Help for Forgotten Allies

Last February, we visited the veterans and brought them your donations. Here you can download the report-2014 in PDF.

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.

A dwindling band of 111 veterans, Britain´s most loyal allies in the war against Japan 1942-45 (see here for a BBC documentary: http://www.bbc.co.uk/ww2peopleswar/stories/04/a5146904.shtml) is stranded in the crowded refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border. Yet another small group, men now in their 80s and 90’s, eke out a living in Thailand's insecure and miserably-paid grey economy. Other old soldiers and war widows are trying to survive in areas inside Burma which were once quasi-autonomous states.

A disproportionate number of the veterans, all from the Karen and Karenni peoples, served in the British Army's legendary Force 136.

Yet none has a right to a pension, from Britain or anyone else, nor even to rudimentary welfare or medical services. Help 4 Forgotten Allies was founded to show them they are not forgotten after all.

Their food is a monotonous diet of beans and rice. The funds that pay for their meagre existence are increasingly being pared down by donors, who perceive that the political situation in Burma/Myanmar is rapidly changing. They presume that the 130,000 refugees in camps up and down the Thai Burma border will soon be able to return to their Karen homelands. However a future back home and freedom, of which the refugees have long dreamed, is still far from assured. Landmines must be cleared, villages rebuilt and the peace agreement ending the world´s longest running civil war, still has to be seen to be fully established as lasting before it is safe to go home.

 

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.

For almost a decade, the Burma Forces Welfare Association (BFWA) was paying annual £40 grants to these veterans and widows. When it discontinued these two years ago, H4FA stepped in, raising enough to increase the grants to £43 in the first year, £60 in 2010, £80 in 2011, £100 in 2012 and 2013.

We were pleased that following friendly discussions with Viscount Slim, President of the Burma Star Association and the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League http://www.commonwealthveterans.org.uk/ we have pledges of regular support, amounting to £4,000 annually. The Special Forces Benevolent Fund has been increasingly generous, and organizations, Churches and individuals continue to ensure an annual grant. In January 2012 an appeal was made by our patron Karen Archer at Norwich Royal Theatre where she starred in An Inspector Calls and over £3,000 was given by the audience for the veterans. There is a deep sense of the injustice among the British public, of allowing war heroes to languish in camps in poverty with so little recognition of their brave service in the Burma Campaign.

In 2012 Dame Vera Lynn very kindly agreed to become patron of Help 4 Forgotten Allies; during WW2 she bravely traveled to war torn Burma to sing to the Allied troops, and knows first hand the ferocity of the Forgotten War. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1204516/Well-meet-Dame-Vera-Lynn-searches-soldiers-met-Far-East-1944.html.

This year our target is to pay £ 125 each, which means raising £ 15,000, including distribution costs. At the time of writing we have funds and pledges amounting to £ 11,000. H4FA has recently initiated an income generating project in Yangon to benefit the Karen veterans inside Burma/Myanmar.

 


 

Britain's forgotten allies in the camps

A PSRB trip report from the early days - 1998 - recounts: "We were visiting the Kwai River Hospital in December '98, near the World War II 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: he had been Company Captain 4802, and his senior officer had been General Twist.

"His two sons had been killed in the vicious conflict which has continued unabated since the British left, and the pro-Japanese Rangoon government began reprisals against their British allies. His hope and joy was his grandchildren, particularly a boy of 14. Tears came into his eyes as he explained that now he didn't have the bus fare to go and see them: the sum of 46 Baht, roughly one euro.

"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. Above all he wanted to help his grandchildren with the books and clothes they needed for school. That was all he really cared about."

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 had been defeated, and that they would come back to help them. This is a link to a BBC documentary on the history of the karen people.


The "displaced persons" with no right to support from the UNHCR are completely dependent on the TBC, a well regarded organisation initially set up in 1975 in response to the influx of refugees from Indochina after the Vietnam War.

An alliance of 11 NGOs from nine countries, it provides food, supplies, shelter, and capacity-building support, with a budget averaging 30p per person per day. The TBC is well-run and energetic, but its efforts have been hit by rising food prices, by donor fatigue, and by political pressure to encourage the refugees to return home more rapidly than is safe.

A sense of honour

Sally Thompson, awarded an MBE in 2010 for her tireless work with refugees in Thailand www.tbc.org and a remarkable interview to Christian Aid wrote this to us about her experience of 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 small amount that they receive is, she wrote, "sufficient to lift the monotony of daily life in a refugee camp, something they had endured, often, for more than 20 years.

 

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 3,700 villages were burned down by the Burma Army. Under the new peace treaty these people are beginning tentatively to return to rebuild their villages. About a quarter of the veterans we help are also the hardest to reach – living in areas which have no infra structure or any medical services, former war zones, and unreached by humanitarian aid.

The nine border camps, in effect human warehouses, contain some 130,000 refugees; another 200,000 are illegally living outside the camps in the Thai countryside. All are officially just "displaced persons", with no right to support from the UNHCR because Thailand – in a vain attempt to discourage the exodus from Burma - has refused to sign the UN Convention on Refugees.

Everyone who has to do with the Karen and Karenni is struck by the dignity and patience which even the very old maintain in the face of tedium, deprivation, and little or no prospect of change. Even if they are reluctant to complain, their lives are very tough, especially if they have no family to help them. And despite the best efforts of the TBBC, that is also true of life in the camps, where the refugees live on a 30p-a-day diet of rice and beans. Read more here.

 


Those who arrived in the camps before 2005 are the only refugees eligible for resettlement in the US or Australia, this has posed a terrible dilemma to old people who, if they were not willing to uproot themselves, risked being left alone in the camps, whose future was anyway uncertain.

Please help us to show the veterans that they are not forgotten and that people respect the role that they played in World War two fighting with the allies against the Japanese. Many of the same men continued to fight against the Burmese military junta until they retired. The Karen were the only ethnic nationality to continue the struggle for democracy and freedom without ceasing until a peace treaty was finally signed in January 2012.

 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.'