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One troubling chapter in Southeast Asian history is the construction of the Siam-Burma Railway, also called the Death Railway, involving thousands of Tamil migrants to Malaya.
For the few survivors and family members of nearly 1,50,000 Tamil labourers who perished unsung, in obscurity, building the 415km stretch of railway network between Siam (Thailand) and Burma (Myanmar), ordered by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II, a moment of fulfilment finally arrived this June.
Some 78 years after the war, a memorial dedicated to these workers was inaugurated in Kanchanaburi, a town in west Thailand through which the railway line passes.
P Chandrasekaran, president of the Death Railway Interest Group (DRIG), Malaysia, who has been at the forefront of a decade-long struggle to get India, Malaysia and other Southeast Asian nations to formally recognise these silent, nameless labourers, calls it “an unprecedented” step towards “a pilgrimage” that should have been undertaken several years ago.
“Lying buried in mass graves along the railway track, Indians, Malays, Burmese, Indonesians, Indo-Chinese, Javanese endured the most inhumane work conditions, battling not just the cruelty of their captors but also diseases such as cholera and dysentery,” said Chandrasekeran, at the inauguration on June 3.
Chandrasekeran was 23 when his father who had worked as the locomotive railway assistant in the Siam-Burma Railway, divulged to him the shocking living conditions of thousands of Asian labourers working at the site. Unable to come to terms with the fact that a young distraught worker had killed himself under his engine, Chandrasekeran says his father went on to become a recluse. “He was traumatised by the sight of decapitated bodies near the camps,” says Chandrasekeran.
Lack of proper food, no medicines, harsh and muddy terrain where workers walked for miles, and a relentless and ruthless army extracting work from even the most sick people led to a catastrophic situation, thus lending the railway its abominable name.
As long as the labourers could stand, they were pushed to work. Once they turned extremely frail, they were thrown into mass graves. “If 100 Indian workers were taken from an estate to work at the site, in the end only 50 returned,” says Chandrasekeran.
As per official documents, says Chandrasekeran, Indians recorded the highest fatalities out of the 2,70,000 total who worked on the project.
Need for recognition
While Kanchanaburi has promoted Bridge 277, or the so-called ‘Bridge on the River Kwai’ (made famous by Pierre Boulle's novel The Bridge over the River Kwai and its film adaptation The Bridge on the River Kwai ), built on the Death Railway and later bombed by the Allied Forces in 1944, as a tourist spot, the role of Tamil Indians in construction of the railway finds little or no mention in the historical accounts or museums of this city.
The metre-gauge line, built in the early 1940s, started from Ban Pong, Thailand, till Thanbyuzayat, Burma, for transporting cargo and war supplies to the Japanese forces, who first invaded Thailand and then Burma, and Indian National Army (INA) soldiers readying for battle against the British at the Imphal (Manipur)-Myanmar border.
Most of the railway was dismantled shortly after the war. Only the first 130km of the line in Thailand remains. Back then, the Tamil Indians saw this as a journey to prosperity as the Japanese promised them three times the wages at the estates. Some even took their families along not knowing what lay ahead. But many others were forcibly picked up from the estates.
Bridging the pain
The forced mobilisation of the Tamil workforce from the rubber plantations of Malaya for railway construction hides a very significant but brutal part of World War II history, which Chandrasekeran has been tracking with two emotional appeals.
First, the Indian government’s formal recognition of the loss of its citizens while constructing the railway; and second, in order to bring honour to the forsaken dead, have a dedicated structure in their memory, near the Death Railway campsites.
It was the latter mission that bore fruit. The chief abbot of a Buddhist temple, Wat Tavorn Wararam, which manages the Wat Yuan Cemetery in Kanchanaburi, agreed to allow DRIG to adopt the existing pagoda as a dedicated monument for the Tamil workers.
“We sought the temple authority’s consent to upgrade a pagoda built over the remains of thousands of workers,” says Chandrasekeran.
He adds that through several trips to the area, reading the maps and talking to historians, he learned that in 1943 several unknown bodies from hospital morgues, campsites and nearby areas lay in mass graves around Kanchanaburi.
The temple had later undertaken the task of recovering tens of thousands of remains from these graves and reburying them in the Wat Yuan Cemetery. In 1950, a pagoda was constructed over this mass grave, with an inscription in Chinese which translates to, “Grave of 10,000 souls” with no information on them. “It probably has the remains of Indian Tamil workers,” says Chandrasekeran.
Culminating their years of striving for some semblance of respect for their Tamil brothers, the DRIG group organised a trip to Kanchanaburi for the inauguration of the plaque with a tribute in Tamil.
The group retraced the same route through a train journey from Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) that their ancestors undertook in 1942. In all there were more than 40 Malaysians who joined this milestone event.
Arumugam Kandasamy, 98, who worked as a Japanese translator with the Japanese army, and the lone Death Railway survivor to join the inauguration ceremony, looked like a man ‘relieved’, on his return to KL after paying tribute to his late Tamil colleagues at the pagoda.
“It was my knowledge of Japanese that saved me then. But the same Japanese were responsible for the loss of my brother and many friends,” he says.