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Karen people: The forgotten war veterans of Burma
Karen refugee at a camp on the Thai-Burma border
A Karen refugee at a camp on the Thai-Burma border

"They never complain and I just want to be able to give them the basics, like a cup of milk."

Sally Steen, from Cambridge, was talking about the Karen people, who live as Burmese refugees in shanty towns along the border with Thailand.

Many of them fought with the British to free Burma from Japanese occupancy during World War II.

Sally Steen's charity, Help 4 Forgotten Allies, wants their wartime role to be officially recognised and rewarded.

Colonial rule

Burma, 1942.

British forces preparing for the Japanese invasion of Burma enlisted the services of Karen tribesmen, loyal to The Crown.

Under colonial rule, some saw the British as imperialist oppressors of the Burmese people, but that was not how the Karen viewed them.

Karen refugee at a camp on the Thai-Burma border
Houses in the refugee camps are built on stilts because of the snakes

"They were happy living under British rule in those days," said Sally.


"When the Second World War broke out there were already many Karen people serving with the British forces and they were asked to find more men to join the fight."

When the Japanese invaded Burma in 1942 many of the Karen fighters - known as Levies - retreated to India with the British.

"While they were away, sadly many of their wives and children were killed by the Japanese and the Burma Independence Army, which was mainly composed of Burmese people who hoped that the Japanese would gain independence for Burma on their behalf.

"When they saw that this wasn't going to happen, they changed sides later on in the war and supported the British," explained Sally.

Independent state

The Karen is the second largest ethnic group in Burma. In return for agreeing to fight alongside the British, they were promised an independent state; a homeland of their own within Burma.

They remained loyal to the British forces throughout the occupation. The Japanese were finally driven out in 1945.

Sally continued: "When the British pulled out of Burma shortly after the end of the war, they left power in the hands of the Burmans, centrally.

"They were opposed to the Karen because they were seen as friends of the British, and viewed as collaborators. And the promises that had been made to the Karen by British officers were not kept.

"This in-fighting between different tribal peoples has resulted in what they call the Father to Son War, which has been going on for 60 years.

Sally Steen with Saw Aung Than, a Burma veteran
Sally Steen with Saw Aung Than, 79, a Burma veteran of Force 136

"It's the longest-running civil war in the world."

Refugee camps

Many of the persecuted Karen people have been forced to flee their homes.

"From eastern Burma there are 500,000 people living in hiding within Karen state," said Sally.

"There are two million migrant Burmese workers in Thailand. There are 140,000 people living in the camps, and a further 200,000 not allowed in the camps.

"You get the picture that life is pretty unpleasant in Karen state."

Sally Steen first became aware of the plight of the Karen people - many of whom were war veterans or war widows - when she read an article written by Christian Solidarity Worldwide (CSW).

The human rights organisation specialises in religious freedom and works on behalf of those persecuted for their Christian beliefs.

Sally's interest was piqued as her grandfather had been the headmaster of a British hill station school in Burma, so she already knew a lot about the country.

CSW invited her to join them when they visited the refugee camps on the Thai-Burma border.

Sally jumped at the chance even though she admitted she was a little apprehensive, describing herself as a "stay-at-home-mum".

That was 1998, and she has now made 14 visits to the Karen people in the camps.

Forgotten Allies

Sally set up her charity - Help 4 Forgotten Allies - when she realised how many war veterans were living in squalid conditions in the refugee camps.

"Some of the veterans we know about may have been there as long as 15 years," she said.

"They're not allowed out, so although they fought for our freedom, they are prisoners, effectively.

"They live on a monotonous diet of rice and beans and recently I've heard that some of the bean rations are being cut, so that's bad news.

"It's just rice and beans, and for a very, very old person - and I've met one of 108 - imagine living in monsoon conditions right now in a hut on bamboo stilts on account of the snakes and mud - imagine that when you're very, very old."

Help 4 Forgotten Allies gives grants to surviving veterans and to their widows. Only 164 of them are still alive.

During one visit to a camp, Sally met Saw Yoshoo (now deceased), an elderly man struggling to look after his sick daughter. Yoshoo turned out to have been a pupil of her grandfather.

"He didn't ask me for anything," said Sally. "I asked him what I could do for him, and in his impeccable English he said: 'I'd like you to inform my officers'."

Joanna Lumley; Dame Vera Lynn
Joanna Lumley and Dame Vera Lynn both support Sally's campaign

Annual grants

Back in the United Kingdom, Sally went to the Royal Commonwealth Ex-Services League (RCEL) who travelled out to the Thai-Burma border and discovered that there were many veterans living there, and in other parts of Burma.

As a result, the Burma Forces Welfare Association was set up and in 1998, 1,200 veterans received grants towards their living expenses.

"The small annual grants were never more than £60 a year," explained Sally.

"But they were later removed because the RCEL said that those in the refugee camps must be getting their food and so didn't need the grants."

Lord Slim, patron of the Burma Star Association, managed to persuade them to release £2,000 a year which goes straight to Sally's charity.

"But that's only 25% of what's needed to keep up small grants of around £50 a year," said Sally.

While Help 4 Forgotten Allies manages to provide the Karen war veterans and their widows with basics including soap and candles, Sally is hoping that in the future they might be afforded some of the benefits offered to the Gurkhas who also fought with the British.

She would like the British government to give pensions to the Karen veterans, however, this seems unlikely as the Levies were never part of the British Army.

They fought with the British, but they were not an official unit within the army, and most only served for the three years of Japanese occupation.

Karen refugees at a camp on the Thai-Burma border
Karen veterans and their families live on rice and beans

Sally now has the backing of Julian Huppert, MP, who has promised to raise the question of pensions for the surviving Karen veterans, in the House of Commons.

Country profile: Burma
12 Oct 11 |  Country profiles
The fighting spirit of Burma's Karen
01 Mar 07 |  Asia-Pacific
The forgotten war
26 Jul 02 |  Correspondent
Inside Burma with the Karen
23 Jan 99 |  Asia-Pacific



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