Myanmar’s forgotten WWII heroes

Myanmar’s Karen veterans of WWII, despite being abandoned by the British, recall their service with fondness.

Loikaw, Myanmar – Former guerrilla fighter Saw Noe served the British “in a most loyal and wholehearted fashion”, one of the British officers he served with wrote in a letter of recommendation dated August 27, 1945, a week before the Japanese surrendered.

“He organised working parties and elephant and coolie transport, advising me soundly on many matters concerning the Karen people,” the officer said of Saw Noe, a member of eastern Myanmar’s Karen tribe. “Undoubtedly his work contributed a large measure to the success against the enemy in this region.”

At 95, he is frail and bedridden, but Saw Noe lights up with pride when he talks of his days fighting the Japanese in World War II Burma, now known as Myanmar.

He served with British officers behind enemy lines, looking after stores and collecting the arms and food supplies that were dropped by parachute twice a week into the jungle where his guerrilla unit of Karen tribesmen hid.

At one time, he recalls, a man-eating tiger prowled around their camp each night, but they were unable to shoot it for fear of giving their position away to the Japanese. Instead, they captured and killed it in a trap made from sharpened bamboo stakes.

Decades later, despite being abandoned by the British whom they served so loyally, Saw Noe talks fondly of colonial rule and their wartime experiences.

Sitting in a simple house where he lives with relatives in Loikaw, eastern Myanmar, Saw Noe said: “The British people and the British government love the Karen, I know.”  

The Allied victory in Burma owed a lot to men like Saw Noe and his comrades in the Karen hills, according to historians and the British officers who served with them.

Japan vs Karen

When the Japanese invaded in 1942, they presented themselves as liberators from the much despised colonial rule, and were welcomed by many Burmese nationalists. The Burma Independence Army, led by General Aung San – later the first leader of independent Burma, and the father of today’s icon of democracy, Aung San Suu Kyi – aided the Japanese invasion, though it later switched sides.

However, some tribes in the frontier areas, including the Karen, remained fiercely loyal to the British. They had been favoured under colonial rule, and many followed Christian beliefs. The Japanese advanced quickly, forcing the British to retreat to India, but some British officers volunteered to stay behind and others were later parachuted in to organise resistance forces in the mountains and jungles of eastern Burma.

Thousands of these Karen volunteers served alongside British officers, who forged close bonds with them. Some officers actively supported their calls for a separate homeland after the war, but the Karen lands were included in the borders of an independent Burma in 1948.

Historic tensions between the majority Burmese and the Karen heightened due to the war. Soon after Burma’s independence, the Karen launched an armed insurgency to fight for their own state or greater autonomy – a struggle that continues today, despite a ceasefire signed in 2012. Successive military governments have tried to crush the separatist movement, forcing many to flee across the border to Thailand.

Around 130,000 refugees, mostly Karen, live in camps along the border to this day. The Karen who fought with the British often got singled out for persecution.

Sally Steen, a British mother-of-three, runs a small charity that helps the veterans in the UK. She has been working with them since 1998, when she met a former soldier on a trip to Thailand who asked her to “inform his officers” of his extreme poverty.

“For them, it’s as if the war has never ended,” Steen said.

Inspired by her meeting with the veteran, she founded the charity Help 4 Forgotten Allies, which now helps several hundred veterans and their widows in Myanmar. 

Forgotten by the British government

Steen’s campaign has attracted support from the British public, including the sons and daughters of British officers who fought in Burma, as well as the popular wartime singer Dame Vera Lynn, now 97, who acts as a patron. The surviving veterans and their widows receive no pension from the British government and many live in desperate poverty. The small grants given out by H4FA each year allows them to buy a few “luxuries” such as extra food, medicine, warm clothing, coffee, and soap.

A UK Ministry of Defence spokesman declined to comment for this story.

“For the forgotten old soldiers and widows in Burma, life has been and is increasingly hard,” said Steen. “Cut off by the military regime from contact with the outside world for many years, branded as colonial lackeys and marginalised accordingly, they are pathetically poor. Their needs in extreme old age are for nourishing food and medical treatment. We are trying to meet these needs.”

Regardless, many former fighters remain unwavering in their warm feelings for the British.

Saw Tun Thein, 86, said he joined up to fight with the British “because they are straight and honest – like the Karen”. He said his father had also served with the British army during World War I, when he was stationed in Malaya.

Despite being very old and dirt poor, the old soldiers and their families were almost without exception generous, kind, cheerful, friendly and loyal.

by - Duncan Gilmour, Colonel Edgar Peacok's grandson

Abrahim Le Ngin, 91, recalled how the Japanese had suspected him and his uncle of being British spies and threatened to burn down their village if they weren’t handed over. When the Japanese troops returned the following evening, he led a party of guerrillas who ambushed them and shot them dead.

Abraham’s brother Solomon was only 12 or 13 but lied about his age when he volunteered towards the end of the war. He assisted a wireless operator, and his job was to charge the radio’s battery by cranking a small engine by hand. Now 80, the devout Roman Catholic – one daughter is a nun at the Vatican – recalls how he witnessed three battles, and speaks with pride of his wartime role helping to drive out the Japanese.

“All the people wanted the British to come back at that time,” he said.

One of the most prominent British officers in the area around Loikaw was Lt Colonel Edgar Peacock, a former forestry official and old Burma hand who won the deep respect and affection of his men. His grandson, Duncan Gilmour, is a supporter of Help 4 Forgotten Allies and last year visited some of the surviving veterans in the area, including Saw Noe.

“I knew that my grandfather had a great deal of respect and affection for many of the tribes that make up the population of Burma but none more so than the [Karen], and it was veterans from this tribe that I predominantly met,” said Gilmour, a pilot from southern England. “I can only say that I very quickly came to share this affection. Despite being very old and dirt poor, the old soldiers and their families were almost without exception generous, kind, cheerful, friendly, and loyal. I began to understand how it was that many of the British officers had felt so outraged at the abandonment of the Karen people after the war.” 

He added: “The veterans don’t complain. They seem to still regard themselves as a part of the British army, albeit retired, and they are loyal to the crown … I really cannot wait to return to see them again.”