Helping Myanmar's forgotten WWII soldiers
DENIS D. GRAY, Contributing writer
YANGON -- Perhaps for the last time, the old Karen warriors gathered around the grave of a World War II British officer they called ''Grandfather Longlegs,'' and in poignant harmony sang a Christian hymn to fulfill his last request made decades earlier before Japanese soldiers took him away to an execution ground.
Seven decades after the conflict's end, in the remote hills and frontier refugee camps of eastern Myanmar, Major Hugh Paul Seagrim remains a legend and inspiration among the Karen, one of the country's downtrodden ethnic minorities.
But Seagrim, an eccentric mystic and brilliant guerrilla leader who gave his life to save his comrades, is almost unknown in his homeland, as are the Karen who fought alongside the British only to be abandoned after the war.
"We have never stopped praying for him because he loved our people,'' said Saw Berny, who fought with Seagrim deep behind Japanese lines. Wheelchair-bound but still spry of spirit, the 92-year-old veteran looked down on Seagrim's grave during a ceremony last year to mark the 70th anniversary of the war's end.
Around him at Yangon's beautifully manicured Commonwealth War Cemetery were gathered 20 of his former comrades-in-arms, along with Sally McLean, a soft-spoken, unassuming British woman who has made it her mission to aid the mostly impoverished Karen veterans and bring the life and heroic death of Seagrim before the general public.
In the coming months, both the plight of the Karen and Seagrim's story should become better known. After 15 years of research, a book titled ''Lost Warriors of the Forgotten War -- Seagrim and Pagani of Burma'' will be published in February 2017, authored by Philip Davies, a historian and authority on Britain's colonial heritage.
Davies said he first came across Seagrim in a one-line reference in a voluminous history of the war in Myanmar, earlier known as Burma, and soon realized that he had uncovered what is "probably the last great untold story of the Second World War, a truly epic tale of two extraordinary Englishmen.''
"Seagrim laid the foundations for the most successful guerrilla operation of the war. I was even more amazed to learn of his charismatic personality and deep spiritual character, which is totally at odds with the conventional picture of a British Indian army officer," Davies told the Nikkei Asian Review. "Over 70 years later he is still revered in the Karen hills, yet unknown in his own country."
McLean learned about Seagrim by a different route. An aid worker with ancestral roots in colonial Myanmar, she met an 87-year-old ex-soldier while visiting a primitive hospital near the Thai-Myanmar border in 1998. Owning a single pair of trousers, caring for a mentally impaired daughter and without medicine for his severe asthma, Saw Joshua remembered his British officers with enduring fondness, but also believed that they still shouldered responsibility for the men they once commanded. As she discovered, the old man had been a student at a high school in Myanmar where her grandfather served as headmaster.
McLean founded Help 4 Forgotten Allies, whose members will be making another journey to Myanmar and the border this year, distributing grants, as they do annually, to more than 300 Karen veterans or their widows and offering other assistance. None have been provided by the British government with pensions or other benefits; officials reasoned that the Karen, who fought as bravely as any allied force, were not part of the regular British armed forces.
McLean hopes, through donations, to meet a target of 120 pounds ($158) for each recipient this year. The small, low-keyed group, which operates without an office and takes no salaries or expenses, includes retired army officer Peter Mitchell, whose father Lt. Col. Charles Mitchell, went to school with Seagrim and also fought in Myanmar, and Duncan Gilmour, grandson of Lt. Col. Edgar Peacock, who parachuted in to lead the Karen after Seagrim's death.
Their patron is Vera Lynn, the legendary 99-year-old singer known in wartime Britain as the "Forces' Sweetheart.'' Lynn is a lifelong champion of all veterans.
McLean's group was this year asked by the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League, a veterans' charity, to distribute grants to about 700 other former fighting allies of the British forces, including members of the Kachin, Chin and Gurkha communities, or their widows.
On recent trips to Myanmar, Gilmour and Mitchell met a number of the rapidly dwindling Karen veterans and found that even with fading memories and limited mobility the old warriors could render crisp salutes and ring out the names of their British officers. One sang "God Save the King," the wartime British national anthem. At last year's ceremony, they reaffirmed their brotherly bonds with Seagrim.
By all accounts he was a complex character, a delightful companion to his fellow officers but out-of-step with colonial society, preferring treks into remote areas with Karen friends to Yangon tea parties. Transferred from India, he was stationed in Yangon when the Japanese bombed the capital on Christmas Eve 1941 -- the prelude to an invasion that drove the humiliated British back into neighboring India.
Seagrim stayed behind, volunteering to raise and train a Karen guerrilla force that soon swelled to 3,000. The tough, jungle-savvy fighters attacked supply routes, set deadly ambushes and radioed invaluable intelligence about Japanese activities in eastern Myanmar.
Unlike many British officers, who kept a distance between themselves and the "natives," Seagrim ate, slept and toiled with the Karen in their fields, calling them "God's chosen people." They named him "Grandfather Longlegs" for his 193cm frame, and for being older than most of them.
The son of an Anglican minister, Seagrim's spiritual quest intensified among the Karen, many of them Christians, and he spoke of returning to Myanmar after the war as a missionary. Cpl. Roy Pagani, the other heroic character in Davies' book, described him as long-haired, Asian-looking and carrying ''his tommy gun in one hand with a Bible under the other arm.''
Urged to flee
Pagani stumbled upon Seagrim's fighters as he made the only successful escape by a European from the so-called Death Railway, the Thailand-Myanmar rail link the Japanese army built using Allied prisoners of war and Asian slave labor. Pagani joined the guerrillas, who were proving so effective that the Japanese mounted a punitive expedition, torturing and killing villagers to extract information about Seagrim's whereabouts. A number died rather than reveal his location.
Seagrim's comrades urged him to flee, but when the Japanese threatened nearly 300 Karen with retribution if he did not surrender, Seagrim walked into a Japanese camp and handed his pistol to a Japanese captain. Although refusing to bow to his captors he reportedly forgave them, gaining their respect. One Japanese officer described him as ''a gentleman, a man of high character.''
Wracked by disease, shaggy-bearded and wearing Karen dress, Seagrim faced a Japanese military tribunal with 17 companions, pleading that they be spared since they were following his orders. But they were ''determined to die with him,'' reads the citation of the George Cross, a British medal awarded posthumously for his ''conspicuous gallantry.''
In September 1944, Seagrim, aged 35, and seven of his comrades were driven to an execution ground and shot by a firing squad. The last witnesses reported him smiling and shouting ''Goodbye to you all.''
The war ended less than a year later, but for the Karen peace only precipitated the world's longest running insurgency. In early 1949, they rose up against Myanmar's central government, the first of numerous ethnic minority rebellions marked by killings, torture and rape by Myanmar's military regime. A ceasefire was declared in 2012, but peace agreements and true reconciliation with the Karen and other minorities remains perhaps the greatest challenge facing the democratically elected Myanmar government led by Aung San Suu Kyi.
During World War II a different future had seemed possible. "They hoped for an independent state as a reward, having received promises from British officers, but postwar dreams crumbled and as the dark cruel days of the military junta rolled on, help from those they counted on was nowhere to be seen," McLean says. "Marginalized and persecuted for their loyalty to the 'imperialists,' we forgot them. It is a joy to try and achieve even in their old age some measure of justice for them."
"Suppose he (Seagrim) was still living, he would be helping to support the Karen. Definitely," Saw Berny said at his graveside. British diplomats, military attaches of former Allied powers and others attended the ceremony but the Karen, some wearing their medals, moved away to a row of simple white crosses under which Seagrim and his companions are buried. There they sang the hymn, ''On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand'' for him.
Another Karen veteran, Dwe Maung, once told this reporter of an entry seen in Seagrim's diary about "a kind of fairy" who appeared to him one night and prophesized: "You white men will ride the Karen people like a horse. But when you leave, the horse will have no rider and no stable."
Before the fairy vanished into the darkness, Seagrim gave her a promise: the British would never abandon the Karen.