Images from Karen State

Richard Humpheries

Traditional Dancing

(Black and White)

Jason Miller

Karen New Year 2003

 Shwe Koako, Karen State

Sylvia Murcfeld

Karen State


 Jean de La Tour


Richard Humphries


Version Date

June 2004


Website: Designed, Built and written  by Paul Keenan

The Japanese Occupation


The Burman students, with their hope for freedom from the British, returned with the imperial Japanese army (video) and declared independence for the country on the 1st August 1943.

The Karen, ever loyal to the British, sought to fight against the Japanese and the Burma Independence army and subsequently bore the brunt of the rampaging, pre-dominantly Burman, Burma Independence army who tore through Karen state executing and massacring a number of villagers (video).

Over 400 villages were destroyed with the loss of life of at least 1800 in Myaungma alone[i].  Perhaps one of the most shocking incidents for the Karen people however, was the assassination of a former pre-war cabinet member Saw Pe Tha and his family. Saw Pe Tha had also been a member of the Daw K'lu and his death was to have a major impact on the Karens, and their treatment at the hands of the Burma Army was to be something they would never forget.

A report to the Burmese government saw the Karens loyalty to the British has a major reason why the massacres were necessary. The Burmans saw the Karens has potentially unstable, and bearing in mind the Karens support against a number of anti-colonial rebellions, believed such actions were justified.

Despite the animosity between the Karens and the BIA two battalions of delta Karens commanded by San Po Thin and British trained Hanson Kyadoe joined the Burmese army. But the majority of Karens remained loyal to the British and escaped into India where they were trained by the British and returned later to harass the BIA and their Japanese masters.

After the Japanese declaration of war in 1941 a number of British officers were sent from Singapore to Burma to plan anti-Japanese operations should the country fall. One officer Major H.P. Seagrim had been assigned the task of training and working with the Karens in preparation for the oncoming Japanese invasion. In 1941 the Japanese requested that the then Thai Prime Minister, Phibun Songkhram, allow safe passage to Japanese troops so that they may attack Burma. After some initial resistance Thailand agreed.

Karen frontier guards in the Salween district near Papun were put on alert and a number of armed exchanges with their Thai counterparts were reported as the Japanese moved through Thailand towards Burma. Papun was the first place Seagrim arrived and soon he was training 200 Karen to act as a guerilla force against the advancing Japanese.

Soon after his arrival in Papun, Seagrim moved his headquarters to a number of small Karen villages in Pyawgapu, north-west of Papun, here he was able to recruit over 800 Karen villagers who were eager to join in the training, but due to the lack of weapons, many had to return home after having their names taken for call up later.

It was in Papun that a column of BIA troops, commanded by Boh Nya Na and his second in command Boh Tun Hla, arrived and called all the Karen elders together and told them to collect all weapons held by the villagers. Boh Nya Na, while traveling to a nearby village, was killed by Karen levies in an ambush. Consequently, in retaliation, Boh Tun Hla had seventeen Karen elders executed, with two, who had not died through machine gunfire, being bayoneted by Tun Hla himself.[ii] 

News of the massacre quickly spread and resulted in an increase in Karen activity in the area. The BIA response was swift. A number of Karen villages were burnt as the army marauded through the countryside targeting any Karens in their way. Rape and theft was rampant with the BIA bragging that the Japanese had given them authority to kill any Christians.[iii]

Although Seagrim had attempted to keep his presence hidden the Japanese, alerted by a number of airdrops being made, were soon made aware of his whereabouts and over seventy soldiers were dispatched to Pyawgapu. Luckily Seagrim had already gone and after the interrogation of a number of villagers, the Japanese left.

Seagrim was well respected by the Karens and some elders approached him and asked if he thought it proper that some Karens join the local Police Force, believing that it would give him more security if they did, he agreed. At that time a young man, Bo Mya, later to become president of the Karen National Union and a soldier for the British trained Force 136, joined the police and helped keep the existence of Seagrim, and the British officers who later joined him, a secret.[iv]

British involvement in the areas intensified as a number of Karen soldiers and British officers were parachuted into the Karen hills in preparation for the Allies return to Burma. The Kempentei, the notoriously brutal Japanese secret police who were also responsible for training the later dictator Ne Win, sent a number of men to investigate the incidents. Whilst the Japanese showed films and gave sweets to the villagers' children, their parents were led away and brutally interrogated as to the parachutists' whereabouts[v].

More and more Japanese soldiers were sent into the area and were able to find the two British officers, Nimmo and McCrindle, both whom were killed whilst trying to avoid capture. Throughout the search hundreds of Karens were subjected to beatings and torture, although Seagrim had evaded capture the news of what the villagers were forced to endure left him with little option but to sacrifice himself.

Seagrim and number of Karen Levies who had worked with him were arrested and taken to Rangoon. Here the Japanese authorities passed sentence and recommended that Seagrim and several of his Karen followers, Lt. Bo Gyaw, Saw He Be, Saw Tun Lin, Saw Sunny, Saw Pe, Saw Peter and Saw Ah Din be executed, whilst ten other Karen be imprisoned.

The ten were taken to their cells whilst Seagrim and his loyal Karen friends were taken to the execution ground at Kemmendine cemetery, blindfolded and shot.

Aung San, who had grown disillusioned over the Japanese Government's refusal to grant real independence to Burma, secretly negotiated with the allies and swore that the Burma Independence Army would support the British in their attempts to retake the country. The Japanese were finally forced to retreat and Burma was to be allowed to have its independence, but for the Karens, Aung San's switch to the allied forces was to have a major impact on their desire for a free Karenland.


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[i] Martin Smith, Burma, Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity, pp 62, quoting Tinker

[ii] Ian Morrison, Grandfather Longlegs, pp 70

[iii] Ibid, pp 72

[iv] Bo Mya, Memoirs on My True Past Experiences, pp 7

[v] Morrison, pp 127