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Wednesday 11 November 2015

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Plea for the forgotten Burmese war heroes who secured British victory

Charity for ethnic Burmese veterans is trying to reach surviving soldiers who fought for Britain in legendary World War Two campaign only to abandoned for decades by their old allies

A fusilier of the Royal Scots provides covering fire with his Thompson SMG in the village of Namma, Burma, in October 1944
A fusilier of the Royal Scots provides covering fire in the village of Namma, Burma, in October 1944 Photo: Sgt W Stubbs/IWM via Getty Images

Thar Htoo emerged from the wooden hut where he lives with several generations of his family, pulled his ageing body ramrod straight and saluted with a flourish.

It was 70 years since he delivered the same gesture to his departing British commanding officer the end of the Second World War after three years fighting the Japanese in the tribal highlands of eastern Burma.

The 89-year-old did not see another British visitor for the next seven decades as post-independence Burma plunged into a series of ethnic insurgencies and the military junta cut the country off from the world.

But with the former colony heading to the polls in landmark elections next month and a ceasefire in place with some of the tribal armies, Thar Htoo’s home village of Daw Sa Klaw in the heartlands of Kayah state is no longer off-limits to outsiders.

Thar Htoo outside the wooden hut where he lives with several generations of his familyThar Htoo outside the wooden hut where he lives with several generations of his family  Photo: Philip Sherwell

He is among a remarkable but dwindling band of about 455 surviving ethnic Burmese veterans who played a key role in the most legendary British guerrilla campaign of World War II.

The Burma campaign, waged in remote Asian jungles by what have been called "forgotten armies," was one of the most brutal of the war for both sides. And Britain’s ethnic allies were largely “forgotten” again after Burmese independence as one of the world’s longest-running conflicts broke out along the country’s borders.

The tribal groups, including the Karen, Karenni, Kachin and Shan, who practised the Christianity brought by missionaries in the late 19th century mixed with traditional animist beliefs, believed that the British would grant them autonomy when they left.

Instead, with independence they were incorporated in a country dominated from Rangoon by a predominantly Buddhist majority, many of whom had sided with the Japanese during the war.

There is still disappointment, but remarkably no bitterness, that such fiercely loyal wartime allies were so cursorily abandoned as the post-war British government ended the era of Empire.

“My officers told me at the end of the war ‘don’t worry, we won’t forget you’,” recalled Thar Htoo. “They said they would come back. But nobody came back until this year.”

In a region that had so long been wracked by conflict, that first British visitor was Peter Mitchell, the son of a British officer who served in Burma and a trustee of Help 4 Forgotten Allies (H4FA), a small charity that pays the tribal veterans and their widows small but desperately-needed annual stipends of £120.

The memories are fading, but Thar Htoo recalls the guerrilla campaigns conducted under the command of a small group of British officers who operated from hide-outs in the mountain caves of the Karenni Hills.

It is an area of stunning natural beauty where rocky forested outcrops jut dramatically out of the paddy fields and maize crops, but also home to some of the poorest villages in Burma, with no running water and only the occasional solar panel for power.

“After the Japanese invaded Burma, our chief told us to fight with the British to defend our lands,” said Thar Htoo, who signed up for the irregular forces at 16 in 1942.

As he described the Bren and Sten guns that he was trained to use, the diminutive figure of Bee Lar joined the group gathered on the porch.

He believes he is 103, although official records list him as 99, and he has a face so wrinkled that it was hard to distinguish his features until he burst into a long-distant refrain.

The Karen Hill Tribe of Burma in Television Time Watch, Forgotten AlliesThe Karen Hill Tribe of Burma in Television Time Watch, Forgotten Allies  Photo: BBC

It is was an old British military marching song, the words now indistinct, but he smiled broadly as he delivered them. He then turned more sombre, recalling those killed in the fighting. “So many friends died so young,” he said. “They killed all the handsome ones. Only an ugly man like me survived.”

Another 45 minutes away is the village of Lwee Ka Htee, deep in the mountains and the heart of anti-Japanese resistance after the 1942 invasion.

There Kyaw Aye, 93, can barely walk now, but he remembers being taught to march by his British officers. “Left, right, left, right,” he declares, as he looks out from his hut at the hillside garden of beans, pumpkins and cucumbers.

He too recalled being part of raiding parties that conducted ambushes from the hills on Japanese forces and he pointed out the mountain vantage points where his British officers were based.

And he also described the vicious reprisal attack when the Japanese forces burned down villages and executed any man of fighting age if they believed the locals were helping the British. “Every building burned down except the church,” said an elderly woman in a nearby town.

The tribal irregulars fought first as part of Operation Harlington, headed by the legendary Major Hugh Seagrim. Still a revered figure among the locals who knew him as “Grandfather Longlegs” because of his tall gangly frame, the eccentric officer stayed behind enemy lines after the Japanese invasion of 1942.

When the occupiers threatened ever crueller atrocities against the locals, Major Seagrim gave himself up to save greater retribution. He was executed in 1944 with seven Karen comrades in Rangoon and their bodies lie in the Commonwealth War Cemetery on the edge of the city.

A Kachin patrol crossing a stream in Northern Burma in March 1944A Kachin patrol crossing a stream in Northern Burma in March 1944  Photo: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

He still commands a heroic status among the Karen and Karennis more than seven decades later. And 19 veterans gathered together, almost certainly for the last time, in August to pray and sing hymns at his graveside to mark the 70th anniversary of Victory over Japan Day.

His mission and popularity paved the way for the successor Operation Character led by Lt Col Edgar Peacock when 12,000 locals were recruited and killed an estimated 12,500 Japanese.

“Operation Character was spectacularly successful in its objectives,” said Duncan Gilmour, Lt Col Peacock’s grandson and another H4FA trustee.

“None of this success would have been possible without the total loyalty shown by the Karen and others. They are natural and fearless guerrilla fighters and they supported and protected their British officers and NCOs.

“The success of the operation would never have been possible without this unquestioning bravery, loyalty and expertise.”

While the guerrilla campaigns in eastern Burma were underway, commanders of the British Army forced to retreat to India after the 1942 invasion were planning their operation to reclaim the country from the west.

Among the ranks of those who fought their way back was Tancy McDonald, classified as Anglo-Indian at the time, a rubber planter’s son who was the Burmese-born descendant of Scottish and Goan Portuguese settlers.

He was finishing his education aged 18 at the St John’s College in Rangoon when Japanese bombing in 1941 forced the British teachers to close the school. Mr McDonald enlisted in the British army the next year in Mandalay and was part of the retreat by foot to India in the face of the Japanese invasion.

Tancy McDonald with his Burma campaign medals Tancy McDonald with his Burma campaign medals   Photo: Philip Sherwell

Mr McDonald, 92, returned as part of the famed Chindits special commando force as a Burmese-speaker with the intelligence unit, experiencing several skirmishes as the Brits advanced on Rangoon during 1944.

“The British officers were all excellent chaps and treated their men very well,” he said, proudly wearing his campaign medals and reeling off the names of captains and colonels in an impeccable clipped English accent undiluted by the decades in Burma when the language was little spoken.

Mr McDonald, who lives in northern Rangoon, is also the beneficiaries of the grants paid by H4FA, which receives some financial support from the Royal Commonwealth Ex Services League but otherwise raises funds from donations.

The sums are small, but the recipients all testified that they can stretch a long way in impoverished rural communities.

The establishment of H4FA began with a chance meeting when Sally McLean, a British aid volunteer working with refugees on the Thai-Burma border, met an elderly Karen veteran in a hospital near the site of the infamous Death Railway.

“When I asked him what he would like me to do for him, he replied that I should 'inform [his] officers',” said Mrs McLean.” His own poverty - one pair of trousers, no medication for his asthma - was clearly secondary."

She learned that despite loyalty, sacrifice and contribution to the defeat of the Japanese in Burma, the veterans had not received a penny of official British government funds since the end of World War II. For decades in post-independence Burma, they were viewed as enemies of their state, living in war zones or refugee camps.

As Burma’s semi-military government has eased travel restrictions and signed a peace accord with some ethnic factions in the approach to the November 8 elections, her charity is trying to reach as many old soldiers as possible.

“These men supported us so loyally when we were in the gravest peril, at great and continuing cost to themselves,” said Mr Mitchell after his visit to Kayah state. “At this stage of their lives, now is their time of greatest need and we must support them.”

* For more information on H4FA, please visit http://www.h4fa.org.uk/veterans

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