From the moment that the first bomb fell on Rangoon on 13 December 1941 there began an exodus from Burma of the Indian, Anglo-Indian and Anglo-Burmese population which was at the time the largest mass migration in history. By the autumn of 1942 in the region of 600,000 people had fled from Burma into India by land and sea. Of these as many as 80,000 may have perished of disease, exhaustion or malnutrition. These events have only paled into insignificance by comparison with the even greater horrors that were to be visited on South Asia over the next six years. They have been eclipsed by memories of the Bengal famine of 1943, by the riots, migrations and massacres that accompanied the partition of India in 1947 and by the Burmese civil war. Two conditions contributed to the scale of the disaster. First, the immigrant population of Burma was very large on the eve of the Japanese invasion because coolies, plantation workers and merchants were all anticipating the Burmese legislation which would restrict the number of new immigrants. People from all over India were desperate to get themselves and their families into Burma before the restrictive legislation was passed so that they would count as old rather than new immigrants. For so many families across India from the Khyber Pass to Cape Comorin, the few extra rupees earned by relatives working in the often appalling conditions of Burmese mines, factories and plantations made the difference between life and death.
The other condition was the vulnerability felt by the whole Indian population. When they fled from the cities, the Burmese could take shelter with relatives among the villages of the interior, or, if they were too far distant, in the hospices of the Buddhist monasteries. The civilian Chinese were on the whole a tightly organized and relatively egalitarian community of traders and skilled artisans. When the death knell of the British began to sound, many of them were systematically evacuated to Yunnan and China by their homeland associations, the regional and sectarian self-help organizations. Many undoubtedly perished in air raids and the nationalist soldiers had to endure appalling conditions, especially if they were wounded. Yet the Chinese devised an effective escape plan. Indians did not have this option. Shelter in India was far distant; with the collapse of industry and agriculture it was doubtful whether they could even find food, let alone a livelihood. They remembered the riots of 1930 and 1938 when large parts of the Burmese population turned on them with savage hostility. The British would not help them. More than one of the vaunted ma-baps, the ‘mothers and fathers’ of the people among the civil servants, had already precipitously fled in their motor cars ahead of the advancing Japanese. The only thing ordinary Indians could do, therefore, was to tie up their pathetic possessions in a bundle and get on the road or make for the ports where they might at least be able to squeeze on a boat as a deck-class passenger. For many, this decision was to prove fatal.