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Cast into oblivion: Malayan Tamils of the Death Railway

November 22, 2015

Unresolved question of responsibility for tens of thousands of Asians drafted by Imperial Japanese Army


from: David Boggett, via email

Seventy years after the end of World War II, the question of responsibility for the fate and miserable life of those Asians who had been drafted by the Imperial Japanese Army for work on the “Death Railway” (The Thai-Burma Railway) has never been fully addressed, yet alone resolved.

Although the Allies claimed that 270,000 workers had been drafted – voluntarily and otherwise – the true figure is probably much greater and may even have approached 500,000.

On first glance it would seem clear that initial responsibility lay with the Imperial Japanese Army; but closer examination reveals that the issue is considerably more complex.

At the 1951 San Francisco Peace Treaty with Japan, the Allied nations (with the exception of the Soviet Union) agreed to forego any further claims to war reparations from Japan. Nevertheless, Britain arranged for at least some compensation to be offered to the 60,000 Allied prisoners of war who had been forced to work on the railway.

The most recent British compensation to the families of former POWs on the Death Railway was made by the government of Prime Minister Tony Blair.

But the fate of the many more Javanese, Malayans, Burmese, Chinese, Thais and other Asian workers was ignored; no compensation was offered to workers from the former Allied nations’ colonies, despite the fact that many of the workers involved were British subjects, and despite the fact that their working conditions were arguably even worse than those of the POWs.

The San Francisco Peace Treaty left the matter of claims affecting the colonies – and former colonies – of the British, Dutch and French Empires to be settled by Japan in the future.

Japan subsequently signed treaties and offered reparations to independent Burma and Indonesia; but the matter of individual families’ compensation was left to the recipient Governments concerned. Thailand, an ally of Japan during World War II, likewise ignored the fate of Thai workers involved, despite the fact that Thais had rioted against the Japanese at Ban Pong in December 1942.

Considerable controversy still surrounds the details of Japanese reparations to the independent country of Malaysia.

The government of Tunku Abdul Rahman was approached about the fate of Malayan workers on the Railway, but the discussions appear to have been confined to those Malays who suffered and nothing concrete appears to have been achieved. None of the independent governments of Southeast Asia has addressed the fate of Death Railway workers and their families.

The fate of roughly 100,000 Malayan Tamils of Indian origin was ignored by the Japanese, British and Malaysian governments and was ultimately likewise consigned to oblivion by the government of independent India.

At the war’s end, alarmed by reports of Tamil workers on the Death Railway, the Indian Congress sent a special mission to Malaya to investigate workers’ conditions, headed by Dr. C. Siva Rama Sastry. However, upon the formation of the first Congress administration of independent India, Prime Minister Nehru appears to have relegated the Sastry investigation to oblivion. The Sastry Mission reports have never been released into the public domain.

David Boggett is a retired history professor, formerly of Kyoto Seika University

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