Ghosts of Old Battles

By Kyaw Kha 14 February 2015

FORT WHITE, Chin State — High in the mountains of Tiddim Township, the remains can still be found of Fort White, a former British military outpost that was the scene of heavy fighting between Allied forces and Japanese troops during World War II.

The overgrown ruins of the fort and battlegrounds lie in the shadow of Chin State’s second-highest mountain, Kennedy Peak (8,870 ft).

Fort White was built in 1889 at the time of the British annexation of Upper Burma and remained a colonial military outpost until it was almost entirely destroyed in fighting in 1944.

Little remains of the original building on Mount Thangmual besides some brick cellars and the clear outlines of the fort foundations, but former defensive and communication trenches are still easy to make out.

Cattle-herders from nearby Thaing Ngai village led us along the remains of a grass-covered old road to a deep gorge containing the remains of a British tank lying face up amid banana trees and bushes.

One guide said his grandfather had told him that the tank toppled into the ravine after the area was pounded by Japanese air raids.

The scars from where parts of the armored vehicle had been welded off and taken away were clearly visible.

Three other British tanks and Japanese airplane wreckage were also taken away over the last decade or so by “people who had war veteran identity cards,” locals told us.

Unemployed villagers dug out unexploded bombs and shells from the war to sell for scrap, our guides said.

As we walked along the old British-built track, deep pockmarks marked nearby ground pounded by shelling during the battles here more than 70 years ago.

Around a mile away near a fork in the lane leading to Htoe Lai village we found the remains of another British camp.

Shortly beyond this in a site surrounded by rhododendron trees with flame-red flowers is the spot locals call the “white” cemetery.

It contains the remains of British soldiers who died at the hands of Chin patriotic forces resisting the colonial annexation of the Chin Hills in the late 1880s.

More than a half-century later, Japanese soldiers also met their end in these remote mountains that are occasionally visited by relatives of the fallen who come to pay their respects.

Some seek out information in Thaing Ngai and Kaw Hsab villages, where the grandchildren of Chin troops who fought with the British still treasure their relatives’ ageing guns, knives and military uniforms. Some villagers also have Japanese knives and bayonets.

Before the British incursion of 1887 the Thongmual area was ruled by Chin chiefs whose hereditary political order and culture was to receive a profound shock just ahead of the turn of the 20th century.

Vum Ko Hau, a former Chin leader and a descendant of local chiefs, documented the period in a 1963 book “Profile of a Burma Frontier Man.”

“It was a great bewilderment for Chief Hausapu Thuk Kham and other Siyin chiefs and heroes who never knew defeat, to think that a foreign army could succeed in occupying the whole Siyin valley,” wrote Vum Ko Hau of the world that was lost after Sir George White’s expeditions to subdue the Chin Hills.

This story first appeared in the February 2015 print edition of The Irrawaddy magazine.