university. He has previously undertaken an internship at a Yangon-based consulting firm in early 2018.