The forgotten Asian tragic victims of the Siam – Burma Death Railway

 |Aug 23, 2016
Some 100,000 Tamils were reportedly forced by the Japanese to work in the construction of the Siam - Burma Death Railway.
Some 100,000 Tamils were reportedly forced by the Japanese to work in the construction of the Siam – Burma Death Railway.

The Death Railway Interest Group (DRIG) has embarked on a major plan to document the Malaysian survivors of the Siam – Burma Death Railway.

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.

The infamous Siam-Burma railroad is made known by the Western-orientated reports as a killing field for the allied prisoners of war (POWs), who were forced to build, what later came to be known as, The Siam – Burma Death Railway.

However, according to Chandrasekaran, the world had virtually forgotten or was never even aware of the existence of over 270,000 Asian labourers forced to build the railway of death.

The Asian labourers, or known as the rōmusha, were from Burma Thailand, Indochina, Malaya and Indonesia.

“They far outnumbered the POWs, and their sufferings were no less, if not worse,” said the DRIG chairman.

In 1943, under pressure to complete the construction of the railway, the Japanese recruited at least 270,000 Asian labourers to supplement their workforce of about 63,000 POWs.

Nearly 100,000 Asian labourers died while building the infamous Siam - Burma Death Railway.
Nearly 100,000 Asian labourers died while building the infamous Siam – Burma Death Railway.

The treatment of these Asian labourers epitomised the ruthless exploitation by the Japanese of the countries they had occupied in 1941–42.

The rōmusha were reportedly had been induced or impressed to complete the railway in a record time of just over a year, working long hours in inhospitable, disease infested jungles of Burma and Siam.

Although it is difficult to be precise about numbers, nearly 100,000 rōmusha reportedly died during the construction of this deadly railway.

The rōmusha were drawn from across Asia, including Burmese, Karens, Thais, Malays, Tamils, Chinese, Javanese and Indochinese.

The largest rōmusha groups came from Burma and Malaya, the regions which were closest to the railway and subject to total Japanese control.

New research records indicated more than 100,000 Malayan Tamil rōmusha were forcibly recruited by the Japanese died building these railways.

“But their records were never collated nor did their sacrifices find a way in the Malaysian history,” said Chandrasekaran.

An account of a survivor of the Siam – Burma Death Railway:
“The soldiers forced me to get into the lorry. There were already thirty other people there. I was wearing only a pair of shorts and sandals. The Japanese soldiers did not allow me to go home; instead they sent me directly to Kuala Lumpur and loaded me onto a freight train for Siam. There we started cutting dense jungle. I had to work in the jungle and sleep on the bamboo floor in a hut, half naked and without any blanket.” – Mooniady Ramasamy, quoted in Nakahara Michiko ‘Malayan Labor on the Thailand-Burma Railway’ in Paul H. Kratoska (ed.) Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire: Unknown histories, New York, East Gate, 2005, 257 … Read More

A group of Tamil women near Kinsaiyok, Thailand, October 1945. These women would have been recruited from Malaya. Women and children worked on the Thailand–Burma railway, as some families followed when their men were conscripted. Life for these people was extremely hard, and they shared the same deprivations as other rǒmusha.
A group of Tamil women near Kinsaiyok, Thailand, October 1945. These women would have been recruited from Malaya. Women and children worked on the Thailand–Burma railway, as some families followed when their men were conscripted. Life for these people was extremely hard, and they shared the same deprivations as other rōmusha … pix courtesy of Hellfire Pass.

Available historical records showed that 63,000 western POWs were forced to build the death railway, and the railroad works reportedly took away lives of some 13,000 POWs.

After the war, their remains had been salvaged from the 415 km long railway and meticulously laid to rest at three cemeteries dedicated to them – two in the Kanchanaburi district in Thailand and one in Thanbyuzayat in Myanmar.

“The POW survivors were repatriated, cared for and received at least some compensation for their ordeal.

“However the same cannot be said of the Asian labourers or rōmusha, and their families.

“The actual number of Asian workers who died as a direct result of the railway will never be known,” said Chandrasekaran, lamenting that public awareness on this human tragedy was sorely lacking.

“It didn’t help that the governments of India, Malaya, Britain and Japan had all forsaken them.”

The governments of India, Malaya, Britain and Japan had all forsaken the Asian labourers or rōmusha, their families, who suffered and died during the construction of the Siam - Burma Death Railway.
The governments of India, Malaya, Britain and Japan had all forsaken the Asian labourers or rōmusha, and their families, who suffered and died during the construction of the Siam – Burma Death Railway.

DRIG is organising a one day symposium to address this shortcoming and create awareness to enlighten the public on this forgotten history of Malaysia.

The symposium – titled ‘The Forgotten Victims of the Death Railway’ – will be held at Kuala Lumpur City Hall Auditorium, Jalan Raja Laut at 9.30am on Friday, Sep 16, 2016 which falls on Malaysia Day.

The organisation welcomed those with information on survivors, on any aspect of the death railway.

Anyone who wishes to contribute to the cause can contact DRIG via email: [email protected] or 017-8887221

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Athi Shankar has been a journalist for past 30 years. He believes that democratic rights come with responsibility.