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Australian Defence Contacts with Burma, 1945–1987

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  28 November 2008


To most Australians, Burma is still associated with the Second World War, and in particular the infamous ‘death railway’ from Thailand. In May 1942 some 3,000 Australian prisoners of war (POWs) were sent from Singapore, to provide labour for the construction of an airfield at Tavoy. They were subsequently joined by another 1,800 or so Australians from Java, making a total in southern Burma of 4,851 men. Together with other Allied prisoners and Burmese levies they were later put to work building a railway line over Three Pagodas Pass, to link Burma with the Siam-Malaya railway system. Before the project was completed in November 1943, 771 Australian POWs (nearly 16 per cent of those on the Burma side of the border) had died from disease, malnutrition and the brutality of their Japanese captors. Casualties among the POWs working on the railway in Thailand were even higher.

Copyright © Cambridge University Press 1992

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1 This article was first published as a Working Paper by the Australian National University's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre. It draws from research being conducted in collaboration with Garry Woodard on Australia's bilateral relations with Burma since 1945. The article reflects the author's own views, and draws entirely on public sources. It has no official status or endorsement.

2 File ‘Report on A Force’, Australian War Memorial AWM 54, 554/2/4.Google Scholar See also Wigmore, Lionel, The Japanese Thrust (Australian War Memorial, Canberra, 1968), pp. 541–61.Google Scholar

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4 See Allen, Louis, Burma: The Longest War, 1941–1945 (Dent and Sons, London, 1984).Google Scholar

5 Ashton, William, ‘Burma–still struggling for peace and stability’, Pacific Defence Reporter 16:3 (09 1989), 18. These cemeteries are at Thanbyuzayat (south of Moulmein), Htaukkyan (north of Rangoon) and in Rangoon itself.Google Scholar

6 See, for example, Thompson, Robert, Revolutionary War in World Strategy, 1945–1969 (Secker and Warburg, London, 1970), 62–3Google Scholar; and Booker, Malcolm, The Last Domino: Aspects of Australia's Foreign Relations (Collins, Sydney, 1976), 189.Google Scholar

7 ‘Australian Foreign Policy’, Statement by the Minister for External Affairs, Spender, P. C., 9 March 1950, Current Notes on International Affairs 21:2 (02 1950), 158.Google Scholar

8 With independence, the new Burmese government inherited two rebellions, one by the Trotskyist Communist Party (Burma) (known as the ‘Red Flags’), and another by the (Muslim) Mujahids in the Arakan region. It also faced growing problems with the People's Volunteer Organization (later the People's Comrades Party), made up of disaffected remnants of Burma's wartime independence army. The most serious challenge to government authority, however, came from the Karen National Defence Organization (KNDO). These groups were later joined by the Maoist Burma Communist Party (‘White Flags’), the Kachin Independence Army and Mon National Defence Organization (among others). Almost every ethnic group in Burma has taken up arms against the central government at some time.Google Scholar

9 ‘Australian Foreign Policy’, Statement by the Minister for External Affairs, P. C. Spender, 9 March 1950.Google Scholar

10 Millar, T. B. (ed.), Australian Foreign Minister: The Diaries of R. G. Casey, 1951–1960 (Collins, London, 1972), 36. Between 1946 and 1949, Thailand (then Siam) produced 26.6 per cent of the world's rice.Google Scholar While well below pre-war levels, Burma provided 30.4 per cent. See Tinker, Hugh, The Union of Burma: A Study of the First Years of Independence (Oxford University Press, London, 1967), p. 256.Google Scholar

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13 Report by Joint Planning Committee 40/1953, 17 July 1953. File: ‘Supply of Military Equipment to Burma’, Australian Archives A5799, 147/1953.Google Scholar

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26 In 1953 and 1954 Australia strongly supported Burmese demands in the United Nations for these KMT remnants to be removed, even to the point of criticizing the United States, from whom they received covert military assistance.Google Scholar

27 UK High Commission to the Secretary, Prime Minister's Department, 18 April 1952. File: ‘War and Defence—Miscellaneous, Facilities for Members of the Burma Armed Forces in Australia Training Establishments’, Australian Archives A462, 439/4/13.Google Scholar

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29 This officer was Kyi Win, who rose to become a Colonel in the Burma Army.Google Scholar

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31 The Australian Government later stated in public, however, that the offer was made through the Australian Legation in Rangoon. See ‘Training of Burmese Army Officers in Australia’, Statement by the Minister for External Affairs, Casey, R. G., 2 December 1952, Current Notes on International Affairs 23:12 (12 1952).Google Scholar

32 Tinker, , The Union of Burma, 332.Google Scholar

33 Serong to the author, 26 April 1990. Serong also maintained a personal correspondence with Colonel Maung Maung from that date.Google Scholar

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35 Secretary, Department of External Affairs to Secretary, Department of Air, 25 May 1955. File: ‘Training of Burmese Air Force Personnel in Australia’, Australian Archives A705/1, 208/1/2555. See also Tinker, , The Union of Burma, 332.Google Scholar

36 Salisbury to the Minister, Australian Embassy, Rangoon, 28 June 1955. File: ‘Training of Burmese Air Force Personnel in Australia’.Google Scholar

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38 Burma’, Current Notes on International Affairs 28:5 (05 1957), 395.Google Scholar

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41 Writing later about Serong's part in the Vietnam War, the Australian journalist Denis Warner described him as ‘brave, brilliant, patronizing and well informed, with a matching ego’. See Warner, Denis, Certain Victory: How Hanoi Won The War (Sheed Andrews and McMeel, Kansas, 1978), 13.Google Scholar

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43 Moodie, C. T. to the Department of External Affairs, Canberra, 18 February 1957. File: ‘Burmese Request for Senior Australian Army Officer to Lecture on Jungle Warfare’, Australian Archives A816, 44/301/29.Google Scholar

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45 Secretary, Department of External Affairs, to the Secretary, Department of the Army, 18 February 1957. See also Secretary, Department of Defence, to the Minister for Defence, 4 March 1957, ibid.

46 F. P. Serong, ‘Report on Visit to Burma, June–August 1957’ File: ‘Burma, 1957–59’, Australian Archives A4311/1, Box 579/10. After prolonged negotiations, a border agreement with China was signed in January 1960. See The Sino-Burmese Border Question (Research Backgrounder, Hong Kong, 1960).Google Scholar

47 The lessons of the Korean War and the French experience in Indochina were standard material in Australian infantry and military intelligence training courses at the time. Serong was under instructions, however, not to reveal information with a security classification higher than Confidential, the level accorded Burmese trainees in Australia.Google Scholar

48 Serong, , ‘Report on Visit to Burma, June-August 1957’.Google Scholar

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50 Australian Embassy, Rangoon, to the Department of External Affairs, 28 October 1959. File: ‘Request for Services of an Australian Army Officer (Col. Serong) by Burma Army’, Australian Archives A1945/1, 248/2/4.Google Scholar

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52 Serong has repeatedly described himself as a ‘strategic adviser’ during this period a title also used by Fogarty, Michael in his biographical article ‘Ted Serong: An Army Career’, Australian Defence Force Journal 56 (01/02 1986), 8. The official citation for Serong's OBE in 1962, however, accords with the Burmese description of him as a ‘Tactical Adviser’.Google Scholar

53 Serong to the author, 26 April 1990.Google Scholar

54 Maung Maung was Burma's ambassador to Australia from May 1972 to August 1975. In between these appointments he was Burmese Ambassador to Yugoslavia and Indonesia.Google Scholar

55 Serong, F. P., Allies (film transcript) 1983, roll 108 p. 1., and roll 109 p. 4. See also Serong to author, 26 April 1990.Google Scholar

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57 The British provided the Burmese with a wide range of military equipment, including aircraft, artillery and small arms.Google Scholar

58 File: ‘Trade with Burma’, Australian Archives A461, C323/1/3.Google Scholar

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60 On 28 June 1950, in its decision on ‘Export of Arms and Warlike Stores from Australia in Time of Peace’, Cabinet laid down the conditions under which such sales might be made.Google Scholar

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62 Launched in May 1944, the UBS Mayu was the former HMS Fal.Google Scholar

63 ‘1952 Policy Statement by US on Goals in Southeast Asia’, Key Document No. 2, The Pentagon Papers (Bantam Books, Toronto, 1971), 28.Google Scholar See also McCoy, A. W., The Politics of Heroin in Southeast Asia (Harper Colophon, New York. 1972), 126–35.Google Scholar

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67 Ibid.

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69 Jeffrey Richelson and Des Ball have claimed that an ASIS station in Rangoon was closed down in 1974.Google Scholar See Richelson, J. T. and Ball, Desmond, The Ties That Bind; Intelligence Cooperation between the UKUSA Countries—the United Kingdon, the United States of America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand (Allen and Unwin, Boston, 1985), 44–5.Google Scholar

70 Ibid., and Oyster, 117.

71 Australian Department of Foreign Affairs, Annual Report 1975 (Australian Government Printing Service, Canberra, 1976), 49.Google Scholar