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Friday, August 5, 2011

A Man of His Word

Dennis Rosner was born in Rangoon in 1920 of German immigrant parents who were dairy farmers from the time of King Mindon (1853-1878). Few men have had such an impact on the Kachin State as Rosner. He was a farmer who introduced new crops to the state; he was a British soldier who led his troops into battle against the Japanese; and a teacher who taught thousands of students the English language. I have met young people from all part of Burma who speak flawless English because of his teaching, many of whom became teachers themselves.

In 1941 Rosner was commissioned in the British Army at Meiktila, south of Mandalay, in central Burma. That year the Japanese took Myitkyina, and by 1942 they controlled much of the territory in the Kachin State. At that time Rosner and 25 other officers were sent to Putao, where thousands of civilians were leaving for India to escape the war. The commander of Rosner's unit was a major H.N Stevenson, and he sent twenty of the officers west to India with provisions and money for other units. Trekking through the Hukawang Valley, the Naga Hills, and the Ledo Road, nineteen of the twenty died of cholera and the twentieth officer was court-martialed for desertion. Rosner and five others had been ordered to stay behind near Sumprabum.

Rosner was 22 years old in 1942, and his major said that they had better learn the Jinghpaw language because they didn't know how long they would be in the area. Rosner learned Jinghpaw and was promoted to captain, and all of the land from Sumprabum to the Naga hills fell under his command.

Rosner's scouts informed him that 150 Japanese were coming to attack his unit of fourteen men and himself, so they went with Bren guns to Kumon Pass in the Kumon Range and selected a spot above where the Japanese would approach. They dug trenches, aiming the brens in a crossfire ambush. suddenly, down from the mountains, came three Jinghpaw girls of fourteen, fifteen and seventeen years old. Rosner asked them where they were going, and they answered that they were going to get salt.

"You can't go. There are Japanese coming up the valley", Rosner said.
"Who are the Japanese?" the girls asked.
"they are our enemies".
"They are just people", the girls replied. "There is no danger from people".
"They will come and shoot us and you".
"Why? we haven't done anything to them".
"If you aren't afraid of the Japanese, there are tigers". One of Rosner's men had previously been dragged away by a tiger. His companion had shot the beast, but also killed the man.

The girls said, "We are not afraid of tigers. We will chop the tiger with our machete. Let us go and get salt".
"There are wild elephants", Rosner said.
"Elephants! We are used to elephants. We will climb a tree until they go away".
"Not afraid of the Japanese, not afraid of tigers or elephants..........
you come back tomorrow and I'll give you all the salt you want".

The girls went back to their village, and soon after that, Rosner and his men saw the Japanese coming up the valley with their provisions on two elephants and on mules. He instructed his men not to shoot the elephants. When the Japanese got to within meters of the ambush point, Rosner and his men opened fire, killing 85 of them in the first attack. The Japanese withdrew and Rosner's unit captured the elephants and went back to camp. Later, he was inside his tent making his report when the three girls arrived, asking for their salt.

"Sir, those three girls are here and they want salt", one of his men informed him.
'Yes, yes, give them all they want", Rosner replied.

Next day, the girls returned.

"Sir, those three girls are here again".
"Why?" Rosner asked, annoyed. "Do they want more salt? Didn't you give them their salt?'.
"No sir, it's not that. They have brought presents-baskets of pumpkins, eggs, rice cucumbers, and beer".
"Oh, well, ask them to come to come into the tent", Rosner said.

It struck him that these girls were both grateful and brave. The seventeen-year- old who was leading them wasn't afraid of the Japanese, nor of tigers or elephants. Rosner told his sergeant to tell her parents to come along and see him.

Two days later, a half dozen members of the girl's family came to inquire what was happening. Rosner told them that he wanted to marry her.

No, he was told. No white man had ever married a Kachin. "No, you will leave her". they protested.
"No", Rosner insisted. "I promise that I will stay. I will marry her for life".

The family discussed the proposal and said that if he married her, he would have to pay double the bride price. The dowry was to be so many buffalo, Chinese long coats, gongs, and guns.

"I haven't got buffalo or gongs, but I can give you as many guns as you want, and I can give you money", Rosner told them.

Rosner was paid 900 rupees per month as a captain, and that had not been paid in a year. His troops received sixteen rupees per month. Over the radio he asked to draw his money, and the silver rupees were airdropped by parachute. In 1943 Rosner paid 7,000 rupees for his bride. Buffaloes and pigs were sacrificed for the ceremony, and Rosner was married.

In 1948, at Burmese independence, Rosner was given the choice of going back to England or staying and becoming a Burmese citizen. He chose to stay. In 1950 he began to teach English at St. Columban's in Myitkyina.

One day he was on his bicycle when he met an Indian man who asked him if he wanted to buy a plot of land. The Indian took him to the land, which was overgrown with bushes.
Rosner asked how much, and the Indian asked for 300 rupees.
"I'll give you 250", Rosner replied.

The Indian agreed, and after they had signed the papers, Rosner asked the man why he had sold so cheaply.

"I have your money and you have my land, so I'll tell you the truth, and please don't get angry", the Indian replied. "Every night, three Japanese soldiers march by my window with their long swords dragging on the ground".

Rosner wasn't afraid of ghosts, and began to clear the land. Underneath the overgrown bushes he found bomb craters three meters deep. During the war the Americans had held Myitkyina's airfield and the Japanese had held the town. Rosner's land was in between the two, where many bombs had fallen. Clearing the land, he dug up 21 skeletons, which he gathered together and buried in one grave near a bamboo grove at the back of his land.

When I visited Dennis, he was growing strawberries, which he had introduced from Maymyo, near Mandalay; also many kinds of vegetables and orchids. I brought him tomato seeds from my father's own garden, which would yield him fruit of more than a pound each. He planted them the very next day.

Dennis spoke fluent Jinghpaw, English, German, and Burmese. He had twelve children, all of whom he delivered himself after his wife had prepared boiling water and laid down to give birth. His last two were twins. At each birth, his wife told him to measure the baby's umbilical cord to its knee, cut it with a sliver of bamboo, tie the end, and dip it in saffron powder with ground nutmeg paste and Kachin liquor.

Dennis had 33 grandchildren, 26 of whom lived with him on his productive farm. Of the twelve children and 33 grandchildren, all looked like Jinghpaw, except one, a granddaughter, who looked like Dennis-a lovely little girl with curly blonde hair and blue eyes.

At the age of 77, Dennis still rode his bicycle every day from his farm into Myitkyina town, wearing his old straw hat, to tutor his students in English, to say a prayer at the church, and to sit down for a welcome cup of tea in one of the teahouses.