Britain’s forgotten allies

A Karen refugee shows medals won by a relative during the Second World War. The Karen remained staunchly loyal to the British even in the war’s darkest days
David Longstreath / AP
  • A Karen refugee shows medals won by a relative during the Second World War. The Karen remained staunchly loyal to the British even in the war’s darkest days
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    A Karen refugee shows medals won by a relative during the Second World War. The Karen remained staunchly loyal to the British even in the war’s darkest days David Longstreath / AP

Help is finally at hand for a dwindling band of veterans who fought the Japanese in Burma

When he was barely in his teens Saw Ba Kyaw delivered messages between British officers behind enemy lines in wartime Burma. He was too small to carry a rifle so he was given a lighter Sten sub-machinegun instead.

Making his way back through the jungle in heavy rain one night, he realised that he was surrounded by Japanese soldiers. In his bag was a letter, and a British officer had told him: “If you die, it doesn’t matter — but keep the letter safe.”

He threw it away and hid but as he crept off, he saw four Japanese soldiers nearby and shot them. He heard later that three died, and one survived. Five days later, Saw Ba Kyaw went back to the spot, found the letter and delivered it to the intended recipient.

“When I was young, I wasn’t afraid of anything,” he says. Saw Ba Kyaw is 84 now, frail and hard of hearing. His home for the past ten years has been the Ban Mae Surin refugee camp in northern Thailand, recently badly damaged by a cooking fire, where he lives alone in a wooden hut and survives on meagre rations of rice and fish paste.

He is one of a dwindling number of Karen men who fought for the British and now find themselves languishing, and often forgotten, in the camps along the Thai-Burma border. For these men and their widows, it is as if the Second World War has never really ended, says Sally Steen, a Cambridge housewife and the founder of a small charity that aims to help them.

The Allied victory in Burma in 1945 owed much to the efforts of men such as Saw Ba Kyaw and his comrades from the Karen and Karenni tribes in the eastern hills. They often served under the covert Force 136 in volunteer guerrilla units led by British officers, such as Major Hugh Seagrim, known as “Grandfather Longlegs”, who was executed with some of his men in 1944 and is still regarded as a hero by the Karen.

When the Japanese swept through South-East Asia in 1941-42, they styled themselves as liberators from colonial rule, winning the support of nationalists in Burma and elsewhere. But some minorities in Burma’s complex ethnic patchwork, including the Karen, remained loyal to the British and resisted. Many were Christian and had forged close links with the colonial and military authorities in prewar Burma.

The Karen “had remained staunchly loyal to us even in the blackest days of Japanese occupation, and had suffered accordingly,” wrote Field Marshal Sir William Slim, the commander of British forces in Burma, in his memoir Defeat into Victory. And as the war turned in favour of the Allies, they played a crucial role, notably in the race to secure the town of Taungoo in April 1945. “It was not at all difficult to get the Karens to rise up against the hated Japanese; the problem was to restrain them from rising up too soon,” wrote Slim. “But now the time had come, and I gave the word, ‘Up the Karens!’ Japanese, driving hard through the night down jungle roads for Taungoo, ran into ambush after ambush; bridges were blown ahead of them, their foraging parties massacred, their sentries stalked, their staff cars shot up . . . They lost the race for Taungoo.”

The guerrillas’ loyalty much impressed their British officers, who in turn often backed their calls for an independent homeland. But in 1948 the Karen people became part of independent Burma and decades of rebellion against Burmese rule ensued. The situation remains precarious despite a ceasefire with the government in January.

An estimated 160,000 refugees — mostly Karen — live in camps across the border with Thailand, forced from their homes by the fighting. Among them are about 100 veterans, with 300 still in Burma. “They have no pensions and their lives since the war have been as social outcasts, an existence in extreme poverty,” says Mrs Steen. The charity she founded, Help For Forgotten Allies, aims to bring them “some recognition for the sacrifice they made in risking their lives to fight with the Allies in the Burma campaign”.

Steen has been working with the veterans for more than a decade. Her interest was sparked in 1998, when she met one of them in a Thai hospital who did not even have the bus fare to visit his grandson. When she asked what she could do to help, he urged her to “inform his officers”. After returning to England, she contacted the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League, which began distributing small annual grants to the old soldiers.

She set up Help For Forgotten Allies in 2008 after learning that the grants to those in the camps had been discontinued, so as to provide more help for those in Burma. Now her organisation aims to raise funds that will enable the veterans and their widows — both in Burma and in the camps — to live out their lives with a little more dignity.

This year the charity hopes to provide the soldiers with £100 a year, which they can use to buy extra food and “luxuries” such as soap and coffee. It has been boosted by the support of patrons such as Dame Vera Lynn, who entertained troops in Burma.

The men in Saw Ba Kyaw’s camp fought under Captain E. H. Peacock, and after the war the British presented them with a plaque. It reads: “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 aggression.”

The plaque came into the possession of General Aung Than Lay, who fought with the British and became an insurgent leader. His widow and daughter now keep it in their hut. It is only shown to British visitors, of whom they see very few. But, says the general’s widow, the plaque is “very valuable for Karen people, so we have to take care of it from generation to generation”.

More information about Help For Forgotten Allies at

1 comment
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paul baxter

I don't profess to know much detail about the predicament of the brave Karen people have been in since the end of the 2nd world war in the far east.

But I have read snippets that caught my attention - I always like to read about such brave people, a bit like the "Gurkha" - Bravest of the brave and loyal to a fault....! Obviously the British didn't hold to their promise to these brave peoples - absolute shame.

I'm glad I read this article today and I thank the Times for airing it. Let me just say we owe them a great debt - And if anyone else is reading this story please dig deep into your pockets, we pay more for a meal on the town than these people get in a year. How could the British government forget these brave / brave people!

We owe them a debt - and although too many years have passed, lets pay it with interest................................

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