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Thousands of men from Burma fought alongside the Allies against the Japanese from 1942 to 1945. Their contribution to the Allied victory has in large part been overlooked, as a newly-independent Burma left the Empire shortly after the war and descended into decades of isolation, conflict and repression.
Grammar Productions’ documentary Forgotten Allies (scheduled for release Autumn 2018) follows the British-based charity Help For Forgotten Allies (H4FA), as they strive to deliver recognition and acknowledgement to these veterans in the last years of their lives.
Sampan Travel was proud to be able to assist Grammar Productions towards the end of 2017 when the team returned to Myanmar to track down and interview veterans in remote parts of the country, stretching from Loikaw in Kayah State towards Thailand, to remote northern Chin State on the north-western border with India.
After completing this tour-de-force, Sampan met up with the Grammar team – Alex Bescoby, Max Jones and Luke Radcliff – to discuss the trip and the ambitions of the project more generally.
Despite Max suffering from a bout of dengue picked up after filming in the jungles of Kayah, there was a sense of buoyancy as we sat down together. The team had now completed the most difficult part of the project. Pre-empting our first question of ‘Why now?’, Max offered up an honest response: ‘If we waited any longer we wouldn’t have any one who could give a first hand account of World War Two here in Myanmar. I feel we’ve now done an important job in getting their stories on camera before it’s too late.’
The trip had been more of a success than they had dared to hope. Alex told how in Chin State, after turning up in the capital Hakha in search of only a handful of individuals, many more people started coming ‘out of the woodwork’, either telling their own stories of the Second World War, or those of their brothers and husbands, fathers and grandfathers, accompanying these accounts with photographs, medals, and weapons.
This was contradictory to the experience Sampan has had when asking people from Myanmar about memories of the Second World War, a topic that can meet with reticence.
‘I think there are a couple of things that might explain that,’ Alex says to us. ‘One is the legacy of WW2 in Myanmar. It is not as cut and dry as it is in Britain. For Brits it’s a tale of a hard fought victory over Hitler’s fascism. We remember it that way every year, and in many ways it’s a story of good versus evil, of facing down existential peril and overcoming it. Here, in Kayah and in Chin State, they call it the ‘Japan War’. And, sadly, it is one of many wars in Burma before and since. Many of the veterans of World War Two, especially the ones from Kayah, Kachin, Karen and Chin, carried on fighting. They either fought against the central government or in some cases against each other, and in many places that war is still ongoing.
‘You could say World War Two is a war that happened to Burma. It happened on Burmese soil, but it happened between Japan and the Allies, and the Burmese people were divided down the middle. It is complicated, and it is still a sensitive topic in this country’s collective memory.
‘What we have found is that it takes a couple of times meeting people, to build trust and demonstrate sincerity and show that you really care about the story. When you ask someone to share their story on film, you are entering into a partnership with them, and that has to be an equal one. It’s a trust thing. We take the same approach with all our films – work slowly, make sure questions go both ways, and take time to build meaningful relationships and ensure that it really is a partnership. Often our contributors – like Burma’s royal family in our previous film – make the whole journey a lot easier by just being wonderful people!’
‘When talking about World War Two in particular, it does depend who you were speaking to,” Luke says. ‘Because if they were a Burmese soldier they may have fought both for and against the Allied forces. Burmese nationalist forces switched sides later in the war as they realized the Japanese were not going to deliver the independence they had promised. That more complicated story obviously brings difficulties with it.’
‘The war divided the country’, Max chimes in. ‘On many different lines. You can still feel that legacy today.’
Some of the fiercest fighting that was to ensue after the British left Burma was between the central government and the Karen, a largely Christian minority ethnic group. The Karen received favourable treatment under British colonial rule, being offered opportunities in the civil service and military that were not open to the majority Bamar. The rancour this caused was vented as the Bamar-dominated Burma Independence Army (BIA) accompanied Japan in their invasion of the country, razing many Karen villages. When it became clear that Burma would gain independence from the British after the Second World War, the Karen were dedicated to separating themselves in their own autonomous state, and were prepared to fight bitterly to this end. The Karen have never managed to break away however, and tension between the two ethnic groups can still be felt today.
Although this is acknowledged in the film, it won’t be possible to tell that story in its entirety, as Max explains:
‘It is such a complicated, fascinating story, worth an entire series of its own. There’s a lot to tell, and are we the right people to tell it? Probably not. Our focus is on the Second World War. We will acknowledge that the war did not end for a lot of people, but that is a much more complicated story, and one for the people of this country to explore and tell themselves when they’re ready.‘
Listening to Grammar Productions speak of their interviewees, it becomes clear just how complex this war was in ethnic terms, and how careful they have to be in not unintentionally showing bias when displaying these stories on film. A lot of what Forgotten Allies does is focus on Chin, Karen, and the other ethnic soldiers, however the team was keen to balance this by speaking to Bamar veterans who also fought alongside the British.
One such man the Grammar team interviewed – U K.T. Lwin – signed up to the British merchant navy when he was just fourteen.
‘When the war began he was drafted into the Navy, packed off to India, didn’t see his family for three years, was then part of the seaborne invasion of Rakhine, and the seaborne invasion of Rangoon. He fought with British officers, and his crew mates were from all over Burma – it’s fair to say they were an embryonic, multi-ethnic, ‘national navy’’, said Alex.
‘After the war ended, K.T. Lwin stays right in the heart of the national story. He formed part of the honour guard at the funeral of Aung San [the father of Aung San Suu Kyi, the Burmese Independence hero who led the BIA as the Japanese drove the British out of Burma] in 1947. He marched in the Independence Ceremony in January 1948. Then, shortly afterwards in 1949, he was told to get off his boat, march his ship’s guns overland and start shelling the Karen Rifles who were in full rebellion and dug in around Insein (Northern Yangon).
‘It was an impossible ask. Some of these men had been his shipmates, and then all of a sudden he is being told to march up to Rangoon and shell them. You get a sense of the confusion, the division, the shifting alliances.
‘Another of our interviewees – Saw Berny – gives the other side of the story. In 1949, after independence had come, he was simply doing his job as a signalman in the Burmese army up in Shan State, when all of a sudden someone turns up and arrests him. The charge? He’s Karen, and a soldier.’ Saw Berny spent three years in a detention camp along with many other Karen soldiers, and others accused of Karen sympathies.
The Karen insurgency was a bitterly fought one. Even with reinforcements from the Chin Rifles being brought down to support the Burma Army (‘like shipping troops from the outer Hebrides to fight against people from Norfolk!’, says Luke) the Burma Government was hard pushed to subdue the Karen, the fight coming to a head at the Battle of Insein.
At this juncture Luke is in his element:
‘The Battle of Insein is fascinating, especially how close it was. This was shortly after independence. The Karen had surrounded Yangon but they couldn’t link up the two territories they had captured, and they eventually ran out of supplies. They ransacked Mingaladon Airport but decided not to take it over, giving time for the Burma Army to recall troops who had been fighting in Rakhine State to Rangoon and turn the tide against the Karen.
‘At the time the Burma Army was fighting against a separatist movement in northern Rakhine. They received a radio message from HQ saying that the Karen were about to take the capital, and they must return immediately. The fastest way was by air, but they only had a single plane borrowed from the Indonesians which could carry twenty soldiers at a time! So they were shuttling backwards and forwards between Rangoon and Rakhine – if the Karen had taken the airport they couldn’t have done it. But eventually they managed to bring the army back from Rakhine, twenty at a time. It’s one of history’s real turning points.’
Travelling through Myanmar on the shoot with Grammar Productions were three of the Help for Forgotten Allies team. H4FA, a UK-based charity, provides grants and supports veterans of Myanmar who fought with the British during the Second World War. Sally McLean, Peter Mitchell, and Duncan Gilmour have all visited Myanmar multiple times, meeting these veterans and providing them with support while hearing their stories. They also have ancestral ties to the Burma Campaign.
‘For the H4FA team, the story is quite a poignant one as the mission is in its twilight days,’ Max explains. ‘It will be over pretty soon. Their job is almost done. This film is not intended to raise lots of money for H4FA (although that would be a nice outcome!), it is more about telling the story before it is too late.
‘Although the H4FA team are definitely crucial to the story, the main focus of the film is on the veterans themselves’, says Max. ‘It’s important we have as many Myanmar voices as possible, as we’ve not had many chances to hear them in recent decades, and it’s important we do so before those voices are lost.’
It’s a rewarding job, the Grammar boys have to admit. During the shoot, they couldn’t help but be touched when the veterans were simply so happy that people had come this far to see them, that they were being recognized for what they had done so long ago.
As Alex says,
‘That was the thing that moved me the most. In our conversations with Saw Bernie, he was so genuinely happy to talk to us. Now in his early 90s, we had come to ask him about a decision he made when he was in his late teens – to join an army and risk his life against a fearsome enemy. In return, he was given a uniform and a promise he would be looked after as part of this enormous institution. But as many of the veterans mention, after fighting, dying and winning together, the British officers had said, ‘Don’t worry, we will be back!’ Time passed, however, the world changed, and new wars began. The British didn’t come back. So for me as a Brit, even after all this time, it felt like that in making this film alongside H4FA we were playing a small part in fulfilling that promise, even with just a simple ‘thank you’.’