Part of Projects to Support Refugees from Burma registered charity no.1139273 www.psrb.org.uk
A dwindling band of veterans and widows, Britain's most loyal allies in the war against Japan 1942-45 are stranded in the crowded refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. Meanwhile their comrades in arms inside Burma/Myanmar endure extreme old age on a pittance. Viewed, since independence, and through the weary years of the junta, as enemies of the state, they have paid dearly for their loyalty to, and affection for Britain. Their subsequent fight for freedom cost them dear, they are still struggling for the rights of their people in the new political order.
Thousands of "levies", called up hurriedly prior to the Japanese invasion, were Karen or Karenni, and served in the British Army's legendary Force 136 led by Major Hugh Seagrim GC. It is now 70 years since Major Seagrim was executed as a prisoner of war. He gave himself up to stop the torture of Karen civilians by the Japanese who were searching for him. To this day the Karen regret this and wanted "Grandfather Longlegs" as they fondly called him, to remain hidden despite their sacrifice. After the British retreat, Seagrim alone remained in the Karen hills, sending out information to the Allies in India. Later in the war when under General Slim the Burma Campaign the Allies took back Burma from Japanese occupation the Karen were recognized as playing a very pivotal role, and praised widely for their courage.
Despite their loyal service none of the old soldiers still alive today, has a right to a pension, from Britain or anyone else, and only to rudimentary welfare or medical services. Help 4 Forgotten Allies was founded to show them they are not forgotten after all.
The Burma Forces Welfare Association (BFWA) previously paid annual small grants to veterans and widows on the border and throughout Burma/Myanmar. It discontinued these five years ago to those on the Thai Burma border, and this year ceased this work altogether.
Photo's courtesy of Ben Owen Browne are of Mr Dwe Maung, Mr Hla Tin, Mr Percy, Mr Sein Aye, and a widow (name unknown) all at Mae La Camp.
Following friendly discussions with Viscount Slim, President of the Burma Star Association and the Royal Commonwealth Ex Services League in 2007, H4FA began giving grants in the border area increasing grant money year on year. RCEL has now asked us to take on an extra 309 Karen old soldiers and widows in the Yangon/Rangoon area and beyond. We have agreed and and RCEL will continue to contribute part of the money we need to support both groups.
Thanks to the enthusiasm and kindness of our donors we were able, last year to increase individual grants to £120. The Special Forces Benevolent Fund has been particularly generous. Churches, including St Mary's in Whissonsett, Norfolk, (Major Seagrim's old Church), St Mary's Holy Island, St Mary's Potton, and St Columba's Cambridge, the friends of Peter Mitchell, as well as Norwich School and many individuals, some with direct family links to the Burma Campaign, continue to ensure an annual grant can be paid; last year over £28,000 was donated. This year we have pledges so far of over £17,000 for grants in 2015, but would need £47,000 to give £120 each to 390 individuals. Please help us to meet this target.
The war time forces sweetheart Dame Vera Lynn kindly agreed to become our patron. Burma is a place she knows. At the height of the war in the East she traveled there to sing to the Allied troops, and came to know first hand the ferocity of the Forgotten War.
Our work with the veterans began with a chance meeting. A PSRB trip report from 1998 recounts: "We were visiting the Kwai River Hospital in December, near the notorious Death Railway. "Living among the dying and demented at the hospital - a rather grand term for what is little more than a large hut - was Saw Yoshoo (Joshua), an old soldier who turned out to have been a pupil of my grandfather, headmaster of Government High School, Maymyo, Burma, who had to flee the Japanese advance.
"Aged 87, Saw Yoshoo was recruited into the Burma Rifles in 1934. Still perfectly lucid, he reeled off his name, rank, number and the name of his commanding officer. When I asked him what he would like me to do for him, he replied that I should 'inform my officers'. His own poverty - one pair of trousers, no medication for his asthma - was clearly secondary."
I wrote at the time, and still feel, that we have a particular moral obligation to these old soldiers. Many Karen have confirmed what has often been described in print and on television: the promises made by British Army officers to their Karen allies that their independence would be restored after the Japanese defeat, and that the British would come back to help them. It never happened.
A sense of honour
The "displaced persons" in the refugee camps, are completely dependent on a consortium of 10 NGOs. Many have been there for more than 20 years.
The Border Consortium, or TBC, as it is known, provides food, supplies, and shelter, with a budget averaging 30p per person per day. The TBC is well-run and energetic, but its efforts have been hit by the vagaries of the world economy, by donor fatigue, and political pressure to discourage more refugees. This year has seen over 20% cuts in provisions to the camp inmates.
Sally Thompson, Director of TBC, wrote this to us about the veterans: "I remember the pride with which the soldiers used to greet me, putting on their berets, pinning on their medals, and saluting as they entered the simple camp office.
"They were not looking for a hand-out. It was rather the sense of honour about what they did over 60 years ago...It is never too late to acknowledge this. Most of them have very few years left to go now. They fought for our freedom and yet here they are confined to a camp, cut off from their homeland."
The reality of life in the camps, and over the border
The old people are far from the only victims of the decades of conflict in Burma. The unluckiest were the 500,000 "internally-displaced persons" (IDPs) in eastern Burma, where some 3,300 villages were burned down by the Burma Army. Following the peace agreement between the Karen and Karenni and the Burma government in January 2012, IDPs are coming out of hiding and going back to rebuild their villages. Much needs to be done in landmine clearance, and a Burma army presence is still very evident while terms of the peace deal are worked out.
The nine border camps, in effect human warehouses, contain some 120,000 refugees. The Thai government would like to see all camps closed in the next two years. Burma has made it known that exiles are free to come home, but conditions are not yet safe enough to do so.
Everyone who has to do with the Karen and Karenni is struck by the dignity and patience which even the very old maintain. Even if they are reluctant to complain, their lives are very tough, especially if they have no family to help them. Pha Cha Law, see photo, had his home in a remote jungle camp close to the border destroyed in a fire that swept through his camp last March. He lives alone and tells me he prays every night for the Queen. He loves to read the lessons in Church and is very cheerful and independent though bent almost double. He remembers helping the legendary Colonel Peacock of Otter area and Force 136 when he was wounded.
Political changes, under President Thein Sein's government are welcomed nationally and internationally. But for the Karen, as for other ethnic nationalities of Burma/Myanmar so far no concessions have been made to their ongoing demands for more ethnic autonomy in local affairs. After so many years of war the Karen are skeptical and await the results of the 2015 elections. Will they dare to hope for a lasting peace?
H4FA has no staff, nor any ambition to compete with other, larger charities. Our engagement is simple and practical, and based on face-to-face meetings with those in need. The office is a laptop, all travel and other costs are covered privately, and how donations are spent is meticulously documented, with accounts overseen by a board of trustees. This year our board of trustees has grown. H4FA is grateful for support and help from many individuals and organisations.
Photo left, text memorial shield, given to the veterans by the British army:
'To the honour and glory of the Karens of the otter area who laid down their lives for king and country in the fight against tyranny and agression.'
To read an article published in March in theTimes, see here. Sea Globe, see here. For recent article written by Mark Fenn on the fire in one of the camps, dated March 30, 2013, see here. For an article in The Geographical Magazine on the veteran issue, see here. BBC Cambridgeshire covered the item here. To read how English and Karen fought alongside each other, read this article on Major Hugh Seagrim, who had a strong bond of affection with the Karen soldiers.