The contribution of the many races of Burma to the defeat of the Japanese is entirely evident in the surviving files that constitute the SOE Burma archive. It is also plain to see that many of the Force 136 men who served in Burma, and the colonial officials who made Burma their home before, during, and after the war, formed a great attachment to the Karen people. That attachment is often exemplified by the gallant actions of Major Seagrim, who gave up his own life to save Karen villagers from further Japanese atrocities, but it has also been foregrounded by speculation about an organisation formed after the war called ‘The Friends of the Burma Hill People’. This organisation met after the war with the intention of looking after the Karen people because it was perceived that the new Labour government would not. Churchill had been moved to criticise the Atlee government in Parliament on 5 November 1947:
‘All loyalties have been discarded and rebuffed; all faithful service has been forgotten and brushed aside.’
As far as Churchill, and many others were concerned, Britain had abandoned its responsibilities to people across Asia, and in particular the people of Burma. The friends of the Burma Hill People, which included ‘big’ names such as General Alexander and the former Governor of Burma, Sir Reginald Dorman-Smith, was – in the end – short-lived because of a conspiracy to supply arms to the Karen resistance in their fight against the new government of independent Burma. The Friends evidently did not want to be part of any such politically explosive endeavour, and distanced themselves from the plotting very swiftly. Such was the strength of feeling, which persisted well beyond the immediate post war years.
Back in October 1945, the head of Force 136, Colin Mackenzie, wrote to ‘CD’, the head of SOE in London, General Gubbins (also a member of the Friends later on). Mackenzie was concerned that the people of Burma who had ‘Formed or Aided the Resistance Movements Organised by Force 136’ received communal awards. The letter was four pages long, setting out the case very carefully for Gubbins to try and secure 500,000 Rupees in whatever way he could, in order to help rebuild different ethnic communities which had been shattered by the war.
Mackenzie started the letter by writing that SOE/Force 136 was ‘deeply committed as a matter of principle’ to seeing that the communities who had assisted guerrilla operations received a ‘satisfactory settlement’. Mackenzie recognised that the areas most affected by the war were the South Kachin Hills, ‘possibly a small area in Arakan’, and Karenni. It was his opinion that the Karen Hills were by ‘far in the way the most important’ and that this area should get the bulk of the 500,000 Rupees; in fact, 4/5 of the amount asked for.
Mackenzie then goes on to give a brief history of what had happened in the Karen Hills between 1942 and 1945. He pointed out that in 1942, the ‘KARENS showed an admirable spirit of loyalty under the most discouraging conditions’, and exemplified by ‘the action on the MAWCHI Road’. The action referred to here is the rear-guard action fought by the Oriental Mission and their hastily trained levies with a company of Karen Burma Rifles under the command of Captain Arthur Thompson. Fierce fighting held up the Japanese advance into the Southern Shan States by up to seven days, and contributed to the retreating Army reaching the Ava bridge at Mandalay before the Japanese. This action certainly helped the withdrawal to India, but any comments beyond that belong to the realm of speculation and ‘what if’. If the retreating Allied Army had been trapped on the wrong side of the Irrawaddy in 1942…
In 1945, this same stretch of road became hugely important once again. Mackenzie quoted Slim ‘at one of S.A.C.’s recent meetings’:
In KARENNI we also had Levies who played their part […] nearly 12,000 which was armed and fed from the air by us […] They are the people who made a really very great contribution, because I gave them the task of delaying the 15th Japanese Division, which was trying to get into TOUNGOO before we did. They delayed the Japanese for seven days, and thus enabled our forces to get into TOUNGOO. The Levies have rendered us good and faithful service and have done a considerable amount towards the restoration of BURMA.
Mackenzie described this action as ‘vital aid to the 14th Army in its campaign to recapture RANGOON’, before going on to describe the action at the Shwegyin Chaung. This was where the approximately 50,000 Japanese trapped in Burma attempted to break out to join the rest of the Japanese divisions regrouping in the south of Burma. In this action, known as ‘The Battle of the Breakout’ in July 1945, Force 136 guerrillas inflicted huge losses upon the Japanese. One officer described it as a ‘Turkey Shoot’, and even the Army accepted that in July SOE killed more Japanese than they did. While the final count for Force 136 on Operation Character in the Karen Hills stood at 11,874 Japanese, Mackenzie wrote that ‘we believe the final figure will show about 400 Levies killed.’
The impact on lives, and lives lost in conditions other than combat, is less definite, but as Mackenzie wrote:
For the last 6 months the Japanese have systematically destroyed this country’, and the damage in the Karen Hills was considerable. ‘They have burnt village after village to the ground […] They have slaughtered many of the villagers without regard to age or sex. Not only have they destroyed villages but also the relatively few schools and hospitals available to the people. The Japanese have for months been starving during their effort to retreat through the area. They have therefore not left a living animal wherever they have gone. In view of the continuous guerrilla warfare through the area the last harvest and the present sowing have been impossible and famine conditions are expected. The Japanese in the area have been reduced to cannibalism which has been well attested on several occasions. Not only are the Karens starving, but in many places they are more or less naked as there is no cloth left anywhere. I would suggest that taking this picture as a whole, there can be few peoples to whom we are under a more complete obligation.
This extent of this grim picture painted by Mackenzie could have been lessened according to one Force 136 officer. Lt.Col. John Cromarty Tulloch was incensed, as many SOE officers were, by the Army’s relaxation of pressure on the Japanese once Rangoon was retaken: ‘I state categorically that had Army only maintained their pressure up to the end of May or middle of June, the Jap forces in the Loikaw-Bawlake area would have disintegrated and the Karen Hills liberated three months earlier than they were.’
In paragraph 11 of his letter, Mackenzie set out what SOE was paying for, recognising that ‘expenditure on rewards for the KAREN people from this organization will be negligible’. Gallantry awards, sixty shotguns for village headmen with a silver plaque on them, and brass tablets in some Karen churches was as far as it went, which was why he was asking for ‘a monetary contribution to assist the KARENS themselves to restore their country.’ Given that Mackenzie is on the record elsewhere as claiming that Walter Fletcher’s smuggling for SOE in the Far East provided a ‘net profit [which] was worth £77 million’, with instances where £20,000 worth of diamonds came ‘across my desk in one go’, it is hard to fathom why a mere 500,000 Rupees was never forthcoming. For context, Mackenzie wrote that 500,000 Rupees was the equivalent of five weeks pay to the levies in Burma when at their peak number (about 20,000 across all SOE operations). With both Mountbatten and Dorman-Smith in support of the proposed communal awards, it was politics and the politics of decolonisation which decided the matter, leaving many of those who had served in Burma, in whatever capacity, as well as a former Prime Minister, to feel that the Hill People had been abandoned.