While not many tourists visit Mawlamyine, the Kyaik Than Lan Pagoda’s terrace is a popular spot to watch the sunset over the Andaman Sea.
On his way out of Burma, Rudyard Kipling saw a young lady “lookin’ lazy at the sea” from this vantage point and briefly contemplated tearing up his return ticket to London and professing his love for her.
Following his time in Yangon’s Pegu Club, where he wrote his poem “Mandalay,” Kipling immortalized the seductive lilting sounds of “Moulmein” and “Mandalay” in the minds of dreamy Europeans.
The country of Myanmar is stunning and alluring, but it has also been the site of unspeakable atrocities in its recent past.
For many foreigners, “Burma” conjures up images of Aung San Suu Kyi and the junta, not “tinkling bells.” For others, the Burma Campaign of World War II will be the first thing that comes to mind.
Warriors that have been slain
When the Japanese Imperial Army occupied Burma in 1941 and expelled the British, the country became a battleground in Asia as the Allies’ Fourteenth Army fought to secure the road to China and prevent the Japanese from entering India.
When the “Burma-Siam Death Railway” was constructed to link Rangoon and Bangkok, it had its western terminus in Thanbyuzayat, a town 64 kilometers south of Mawlamyine.
Due to the forced labor of POWs, the 410-mile line was completed in just 13 months, despite Japanese engineers’ estimate of five years. The track was inaugurated by a ‘comfort’ train from Japan.
Over 12000 Allied POWs, the majority of whom were British and Australian, were killed in the construction of the railway line.
Only Ras Pagani, a Briton who was supposed to join pro-British Karen guerrillas, escaped.
Pagani briefly teamed up with British officer Hugh Seagrim, who had remained undercover among the Karen guerillas while attempting to cross the border into India.
Seagrim has been tasked with keeping the Karen soldiers loyal and ready for the return of the Fourteenth Army despite having little to no contact with the outside world.
Their relationship ended in the jungles of Karen State, where Pagani and Seagrim had parted ways. But by chance, after being captured by the Japanese, both men spent time in the dreaded “Rangoon Ritz” prison.
As a prison for Allied soldiers during the Japanese occupation, “Rangoon Ritz” became known as the city’s New Law Courts. While Pagani escaped, Seagrim and eight of his Karen comrades were executed in 1944 as spies for the Allies.
Allies that have been Forgotten
On Remembrance Day in 2017, a plaque was unveiled at Yangon’s Holy Trinity Church in honor of Hugh Seagrim’s sacrifice.
When we look back on the Burma Campaign, it is important to remember the sacrifices made by the local soldiers as well. Men from Myanmar who fought for the Allies in World War II were doubly heroic because their families were surrounded by British occupation and they didn’t know if the British would return to reward them.
When Grammar Productions invited me to their Forgotten Allies documentary screening at the Holy Trinity Church in 2017 as a guest, I was able to hear the stories of these WWII veterans who had served with the Allies but had since been forgotten.
The Burma Campaign was fought not only by the British and the Japanese but also by a wide range of ethnic groups within Myanmar and countries from all over the world.
When Jack Masters wrote in his book “The Road Passed Mandalay” that “no one who saw the 14th Army in action; above all, no one who saw its dead on… the rich soil of Burma, can ever doubt that there is such a brotherhood of man; or fail to cry, ‘What is man, that he can give so much for war, so little for peace?'” the diversity of the Fourteenth Army prompted him.
Kipling saw the beauty of Kyaik Than Lan, but he also saw the sacrifice and the pathos of those who lived there today.