Hero stone for the forgotten victims of death railway

No one knows the exact number of people who died building the Death Railway.

09 Mar 2024 07:00pm
Tham Krasae wooden trestle bridge - 123RF
Tham Krasae wooden trestle bridge - 123RF

KANCHANABURI - As the train chugs through the Tham Krasae wooden trestle bridge, visitors click away on their cameras and mobile phones, capturing one of the most scenic highlights of the infamous "Death Railway" between Thailand and Myanmar.

Today, the bridge stands as a colossal tourist draw, attracting millions of visitors every year.

However, the immense suffering endured by Allied prisoners of war (POWs) and Asian forced labourers, also known as "Romusha” in Japanese, during the construction of the 415-km Thailand-Burma Railway, as it was called then, remains largely unseen.

No one knows the exact number of people who died building the Death Railway, but estimates suggest some 100,000 perished, including roughly 12,000 Allied POWs and tens of thousands of Romushas, who were recruited by force to work under the same horrific and deadly conditions.

Efforts are underway to shed light on this hidden chapter of history, ensuring the voices of these forgotten labourers are finally heard.

Dr Silva Kumar, chairman of Malaysians and Indians in Bangkok (MIB), highlighted the long-forgotten plight of Asian forced labourers who endured harsh conditions constructing the railway uner the Japanese Occupation during World War II.

"This prompted MIB's initiative to instal a hero stone in Kanchanaburi, honouring those who perished. Their (Asian forced labourers) contributions and sacrifices should never be forgotten. This project aims to bring a sense of closure to the families who lost their loved ones during this dark chapter in history,” he told Bernama.

Silva said many forced labourers under the deceptive "Romusha" system were lured with promises of good income before being transported to Thailand for the railway’s construction.

"My father, like many others, was lured by false promises and forced into labour. As a young man, he was assigned cooking and menial tasks, which included the grim duty of removing deceased prisoners of war and forced labourers for burial or cremation,” he said.

According to researcher and historian Rod Beattie in his book, The Thai-Burma Railway: The True Story of the Bridge on the River Kwai, an estimated 75,000 Indians from Malaya participated in the railway's construction, of whom approximately 42,000 perished.

Through this initiative, Silva hoped to achieve two goals: first, to grant recognition that has been withheld for 80 years, and second, to educate those unfamiliar with the history about the forced labour of Malayans during the construction of the railway.

Obtaining permission proved to be the most significant hurdle, he said.

"For about five years, MIB, with the strong support of the Malaysian Ambassador to Thailand, Datuk Jojie Samuel, has been working to secure permission for the presentation of this memorial in Kanchanaburi.

"Thanks to the invaluable support of American historian Dr JJ Kawarcki, Professors David Boggett and Andy Barraclough through their research and papers, we finally secured permission to instal the hero stone,” he said.

Silva said the hero stone, crafted from granite quarried in Madurai, India, stands at 2.5-m tall, 1.5-m wide and weighs nearly three tonnes will be installed at Chedi Niranam within Wat Thaworn Wararam.

It is estimated to cost between 500,000 baht and 600,000 baht. Its design, depicting Lord Shiva in a meditative pose, was chosen as a symbolism intended to offer solace to the families of those who perished during the war.

The installation of the hero stone is tentatively scheduled for May 1, coinciding with Labour Day, to honour the Asian forced labourers who worked from 1944 to 1947.

Silva said MIB is seeking support to instal the hero stone.

"We have collected more than 50 per cent of the required items. Together, we can ensure these heroes are never forgotten,” he said, a hopeful smile spreading across his face. - BERNAMA