Burmese Perspective on the Liberation War of Bangladesh

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Sarder Ali Haider

Burma (presently known as Myanmar) is always branded as a ‘land of mystery’ in the history. The standpoint of Burma during the liberation war of Bangladesh in 1971 was perplexing. Though Burma was one of the first few countries which recognized the independence of Bangladesh in 13 January 1972[1] ahead of the west European powers, it assisted Pakistan directly in every stages of liberation war[2]. Later on, the prompt recognition of Burma became a point of discussion in Pakistan on the following years.

Photo-1: Comment of British Embassy in 1975 on Myanmar’s early Recognition of Bangladesh

In 1971, during the war of liberation, Burma became the route of supply for the Pakistani forces as India restricted use of its airspace for the Pakistanis. Replenishment of personnel, arms and ammunition used to be conducted though Burma. The refueling of air sorties and temporary halts were also done in Burma; even the Pakistani soldiers and officers including Major General Rahim Khan, ex GOC 39 (ad hoc) Division, Dhaka escaped through Burma when their defeat was almost imminent[3].

The Indian Parliament proceedings of 2nd July 1971 stated that Burma was not supporting the war of liberation. There was a clear reflection in the attitude of Burmese administration; they did not recognize the fleeing Bangalee population as refugee which India did appropriately. There was also a rumor that the military backed Burmese government tried to create some tension in December 1971 in the Burma-India-Bangladesh border region, possibly to distract international attention. There were as many as 50,000 refugees took shelter in Arakan during the war of liberation[4]. Among those people, a good number of them were the follower of Buddhism, basically from Bengali Borua and some tribal communities. But unfortunately these people had to live on ground during their stay in Burma[5]. The Burmese administration did not project this aspect to the world community rather these people were threatened not to act against the interest of Pakistan. There was also an allegation that some of the people of Rohingya community assisted the Burmese security forces to arrest the refugees who might try to work against Pakistan. However, maximum inhabitants of the Rohingya community extended their helping hand to the Bengali refugees.

Now the question comes, why the military dictators backed Burmese administration ignored the sufferings of Bengalis and supported the Pakistani government? Besides Burma, China and maximum of the Arab states also insisted that Pakistani Generals could do what they wanted to their own citizens[6].

Pakistan’s military tie with Burma was initiated since 1952, few years after the independence of both the countries. After the creation of Pakistan in 1947, ambassador of Burma, U Pe Khin[7], was the first ever envoy to present his credentials to the then Governor-General of Pakistan Muhammad Ali Jinnah. Even though, Burmese government was not getting confidence at this tie in the initial years. There was an allegation that Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) had been patronizing the Rohingya based mujhedeens in Arakan and an artificial tension was being created in the bordering areas. In 1950, the Pakistani government warned its counterparts in Burma about their treatment of Muslims in Arakan[8]. Burmese Prime Minister U Nu immediately utilized his Muslim diplomat, U Pe Khin to negotiate a memorandum of understanding, so that Pakistan would cease sending aid to the Rohingya mujahedeens. In 1954, the arrest of Rohingya mujahedeen leader Md Kassim in Chittagong by the government of Pakistan created confidence on the bilateral relationship between two countries. After that, there were a number of military deals; those raised the mutual relation to a significant height. The Myanmar military officers started attending Staff College at Quetta in Pakistan. A Burmese military delegation team was sent to Pakistan in the early 1950’s to study its military training programs. During the 1950-60s, trade between Burma and Pakistan was the largest as compared to other Southeast Asian countries[9]. There were significant bilateral trades between these two countries at that time. Burma used to export fruits, vegetable products, timber, seafood, jute and other textile fibers, including various medicinal plants to Pakistan; whereas, military technology, medicament mixtures, cement, medicinal plants, leather, cotton fabrics, electro-medical apparatus etc. used to be exported from Pakistan to Burma. Pakistan International Airlines (PIA) started operating in Rangoon airport including Hajj charter flights[10].

Photo-2: General Ne Win

However, since 1962 during the regime of General Nu Win, there was a possibility of deterioration of this bilateral relationship due to his (Nu Win) idea of isolationism, political violence, sinophobia and totalitarianism. But with the course of time Pakistan’s strong tie with China created an opportunity of getting extra favor from Burma. Moreover, after taking over the power, Field Marshal Ayub Khan as Chief Martial Law Administrator of Pakistan in 1958 and General Ne Win as the President of Burma in 1962, the relationship between the two countries gradually improved.

Photo-3: Field Marshal Ayub Khan

Ayub Khan paid a notably successful state visit to Burma in 1965 and initiated a process that resulted an agreement on the Naf River. General Nu Win visited Pakistan in January 1969 when fierce agitation and movement against Ayub Khan had already started in both East and West Pakistan. Nu Win gave the embattled Pakistan President, who was to be ousted some weeks later, advised him on how to deal with the agitation especially by students. He said that when students of Rangoon University had been agitating, he ordered tanks to surround the University Hall and shell the Hall killing more than 400 students. Nu Win told Ayub Khan that he had no further trouble with the students[11].

Photo-4: Ayub Khan had to quit on the Demand of General People

Pakistan started maintaining good relationship with China since 1951. Pakistan was among the first few countries to end official diplomatic relationship with Taiwan and recognize it as a part of Mainland China. This sensitive approach brought these two countries very closer. Since then, both countries have placed considerable importance on the maintenance of an extremely close and supportive special relationship and regularly exchanged high-level visits that resulted number of bilateral agreements.

Since its birth, Burma was the first non-Communist country to recognize People’s Republic of China[12]. Both the countries formally established diplomatic relationship on June 8, 1950. China and Burma signed a treaty of friendship and mutual non-aggression and promulgated a joint declaration on June 29, 1954, officially basing their relations on Peaceful Co-existence. So, China became a big factor in the mutual relationship between Burma and Pakistan. During the war of liberation in 1971, Pakistan received enormous support from Burma.

In May 1971, the general inhabitants of southeastern part of the country started taking shelter in Arakan, Burma. They just crossed the border through Ghundhum area, taking the advantages of hilly jungles. But unfortunately the Burmese administration did not provide them any support. Initially these refugees took little assistance of the Rohingya community in Arakan area but their ability and lack of positive intension of supporting the refugees were disheartening. Among those unrecognized Bengali refugees, there were a good number of people from Buddhist Borua and tribal communities. There were also prominent political figures among the refugees; Sree Aumio Kumar Borua, headmaster of Cox’s Bazar High School, his father who was the first Bengali deputy magistrate during the British period, his family members and Awami League MP of Cox’s Bazar-Ramu area, Mr. Osman Sarwar etc. Like those families, there were many people with moderate background including women and children had to stay in the open sky without any kind of support from the Burmese government. Their stay was more challenging during the initial days of refuge.

The then Captain Harun Ahmed Chowdhury (later on Major General) had to take shelter with the refugees in Arakan after a severe bullet injury at Kalurghat, Chittagong area during the initial stage of liberation war. After his bullet injury, initially he was evacuated to Dohazari hospital; later on he had to be shifted immediately as soon as his presence was disclosed. The people of Cox’s Bazar, who had been moving towards Arakan, evacuated Captain Harun towards Arakan following some improvised methods.

Photo-5: Captain (Later on Major General) Harun Ahmed Chowdhury

After the initial settlement in Arakan, the comparatively young Bengali people decided to take part in the war of liberation. The severely injured Captain Harun ignored his trauma and physically assisted a group of youths by providing them basic military training. The youths who did scouting during their student life, became a major asset of this newly formed Freedom Fighter group. Initially Awami League leader and one of the organizers of the war of liberation, Shamsher Alam Chowdhury arranged fifteen 303 rifles and one box of ammunition for this newly formed Freedom Fighter group. Later on, more number of weapons and ammunitions were managed from different sources. This special group conducted as many as fourteen successful operations in different places of Southeastern part of the country including Chittagong Hill Tracts. The operations used to be conducted keeping the base right after crossing the border, inside the Burma.

The success story of the Bengali refugee based Freedom Fighters alerted the Pakistanis. It caused the Burmese administration alarmed as well. It was decided to shift the refugees to Mongdu area, which was almost at the middle of Arakan state. It was not possible for the Freedom Fighters to conduct operation against the Pakistani forces or the Razakar Bahinis, keeping the base at Mongdu. The Freedom Fighters consulted with Captain Harun and decided to stay back in the bordering areas. The rest of the refugees were shifted to Mongdu.

During the liberation war, Burma provided jet fuel to the Pakistani aircrafts. This country (Burma) arranged a route for the evacuation of the Dhaka based Pakistani Army Aviation Squadrons as soon as they realized their confirm defeat[13]. When the progress of war had been proceeding in favor of Bangladesh, Burma had allowed Pakistan military and civilian personnel to fly to Kunming (China) via Rangoon. It also allowed Pakistan to fly out civil and military aircrafts to Rangoon to avoid their falling into the hands of Indian forces and Bangladeshi Freedom Fighters. Normally, in every war the losers are to leave the important military equipment and other assets. But at the end of liberation war, Pakistan could take out a good number of aircrafts and important military equipment with the direct support of Burma. While fleeing away from Bangladesh, Pakistani forces used helicopters to reach up to Rangoon, and then onwards they had a safe travelling to Karachi, Pakistan.

Burma recognized Bangladesh on 13 January 1972 after a detail assessment of global and regional politics. Its strong ally Israel’s preparation of recognizing Bangladesh could be one of the reasons of deciding about Bangladesh. However, the Government of Bangladesh officially rejected the Israeli recognition[14]. Pakistan recognized Bangladesh in 1974 after the pressure of Muslim world. China recognized Bangladesh on 31 August, 1975 after the tragic killing of father of the nation, Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman.

Photo-6: Father of the Nation Bangabandhu Sheikh Mujibur Rahman

The controversial perspective of Burma on Bangladesh war of liberation reflects some assessment about the Burmese government, the then President Nu Win and the role international organizations who could not provide any support to the Bengali Refugees took shelter in Aarakan. At the same, without the enormous support of Burma, possibly it would be difficult for the Pakistanis to continue the operational activities for long days considering the logistic replenishment from a distance of more than thousand miles, specially the big support of jet fuel aspect. During the last few weeks to the independence of Bangladesh, the all-out Burmese support for the Pakistanis generated a question mark of their attitude and possibly still the same remains.

[1] Myanmar – Bangladesh Relations:

Challenges and Opportunities https://www.myanmarisis.org/publication_pdf/final-version-myanmar-bangladesh-relations-mmedits-ah2-1wpFhW.pdf , accessed on February 23, 2020.

[2] A War within a War: Mizo rebels and the Bangladesh liberation struggle, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/modern-asian-studies/article/war-within-a-war-mizo-rebels-and-the-bangladesh-liberation-struggle/6DA9383CA96555DDE2397C77D720C938 , accessed on February 23, 2020.

[3]https://books.google.com.bd/books?id=MA9CAAAAIAAJ&pg=PA376&lpg=PA376&dq=Burma+became+the+route+of+supply+for+the+Pakistani+forces&source=bl&ots=xd5NOXswb9&sig=ACfU3U1GK-q2NC1y5SBINEw1tRQZJRi1Wg&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwj4pu2U74_lAhVaWX0KHSLsBTgQ6AEwD3oECAkQAQ#v=onepage&q=Burma%20became%20the%20route%20of%20supply%20for%20the%20Pakistani%20forces&f=false , accessed on February 23, 2020.

[4] Dr Jitendro Lal Borua, Myanmar and Arakan to Liberation war by, page-37

[5] ibid

[6] Indo-Pakistani War of 1971, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Indo-Pakistani_War_of_1971, accessed on February 23, 2020.

[7] PE KHIN, https://peoplepill.com/people/pe-khin/ , accessed on February 23, 2020.

[8] Human Rights Watch Report on Burma, https://www.hrw.org/reports/2000/burma/burm005-01.htm, accessed on February 23, 2020.

[9] Myanmar–Pakistan relations, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Myanmar%E2%80%93Pakistan_relations , accessed on February 23, 2020.

[10] Pakistan International Airlines, https://www.piac.com.pk/corporate/about-us/history

[11] http://archive.idea.int/documents/Burma/BURMA_beyond_2000_chap2.pdf
[12] Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, FAN, Hongwei (2012), China–Burma Geopolitical Relations in the Cold War, in: Journal of Current Southeast Asian Affairs, 31, 1, 7-27.

[13] A War within a War: Mizo rebels and the Bangladesh liberation struggle, https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/modern-asian-studies/article/war-within-a-war-mizo-rebels-and-the-bangladesh-liberation-struggle/6DA9383CA96555DDE2397C77D720C938.

[14] Verinder Grover (1 January 2000). Bangladesh: Government and Politics. Deep & Deep Publications. p. 674. ISBN 978-81-7100-928-2.


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Davis, Anthony (20 June 2013). “Myanmar Navy starts submarine training in Pakistan”. Jane’s Defence Weekly. Bangkok: IHS. Archived from the original on 4 October 2013.

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