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The Collapse of British Rule in Burma: The Civilian Evacuation and Independence.

The Collapse of British Rule in Burma: The Civilian Evacuation and Independence. By Michael D. Leigh. (New York, NY: Bloomsbury Academic, 2018. Pp. 279. $114.00.)

The author's previous study, The Evacuation of Civilians from Burma (London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2014), examines the beginning of the evacuation of civilians immediately after the Japanese invasion of Burma and up to May 1942. This sequel describes and analyzes the consequences of the evacuation over the following months and years. The main theme is that the chaotic evacuation completely discredited and humiliated the British Government of Burma, assuring that British rule could not be reestablished. The British did return after the war, but they very quickly negotiated an exit with the Burmese nationalist leader, Aung San.

The strength of the book lies in its detailed, often gruesome, discussion of the three evacuation routes, all of which were extraordinarily difficult and deadly. Understandably, the sources are almost entirely British, though most of the evacuees were Indians. Still, Leigh is careful not to ignore the plight of the Indian evacuees, and he provides as much insight as he can by gleaning material from British sources and a collection of oral histories that were completed in 2011. Nevertheless, British evacuees dominate the narrative.

The author focuses some attention on specific individuals who acted heroically under brutal conditions. Thus on the Hukawng Valley route, the young Cornelius North, who supervised the awful camp at Shingbwiyang, remained at his post months after his superior officers had fled to India and thereby "prevented a tragedy from becoming a wholesale disaster" (60). David Brown performed heroically, taking care of a part of the Chidwin Valley-Manipur route while Major William McAdam, a surgeon, did yeoman work along the same route, and Alexander Beattie, who was in charge of the Dimapur Evacuation Center, worked "tirelessly" to keep the camp functioning. In the end, Beattie died of typhoid while serving the refugees.

The Chaukan Pass evacuation route was used by a relatively small number of refugees, including a group of about fifty prominent British and Anglo-Indian civilians. They were warned not to take this extremely treacherous route, which was, in fact, quite deadly. Those who made it could thank the enormous rescue effort mounted on their behalf, an effort that required "a disproportionate amount of official resources" (97).

While British officials certainly helped in the evacuation, Leigh gives most credit to the employees of the Indian Tea Association and their elephants for the heroic work needed to rescue many of the refugees streaming into India. Among the heroes was Gyles Mackrell, an ITA employee who was ordered to cease a rescue mission along the Chaukan Pass route but who pushed on anyway and almost miraculously saved some of the last remaining refugees. The ITA deserves the separate chapter that Leigh accords to it.

The book then explores the refugees' often difficult experiences in India and concludes with a somewhat less original examination of postwar developments in Burma and the ensuing British debates over Burma's future. Leigh emphasizes the great tragedy of Aung San's death in 1947, an event from which Burma has never entirely recovered.

Regrettably, the book seems to have had neither an effective copy editor nor a proofreader. Words and punctuation marks are missing, some dates are incorrect, and so forth. There is some unnecessary repetition. Still, the book provides a detailed, interesting, and very troubling account of an evacuation that has largely been forgotten.

Kenton Clymer

Northern Illinois University
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Author:Clymer, Kenton
Publication:The Historian
Article Type:Book review
Date:Sep 22, 2019
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