The Myanmar Times
Wednesday, 11 November 2015
The Myanmar Times

The Myanmar Times

Remembering the forgotten ones

When Sally McLean first met a Kayin World War II veteran on the Thai-Myanmar border, she could never have guessed the journey it would take her on.

Kayin veterans observe the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan Day at the Yangon Commonwealth War Cemetery on August 15. Photo: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar TimesKayin veterans observe the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan Day at the Yangon Commonwealth War Cemetery on August 15. Photo: RJ Vogt / The Myanmar Times

It was 1998 – nearly five decades after the end of his service with the British military – but the 87-year old Saw Yoshoo easily rattled off his former rank, number and the name of his commanding officer, someone he had not seen or heard from in 50 years. Despite living in severe poverty, he requested only one thing of McLean: that she return to Great Britain and “inform his officers” of his whereabouts.

During the last seventeen years, McLean has worked to inform the world of Saw Yoshoo and hundreds more like him – WWII veterans who served the Allies honourably only to be forgotten after Burma’s independence.

Her non-profit organisation, Help 4 Forgotten Allies (H4FA), provides grants and support to veterans of the Allied armed forces still alive in Myanmar. In some cases, the organisation also supports the widows and surviving children of the former soldiers.

“We give as much as we can raise,” she says. “Everything that’s given, we pass on to the old soldiers. Every penny.”

For McLean, the project is an exercise in moral obligation. These veterans served under British officers in one of the most brutal campaigns of the war, fighting the invading Japanese through jungle growth and devastating illness. Many of their superiors promised to return the favour by helping ethnic minorities achieve independence after the war.

But that favor never came.

“When they made those promises, it was Churchill’s government,” McLean says. “By the time independence came, it was Atlee’s government. So that might be one reason why the promises weren’t kept.”

Great Britain granted Burmese independence in 1948, leaving the Bamar majority in charge of the minority tribes who had been promised independence. They launched the world’s longest-running civil war a year later. A ceasefire with the Kayin rebels, signed in 2012, has given hope for a national ceasefire to be signed in coming months; still, the war displaced 400,000 Kayin people and generated more than 120,000 refugees in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.

H4FA supports this community with welfare grants, specifically focusing on the roughly 400 veterans and widows remaining from WWII. Some of the money comes from England’s Royal Commonwealth Ex-Service League, which distributes welfare grants across the former British Empire, and the rest is fundraised by H4FA staff.

In a 2014 annual report, the RCESL chair, Brigadier John King, wrote that each grant covers a “very basic meal per day”. It’s not much, and McLean says she wishes they could do more, but for many veterans, the grant is the most they receive all year.

“Some of their living conditions are terrible,” she says. “The last time I was in Myanmar, I went to visit a veteran in his so-called ‘home.’ He just lived by a stream in this tumble-down shack made of straw. It really was pathetic.”

In order to offer as much as they can, McLean says the charity operates on a lean budget. None of the six trustees take a salary, and everyone pays for their own travel; in Myanmar, all the aid deliveries are conducted by volunteers.

“So you know that some charities, a percentage goes to administration,” she explains. “But we can truthfully say that we don’t take anything out. All the money that is donated is passed directly to them. I work for free.”

Beyond the veterans and families, the organisation also provides aid to landmine victims, disaster relief efforts and The Emmanuel Primary School in Mae La, the largest of nine refugee camps strung along the border. Eventually, the forgotten allies and widows will have all passed away, but H4FA – formerly known as Projects to Support Refugees in Burma – will continue to fundraise for their surviving children, channelling their efforts into education.

According to their website, the organisation’s 2015 goal is to raise a little more than US$72,000, enough to give 390 individuals $185 each.

For more information, visit h4fa.org.uk.