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HONG KONG WAR WIDOWS FIGHTING THEIR OWN BATTLE

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James Kotwall had time enough just to scribble a goodbye note to his wife and children before his Japanese captors put him to the sword in World War II.

"This is my last message of farewell to you all. I am to be sentenced to death," says the note, dated Aug. 31, 1944. "Do not feel sorry for my death. I die with love in my heart for my family, my country, relatives and friends."More than half a century after the Hong Kong-born businessman of Indian descent was beheaded at age 38 for spying for the British army, his widow, Doris, has her own battle. She and 27 other women are fighting to be granted citizenship by Britain, the country their husbands served in war.

These old and ailing women are the most prominent among the groups in Hong Kong pressuring Britain for citizenship before it hands its prized Asian colony back to China on July 1, 1997.

Although few in number, they represent a moral dilemma that is muddying Britain's effort to make a dignified exit after 156 years of colonial rule.

For the colony's people, the citizenship issue has become a litmus test of Britain's commitment to Hong Kong after it passes back to Chinese rule. For many people, London's response has been unimpressive. To some, it is disgraceful.

Anyone born in Hong Kong once had the right to full British citizenship, but the government in London gradually took away those rights, including the right to live in Britain.

Because they are Hong Kong-born Chinese or Eurasians, the war widows do not qualify for British citizenship. Nor do 4,000 people of mainly Indian and Pakistani descent. Nor do 3.7 million Chinese who hold special British travel documents that do not confer the right to live in Britain.

Fearful of a flood of refugees seeking to avoid communist rule, Britain has ruled out granting citizenship to Hong Kong's millions. Instead, after bitter legislative debate, London opted in 1990 to offer passports to only 50,000 key families, selected largely because of their professional skills.

At least most of Hong Kong's nearly 6 million ethnic Chinese, including the war widows, will be able to get passports issued by Hong Kong's post-1997 government. But ethnic minorities fear the possibility of becoming stateless, because China generally grants citizenship only to ethnic Chinese.

Gov. Chris Patten has defied his government by saying publicly that the 3.7 million people who hold British travel documents should have citizenship, too. He says that is especially true of the old women, because most don't actually want to move to Britain, but rather desire only "the symbol of a British passport."

But so far, Britain has been adamant. Even Chinese members of Hong Kong's security service, who sought citizenship as protection against Chinese retribution, have been rebuffed.

"You (Britain) have a moral responsibility for your own subjects. You don't abandon them lock, stock and barrel to communist rule," says legislator Emily Lau.

Shy and reclusive, the war widows have left the campaign to their champion, Jack Edwards, a 77-year-old Welshman who was captured by Japanese troops in Singapore in 1942 and sent to slave in a Taiwanese copper mine. He has lived in Hong Kong since 1963.

He recently showed a reporter around a cemetery where Kotwall and other victims of Japan's 3 1/2-year occupation lie buried.

Walking from grave to grave, Edwards recalled the French, Chinese, Indian, British, Canadians and others who are remembered with stones marked: "Buried near this spot."

Stray dogs sniffed at the silent graves and a young couple cuddled under a tree. "These men would have liked that," Edwards said, smiling. "That's what they gave their lives for - so we could live in freedom."

But his face reddened when he began talking about passports. Standing by Kotwall's gravestone, Edwards pointed out the words "He gave his all in the cause of freedom" carved below the British emblem of a unicorn and a lion.

"These are the very same coat of arms which are on the passport," Edwards hissed through clenched teeth. "The hypocrisy of it. The country he died for will give him a piece of stone with its coat of arms, but won't give his widow a passport."

Edwards says British officials told him privately they fear giving the women passports would set a precedent for an influx of immigrants from other former colonies.

Instead, Britain has offered them a stamp in their travel documents guaranteeing them British residency.

"That's not a passport," Edwards said. "Try getting through London airport with a chop (stamp) no one's ever seen before."

Meanwhile, Doris Kotwall, 79, waits and hopes. In her small apartment, she keeps the certificate that the British government gave her commemorating her and her husband's wartime sacrifices.

"This entirely voluntary service will always be remembered with deepest gratitude," it says.