Sunday, March 06, 2011

Forgotten but still resilient

Mae Sot (Thailand): Former soldier Dwe Maung recalls vividly the years he spent fighting the Japanese in the jungles of Burma during World War II, although he is now 90 and partially deaf. 'Force 136, guerilla army,' he barks in English. 'Fire from the hip,' he adds, laughing.

The Allied victory in the country now known as Myanmar owed a lot to the loyalty and sacrifices of people like Mr Dwe Maung. Today, he is one of a dwindling band of elderly veterans from the Karen tribe living in refugee camps across the border in Thailand.

These proud old soldiers receive no pension from the British government and rely on handouts from charities to provide them with basic necessities and 'luxuries' such as a little meat, vegetables, coffee and toothpaste.

Yet the widower sits up in his hammock at the back of a makeshift shop in the Mae La refugee camp and starts singing. It is a love song, he explains, that his company of soldiers sang to their British commanding officer when he left them at the end of the war.

The men, Mr Dwe Maung says, did not want him to leave. Touched, the Briton - known only as Captain Brown - cried and asked his men to forgive him.

When the Japanese marched into the country in 1942, they were initially welcomed as liberators from British colonial rule. Nationalists led by General Aung San - later the architect of independent Myanmar - aided the Japanese invasion, although they later switched sides.

But many from the ethnic minorities, such as the Karen, Karenni and Kachin tribes, remained fiercely loyal to the British. Thousands volunteered to take up arms against the Japanese, many of them under the auspices of Force 136, a guerilla resistance organisation that operated behind enemy lines in South-east Asia.

In return for their loyalty, British officers were told to promise the Karen an independent homeland after the war. But following the Allied victory, this promise was quietly forgotten.

Today, an estimated 160,000 refugees, mostly Karen, live in refugee camps across the border in Thailand. Since 1962, Myanmar has been ruled by the military, which has tried to crush the Karen separatist movement.

Human rights groups have documented numerous cases of attacks on Karen villages, torture, forced labour, the destruction of crops and the rape of Karen women in a bid to subdue the local population.

According to an Amnesty International report on the repression of the ethnic minorities, 'widespread and systematic attacks on civilians in eastern Myanmar are carried out with virtual impunity'.

The refugee camps, lined with rows of cramped bamboo huts, are desperately poor but not squalid; the Karen are a proud people and the residents run their own schools, clinics, Buddhist temples and Christian churches.

Camp residents receive a monthly ration of rice, beans, fish paste, chilli, cooking oil and charcoal for cooking - hardly enough to provide adequate nutrition, especially for young children or the elderly.

Several veterans who served Britain during and immediately after World War II told stories of having been forced from their ancestral lands by the vicious fighting.

As a young man, Mr Sein Aye fought alongside British officers during the war, and was once wounded when a bullet grazed the back of his head during an ambush. He and three other Karen troops chased off the attackers, he says, then returned to camp where his wound was treated.

Mr Sein Aye has lived in the Mae La camp since 1986. Now around 95 years of age, he suffers from Alzheimer's disease and is unable to walk. A widower, he had 10 children but only one, a daughter, survives. She and her husband care for him in their simple bamboo hut, taking turns to stay up with him at night and feed him.

A small British-based charity, Help 4 Forgotten Allies, distributes annual grants to the 120 or so surviving veterans and their widows, so they can live out their lives with a little more comfort and dignity.

Its founder, Mrs Sally Steen, 61, is a housewife and mother of three. Her interest in helping the veterans was sparked back in 1998, when she met one in a Thai hospital who asked her to 'inform his officers' of his extreme poverty.

Mrs Steen and her husband recently visited the camps to give out this year's grants of 3,000 baht (S$125) and presents of shampoo, toothbrushes, pens and biscuits.

At the Mae La camp, she addressed a gathering of veterans, their widows and children.

'We have come a long way to see you,' she said. 'But I think your journey might be more difficult... Old age is very hard, and old age in a refugee camp is very, very hard.'

Her husband Ed, 60, joked that next year they hoped to bring 'less shampoo and more champagne'. The retired journalist added: 'There is an understanding of how remarkable you were in those difficult years, and how remarkable you are now, with such spirit. We are very proud to know you.'

After the speeches and the distribution of the grants and gifts, a Karen male choir performed for the guests. The members were blind, and some had missing limbs - victims of the landmines that litter Karen state. It was a sobering reminder that 65 years after the end of World War II, these proud and resilient people are still fighting for their freedom and autonomy - the very things they were promised all those years ago.

From the Straits Times