It’s often said that World War II never ended in the Karen Hills of Myanmar. Almost as soon as the country gained its independence from Britain in 1948, Karen hilltribe guerrillas, who had fought against the Japanese during the occupation, turned their guns against the government in Yangon (then Rangoon) to fight for self-determination for their own homeland. That war lasted until a ceasefire agreement was reached between the Karen National Union and Myanmar’s central authorities in January 2012. It remains to be seen if that accord is going to lead to a lasting peace in what’s now Karen State as it is only a ceasefire agreement and does not include any provision for a comprehensive political solution to a nearly seven decades long civil war.
A book about World War II would, therefore, be relevant even to today’s situation in Myanmar’s eastern border areas. In fact, Gen. Tamla Baw, one of the main leaders of the Karen movement until his death at the age of 94 in June 2014, was in his youth one of many young Karen guerrillas fighting alongside Maj. Hugh Seagrim, a British army officer, against the Japan’s Imperial Army. Tamla Baw was captured by the Japanese in 1944 and was imprisoned for four months, but managed to escape and joined Force 136, another British-organized unit in occupied Burma.
Many Karens had been loyal to the British long before the war, and many of them had been recruited into the colonial police and army. Now, they had to face the revenge of the Burma Independence Army (BIA) and its Japanese backers, which exacerbated already existing animosity between the majority Burmans and an ethnic minority like the Karens. The Burmans took revenge, and many Karens were killed, among them a group of elders at Papun where Seagrim’s guerrilla force was active. The Japanese were even more heavy-handed and reprisals against the Karen civilian population were so brutal that Seagrim surrendered rather than seeing the atrocities continue. At the same time, some of his Karen fighters had been captured and, during his trial in Rangoon, Seagrim told the Japanese “do not punish these Karens. It is only because of me that all these Karens have got into trouble. This war is between the Japanese and the British, not between the Japanese and the Karens. I beg you to release all these Karens here.”
In a remarkable tribute to his enemy, Col. Sunyoshi, the Rangoon commander of the kempetai, or dreaded Japanese security police, reportedly said that, “I have never come across a finer gentleman.” That did not help, however. Not only Seagrim was sentenced to death but seven of his men as well. Seagrim stood alongside some of his beloved Karens when he was executed by firing squad in an open space off Rangoon’s Pyay (then Prome) Road on September 22, 1944. Blindfolded, they sang the hymn “The Solid Rock” as they were shot.
Seagrim’s self-sacrifice on the Karens behalf became a legend and his life and struggle was first immortalized by Ian Morrison, a British journalist and author, in his classic Grandfather Longlegs: The Life and Gallant Death of Major H.P. Seagrim. Although he was only in his thirties when he was in hills of eastern Myanmar, the Karens addressed him respectfully as “grandfather” and his long legs gave him his popular nickname, Hpu Taw Kaw, or, literally “Grandfather Longlegs” in Karen.
Published in 1947, Morrison’s book remained the only biography of Seagrim until the historian Philip Davies wrote Lost Warriors: Seagrim and Pagani of Burma, The last great untold story of WWII. Davies helped Thant Myint-U set up the Yangon Heritage Trust in 2012, so he is no newcomer to the Myanmar scene and his previous books include works on the architectural heritage of India.
Seagrim buried his own diaries and other papers before he ended up in Japanese custody, and efforts to retrieve them have proven unsuccessful, and, as Davies writes, “Seagrim’s box remains undiscovered, hidden somewhere deep beneath the blood-red loam of the Karen hills.” He has therefore, quite understandably, had to borrow a lot from Morrison’s earlier book and also interviewed Seagrim’s relatives and Karen survivors of the war. Davies more than Morrison also brings the remarkable exploits of Roy, or Ras, Pagani, an even younger British soldier who crossed paths with Seagrim and sometimes fought alongside him. While Seagrim was a Christian mystic and an intensely spiritual man, Pagani was more of an adventurer and, as Davies calls him “a serial escapee”. He was at Dunkirk in 1940 and managed to escape, ended up in Southeast Asia and escaped from Singapore. Captured by the Japanese, Pagani was the only European to escape successfully from the Death Railway that Allied prisoners of war were forced to build to connect Thailand and Burma. In the jungle after that escape Pagani met some friendly Karens who took him to Seagrim’s hiding place and the two began to fight together.
Davies used Pagani’s own typescript of his life and wartime adventures, I Did It My Way, as the main source for his story. But unlike Seagrim, Pagani never became a legend. After the war, he returned home, as he had promised, to his young wife Pip in England and never received more than a Military Medal for his heroic exploits. After running a taxi service in southern England, Pagani retired and died in 2003 at the age of 87.
The outcome of Davies’ research is a highly readable account of World War II in Myanmar, and it is free from the kind of colonial superiority that can be found in Morrison’s book. To Morrison, the Karens are immensely loyal to the British, which he believes is good, but, as he writes in Grandfather Longlegs, they “are not an intelligent people. They are nothing like as quick-witted as the Burmese or the Chinese. They are often extremely stupid [but] to a man they know and trust and love they will remain faithful till they die.” In other words, perfect colonial subjects. Seagrim himself would have abhorred such racist stereotypes and Davies also treats the Karen personalities as equals in his account of the war.
Davies concludes his narrative by mentioning Aung San Suu Kyi’s 2015 election victory and stating that, “beautiful, blessed, benighted Burma; sublime, serene and supremely sad; an enchanted land of lost dreams and forgotten promises, but perhaps, just perhaps, one now changed with hope for the future.” That might be an overly optimistic assessment of the situation today. There may be no more war in Karen State, but the ceasefire now prevailing between the KNU and the Myanmar Army is far from solid. Some, among them the daughter of Seagrim’s comrade-in-arms Tamla Baw, are even openly critical of the agreement which has not brought the country closer to what the Karens have been fighting for for decades: a federal union of equal states. Seen in that perspective, World War II has yet to end in the borderlands of Myanmar.