HISTORY: Before they fade away, documenting stories
of the Malaysian survivors who were part of the infamous Death Railway (Siam-Burma Railway) built in 1942 by the Imperial Japanese Army is a mission that the Death Railway Interest Group believes needs to be prioritised, writes Suzanna Pillay
“I LOST my mother when I was 4 and lived with my father at a rubber estate in Malaya when World War 2 was raging. I remember the Japanese army coming to my estate and taking many people away.
“They wanted each family to send at least one man to work on the railway, and in my family, my uncle went first. My father was left behind because he was bringing me up single-handedly.
“Then, they returned for a second time to get more people for the railway, and, again, my father pleaded with them to be left alone to look after his young son. But the third time, his luck ran out.
“The soldiers tried to get my father onto a truck ferrying workers for the railway. After my father protested that he couldn’t leave his young son behind, they told him to bring me along.
“I remember sitting in front with the driver, while my father took his place beside the other grown-ups in the back of the truck.
“They took us to a large field (now Dataran Merdeka) and there was a whole sea of people before me when we got down from the truck. There were more trucks coming in.
“After some time, the Japanese soldiers ordered everyone to march to the railway station (now the old Kuala Lumpur train station), where we would be taken to the railway work site.”
This is just one of the amazing stories the Death Railway Interest Group (DRIG) retrieved from a child survivor whose father was recruited from Malaya to work on the infamous 415km Siam-Burma Railway built by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War 2.
Built between October 1942 and Oct 16, 1943, it later came to be known as the Death Railway because of the thousands who died during its construction.
The child survivor came forward during the first symposium DRIG in 2013 to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the completion of the railway. They conducted a half-day forum at the Sri Thandayuthapani Temple Hall in Jalan Ipoh, Sentul. Malaysians with information on the railway were invited to share their stories at the event.
DRIG chairman P. Chandrasekaran said the story was told by a 78-year-old man who attended the forum.
He said the workers from Malaya were transported to the railway site via open railway wagons meant to transport rocks or ballast. They were lined with railway sleepers on which the workers were told to sit.
“What DRIG is trying to do is document the stories of these people, which society has forgotten. We have successfully created public awareness through the two symposiums we held. We invited the survivors to share their stories with us.
“Next year marks the 75th anniversary of the commencement of the construction of the railway. We hope to put up a general monument for the Asian workers who died building the railway,” he said.
DRIG is giving itself a year to achieve this goal, but says in order to do so, it will need to work with other Asian countries whose nationals were involved with the railway’s construction, too.
“The Asian victims outnumbered the Westerners 4:1. To give you a scale of the tragedy, there were about 12,000 prisoner of war (PoW) deaths, but no one knows the exact number of Asians who died because nobody bothered to count them or keep records.
“As they died, Imperial Japanese soldiers just threw them into mass graves and recruited more people. Rough estimates place it at 100,000, but it could exceed this figure,” said Chandrasekaran.
Working relentlessly under deplorable conditions and deprived of food and medication, 200,000 Romusha (Asian labourers) worked alongside more than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war from the British Empire, the Netherlands and the United States to complete the gargantuan task of building the railway.
Stretching from Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar) to Nong Pladuk in Thailand, the railway was meant to supply Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing the sea routes, which had become vulnerable when the Japanese naval strength was reduced by the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942.
The railway was used to transport more than 50,000 tonnes of food and ammunition to Burma, as well as troops for the Japanese attack on India, which was then under the British Empire.
Chandrasekaran said today, available information on the Death Railway was from the perspectives of Western Allied prisoners, which only mentions Asian labourers in passing.
There are also memoirs by PoWs, and a depiction of PoW life in the 1957 Hollywood classic Bridge on the River Kwai.
“We know the bulk of the workers came from Malaya (predominantly Tamil workers from the rubber estates who were easily recruited, as well as Malays and Chinese) , Burma, Java and Sumatra.
“It will involve talking to the governments and organisations of all the countries involved, but before we even do this, we need to know our own stories,” said Chandrasekaran.
“Today, there are three cemeteries dedicated to the PoWs, two in Kanchanaburi district, Thailand, and one in Thanbyuzayat, Myanmar, which are well-kept and maintained, but for the more than 100,000 Asians who perished, there is not even a single monument to remember them by.
“If their families or relatives wish to visit Thailand to pay their respects, there is no place for them to even place a bouquet of flowers. We think it is about time something was done.”
For him, the mission to document these forgotten stories is personal.
“When I was a child, I used to hear my grandparents and parents talk about the infamous Death Railway, but when they passed on, their stories died with them, When they were people around to talk about their experiences, we missed the chance to document the stories. Even I failed to document the story of my father, who was a survivor of the Death Railway.
“I didn’t take the time to sit down and document his stories. I just heard it in passing, telling myself that I would get the details one day. But, I never got around to it, and he passed away.
“After that, I realised that the stories would be lost to us forever, and we need to do something quickly to document them before they fade away completely.”