The Burma Trials of Japanese War Criminals, 1946–1947
In the aftermath of the Second World War, Allied governments in Asia and the Pacific tried thousands of suspected Japanese war criminals. In Burma, most of which had been reoccupied by British forces before the end of hostilities, 40 trials took place in Rangoon (now Yangon), Mandalay and Maymyo in 1946 and 1947. The defendants were charged with crimes against Western prisoners of war and civilians and with crimes against local people. Eighty-five of the defendants (some of them in mass trials where several defendants were tried simultaneously on different but related charges) were convicted and sentenced to jail terms, commonly around 10–15 years. Those who had committed crimes against non-Burmese people were transferred to prisons outside Burma in 1947, while the remaining 57, whose victims had been locals, were consigned to Rangoon Jail. After independence, the convicted war criminals stayed in Rangoon Jail, cultivating garden plots and largely ignored by both British and Burmese authorities. In early 1950, the British notified the Burmese that they had decided to reduce the sentences of a number of the prisoners, as part of a systematic review of the sentences of war criminals convicted by British tribunals. The British could no longer instruct the Burmese authorities to take action, however, and the Burmese government failed to record the sentence reductions on the prisoners’ files. The anomaly went unnoticed after the prisoners were repatriated to Japan in mid-1951 to serve out the remainder of their sentences in Sugamo Prison in Tokyo, under the authority of the US military. Only in 1953 did British officials realize that the earlier adjustments to sentences had not been implemented; they then scrambled to rectify the anomaly, and the Rangoon prisoners were amongst the first to have their sentences reduced by the British after the signing of the 1952 San Francisco Peace Treaty, which transferred responsibility for war criminals back to the prosecuting powers. The case of these prisoners is an early illustration of the complex practicalities of international criminal law in an era when national jurisdictions were in flux.
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