Help 4 Forgotten Allies
A dwindling band of 111 veterans, Britain’s most loyal allies in the war against Japan 1942-45 is stranded in the crowded refugee camps along the Thai-Burma border.
A disproportionate number of the veterans, all from the Karen and Karenni peoples, served in the British Army's legendary Force 136. They were recruited as levies by Major Hugh Seagrim, who won the George Cross for remaining behind enemy lines after the British retreat, following the Japanese invasion.
The Karen fought the most successful campaign against the Japanese of the second world war. Yet none has a right to a pension, from Britain or anyone else, nor even to rudimentary welfare or medical services. Help 4 Forgotten Allies was founded to show them they are not forgotten after all.
For almost a decade, the Burma Forces Welfare Association (BFWA) was paying annual £40 grants to veterans and widows. When it discontinued these four years ago, H4FA stepped in, raising enough to increase the grants to £43 in the first year, £60 in 2010 and £80 in 2011.
We were delighted that following friendly discussions with Viscount Slim, President of the Burma Star Association and the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League we now have pledges of regular support, amounting initially to over 30% of the total we need. The Special Forces Benevolent Fund too has been very generous, and several Churches and individuals continue to ensure an annual grant.
In 2010 the war time forces sweetheart, Dame Vera Lynn, kindly agreed to become our patron. Burma is a place she knows. At the height of the war in the East she travelled there to sing to the Allied troops, and came to know first hand the ferocity of the Forgotten War.
This year our target is to pay £100 each, which means raising at least £12,000, including distribution costs. At the time of writing we have funds and pledges amounting to £7,000. Please help us ease the lives of these now extremely old veterans and widows, and bring them a little recognition of their service and sacrifice.
"Living among the dying and demented at the hospital - a rather grand term for what is little more than a large hut - was Saw Yoshoo (Joshua), an old soldier who turned out to have been a pupil of my grandfather, headmaster of Government High School, Maymyo, Burma, who had to flee the Japanese advance.
“Aged 87, Saw Yoshoo was recruited into the Burma Rifles in 1934. Still perfectly lucid, he reeled off his name, rank, number and the name of his commanding officer: he had been Company Captain 4802, and his senior officer had been General Twist.
“His two sons had been killed in the vicious conflict which continued unabated until 2011, after the British left, and the pro-Japanese Rangoon government began reprisals against their British allies. His hope and joy was his grandchildren, particularly a boy of 14. Tears came into his eyes as he explained that now he didn't have the bus fare to go and see them: the sum of 46 Baht, less than one pound.
“When I asked him what he would like me to do for him, he replied that I should 'inform my officers'. His own poverty - one pair of trousers, no medication for his asthma - was clearly secondary. Above all he wanted to help his grandchildren with the books and clothes they needed for school. That was all he really cared about."
I wrote at the time, and still feel, that we have a particular moral obligation to these old soldiers. Many Karen have confirmed what has often been described in print and on television: the promises made by British Army officers to their Karen allies that their independence would be restored after the Japanese defeat, and that the British would come back to help them. It never happened.
A sense of honour The "displaced persons" in the refugee camps, are completely dependent on a consortium of 13 nongovernmental organisations initially set up in 1975 to help refugees from Indochina after the Vietnam War.
The Thai-Burma Consortium, or TBBC, as it is known, provides food, supplies, shelter, and capacity-building support, with a budget averaging 30p per person per day. The TBBC is well-run and energetic, but its efforts have been hit by the vagaries of the world economy, by donor fatigue, and political pressure not to encourage more refugees. This year has seen 20% cuts in provisions to the camp inmates.
Sally Thompson, Director of the TBBC was awarded an MBE in 2010 for her tireless work with refugees in Thailand wrote this to us about the veterans: "I remember the pride with which the soldiers used to greet me, putting on their berets, pinning on their medals, and saluting as they entered the simple camp office.
“They were not looking for a hand-out. It was rather the sense of honour about what they did over 60 years ago…It is never too late to acknowledge this. Most of them have very few years left to go now. They fought for our freedom and yet here they are confined to a camp, cut off from their homeland."
The small amount that they receive is, she wrote, "sufficient to lift the monotony of daily life in a refugee camp”, something they had endured, often, for more than 20 years.
Life in the camps, and over the border
The old people are far from the only victims of the decades of conflict in Burma. The unluckiest are the about 500,000 “internally-displaced persons” (IDPs) in eastern Burma, where some 3,300 villages have been burned down by the Burma Army. Now that peace deals between the Karen and the government in Burma/Myanmar have been signed these people are gradually coming out of hiding and rebuilding their villages. The nine border camps, in effect human warehouses, contain some 140,000 refugees; and these people are now also beginning to dream of going home. This year the Thai government announced that after 25 years, they would like to close all camps in the next two years. Burma has made it known that exiles are free to come home. But what kind of future would face those who do?
Everyone who has to do with the Karen and Karenni is struck by the dignity and patience which even the very old maintain. Even if they are reluctant to complain, their lives are very tough, especially if they have no family to help them. And despite the best efforts of the TBBC, that is also true of life in the camps.
Incredible as it sounds, this ethnic war of attrition was until recently official policy. Or in the careful wording of the UN Special Reporters for Burma in another report in 2010, there were “indications” that the many years of “gross and systematic human rights violations [are] the result of a State policy.” Political change, following Aung San Suu Kyi’s release in November 10, is finally being realized, but before it is safe to go home much needs to be done, including landmine clearance, and settling land disputes and rebuilding. The people in the camps need to feel safe to go home. It will be hard for the very old to readjust. The small amount of grant money we are able to give will be of great use to them.
H4FA has no staff, nor any ambition to compete with other, larger charities. Our engagement is simple and practical, and based on face-to-face meetings with those in need. The office is a laptop, all travel and other costs are covered privately, and how donations are spent is meticulously documented, with accounts overseen by a board of trustees.
PSRB is a registered charity no.1139273. H4FA registered as part of PSRB has Sort Code 08-92-99 and account no. 65428889. If you would like to contribute to the work of H4FA please send a cheque made out to H4FA, to 12, Highworth Ave., Cambridge CB4 2BG Email: firstname.lastname@example.org Donations from Belgium can be paid through: Banque de la Poste, Rue des Colonies, 1000 Bruxelles account no. 00- 0000004-04 with the following reference: TGE – Projects to Support Refugees from Burma. These donations qualify for tax exemption certificates