If one were to watch the 1957 British-American war movie – ‘The Bridge on the River Kwai’, one would think that only prisoners of war (POWs) built the Siam-Burma Death Railway.
Such was the screenplay propagation of the movie, which conveniently avoided illustrating the truth about the construction of the deadly railroad.
Of course, historical records showed that some 63,000 POWs were mobilised to build the railroad and 13,000 of them perished during its construction.
But what the western-funded movie failed to show was that more than 270,000 Asians were deployed by the Japanese military as slave labourers to build the railway.
The 415-kilometre or 258-mile death railway linked Ban Pong in Siam (now Thailand) and Thanbyuzayat in Burma (now Myanmar).
Reports written by various people showed that in 1943, under pressure to complete the construction of the railway, the Japanese recruited over 270,000 Asian labourers to supplement their POW workforce.
The slave labourers or ‘romushas’ as referred by the Japanese, far outnumbered the POWs and their sufferings were no less, if not worse.
These slave labourers, drawn from across Asia, mainly Burma, Thailand, Indochina, Malaya and Indonesia, were mostly Tamils, followed by Burmese, Karens, Thais, Malays, Chinese, Javanese and Indochinese.
They were reportedly forced to work for long hours in inhospitable, deplorable and disease infested jungles of Burma and Siam to build and complete the railroad in a record time by over a year.
The treatment of these Asian labourers epitomised the ruthless exploitation by the Japanese of the countries they had occupied in 1941–42.
Researchers indicated more than 100,000 slave labourers died building the infamous Siam-Burma Death Railway.
But independent scholar David John Bogget said he had found that some 100,000 deaths alone were unaccounted Malayan Tamils and, the number could be higher.
On Nov 18, 1990, the Bangkok Post had reported over 400 Asian labourers bones were discovered in Kanchanaburi but nothing happened and all the bones were destroyed.
Despite the mass deaths, the world had virtually forgotten or was never even aware of the existence of these Asian slave labourers.
There is no global attention on this Asian holocaust, which amounted to genocide, as it publicised ordeal of the outnumbered POWs.
Now the Malaysian Death Railway Interest Group (DRIG) aims to change the global ignorance and naivety over the issue.
DRIG chairman P.Chandrasekaran said the organisation aimed to give a voice to the voiceless victims, and make a concerted effort to publicise their cause and create public awareness.
DRIG organised a nationwide roadshow titled: ‘First National Symposium on The Forgotten Victims of Death Railway’ – recently to highlight the issue among Malaysians, starting with a symposium in Kuala Lumpur on Friday Sep 16.
The roadshow events were held in Ipoh, Johor Bahru and Kuala Ketil as well.
With a turnout of more than 500 people, the Kuala Lumpur symposium got extensive coverage from Tamil press.
“We have met the first objective of creating public awareness, at least among the Tamils,” said Chandrasekaran.
“Some 100,000 Tamils had died building the railway but so many Tamil-speaking Indians in Malaysia and world are unaware about it. We want to change this.”
Another DRIG objective was to persuade government to build a monument for the victims by the 75th anniversary of the human tragic episode next year.
Tourism and Culture Minister Nazri Aziz, who officiated the Kuala Lumpur event, has given his assurance to seek the government fund to erect such a monument.
“Hope it could become a reality if the minister follows up on his assurance,” said Chandrasekaran.
He said the prevalence of people being taken away forcibly is underscored by Minister Nazri himself, who related on how his own uncle was bundled off into a truck to work on the death railway in Siam.
There are war cemeteries at Chungkai and Kanchanaburi in Thailand and Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar to recognise the death of western POWs during the construction of Siam-Burma Death Railway during Japanese Occupation, but none for the Asian slave labourers.
Bogget, who spoke at the Kuala Lumpur symposium, has expressed hope that the Malaysian government would look into creating a monument for Malayan victims.
He took a swipe at the British government for failing to give recognition to the Asian slave labourers as how it gave to the POWs, such as building monuments and compensating them, once the colonial power returned to its colonies after the end of World War II.
He said governments of Japan, Britain, India and other affected countries and, people should show keen interest to address the issue, especially in erecting monuments to remember tragic human event.
“Japanese forcibly recruited these labourers, who were mostly citizens of British empire.
“It was the Japanese policy that caused the tragic historical episode,” Bogget, a retired emeritus professor from Kyoto Seika University, told Malaysia Outlook.
During the roadshow, DRIG also achieved another objective that was to get the forgotten death railway slavery victims on stage to relate their experience and having the entire session recorded on camera by the National Archives and its own team.
Some 10 survivors took centre stage to narrate their anguished ordeal before the audience and cameras.
Having to some extent met its objectives, DRIG now plans to accumulate more details from all possible avenues to document and generate a global awakening on the historical human tragic event.
“Our efforts must continue and we need continued support to do this.
“We want to publicise the tragic Asian holocaust to earn its rightful place in world history,” said Chandrasekaran.