It was an unforgettable experience for me to have recently visited Myanmar, upon the recommendation of Professor Colonel Khin Zaw and his wife Professor Colonel Kay Thi Tun, to collect information for my forthcoming book about Gurkhas. It was also the first time I was able to visit the Taukkyan war cemetery, the biggest in the country. There lie the remains of 27,000 fallen heroes from World War II, most of them Gurkhas.
According to the elders of Myanmar’s Gurkha community, the Gurkhas arrived in Myanmar in three phases. The first group was brought in by the East India Company from 1824 to 1848 to work at then Heindar mine in the country’s Tenasserim region, with miners subsequently spreading out to other mines. The second group arrived from India and Nepal, settling in the Kachin and Chin Hill regions in pursuit of greener pastures, and the third group came in with the British Army after 1852, as soldiers, security guards, miners, farmers and gardeners.
The colonization of Myanmar by the British was finally completed in 1885-1886. The country was presented to the then queen Victoria as a New Year gift by then Governor Lord Defferin and his Generals.
When Japanese forces arrived in Myanmar in 1942, the British had to launch three attacks between 1944 and 1945 to recapture the country. These resulted in three battles: at Arakan, at Mandalay and at Imphal. These battles were decisive in ending Japan’s misadventures and the Gurkhas played a very significant role in winning all three, winning many Victoria Crosses.
When Myanmar won independence in 1948, the 4th Gurkha battalion was established at the request of General Aung San. Since then, the battalion has played a crucial role in saving the country from civil breakdown.
Against the Kuomintang
As well as fighting the Japanese and internal insurgents, Myanmar’s Gurkhas prevented the country from being rolled over by the Kuomintang or KMT force of General Chiang Kai Shek. For his valiant efforts in this campaign, Suk Bahadur Rai won an Aung Sung Turia medal, the highest military award in Myanmar.
Historically, some 80% of Gurkhas either served in the army worked in mining or agriculture. However, they now work in many different fields, including business, education and medicine. The 100,000-strong community’s most senior figure, lieutenant Colonel Zeya Kyaw Htin Thura Lax Man Rai is revered in the country. Other prominent Gurkhas in Myanmar include Professor Attar Sing, a founding member of the Chemistry Department at Mandalay University.
The community is also thriving in the field of literature, with writers, working in both Burmese and Gurkhali, winning awards and accolades. With 267 schools and 313 temples throughout the country, the tight-knit Gurkha community – one of the proudest Nepali diasporas anywhere – has been successful in preserving its traditions, customs and language.