The Myanmar Times
Wednesday, 11 November 2015
The Myanmar Times

The Myanmar Times

Ethnic Kayin veterans remember World War II hero

Amid the rows of graves in the Yangon Commonwealth War Cemetery, one nondescript marker bears the name of Major Hugh Paul Seagrim, a British hero of the Burma Campaign who is mostly forgotten elsewhere in the world.

An ethnic Kayin veteran of World War II gives an interview during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan Day at the Yangon Commonwealth War Cemetery on August 15. (RJ Vogt/The Myanmar Times)An ethnic Kayin veteran of World War II gives an interview during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan Day at the Yangon Commonwealth War Cemetery on August 15. (RJ Vogt/The Myanmar Times)

On the morning of August 15 – the 70th anniversary of the Japanese surrender, commemorated as Victory over Japan Day in the United Kingdom and other countries – a group of 20 or so ethnic Kayin veterans gathered at Maj Seagrim’s grave to sing “On Christ the Solid Rock I Stand”, an emotional testament to a war hero whose legacy carries particular relevance in today’s political context.

Their brief tribute came after a memorial hosted by the British Foreign and Commonwealth Office that included several poignant readings, prayers and songs. Conspicuously absent was any specific mention of Maj Seagrim’s ties to the Kayin or the consequences that Great Britain’s unfulfilled colonial promises had on their people.

Known as “Grandfather Longlegs” for his comparative age and 6-foot 4-inch stature, Maj Seagrim served as a guerrilla chief in the Kayin region of eastern Burma at the height of World War II. He mustered 3000 recruits from the primarily Christian ethnic group, fighting Japanese forces from behind enemy lines as the British retreated west toward India in 1941 and 1942.

His commitment to learning the language and customs of the native people, as well as his willingness to sacrifice himself for their safety, combined to earn their enduring adoration.

Decades later, war still rages in the country’s border regions as some of the same ethnic minorities who fought against the Axis invaders now battle the Tatmadaw.

During the war, Britain promised to back the Kayin fight for autonomy in order to earn their loyalty as soldiers. But the country reneged after granting Burmese independence in 1948, leaving the Kayin fighters to begin a long rebellion against the central government on their own, one year later.

One of the world’s longest-running civil wars ensued, displacing 400,000 Kayin people and generating more than 120,000 refugees in camps along the Thai-Myanmar border.

Though a 2012 ceasefire between the two sides provided some respite, a nationwide ceasefire agreement has yet to be signed due in part to the government’s reluctance to include six proposed armed groups in the negotiations, or to give the green light to certain international witnesses, including the UK.

A proposal for higher-level talks, as well as a schedule, is pending approval from armed ethnic organisations and the government.

The August 15 memorial avoided such delicate political overtones. Instead, Reverend Paul Toe Maung of the Holy Trinity Cathedral prayed that men and women of the Armed Forces might “serve only for the establishment of peace throughout the world”.

The audience included British diplomats and senior Myanmar military officers, as well as military representatives from former Allied powers.

Sally McLean, the founder of Help 4 Forgotten Allies, was also in attendance; her nonprofit organisation provides £120 (US$188) a year to 250 Kayin veterans, none of whom have received pensions or benefits from the British military.

Alongside Chin, Kachin and other ethnic minorities who fought alongside Allied forces, the Kayin veterans sat patiently through the service before paying their respects to a man who sacrificed his life for their people.

Maj Seagrim and his fighters proved effective saboteurs, attacking supply routes and ambushing Japanese troops from jungle hideouts. In response, the Japanese began torturing and killing Kayin villagers in order to extract information about his whereabouts.

He turned himself over to a Japanese camp in order to stop the bloodshed in March 1944. After six months as a prisoner of war, the beloved 35-year-old chief was executed alongside seven Kayin companions. He was posthumously awarded the George Cross for “conspicuous gallantry”, and his citation notes that he sought to save his Kayin comrades until the last moment.

“He pleaded that the others were following his orders and as such they should be spared, but they were determined to die with him and were all executed,” reads the citation.

On August 15, the Kayin reverence for Maj Seagrim was evidenced by the veterans’ wardrobe: They wore black pants, white shirts, red Kayin blouses and shoulder bags with Bibles inside in remembrance of the outfit “Grandfather Longlegs” wore when he surrendered 71 years ago.