Sri Lanka and India may have continued to remain as British colonies for a longer period of time if Japan did not launch a daring courageous attack on Pearl Harbour in 1941 with the aim of liberating Asia from Western colonial domination
Posted on February 3rd, 2016

by Senaka Weeraratna

Colonialism and foreign occupation constitute crimes against humanity. They represent some of the most serious violations of national sovereignty of states and breach of international law, and in almost all colonial territories in Asia, Africa, North and South America horrendous crimes against humanity have been committed by the occupying colonial powers. The perpetrators have yet to be held accountable and brought to book under international law for these genocidal crimes.

As Sri Lanka celebrates the 68th anniversary of the grant of independence from British colonial rule on February 4, 2016 it is necessary to recap that during the period of western colonial occupation of Sri Lanka (then known as ‘Sinhale’) by the Portuguese, Dutch and the British (1505 – 1948) our forebears  were exposed to a wide range of systemic and gross violations of human rights and freedoms, including dispossession, displacement and denial of their right to self determination and independence with huge restrictions placed on freedom of religion. Buddhism in particular was singularly targeted for rapid displacement from public life and the belief system of almost the entire citizenry.

George Orwell, the reputed English writer referred to the British Empire as “despotism with theft as its final object”.

Orwell asserted that the imperial relationship was that of “slave and master”. Was the master good or bad? “Let us simply say,” Orwell wrote, “that this control is despotic and, to put it plainly, self-interested.” And “if Burma derives some incidental benefit from the English, she must pay dearly for it.”

Orwell’s penetrative insights were valid truths for millions of Asians and Africans then calling for an end to western control of their lands. But what is surprising and morally repugnant today is the unrepentant nostalgia for western imperialism that has not only gripped many prominent Anglo-American leaders and opinion-makers but also several servile Asian politicians, NGOs and columnists writing as cheer leaders of neo – colonialism, who strive to see Asia through the narrow angle of protecting western colonial interests, leaving unexamined the historical memory and the collective experiences of Asian peoples during the dark period of western colonial rule.

Ceylon gained Independence in February 1948 because India and Pakistan were granted their independence in August 1947 and Burma in January 1948 respectively. It worked cumulatively almost in the form of a package deal.

There was no mass based independence struggle in Ceylon akin to that in India, Burma, Kenya, Zimbabwe, South Africa, Indonesia and Vietnam. In these countries there were mass civil disobedience movements e.g. Satyagraha launched by the Indian National Congress, wars of liberation i.e. Indian Mutiny (1857), Indian National Army under Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose fighting alongside the Japanese to liberate India (1942 -1945), Mau Mau movement led by Jomo Kenyata in Kenya, Mugabe led armed resistance in Rhodesia, and the resistance of Nelson Mandela and African National Congress in South Africa.

Anagarika Dharmapala

Except for Anagarika Dharmapala Sri Lanka never produced a single iconic global figure in the pre- independence period whom the rest of the colonized world could look up to as an inspirational figure for their liberation struggles. Letter writing, essay writing and speech making which was the pre-occupation of our local national leaders never disturbed or effectively weakened the foreign occupier. Armed resistance did. After the last two great Sinhala rebellions in 1818 and 1848 which were brutally crushed the political will for any more such armed uprising in Ceylon waned.

In India the last great armed uprising by Indian soldiers was in 1857. The so – called Indian Mutiny was crushed but the Indian people with leaders like Mohandas Gandhi, Jawaharlal Nehru and Sardar Vallabhai Patel (a Gujerati) never gave up hope of liberation. They organized country wide civil disobedience movements under the banner of ‘Satyagraha ’.  Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose took the radical step of joining hands with the axis powers i.e. Germany and Japan and raising an Indian National Army to liberate his country. Other fellow Asians in Japan, Burma, Indonesia, Vietnam, China, Malaya and Singapore fought and shed their blood fighting for Asia’s liberation from the yoke of Western imperialism.

It must be acknowledged that Ceylon benefited massively from the bloody sacrifices of fellow Asians though we have yet to concede this fact in public. The British Empire would have clung to its colonial possessions in Asia for a much longer time, if Japan did not make aggressive war against the West in Asia with the support of the colonized people of Asia, and drive fear into the colonial west of the dangers of continuing with european colonial rule East of the Suez Canal. This was the only language that the imperial west understood and grudgingly respected.

Despite all the rhetoric of fighting for freedom from tyranny under Hitler, equality, fraternity, human rights, and the like two major colonial countries namely France and Netherlands returned to Asia to retake their colonial possessions in Indo – China and Indonesia respectively after the defeat of Japan in the second world war. However the re-possession of their former colonies was only for a short period of time. The Vietminh under Ho Chin Ming and Indonesian liberation forces under Sukarno waged successful wars of resistance such that these colonial powers had no other choice but to surrender and agree to vacate these lands expeditiously under mutually agreed terms.

Asia’s debt to Japan

When we talk of Ceylon gaining independence from Britain, it would be a remiss to ignore Japan’s significant military contribution towards weakening the might and resources of the British Empire during the 2nd World War and the threat of mutiny of the Britain Indian Army in 1946 following an ill-advised decision to put INA (Indian National Army) officers on trial for treason, which convinced the British Raj to quit India without delay.

When the British Prime Minister Clement Atlee on a visit to India was asked a question on the extent to which Gandhi’s civil disobedience movement had on the British Government’s decision to vacate India, Atlee had replied slowly by saying ‘ M-I-N-I-M-A-L’.

Reflecting on the factors that guided the British decision to relinquish the Raj in India, Clement Atlee had cited several reasons, the most important of which were the INA activities of Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose which weakened the Indian Army – the foundation of the British Empire in India – and the RIN (Royal Indian Navy) Mutiny that made the British realise that the Indian armed forces could no longer be trusted to prop up the Raj.    The INA and the revolts, mutinies, and the public resentment they germinated were an important factor in the complete withdrawal of the Raj from India.

Therefore it would not be factually incorrect to say that the heroic sacrifices of external actors in Asia mainly Japanese and Indians, and the war waged by the Axis powers (Germany, Italy and Japan) against the western colonial powers during the second world war contributed relatively speaking more to the expeditious grant of independence to Ceylon in 1948 following the end of the war in 1945, than any collective input from local actors.

An additional point being stressed in this piece is that there is another narrative that must be heard regarding the causes that led Japan to enter the war and the resulting outcomes such entry had in the liberation of Asia from Western colonial rule, and the acknowledgement and credit to which Japan is entitled to especially from Asian countries that gained their independence within less than a decade of the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbour on Dec. 7, 1941.

President Roosevelt called the attack on Pearl Harbour as a day of infamy.

For whom, the people of Asia who bore the brunt of colonial rule are entitled to ask?

It was certainly not a day of infamy for millions of people in Asia who were dreaming of freedom from the colonial yoke that USA treated as its allies.

Pankaj Mishra’s book

Japan’s spectacular military victories at the beginning of the 20th century and their impact on Asian intellectuals are well documented in Pankaj Mishra’s (an Indian author) book called From the Ruins of Empire: The Revolt Against the West and the Remaking of Asia”.

This work is a survey of Asian intellectuals in the late 19th and early 20th centuries and their role in pan-Asian, pan-Islamic, and anti-colonial movements. The book begins with an electrifying moment in Asia’s struggle for liberation from Western domination: the spectacular Japanese naval victory over Russia at the Battle of Tsushima in May 1905, which stunned Asians and Africans living under the yoke of colonialism.

This victory of the small but resurgent Japanese navy over the imperial might of what was then accepted as a major European power fired the imagination of an entire generation of Asian leaders. Jawarharlal Nehru, Mohandas Gandhi, Sun Yat-Sen, Mao Zedong, the young Kemal Ataturk and nationalists in Egypt, Vietnam and many other countries welcomed Japan’s decisive triumph in the Russo-Japanese war with euphoric zeal. “And they all drew the same lesson from Japan’s victory”, Pankaj Mishra writes. “White men, conquerors of the world, were no longer invincible.”

Even Lord Curzon, viceroy of India, noted that “the reverberations of that victory have gone like a thunderclap through the whispering galleries of the East”. The world wars that followed further shrunk Europe of much of what remained of its moral and political authority in Asian eyes. “In the long view, however,” Mishra concludes, “it is the battle of Tsushima that seems to have struck the opening chords of the recessional of the West”.

Japan’s defeat of Russia in 1905 was uplifting news for Asians. For the first time since the middle ages, a non-European country had vanquished a European power in a major war. And Japan’s victory gave way to a hundred and one fantasies – of national freedom, racial dignity, or simple vengefulness – in the minds of those who had bitterly endured European occupation of their lands. Mahatma Gandhi then made an astute far reaching forecast. He remarked that “so far and wide have the roots of Japanese victory spread that we cannot now visualise all the fruit it will put forth.”

Japan’s stunning early military victories

Thirty-six years later, Japan struck the greatest decisive blow ever by any non – white country or non – white people to European power in Asia with the attack on Pearl Harbour.  In about 90 days beginning on 8 December 1941, Japan overran the possessions of Britain, the US and the Netherlands in east and south-east Asia, taking the Philippines, Singapore, Malaya, Hong Kong, the Dutch East Indies, much of Siam and French Indochina, and Burma with bewildering swiftness to stand poised at the borders of India by early 1942. All over Asia subject people cheered the Japanese advance into countries forcibly held and occupied by western colonial powers.

Days before Singapore fell to the Japanese in early 1942, the Dutch prime minister-in-exile, Pieter Gerbrandy, had conveyed his fears and anxieties to Churchill and other Allied leaders in the following words “Japanese injuries and insults to the White population … would irreparably damage white prestige unless severely punished within a short time”. After a long, brutal war with no quarter being given to either party the Japanese were finally “punished”, fire- and nuclear-bombed into total submission. Despite this final negative outcome for Japan, in the eyes of millions of Asians, the Japanese had completely destroyed the aura of European power that had kept millions of Asians in a permanent state of bondage, fear, shame and political apathy.

Expressions of praise and gratitude to Japan

The Japanese with their stunning military victories over a common foe had made Asian people proud and stand erect with their heads held high.

” Britain was colonizing, enslaving Asian people before WW2. They ruled the Indian people for 180 years. It was Japan that got rid of the British from most of Asia and later all those countries gained independence”

” Japan lost WW2 but as the consequence of Japan’s entry to war all S E Asian countries and India achieved their long hoped for independence from the Western colonial powers within 15 years after the end of the War. As the famous British historian Arnold Toynbee and Lord Mountbatten, uncle of Queen Elizabeth II, said:

Japan put an end to West’s colonialism in Asia once and for all”

Former Thai Prime Minister Kukrit Pramoj Expressed his Admiration for Japan

The former Prime Minister of Thailand, Kukrit Pramoj, who was Chief Editor of the newspaper ‘Siam Rath’ at the time and who took office as Prime Minister in 1973, stated:

It was thanks to Japan that all nations of Asia gained independence. For Mother Japan, it was a difficult birth which resulted in much suffering, yet her children are growing up quickly to be healthy and strong.

Who was it that enabled the citizens of the nations of Southeast Asia to gain equal status alongside the United States and Britain today? It is because Japan, who acted like a mother to us all, carried out acts of benevolence towards us and performed feats of self-sacrifice. December 8th is the day when Mother Japan – who taught us this important lesson – laid her life on the line for us, after making a momentous decision and risking her own well-being for our sake.

Furthermore, August 15th is the day when our beloved and revered mother was frail and ailing. Neither of these two days should ever be forgotten”.

Long accustomed to servility in colonial countries, western powers grossly underestimated the post-war nationalism that the Japanese had both wittingly and unwittingly unleashed. They had also severely miscalculated their own staying power among foreign subject people innately hostile to them. Despite futile counter-insurgency operations and full-scale wars, especially in Indochina, the spread of decolonisation was swift and extraordinary.

Burma, which hardly had a full blown nationalist movement before 1935, became free in 1948. The Dutch in Indonesia resisted with a rear guard defense and US and British assistance but Indonesian nationalists led by Sukarno finally overpowered them and pushed them out in 1953. Postwar chaos forced Malaya, Singapore and Vietnam into long periods of insurgencies and wars, but an ultimate European retreat was never in doubt. An unwise partition of the Indian subcontinent, which placed two new nation-states in endless conflict, marked Britain’s humiliating departure from India in 1947.

“Europe,” Jean-Paul Sartre claimed in his preface to Franz Fanon’s Wretched of the Earth, seemed to be “springing leaks everywhere”. “In the past we made history,” Sartre asserted, “and now it is being made of us.”

The retreat of the West from its colonies in the East may well be said to be the singular most important event of the 20th century.

There are always two sides to any story and the intention of this writer is to present the Japan’s side of the story to people particularly in South Asia and South East Asia. Japan’s voice must be heard. We must recognize that there is an alternate point of view in respect to the causes of the Japanese entry to the second world war and effects of such entry to the rest of Asia which shortly afterwards became liberated from western colonial rule after centuries of forcible occupation.

The main purpose of this research and writing is to right a great wrong done to Japan. In other words, in getting Asian countries to shun looking at Japan as an aggressor with criminal intent to plunder and loot other Asian countries a line pushed by massive western propaganda but as the spark that ignited the call all over Asia for independence from western domination.

The time has come for fellow Asians who have benefited from Japan’s massive war effort and the blood sacrifices of Japanese soldiers to give due acknowledgement to Japan and accordingly re-write our contemporary Asian history in a balanced way.

To single out Japan for war crimes selectively while avoiding any mention of the crimes committed by western countries in third world countries including calling for reparations which both Germany and Japan have paid, is anything but a travesty of justice.

De-colonise Asian minds

The challenge before fellow Asians is to de-colonise our minds and look at Japan’s conduct before and during the Second World War afresh.

Though Japan eventually lost the war its military effort was not in vain. It substantially weakened and demoralised the western countries then in occupation of large tracts of Asia, such as Britain, France, Netherlands, Portugal and USA that they were forced to quit Asia in next to no time.

It is political correctness and revelations of Japan’s conduct in war related atrocities during the Second World War that prevent Japan from being given due credit for its unique contribution towards hastening the liberation of Asia from western colonial rule.

Though we in Sri Lanka live under a self – styled grand delusion that independence for Sri Lanka was won from Britain exclusively by the efforts of our own local leaders through exchange of letters over cups of tea, it is factually incorrect and a big lie. We were simply lucky. Our local effort was relatively minimal. Sri Lanka’s history since 1505 shows clearly that it was the intervention of an external power that had always helped us to get rid of a foreign occupier from the soil of Sri Lanka.

Buddhism – an unshakeable bond between Sri Lanka and Japan

The people of Sri Lanka particularly the Sinhalese have always resisted colonial occupation of the country. Furthermore both the Japanese and the Sinhalese have a strong bond by sharing a common faith i.e. Buddhism, and the Japanese have always had a high regard for the Buddha whom they refer to as Shakyamuni.

Our former President Mr. J.R. Jayewardene in his capacity as a delegate to the San Francisco Peace Conference in 1951 adopted the correct line towards Japan which is a great country that Asia must be proud of and not condemned.

J.R. Jayawardene in defense of a free Japan at the San Francisco conference (1951)

The words of Ceylon´s delegate Finance Minister J.R. Jayawardene in defense of  a free Japan at the San Francisco conference on September 06, 1951 are worthy of reproduction here. He said:

We in Ceylon were fortunate that we were not invaded, but the damage caused by air raids, by the stationing of enormous armies under the South-East Asia Command, and by the slaughter-tapping of one of our main commodities, rubber, when we were the only producer of natural rubber for the Allies, entitles us to ask that the damage so caused should be repaired. We do not intend to do so for we believe in the words of the Great Teacher whose message has ennobled the lives of countless millions in Asia, that hatred ceases not by hatred but by love”. It is the message of the Buddha, the Great Teacher, the Founder of Buddhism which spread a wave of humanism through South Asia, Burma, Laos, Cambodia, Siam, Indonesia and Ceylon and also northwards through the Himalayas into Tibet, China and finally Japan, which bound us together for hundreds of years with a common culture and heritage. This common culture still exists, as I found on my visit to Japan last week on my way to attend this Conference; and from the leaders of Japan, Ministers of state as well as private citizens and from their priests in the temples, I gathered the impression that the common people of Japan are still influenced by’ the shadow of that Great Teacher of peace, and wish to follow it. We must give them that opportunity.”

Senaka Weeraratna

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