- Associated Press - Thursday, August 12, 2010

MAE LA CAMP, Thailand | “Colonel Peacock, Major Hogan, Captain Bower … Shoot from the hip! Quick march! Right turn!” The names, ranks and barked commands of World War II British officers tumble from these old Asian soldiers’ memories as if it all happened yesterday.

But the war never really ended for the Karen tribesmen who fought with the British to drive the Japanese out of Burma, and who now live as refugees in jungle camps astride the Thailand-Burma border or inside their ravaged homeland, impoverished and driven from their homes in a brutal insurgency.

These ethnic-minority people, who were made promises by the British that were fatally broken, remain virtually forgotten and unrewarded by the outside world as the 65th anniversary of the Allied victory in Asia approaches on Aug. 15.

For them, medals, parades and joyous family reunions all ring hollow.

Yet the Karen warriors, all in their 80s and 90s, have forgiven their former allies - and even remember them with stirring fondness.

“As I bent down to pull him away, the bullet hit me here,” recounts Sein Aye, pointing to a reddish scar on his neck. The Japanese had ambushed his unit, and the teenage soldier, recruited from a farming village, dragged a gravely wounded British officer to safety under fire.

Simeon U - 91 years old, twice wounded, four times decorated - recalls killing at least five Japanese “with my own hands” and staying behind their lines when the bulk of the battered British force retreated in 1942.

He fought in the hills as a guerrilla with Maj. Hugh Paul Seagrim, a lanky man nicknamed “Grandfather Longlegs.”

The Japanese announced that their reprisals would end if Maj. Seagrim surrendered, so the officer walked into their camp, only to be executed with seven Karen companions. He remains a legend among the Karen.

“He was a great chap. We trusted him. He inspired the Karen people,” says Simeon U, squatting on the floor of a bamboo hut at Mae Rama Luang, a camp embedded in a remote valley housing 20,000 Karen refugees.

When the Japanese invaded, the Burma Independence Army, an armed group composed mainly of the Burman ethnic majority, joined them in hopes of wresting independence from Britain, the colonial ruler. Among their targets were the Karen, whom the British had much favored.

When the British retreated to India, some, like Maj. Seagrim, managed to stay behind and later were joined by other British soldiers infiltrated back into the country. They organized the Karen into a fighting force.

But for the Karen, the war did not end with Japan’s defeat. In 1949, a year after Burma gained its independence, the tribe rose in rebellion, having failed to secure a state of its own as the British had promised. It would become the world’s longest insurgency.

In 1989, the country’s military rulers changed the country’s name to Myanmar.

The struggle has taken a massive toll - an estimated half-million people driven from their homes in Burma’s Karen state, an estimated 150,000 of them living as refugees in Thailand.

Story Continues →