KUALA LUMPUR: A group of volunteers want to keep alive stories of the Tamils from Malaya who worked on the 415km Death Railway from Thailand to Burma during the Second World War.
About 100,000 Malayan Tamils died building the railway, and the group wants survivors of the project, now in their 80s and 90s, and their families to come forward so that the hardships, disease, malnutrition, abuse, killings and suicides would be recorded for history.
The bodies of those who died lie buried along the length of the railway line, which Japan’s Imperial Army used to transport troops and supplies. It was the largest construction work undertaken by the Japanese in 1942.
The group’s researcher, P. Chandrasekaran, said the gruesome deaths of these “forgotten heroes” should not go in vain as they remain unknown.
“Today, most survivors have died, or are in their 80s and 90s. They are the only remaining witnesses to the years of hardship, disease, malnutrition, abuse, killings and suicides,” he told FMT recently.
For the past few years he and others in the group have been locating and speaking to several former railway labourers, mostly Tamils, and collecting their wartime accounts.
He has also spoken to Tamil-language newspapers, asking survivors to contact him through deathrailway.org and the group’s Facebook page, The Chronicles of the Death Railway and the Indian National Army.
The response was still lukewarm, he said, and hoped more would come forward with information about the railway labourers. Volunteers were also needed to help compile the materials that are being collected.
Many of the labourers were rubber estate workers made jobless by the war. They were told by the Japanese military forces occupying Malaya that the railway would pay them well.
Most of them went voluntarily with a promise that they could return to Malaya in 90 days.
“Not knowing what they were getting into, some of them took their families. But they did not return. Most of them died of malnutrition and neglect. At the end of the war, about a thousand children were at the campsite, a quarter of them orphaned,” he said.
Once the estate workers noticed the first few batches of labourers were not returning home, they refused to continue the journey, but were forced to travel, he said.
At first the Japanese demanded that at least one able-bodied son from each family be sent to work on the railway; later, any estate male worker and their sons were forced to go on the journey.
Chandrasekaran said he was in the midst of interviewing survivors and compiling stories about daily life in the camps. He hopes an official organisation could be set up as a heritage foundation to honour the sacrifices of so many people.
“Sometimes the estate workers would go and watch a matinee film show after a hard day’s work but would never make it home after the movie. Just as they approached the exit, the men would be taken by the Japanese army. Or they were forcefully taken from their homes.”
They worked 12 hours every day crushing mountainous rocks or clearing the jungle. They ate porridge with salted fish, he said.
“A lot of them died of diarrhea due to poor sanitation. As fresh food would quickly rot in the tropical climate, the Japanese took the freshest pieces while the labourers ate rotten food, leading to food poisoning. Some of them would become so weak, unable to move, they would die on their sleeping mats among their own faeces,” he said.
Many committed suicide, while others succumbed to the harsh living conditions, malnutrition, dengue and malaria, he added.
Chandrasekaran said he was shocked about the lack of awareness in South-East Asia about the role of Asian labourers on the railway.
Other than the Malayan Tamils, there were also Thais, Burmese, Javanese, and Malays, mostly from Kelantan and Terengganu.
However, the Malay workers were free to return home as and when they wanted, as the Japanese were not keen to create trouble with the Malay community in Malaya.
Although the British took account of each prisoner of war, there were no such efforts for Asians. “No one took their names or informed their families of those who died in the camps,” Chandrasekaran said.
He hopes that his group’s efforts will ensure that they are never forgotten.