Major Seagrim and The Karen Resistance
As soon as war was declared by the Japanese a number of British soldiers were sent from Singapore to Rangoon to prepare Burma’s defences against Japanese attack and, in the event that should Burma fall, ensure all industrial support be denied. Meanwhile H.N.C. Stevenson, Assistant Superintendent at Kutkai in the northern Shan States, who had had some success training Kachin tribesmen to become guerrilla fighters, was appointed by Burma’s Governor, Reginald Dorman-Smith, to raise a countrywide levy force, to stem the impending invasion.
Stevenson immediately appointed a British Major, Hugh Seagrim, to help organise the Karen levies, Seagrim, who at the time war broke out was in India, flew back to Rangoon and immediately went to Papun, only 20 miles away from the Thai border, to form what would become the first of the Karen levy corps. The Karen police had already come under attack from Thai border forces with one raid on the local police station seeing the Karen inspector killed, although fighting wasn’t constant more raids were expected and it was hoped that Seagrim and his men would be able to stop any further incursions.
Seagrim decided to move his base of operations away from Papun to Pyagawpu, three days march from Papun, and surrounded by a number of smaller Karen villages. Over 800 villagers answered the call to arms, however, due to lack of weapons, after registration most were sent back. Seagrim divided the levies into areas, Saw Willie Saw, a forest ranger, was responsible for the areas around Kadaingti; Saw Darlington, a former teacher and carpenter at a Wesleyan mission school was responsible for the Papun area, while Pyagawpu fell under the jurisdiction of Saw Digay, an influential lumber contractor.
Further north in Taungoo over 3000 Karens were recruited to defend northern Karen state and the essential road to Mawchi. Once again however, numbers of Karen volunteers easily surpassed weapons and equipment available. The Karens fought valiantly against the Japanese who were advancing towards Taungoo with the objective of securing the airfield, which at the time, was defended by one Karen Company and the Chinese 5PthP army. Although Taungoo eventually fell, the Karen Company, commanded by Captain A Thompson, and consisting of about 150 men, was able to inflict heavy casualties against the Japanese forces before being forced to retreat, blowing up a number of bridges and delaying the Japanese advance by several days.
The Burma Independence Army (BIA) first entered Burma in January 1942 one group entered via the south at Victoria point, another at Tavoy, one more at Messow and the fourth and largest contingent, which included Aung San and Colonel Suzuki, entering via Moulmein. There had been suggestions that the invasion would take place via the Shan state, some strategists, including Stevenson, believing that Yunnan would split from China and declare allegiance to Tokyo , however such fears were unfounded with the Shan States being left to the Thais, Commanded by Phin Choonaven, and his son the later prime-minister Chatichai, who captured Kengtung in May 1942.
Initial public reaction to the BIA’s advance was good with most Burmese cheering the arrival of what was seen as a force of liberation. Large numbers flocked to join the BIA which found its ranks further swelled by the release of prisoners. Although many of the new recruits were unarmed, they were able to obtain further weaponry from looted military and police installations.
While many Burmans supported the BIA - the Karens, long time enemies, continued to support the British, and as past racial animosities once more rose to the fore the Karens were to find themselves the victims of a rampaging ill-trained militia bent on ethnic destruction. The BIA found very little resistance from the British who had already decided to withdraw from Rangoon. The Karens in the Burma Military Police, amid rumours of clashes between Burmans and Karens and realising that their families and villages were at risk - immediately began deserting with what weapons they could find and returned to protect their families.
The Karens and Force 136
Late in 1942, a plan had been approved by Force 136, an organsiation set up by the Special Operations Executive, to drop four Karen parachutists in to the Karen Hills, the four, led by Ba Kyaw, were to scout the location where they were dropped it see if it was safe for a transmitter to be placed, the intention was for the unit to assess the safety aspects of dropping two British officers, Major Nimmo and Captain McCrindle, and a team of Karen radio operators into the Salween area so that they may link up with Seagrim and set up an intelligence and Sabotage network. The night of February 18PthP 1943, Saw Ba Gyaw and his comrades dropped into the hills, however due to weather conditions it was impossible to actually drop the transmitter. Eventually it was decide that Nimmo and five other Karens should parachute into the hills bringing the transmitter with them, finally on the 12th October 1943 they were able to land and two days later make contact with Seagrim and Ba Gyaw. By the 15PthP they were in contact with India.
For the most part Seagrim relied on receiving most of his information from Saw Po Hla, a delta Karen born near Myaungmya. Po Hla had been educated at Rangoon University and graduated with degrees in Religion and Philosophy. After working for the Irrawaddy Flotilla Company he joined the 11PthP Battalion Burma rifles. When the Japanese started searching for ex-Burma Rifles soldiers he escaped and, after an informer reported him to the Kempeitei, eventually fled and found his way to Seagrim in the summer of 1943. Po Hla was responsible for travelling through the hills conveying messages and receiving information. On one trip to Rangoon Po Hla had also been able to meet two Karen leaders working with the Burmese government, Henson Kya Doe and San Po Thin, and from them he learnt that there was much discontent within the Burma Defence Army, renamed in 1943 the Burma National Army (BNA), and Aung San and it leaders were already planning to revolt against the Japanese.
By early 1944 Seagrim had been joined by another parachutist, Captain McCrindle, while Nimmo, and three Karen parachutists, had set up their own camp north of the Mawchi road. The number of parachutists dropping into the Salween area had not gone unnoticed by the Japanese and soon 17 Japanese soldiers, claiming to be from a goods distribution units, arrived in Papun. Suspicious Seagrim moved his camp near to the village of Komupwado about 10 miles south-west of Pyagawgpu.
For Po Hla there was worst news. The Japanese had heard about his trip to Rangoon and his meeting with San Po Thin. The Kempeitei had arrested his parents, his fiancé, some relatives and some of his contacts in Rangoon. Fearing for the welfare of his relatives Po Hla planning to deceive the Japanese by spinning them a bogus story concocted by Seagrim and McCrindle, surrendered to the Japanese on the 23PrdP January after which, believing the story, the Japanese treated him well and asked him to help them get the support of the Karen community.
However, while Po Hla was being dined in Rangoon, a Kempeitei detachment, under the command of Captain Motoichi Inoue, arrived in Kyuakkyi. At the same time as they were putting on cinema shows for the villagers and giving sweets to children, the Kempeitei also set about brutally interrogating the locals as to the whereabouts of Seagrim and the Karens fighting for him. One man, an ex-Burma Rifles Jemader called Maung Wah, was brutally beaten for three days, until the Japanese, realising he was not going to give them any information, gave him an ultimatum - he was to go to the hills and return with the whereabouts of Seagrim and a map of his camp and sentry posts, if he did not return in one week action would be taken against the old man’s family.
On arriving at Seagrim’s camp Maung Wah told the British officer everything that at happened and asked Seagrim to contact India and ask them to drop weapons so that the levies in Kyuakkyi might fight against the Japanese. This Seagrim did, but India refused saying now was not the time for a Karen uprising. Seagrim told the old man to go back and tell the Japanese what he knew. By the time he returned he discovered that the Japanese already had the information they sought. A young levy had been tortured to disclose the information after the Kempeitei had discovered the village’s hidden arms cache. The next day a Japanese Infantry regiment arrived and they set off into the hills.
The Kempeitei and Japanese infantry travelling with the young levy and Po Hla, whose role in the deceit was now known, arrived in Pyagawpu and arrested a number of elders including one of Seagrim’s most trusted friends Ta Roe they forced them to lead them to Komupwado which they found deserted as Seagrim, after being contacted by Maung Wah, had decided it was best for his own safety to keep moving.
For Seagrim time was running out, on their return to Pyagawpu they chanced upon four young Karens who fled at the sight of the Japanese, one was caught and admitted he had helped Seagrim and was subsequently tortured into revealing the whereabouts of the camp. The Japanese once more headed into the hills on the way meeting a number of Karen Police, including a young officer called Bo Mya, who would later rise to the lead the Karen struggle into to the 21st Century, and they were led to Kaw Moh Baw Der village , close to where the British were camping.
The Japanese surrounded the camp and a fire fight ensued in which McCrindle was fatally shot, Seagrim and the rest of the party were able to escape into the thick Jungles, however in retaliation for the death of a Japanese corporal, who had fallen at the hands of McCrindle, the villagers in the area were constantly harassed, tortured and beaten on a daily basis.
Nimmo, who had set up his own camp in the north not far from Mawtudo, was to face a similar fate to that of McCrindle. Using information probably found in Komupwado, a detachment of Kempeitei from Taungoo arrived and began torturing the local Karen villagers in the area, information as to the whereabouts was finally beaten out of the one of the locals and the Kempeitei soon surrounded Nimmo’s camp, Nimmo was killed instantly as he emerged from his tent, revolver in hand, a number of Karen levies were wounded with a larger group being able to escape.
Life for the Karen villagers worsened. The Japanese stationed detachments in the larger villages and the local people were forced to search the hills - all the time suffering the brutal ill-treatment and beatings meted out by the Kempeitei. Seagrim’s location eventually became known when one of the survivors from the attack on his camp surrendered and unwittingly gave information to a Japanese informer. Captain Inoue arrived in Mewado and immediately had the headman deliver a message to Seagrim warning him that if he did not surrender the entire village would be burnt down and its occupants arrested.
Seagrim surrendered and was sent to Rangoon where he was imprisoned in the New Law Courts, despite assurances from Inoue that those Karens who had helped him would be left alone, he was soon joined by Digay, Darlington, Willie Saw, Po Hla and the old man Maung Wah among many others. They were soon moved six miles outside of Rangoon to the main Jail at Insein, an area which is not only famous for holding the largest Burmese prison, but also one of the largest Karen areas in the Burmese capital.
Sentence was passed on the 1st September 1944, among the Karens given eight years imprisonment for helping Seagrim and the British were Saw Po Hla, Saw Ta Roe, Saw Digay, Thara May Sha, Thra Kyaw Lay, Saw Rupert, Saw Henry, Saw Po Myin, Saw Tha Say and Saw Yay. For Seagrim along with a number of his Karen friends – Lt. Ba Gyaw, Saw He Be, Saw Tun Lin, Saw Sunny, Saw Pe, Saw Peter and Saw Ah Din – the sentence was death. They were taken to the execution ground at Kemmendine cemetery, shot by firing squad, and dumped in a communal grave.
Images: 1) Japanese enter Burma June 1942, Corbis 2) Major Seagrim, KHCPS, 3) Force 136 Crest, BSA, 4) Operation Chracter Plane lands in the Karen Hills, 5) Saw Darlington