The Karen Old Soldiers that Britain Forgot
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The Karen Old Soldiers that Britain Forgot

By JIM ANDREWS Thursday, February 12, 2009

The old Karen soldiers and war widows of Mae La refugee camp on the Thai-Burmese border. (Photo: Jim Andrews/The Irrawaddy)

MAE SOT, Thailand — Nearly 65 years after helping British forces push the Japanese out of Burma, all that Sein Aye has to show for his selfless service is a scar on his neck.

The 95-year-old Karen veteran is reluctant to talk about it, but a former comrade tells inquisitive visitors: “He stopped a Japanese bullet while trying to help his wounded British officer.”

In other theaters of war, Sein Aye would surely qualify for a medal. But Rifleman Sein Aye ended the war in Burma with virtually nothing, left to fend for himself in the uncertain times following the flight of the Japanese and the withdrawal of their British and allied victors.

He is among more than 100 survivors of the Karen forces who fought alongside British troops but who are now living in poverty in camps for refugees and internally displaced persons—so-called IDPs—in border areas of Thailand and Burma.

Sein Aye has been living since 1985 in Thailand’s largest refugee camp, Mae La, 67 km (40 mi) from the Thai border town of Mae Sot. He is one of about 20 Karen old soldiers and war widows eking out their last years in the sprawling, overcrowded camp, dependent on charity for shelter and food.

Mae La is a far cry from the independent Karen state reportedly promised to Karen recruits by British commanding officers. The fighting spirit of the Karen was prized by such British commanders as Gen William Slim, whose order “Up the Karen!” spelt death for thousands of Japanese.

Slim’s Karen jungle fighters mercilessly harried Japan’s 15th and 55th divisions as they raced to capture the strategic railhead Taungoo and the region’s airfields. The Karen hit-and-run tactics enabled the British to take Taungoo, opening the way to Rangoon and final victory in Burma.

No hero’s welcome awaited the Karen in Rangoon, however. They saw their dream of independence disappear with the departure of the British and the advent of an independent Burma under a government that saw no reason to honor colonial pledges.

So began one of the world’s longest civil wars, between Karen rebels and the Burmese army. Years of fighting have destroyed or uprooted countless Karan communities, sending thousands to seek refuge in the jungles of eastern Burma or into neighboring Thailand.

About 150,000 displaced Karen now crowd 10 refugee camps along Thailand’s border with Burma.

Sein Aye is the oldest of the old soldiers living in Mae La camp. He was a member of the famous Force 136 that continued to operate behind enemy lines after British troops retreated to India in the face of the rapid Japanese advance through Burma.

A British officer with Force 136, Major Hugh Seagrim, was protected by the Karen but surrendered to the Japanese after learning that villagers were being tortured to reveal his hideout. He was beheaded and eight of his Karen companions shot.

Maung Sein, 92, also served with Force 136. “The British promised that after independence the country would be split between the Karen and Aung San,” he said. ‘I am very sad. The Karen are nothing.”

The Karen were neglected not only by the retreating British but by the Burmese governments that succeeded them. “We got nothing from the U Nu government,” said Sein Aye.

History records that the Karen who had been loyal to Britain actually got worse than nothing. Government forces exacted brutal reprisals on Karen accused of collaborating with Burma’s former colonial masters.

Britain turned a blind eye to the suffering. Burma was now independent, and the soldiers whose bravery had helped throw off the yoke of Japanese occupation were now the responsibility of an uncaring new government in Rangoon.

The old soldiers peopled a closed chapter of Britain’s colonial history—until 1998, when
the head of the Brussels-based charity Hands of Friendship, Sally Steen, visiting Karen refugees in the Kanchanaburi region of Thailand, came across a destitute 87-year-old veteran of the Burma Rifles among the terminally ill in the Kwai River Hospital.

“When I asked him what he would like me to do for him, he replied that I should ‘inform my officers!’”

The old man was a former pupil of Sally Steen’s grandfather, who had been headmaster of the colonial-era Government High School in Maymyo. Sally Steen returned to Europe determined to find support for initiatives to alleviate the plight of the old soldiers—and the Burma Forces Welfare Association (BFWA) was born.

The Karen veterans failed to quality for British servicemen’s pensions, so the BFWA—funded by the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL)—found the money to pay the old soldiers an annual grant, averaging about 4,000 baht (US $110).

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Nyan Win Wrote:
That is the British for you. Total hypocrites. They were the root cause of the present situation in Burma, in summary. Not that I think any better of the present regime. We're a million times worse off.
As a human being, I have to sympathize with the Karens' plight. However, as a Burmese, I rather feel that their suffering has been a result of poor decisions made by their leaders of the time. Had they been more compromising and been more willing to co-operate and co-exist after independence, things would have been much better for all. For all of Burma, in fact. Ne Win would never have had those opportunities in that case.
Here, I am not blaming the Karens only, the Burmese majority at that time was also so nationalistic to an extent that could have been defined as racist.
The point is that the Karen of today should reflect on some of these factors and admit it. This would make all parties have more cohesion. After all, to fight the common enemy, the present regime, we should have a unity that is unpretentious.
I hope that my comments are not offensive to anyone. All I hope is that all races in Burma can be united to fight the regime. Foreign help is never a solution, for they are often not of good intention.

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