One of our favourite places to eat in Yangon is a little Nepali hole-in-the-wall restaurant on a small road just behind the apartment on Mughal Street. Only open until about 8pm, by when the food has usually run out, every night its five tables are crowded with Nepalese and Indians devouring excellent dal, curries and paratha. With the faded paintings and classical instruments on the wall, and loud Bollywood blaring from the little TV behind the counter, it is one of those places where you can just sit and enjoy Yangon’s cultural blend.
Having dinner there one night after work, I got into a conversation with an eloquent Nepali guy, Deepak currently volunteering with an international aid organisation. I asked Deepak about the history of Myanmar’s Nepalese community and was fascinated to hear that many of them are descendants of Ghurka soldiers who had been stationed in Maymyo (now Pwin Oo Lwin) and its surroundings under the British up until the end of WWII.
Famed for their exceptional courage and resilience, it is difficult not to be captivated by the Ghurkas of Nepal. For nearly 200 years now these brave men from the hills and mountains have contributed greatly to Britain’s military. The Ghurka Memorial Museum was therefore a must see during our stay in Pokhara.
So how did this celebrated military connection between Britain and Nepal come to be? A detailed answer was provided by the many texts and photos in the museum. I learned that in the course of a series of wars between the two countries in the early 19th century, the British developed so much respect for the fighting skills of the Nepalese that, after winning the decisive battle against them, they negotiated the Sagnauli peace treaty. This outlined that, in exchange for the British returning all of the weapons and flags they had captured to the Nepalese Army, they would be permitted to recruit Nepalese soldiers into the British Army in India. From the side of the Nepalese it was felt they were being given a fair chance to show their full potential and the ensuing camaraderie has lasted up until today.
After the first enlisting in 1815 of these Gurkhas (the name derives from the Hindu warrior saint Goraknath) into the British Army, recruitment steadily increased over the years. By 1914 there were 10 Ghurka Regiments – numbered 1 to 10 – each consisting of 4 or 5 Battalions and overall amounting to more than 40,000 soldiers. However, during the ensuing wartime (WWI and WWII) this number rose to some 120,000.
The 10th Gurkha Rifles Regiment was stationed in Maymyo, Burma, in the early 1890s and these being long-term postings, many of them either brought their wives over or married locally.
During WWII Burma became a very strategic location for all sides, and a significant additional number of Gurkha soldiers were sent to participate in the Burma Campaign. Whilst the Japanese wanted to protect their troops in Malaya in order to close the overland supply route to Southern China and capture a stepping stone to India, the British were determined to hold India against Japanese invasion and the Americans were keen to clear the road north to China in order to keep northern Burma with its vital air route, pipeline, and the Ledo Road into China. The Allies eventually won, and the 6th Gurkha Rifles Regiment in particular acquired fame for their actions at Mogaung where they captured the strategic railway bridge.
After Indian independence in 1947, the Gurkha Regiments were divided between Britain and India – 6 went to the now independent Indian Army and 4 went to the British Army. However, many of the Gurkhas stationed in Burma joined the new Burma Army and today still serve in all branches of the Myanmar Armed Forces. From browsing articles I learned that some Gurkhas have also been seized (involuntarily?) by the Kachin Army, and there are even rumours that the Kachin have their own Gurkha battalion. In an article for the Irrawaddy, Sushma Joshi writes that since this creates a situation in which Gurkhas end up fighting their own people on opposite sides of other people’s wars, many young Gurkhas in the north are leaving to avoid the conflict.
Not all of Myanmar’s current ethnic Nepalese descend from Gurkhas however. Other Nepalese came to trade in the country before the First World War. It is estimated that today about half a million of people of Nepali origin live in Myanmar, mostly in Pyin Oo Lwin, Mandalay, Myitkyina, Mogok, Tamu, Kalaymyo, and Yangon. When we traveled to Pyin Oo Lwin earlier this year, we already met a few of these jovial, heavily accented young Nepalese renting out scooters and couldn’t help but wonder what their story was.
I’d be interested to learn whether their Gurkha origins continue to be a source of pride for the Nepalese in Myanmar. Here in Nepal, we have clearly noticed that serving in a Gurkha regiment is still very highly regarded and continues to be a much sought after occupation. Each year thousands compete for just 275 places and this process is apparently followed by a parallel competition among local women to marry the successful recruits!