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Epitaph for the dead

Millennium markers - Japanese Occupation

MOONIANDY Ramasamy remembers: "I was working on the Kuala Selangor Estate as a rubber tapper when the Japanese army occupied Malaya. One day I was walking along the road towards Bukit Rotan. A Japanese military lorry stopped, and the soldiers shouted at me in Japanese. I couldn't understand (what they were saying).

"The soldiers forced me to get onto the lorry. There were already 30 other people there. I was wearing only a pair of shorts and sandals. I begged them to let me go home to put on a proper shirt and pick up a blanket. The Japanese soldiers did not allow me to go home; instead they sent me directly to Kuala Lumpur and loaded me on a freight train for Siam.

"We started cutting our way through deep jungle. The Japanese did not give me a shirt or blanket for seven months. I had to work in the jungle and sleep on the bamboo floor in a hut, half naked without any blanket.''

Today many Japanese have simply never heard of the Burma-Siam Railway, which was built from June 1942 to October 1943 between Nong Pladuk, Thailand, and Thanbyuzayat, Myanmar. They are not aware that more than 78,000 people from Malaya were taken to work on it and that half of them died.

Japanese engineer repaired a demolished bridge in Malaya where japanese cyclists pass through

When the Japanese Imperial Army invaded Kota Baru in 1941, the Asia-Pacific War started. In the ensuing six months, the Japanese people heard wonderful news of a swift victory. Singapore fell to the Japanese on Feb 15, 1942. Rangoon fell on March 8 and within two months all of Burma (as Myanmar was known then) had been occupied.

During the first six months the Japanese completed their occupation of a vast area of South-East Asia. But the string of victories did not last long. The Japanese Navy was defeated in June 1942 at the Battle of Midway.

Four aircraft carriers were sunk, along with the 285 airplanes they carried. With this decisive defeat, the Japanese Navy lost command of the sea, resulting in a deterioration of air and surface transportation.

The defeat at Midway had an immediate effect on the maritime supply route to Burma via Singapore, and the defence of Burma became a problem of great urgency. There was no railroad, and not even a proper road between Burma and Siam. To prevent its forces from being entirely cut off, the Japanese high command planned the construction of a railroad to connect existing tracks in both countries.

The plan was clearly nearly impossible: to build a 415km railroad in 14 months, through a rugged, trackless, and pestilence-ridden jungle known for having the largest volume of precipitation in the world. Nevertheless, formal orders for the construction of the Burma-Siam Railroad were issued in June 1942.

The Japanese railway construction force, with a total of 13,000 men, were assigned to the project. The Imperial Army mobilised an additional 61,806 Allied POWs including British, Australian, Dutch, and American citizens. But the largest labour force, more than 200,000 Asian labourers, was recruited from Burma, Siam, Malaya, Dutch East India (Indonesia) and Vietnam.

Lieutenant-Colonel Sugiyama Akira, who was in charge of the Labour Department throughout the construction, considered that the failure of the enlistment scheme would be fatal.

He said: "At first, we planned to rotate the labourers every two or three months. If such a change had been carried out smoothly and we had had a fresh supply of labourers all the time, management and maintenance of the line would have been much easier.''

The first group applied voluntarily to work in Siam because they were told they would receive free transportation, accommodation, and food along with high wages. I. Sanjiwi was one who volunteered.

At the time he was working on the Puchong Estate in Selangor, and heard about well-paying jobs in Siam. He volunteered, together with 25 other workers. However, a few months passed and nobody returned home. Rumours soon spread down the Malay Peninsula that countless labourers had died and had been abandoned by the roadside, or in the jungle and mass graves.

The second group was from villages, towns and plantations. Many village heads and plantation kerani (clerks) were ordered or assigned to recruit a certain number of labourers.

The third group of labourers were people kidnapped or recruited by force. When it became difficult to recruit labourers, the Imperial Army went everywhere, kidnapping people. In the later stages, one report (War Office 325/56, pg 13, Public Record Office, Britian) mentioned, "there can be no doubt that enforced enlistment was the rule.'' People were taken from the plantations, roadside, markets, and amusement centres, and were sent directly to the jungles in Siam.

 Burma-Siam railroad construction

The "coolie camps'' where labourers lived were nothing more than collections of dilapidated bamboo and atap hovels, not fit for animals to live in. They were built with bamboo floors and walls bound with rattan and nipah roofs. Asian labourers were crowded into these hovels.

Each labourer had a sleeping space less than half a metre wide. The atap roofs offered practically no protection against the elements, and in the rainy season the huts became filthy morasses.

Kawata Hiromichi, who investigated the camps along the railway, observed the miserable living conditions. He saw some coolie huts without any roofs - there was an insufficient supply of roofing material.

The lavatories in the camps were merely big holes with no roofs. When it rained, faeces and maggots flooded everywhere. The labourers urinated near the river - and washed their bodies in the river and drank its water.

Eventually plague broke out and immediately spread along the river. People were dying every day. Baffana s/o Kyobolo recalls that many died in his camp, known as Nieke. The Australian POWs dug a huge hole; every morning, dead bodies were thrown into the hole and covered with a little mud. This continued until the hole was full of bodies. Then they covered the grave. However, it was covered with very little mud, and legs sometimes stuck out from the soil.

Food conditions varied from place to place. Devarayan s/o Hooken (from the Raja Musa Estate) was 19 years old and had been working as a rubber tapper at the time. He was taken from his house by force and sent to Kurianrai, Siam.

He told me, "The soldiers treated us like animals. They slapped us in the face and kicked us every day. Every day people died like flies. Food? I don't want to remember. Even pigs wouldn't eat what we ate. There were 27 people taken to Siam from my plantation. Only four returned.''

Many Allied POWs observed the inhuman treatment of the Asian labourers by the Japanese. When cholera broke out, the sick were isolated from the camps and simply left to die. Some were thrown into a mass grave while still alive. One sick Malay was thrown into the mass grave alive and he regained consciousness when it rained. He had to struggle to extricate himself from the pile of dead bodies.

There were numerous women working with their husbands or fathers. Many people, including labourers and POWs, observed women being violated and raped. In the jungle camps women sometimes were used as sex slaves. When the construction of the railroad started, the Japanese Imperial Army built "comfort houses'' and after the railway was completed, "comfort women'' were taken to the camps along the railway.

There were also many children. Ananthay d/o Munusamy was 14 years old and working with her father on a plantation. Both of them were taken by soldiers to Siam. In her camp, she told me, "there were 10 little girls. I am the only survivor. The girls also had to work as men, and the little ones died one by one.''

According to the Allied Investigation after the war, 78,204 labourers were sent to work on the Burma-Siam Railroad from Malaya, and 6,456 returned. At the end of the war, there were 17,488 labourers from Malaya in Siam.

The Japanese insisted that 29,634 died and that others had run away. Thus, the death rate was 37.9%.

Many labourers ran away in fear and desperation when cholera spread. How many people managed to survive in the jungles and return home? The Allied estimate was that the death rate was probably at least 51%. The death rate among POWs was 20%.

When the railway was completed, the Imperial Army erected a memorial cenotaph for those who had died during its construction. There are also cemeteries in Kanchanaburi for the POWs. They are well maintained, with trees and flowers. When I visited one of them, a grounds keeper was sprinkling water on the grass. The hundreds of grave stones seemed to stretch on forever. Every epitaph told the story of an individual soldier.

In Kanchanabur, I came across a recently excavated site where more than 700 bodies had been buried. Villagers said it was the site of a mass grave for Asian labourers who had worked on the railroad. There were no grave markers, no epitaphs, no shade from trees, and not a single flower.

* Prof Nakahara Michiko, who lectures History at Waseda University, Japan, has several publications on Malaysian history in Japanese as well as articles in English, including: (1999) "Labour Recruitment in Malaya Under the Japanese Occupation: The Case of the Burma-Siam Railway'', in Jomo K.S. (ed), Rethinking Malaysia: Malaysian Studies I, Hong Kong: Asia 2000.

Japanese rule

Malaya was occupied by the Japanese for three and a half years during World War II and not four and a half as stated in the first part of this series, Under Japanese Rule, on July 31.

Notes: STF - In this second part of the series commemorating the surrender of the Japanese this month in 1945, Millennium Markers features PROF NAKAHARA MICHIKO's examination of the building of the infamous Burma-Siam Railway.

 

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