The Commonwealth War Cemetery at Thanbyuzayat is a sombre place.
A couple of hours south from Mawlamyine, Thanbyuzayat was the site of the Western Terminus of the Burma-Siam “Death Railway”, built by prisoners of war to connect Rangoon and Bangkok during the Japanese occupation in WW2. The cemetery commemorates the European and Australian soldiers who died during the construction. Only one prisoner – a rambunctious Brit called Ras Pagani – successfully escaped, taking refuge with pro-British Karen guerrillas.
Many Burmese also died on the Death Railway. But their number is uncertain, and they are not commemorated at the Commonwealth Cemetery.
The Japanese, alongside forces of the newly-formed Burma Independence Army, had first entered Burma from its southern tip “Victoria Point” in December 1941, and the fall of Mawlamyine was not only a psychological blow to the British but also a major strategic loss that led to the ensuing fall of Rangoon.
Grandfather Longlegs & the Rangoon Ritz
Those visiting Myanmar following the trail of the Burma Campaign will likely at some point find their way to Htaukkyan, the largest and grandest of the three Commonwealth War Cemeteries in Myanmar, situated just north of Yangon. It was to Htaukkyan that bodies of the fallen from across Burma were brought together to be commemorated at the end of the war.
Also in Yangon, another point of pilgrimage is the Holy Trinity Church in the centre of town just opposite Pan Pacific hotel. In 2017 a plaque was unveiled for Major Seagrim who, briefly alongside Pagani of the Death Railway, had remained undercover in the jungles with the Karen – who named him “Grandfather Longlegs”. After surrendering himself to the Japanese so to avoid the continued brutalization of Karen villages, Seagrim was taken for a prolonged spell at the ghastly jail of the Japanese military police in the New Law Courts – nicknamed the “Rangoon Ritz” and many years later renovated as the Rosewood Hotel. Alongside his Karen comrades, in September 1944 Seagrim was shot for espionage.
Last Bid for Victory
The most famous battles of the Burma Campaign were of Imphal and Kohima, towns situated along the Burma-Indian border. It was across this border that refugees and soldiers of the British Indian Army retreated across in 1942.
In 1944, the Japanese attempted to capitalize on their advantage, in what Dr Robert Lyman (the world authority on the Kohima and the Burma Campaign) describes as their “last bid for victory”.
“… at a time when on every other front the Japanese were on the strategic defensive, Japan launched a vast, audacious offensive deep into India in an attack designed to destroy forever Britain’s ability to challenge Japan’s hegemony in Burma.”
While the Japanese were grappling with the British Indian Army at Imphal and Kohima, the Americans in the form of “Merrill’s Marauders”, under the command of US General “Vinegar Joe” Stilwell, brought war to Myitkyina, in today’s Kachin State.
Stilwell’s adversary in the battle of Myitkyina was the Japanese General Mitzukami. One of the most poignant testaments to this chapter of the Campaign is in the middle of the Ayeyarwady where stands a simple plaque to General Mitzukami. Mitzukami and his troops had fought long past the point of rational command due to a direct order from Maymyo, the Japanese forward HQ in Burma. Not willing to unnecessarily sacrifice any more of his men, Mitzukami eventually gave the order to retreat and saw to it that the wounded were placed on rafts heading downriver to Bhamo. With his men safely on their way, on this island in the Ayeyarwady, Mitzukami slipped behind a tree and shot himself, in doing so obeying the order to defeat the Americans or “die in Myitkyina”.
Battle for Mandalay
After Allied successes at Kohima, Imphal and Myitkyina, the Japanese were on the defensive and the fight was brought to Mandalay in March 1945. The worst of the fighting took place on Mandalay Hill which was eventually secured for the Allies by the 6th Gurkha Rifles. A plaque commemorating their efforts remains at the top and old photographs of the siege can be viewed at the U Khanti Monastery at the foot of the hill.
When the dust settled, due to the continuous bombing and artillery fire that Mandalay had been subjected to, a different city emerged. As one onlooker wrote upon wandering through the rubble:
‘Mandalay, that proud city, once the capital of the Kingdom of Ava, steeped in tradition, now lay a heap of smouldering ruins … Every temple had gone, the bazars and the shops had gone … Mandalay itself had gone …’
Much of Burma was decimated in the Second World War. At the end of it all, when the British left the country, fighting was quick to break out again. The Karen – now well armed and well trained – felt betrayed by the British and communal violence between them and the Bamar escalated fast.
The Second World War was not a war of Burmese making. It was a war that happened to Burma, with the people of the country fighting on both sides.
As Alex Bescoby, film-maker and presenter, says:
“[WW2] 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.”
In 2017, Sampan Travel acted as the logistical partner of Bescoby’s company Grammar Productions as they accompanied the charity Help for Forgotten Allies seeking out veterans who had fought alongside the British during the Second World War and subsequently been forgotten post-Burmese independence.
The culmination of one of these trips was a Remembrance Day ceremony in the tranquil Rangoon War Cemetery just off Pyay Road. With old soldiers of Bamar, Karen, Chin and other ethnicities in attendance together, but with strife still ranging in many parts of the country, it was a poignant reminder that what happened in Burma all those years ago continues to ricochet through time.
Today, there are few visitors to the Rangoon Cemetery. Much less visiting charities. But the Cemetery remains nonetheless: grass neatly clipped, flowers precisely aligned. It is a garden of peace and, in 2023, remains as a reminder that what happened in the Burma Campaign in the 1940s continues to be felt.
For travellers hoping to better understand Myanmar today, one place to start is at one of the war cemeteries, and Burma 1942.
Bertie Alexander is the Managing Director of Sampan Travel. Sampan is running small-group WW2 tours through Myanmar in November 2023 and February 2024, led by historian Dr Robert Lyman. More information here.