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International relations

80 years since Pearl Harbor: How the attack reshaped Asia

Japan's near simultaneous invasion of Thailand spelled end of British Empire

The Japanese bombing of Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, on Dec. 7, 1941 is a date that has gone down in history. Less remembered is that Japanese forces had begun invading Southeast Asia hours earlier.   © AP

BANGKOK -- President Franklin Roosevelt's somber speech to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives the day after "naval and air forces of the Empire of Japan" attacked Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, home to the U.S. Pacific Fleet -- "a date which will live in infamy," in his estimation -- has indeed never been forgotten.

"It will be recorded that the distance of Hawaii from Japan makes it obvious that the attack was deliberately planned many days, or even weeks ago," said Roosevelt. He noted that Malaya, Guam, the Philippines, Wake Island and Midway Island were also attacked on Dec. 7, 1941, but neglected to mention that Japanese forces had begun invading Thailand hours earlier, on Dec. 8, across the international date line.

Some scholars have pondered what might have happened if Japan had only moved in Southeast Asia and not attacked Pearl Harbor. Where would the Americans have been? Would Japan have kept its Asian conquests?

The Thai government had known invasion was imminent for months. Like the Americans, they had been in negotiations with Japan to try and stave off armed confrontation. On the night of Dec. 7, the Japanese ambassador served notice that Japanese forces would be coming ashore the next day, and gave the Thais only two hours to give permission for transit access to Burma, which was denied.

Former Thai PM Seni Pramoj

Japan's thrust into Thailand dented the kingdom's proud record of not being colonized by the predatory British and French colonial powers, but it also heralded the bloody twilight of the British Empire. In order to expand its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, Japan needed to attack British-held territories -- Malaya, Singapore, Burma and ultimately India -- the jewel in the colonial crown.

British humiliation followed swiftly. Three days after Pearl Harbor, two British capital ships, The Prince of Wales and Repulse, were sunk off Malaya by Japanese bombers. In January 1942, Burma was invaded through the Tenasserim Hills, and there followed the longest military retreat in British history. Japanese forces famously bicycled through Malaya and captured Singapore the following month despite being low on supplies and ammunition, in what many consider Britain's greatest military disaster. Its defensive guns pointed out to sea.

Thailand became an Axis ally and declared war on Britain, but never formally on the U.S. The most colorful accounts describe the Thai ambassador, Seni Pramoj, tearing up the declaration in front of Cordell Hull, the longest-serving secretary of state ever. In 1984, Seni, who had by then been prime minister twice, told a foreign correspondent that Hull had more or less told him not to be "so silly." Seni said he pocketed the declaration and went back to the embassy. He later became a key figure in the Free Thai resistance movement.

Pre-independence hero Gen. Aung San founded the Burma Army, but it was developed by Gen. Ne Win, center, after Aung San's assassination in 1947. (Photo courtesy of Aung Gyi)

This was also the time when Burmese nationalism, which had been fomented by students and monks during the 1930s, was finally militarized. The Japanese brought to Bangkok 26 of the legendary Thirty Comrades -- Burmese freedom fighters they had trained on Hainan Island. At the home of a Burmese doctor, Hla Pe, on Dec. 26, the comrades drew their blood with a shared syringe and drank the macabre cocktail in an oath of allegiance.

The leading comrade was Aung San. He wore the uniform of a colonel in the Japanese Imperial Army, complete with katana sword, and was later promoted to major general. At the head of the thousand-strong Burma Independence Army, Aung San is to this day regarded as the founder of the Tatmadaw, the Burmese military. Myanmar's great preindependence hero was assassinated in 1947 when his daughter, Aung San Suu Kyi, was just 2.

Burma today is called Myanmar, and no country in the world remains so strongly influenced by how Southeast Asia was reshaped after Pearl Harbor. Gen. Ne Win, a nom de guerre that means "Sun of Glory," took over the army Aung San created and built it into the feared institution that to this day believes it is the guardian soul of the nation, but with no further Japanese involvement.

The war in Burma began to turn in March 1944, when Japan's 15th Army came across British troops at Sangshak in India's Naga Hills near the Burmese border. The Japanese won the three-day battle but at a heavy cost. The commander, Lt. Gen. Renya Mutaguchi, was pushing toward Dimapur in India with severely stretched supply lines. Sangshak was the prelude to the battles of Kohima-Imphal that together lasted five months, and were exceptionally brutal. Four Victoria Crosses were awarded in one engagement alone.

A statue of Aung San near Kandawygi Lake in Yangon: He is wearing a Burmese National Army uniform, having discarded the uniform of a Japanese Major General. (Photo by Dominic Faulder)

"We were cut off in Imphal for months and supplied entirely from the air by the Americans and the Royal Air Force," Maj. Victor Brookes, a British Gurkha officer who also fought at Sangshak, recalled in 2005. "If they had taken Imphal and Dimapur, which had a huge railhead, there was nothing to stop them between there and Delhi."

The change of heart in Burma was stark. Aung San secretly negotiated with Field Marshal Bill Slim, commander of the 14th Army. Sometimes dubbed the "Forgotten Army," it was the largest Allied force assembled in World War II and drawn from all corners of the British Empire, particularly India. In a decisive anti-Japanese move, Aung San brought his forces over in March 1945. Japanese defeat was by then just a matter of time and the surrender was eventually signed in Tokyo Bay on Sept. 2, 1945.

In Thailand's border province of Tak, one of the officers assigned to disarm the Japanese was Capt. Saiyud Kerdphol, who would end his career in the 1980s as supreme commander. "We were very poor," he told Nikkei Asia in 2019. "We did not have proper uniforms or much to eat."

The Taukkyan War Cemetery north of Yangon contains the remains of 6,374 soldiers from World War II. The main monument bears the names of another 27,000 Allied soldiers. (Photo by Dominic Faulder)

Saiyud arrived to find the Japanese officers waiting on a red carpet in full uniform with swords. "They did not say anything -- they knew what to do. Even the pistol bullets had numbers on them. They used Japanese labor to load my truck."

Lt. Gen. Aketo Nakamura, commander of the 18th Army wartime garrison in Thailand, was never charged with war crimes. The infamous Burma Railroad had been under a different command. Nakamura published a memoir in 1958, "Buddha's commander: Reminiscences of the stay in Thailand," which was only translated into Thai. He lamented the shooting of his beloved white horse on the direct order of Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia, Lord Louie Mountbatten, but noted how well the Japanese were treated at war's end by the Thais.

It was the dawn of a whole new chapter in Japanese-Thai relations, which have been mutually enriching beyond any expectation. The Japanese Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok now has nearly 1,700 members, almost three times as many as either its British or American counterparts.

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