GEORGE TOWN: An NGO dedicated to the memory of Malaysian victims of the Siam-Burma Death Railway during World War II wants Japan to acknowledge the Asian victims who were brought there for forced labour.
Death Railway Interest Group (DRIG) chairman P Chandrasekaran said yesterday the Japanese government should also open up its war records to shed light on the workers its Imperial Army had enslaved for the project.
He said popular accounts of the tragedy are dominated by what happened to Western prisoners of war (POWs), especially British and Australian troops in the Allied forces.
The suffering depicted in the classic Academy Award-winning movie The Bridge on the River Kwai focussed exclusively on these Westerners.
“The Asians are not mentioned as though they didn’t exist,” Chandrasekaran told FMT.
He said there were more Asian civilians forced to work in the Death Railway than Westerners.
He urged Japanese Crown Prince Naruhito, who is on a five-day official visit to Malaysia, to help focus attention on the issue.
Naruhito had started his visit by laying a wreath for fallen Malaysian soldiers at the Tugu Negara (National Monument) on Thursday.
Chandrasekaran said Naruhito’s father, Emperor Akihito, should be given credit for working to heal the wounds of the war.
However, Japan should show its atonement towards the Asian victims by contributing to a monument or exhibition centre for them, at a site around the Death Railway, he added.
It is estimated that more than 180,000 civilian labourers from Southeast Asian countries and about 60,000 Allied POWs worked there. Of these, about 100,000 are said to be Indians from Malaya (including Singapore).
The railway line project extended over 415 km between Ban Pong in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Burma.
It was built using the slave workers, many of whom died, from 1943 till Japan’s surrender in August 1945 that brought an end to the war.
Chandrasekaran said while there are plenty of records of Western POWs at archives in Britain and other places, records on the Asian civilians are not known.
“Only Japan would have the records. The Japanese government should make available these records with information such as how many civilians there were, where they were buried and so on,” he said.
He said the DRIG is preparing a trip to Ban Pong with one of the Malaysian survivors to retrace the route taken by the workers.
He added that he knows four survivors who are alive in the country today.
“I know there are more but we are not in touch with them,” he said, adding that most of them are now in their 90s.
“All we ask is for Japan to acknowledge them in their twilight years,” he said.
“Perhaps it is too late in the day for compensation but our history must record their existence in this episode,” he said.
He said a memorial to recognise the Asians who suffered and died at the Death Railway is overdue, as all existing war cemeteries and memorials there are dedicated entirely to the Westerners.