China Rewrites Southeast Asia’s WWII History for the Big Parade

The outpouring of Chinese propaganda about its self-proclaimed victory over Japan 70 years ago has drowned the actual history of Asia during World War 2. China, well supported by western media, likes to believe that the whole of Asia was united in its opposition to Japan’s war against the US, Britain and China. Nothing could be further from the truth. This is the record.

The one other [apart from China] independent Asian country at the time was Thailand, then under military strongman Pibul Songkhram. When Japan landed troops in southern Thailand to begin its invasion of British-ruled Malaya, Phibul acquiesced. He reasonably believed that resistance was futile but also saw a possible opportunity to gain territory.

Specifically Pibule had his eyes on the northern Malay states which, though inhabited entirely by Malays, had been under Bangkok sovereignty until 1909 and on the parts of Cambodia which had been surrendered to France in the 19th century.

But Phibul went further than surrendering to the inevitable, actually declaring war on the US and Britain. He also adopted a hostile policy towards Chinese immigration and cultural influence.

For sure, other Thais opposed this Japanese alliance, in particular the democratic forces led by Pridi Phanamyong, one of the leaders of the 1932 overthrow of the absolute monarchy.

Pridi became Regent for the young King Ananda, then living in Switzerland, and the Free Thai movement made contact with the US and British. After the Japanese defeat, Pibul was briefly accused of war crimes but these were dropped and he returned to power in a 1947 coup.

After the war the British sought to punish Thailand by joining the Malay-speaking, Muslim three southern provinces, the old Sultanate of Patani, to the Malayan Federation. The US opposed this as it wanted to keep Thailand on its side. But the result has been that these provinces have seen years of separatist violence sometimes helped by fellow Malays across the border.

Elsewhere the Japanese at first were highly regarded, as they claimed, as liberators of Asian peoples from the yoke of western colonialism. Despite Japan’s own colonial activities in China and Korea, this had a strong appeal. Nationalists sought to further their own goals by cooperating with the Japanese, at least in the first instance.

In the Philippines many leading families and politicians collaborated with the Japanese even while most of the government of President Quezon went into exile in the US. The current President Aquino’s grandfather was leader of the government party and speaker of the national assembly in “puppet” government of President Jose P. Laurel, 1943-45.

None were prosecuted Laurel returned to political life, running unsuccessfully for president in 1949, then being returned as a Senator. Other distinguished Filipinos who served the Japanese included Claro M. Recto, who was Minister of Foreign Affairs.

In Indonesia, nationalist leader Sukarno welcomed the Japanese and cooperated with them throughout the war, including helping them recruit Javanese labourers for work overseas – many of whom died. Japanese food requisitions caused food shortages in Java.

But Sukarno’s nationalist credentials survived and he used the Japanese defeat to proclaim independence and resist the Dutch attempt to return. There is almost no legacy of anti-Japanese sentiment in Indonesia and ties were especially close during the long rule of President Suharto.

Suharto had joined the Dutch army in Indonesia, transferred to a Japanese-led unit after the Dutch defeat and then to the Indonesian army following Japan’s defeat and the declaration of independence, fighting the Dutch attempt to resume their colonial power.

In Malaysia and Singapore, resistance to the Japanese was almost entirely an ethnic Chinese affair and seen as part of a wider war against Japan. Malay leaders kept a low profile. The anti-Japanese leader, Chin Peng, was decorated by the British but went on to lead the 1948-1960 Communist insurgency which was nominally nationalist but had little support from the Malay majority.

In Singapore, the young Lee Kuan Yew worked for the Japanese news agency before becoming useful to the British – two relationships still not fully understood.

In Burma, the nationalist leader Aung San – father of Aung San Suu Kyi -- formed the Burma Independence Army with Japanese help and following the successful Japanese invasion of British-occupied Burma became War Minister in a supposedly independent Burma. But he found the Japanese worse than the British and changed sides before the war ended and he was about become prime minister of an independent Burma when assassinated in 1947.

The so-called Indian National Army headed by Subhas Chandra Bose fought with the Japanese against the British. The INA was initially recruited from Indian soldiers serving with the British who were captured by the Japanese but Indians living in Southeast Asia also joined up.

The main Indian independence movement headed by the Congress and Mahatma Gandhi viewed Japan as fascist and imperialist but did not allow the war to impede its demands. Subsequently Bose has been viewed as a genuine nationalist, not a Japanese stooge.

Indeed, so grey is much history that the very same persons can be viewed either as nationalist heroes or Japanese stooges. Many Koreans voluntarily joined the Japanese war effort [almost certainly including at least some of the “comfort women” who have become a focus of Korean outrage.] The best known of those volunteers was none other than former President Park Chung-hee whose daughter is now president. He joined the Changchun Military Academy in 1942, graduated third in his class and became an officer in the Imperial Army in Manchuria, changing his name to Okamoto Minoru.

Chinese under Japanese rule in Taiwan and to some extent Manchuria enjoyed peace and modest prosperity. Chiang Kai-shek’s initial rule of Taiwan was more brutal than anything its inhabitants had experienced under Japan. Taiwanese nationalist president Lee Teng-hui was a lieutenant in the Japanese Imperial Army and went to Kyoto University. He took pride in his knowledge of Japan and its culture. His brother joined the Japanese navy and was killed fighting the Americans in Manila.

China’s latest re-writing of history can only further damage to relations with Asian neighbors.