to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

26.2 Commodification

Editor’s note: This content resulted from a series of articles I read over one weekend. There was considerable overlap between and among them. Hence as I formulated my thoughts, I see that there is some redundancy in my summaries. For me, these articles were very thought provoking. They raised issues that I had never considered before.

Part 1: the Social Sciences

I generally avoid the genre of professional Social Sciences literature, but of late I have learned that the DEATH RAILWAY has received a moderate amount of attention in that area. It appears under a variety of topics with words that only they would use: Thanatourism, Atrocity Heritage, Horror Tourism. The authors delve into the fascination of humans with death and destruction to say nothing of cruelty and deprivation. Even their continued use of the term DEATH RAILWAY as opposed to the more neutral THAI-BURMA RAILWAY speaks to that fascination.

Multiple such authors do seem to understand the unique place that this DEATH RAILWAY holds even within this genre of tourism. Unique in that both the perpetrators and the victims were not the local population who are now entrusted with the maintenance and heritage of the physical sites as they exist today. It is a small wonder that the most common link between those sites and the Thai population today is one of commercialization or commodification in Social Science speak! [see below]

Except for their ‘ownership’ of these physical sites, Thais generally do not have a cultural stake in the history that occurred there. Although there are multiple potential geographical sites where evidence remains of the DEATH RAILWAY, only 6 are generally visited. And then, the visitors do not always seem to have more than the most superficial understanding of the true meaning or history of the site where they are now taking selfies! Everyone who visits Kanchanaburi seems to make the ‘mandatory’ stops at the Don Rak War Cemetery en route to see the famous Bridge. Surely many when first sighting that bridge are confused that it does not look like the one that William Holden blew-up. Many will make social media posts claiming that what they just visited was not the ‘real’ bridge!

Many fewer visitors will find their way to one (or rarely both) of the two long-established museums: JEATH and TBRC. At least, these will come away with a better understanding of the actual history and horror that transpired in 1942-45. Even fewer find their way to the ChungKai War Graves cemetery just outside of town. Only a handful will venture forth for the additional hour that it takes to visit the museum/memorial at HELLFIRE PASS.

Almost all have driven past two sites of historical significance that straddle the route from Bangkok. They remain unvisited. Also within the immediate area of ChungKai is a rarely visited site: the Khao Poon berm and cuttings. These have never been developed as tourist visitation sites.

Lastly, a popular way to end one’s tour of the DEATH RAILWAY sites is to ride the 70 kms or so of the railway that has been reconstructed between the Bridge and NamTok. HELLFIRE PASS is not far beyond NamTok but no attempt has been made to link the two sites in any way.

This leads to the frequent observation (complaint?) by the social scientists writing on this topic that in general there is no unified effort to tell the story of the DEATH RAILWAY to visitors. The two museums are private commercial enterprises and they do the best job of ‘relating the horror’ of the history that transpired here. The two cemeteries are memorial sites overseen by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission which has a world-wide mission covering the two great wars. One would not expect that they would necessarily attempt to go into any depth to ‘explain’ what they are beyond the obvious, nor to place themselves into the greater context of the THAI-BURMA RAILWAY.

As to the famous Bridge, it is a working portion of the State Railway of Thailand. For them it is means to get a train across a water barrier and not primarily a historical marker. It is often noted in the Social Sciences literature that even the tour guides who shepherd busloads of visitors to these sites complain that they do not have access to a common narrative explaining the overall concept of the THAI-BURMA RAILWAY. To date, the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT) has not undertaken a project to explain and inter-relate the breadth and depth of the THAI-BURMA RAILWAY story. Why would / should they?

In many other state-run sites across Thailand, QR-codes have become a popular way to provide visitors with more information about the site they are visiting. Most tourists nowadays would be familiar with that means to access information via their mobile phones. To my knowledge, nowhere along the THAI-BURMA RAILWAY is such a method used. Perhaps the main reason is that the TAT does not operate or oversee any of these sites; the three museums are private and the two cemeteries are overseen by the Commission operating out of London! Even the Khao Poon area is largely on the grounds of a Buddhist temple not public land per se. The two other sites that I mentioned that straddle the route that most visitors take to get to Kanchanaburi are either under the purview of the SRT or a local temple.

There is also a recently (re-)discovered site of significant historical importance at even a third temple site. Tying together even just these 9 sites would involve many layers of bureaucracy. It might be a daunting task for even the powerful TAT to undertake. What then might be the eventual outcome of such a project? It would seem doubtful that a standardized series of ‘historical markers’ could even begin to convey the full saga of the THAI-BURMA RAILWAY; in 100 words or less per site. Explaining the significance of even these 9 sites in isolation and properly inter-relating them would be difficult unless the visitor has an overall appreciation for the placement of each of these points of geography in the overall story. Also, the most accessible sites are within the first 60 kilometers of the 412 Km-long railway. Visiting them can only begin to tell a story as complex as that of the TBR.

Telling the TBR Story:

It would seem (IMHO) that technology is the one means available to relate the story of the THAI-BURMA RAILWAY to current or future visitors. The relatively common use of QR codes within Thailand would provide a tried-and-tested means of delivering information. The attractiveness of such a mechanism is that it could be used before, during or after the actual physical visit. Once existence was publicized, potential visitors could access the site and obtain a fuller understanding of the THAI-BURMA RAILWAY saga. It would also seemingly serve as a means for those visitors to plan their itinerary around both geography and time allotted. Follow-on trips need not include prior sites visited. [also see Section 12; part 2 for a proposed virtual tour]

The ‘content’ of what the QR sends the visitor to seems simple enough, but upon further exploration could become controversial. We are after all dealing with a slice of history in which one entity (the Imperial Japanese Army) imposed their will on citizens of multiple nations; any and all of whom are potential visitors. Precisely what story and from whose perspective would the accessed narrative be telling? In the 21st century world in which we live, individuals and even nations are easily ‘offended’ by narratives they dislike or disagree with. Even the omission of an ‘involved’ group, however small, could be reason for such offense. [see below on who has the ‘right’ to relate the saga]

One solution might be to concentrate on the physical nature of the various sites and to avoid any comment of the politics or adversarial nature of the interaction of the parties involved (perpetrators and victims). This would obviously result in a ‘sanitized’ version of the actual horror of the historical events of 1942-45, but might walk the thin line between providing some historical context of these events as opposed to the current failure to offer any information. For example, it might take a path around the bush to explain why there are nearly 7000 graves at the Don Rak cemetery. One would seemingly have to skirt the issue as to the precise cause of those deaths or the means by which their ‘ailments’ were contracted.

Even the format of what the QR code accesses might be controversial. The obvious format would be a link to text and photographs that place the site in question into the larger THAI-BURMA RAILWAY saga. An alternative might be to reduce or replace text with a narrative. For example, each of the potential sites that could be included in this plan is a physical site. One could fly a drone in and around these places and provide the visitor with a physical description of what it is but at the same time limiting the explanation of the who or why. For example, over the course of some 500 meters at the Khao Poon site there are typical examples of the berms, cuttings and bridges that the POWs (and romusha) labored over during their time on the TBR. The simple fact that their labors spanned over 400 Kms in two countries might be considered irrelevant if the visitor had a fuller understanding of nature of the work they were doing. The Australian-run HELLFIRE PASS museum touches on this topic in a most visual of ways by displaying a wire structure containing 3 cubic meters of stone and dirt, with the explanation that this was the maximum effort that each POW was expected to contribute daily during what is known as the Speedo period of construction.   

Just how far such an introduction to the overall THAI-BURMA RAILWAY saga would go to expose the horror and atrocities involved – either by description or photographs – would be a major decision by the authors. Perhaps it would be best to simply keep the basic concept of the THAI-BURMA RAILWAY alive in a more ‘sanitized’ format and allow the visitor to pursue ‘the rest of the story’ on their own according to their individual depth of interest. Once the visitor has a basic understanding of the existence of these sites, a simple keyword search of the internet would reveal a wealth of information; albeit of variable quality.

We have just touched on eighty years since the onset of the events of 1942; a century is not too far away. The vast majority of those who were involved in this saga in any way are now deceased. Fortunately, they have left behind a wealth of literature to fully tell the THAI-BURMA RAILWAY saga from multiple perspectives. Seemingly the task at hand is to simply keep the memory alive that history occurred here in 1942-45 and leave the deeper investigations as to precisely what happened to whom to the historians.

Ownership rights

Perhaps not surprisingly, since it was built as a Railway, the primary stakeholder of the various portions of the TBR as it sits today is the State Railway of Thailand (SRT). A renovated and repaired portion of the TBR runs toughly 130 Km from NongPlaDuk to NamTok; crossing the famous Bridge on its route. But as an operational Railway, the SRT is not into story telling nor the accounting of history. It is a people conveyor first and foremost. This same organization still operates the Thai portion of the Railway that links all the way to Singapore just as it did in 1942.

Who then would be the agency responsible should there be an attempt to tell the saga of the TBR in modern times? I would suggest that the only one with an overarching purview would be the Tourism Authority of Thailand (TAT). Seemingly, it could fall to them to identify the TBR-related sites and bring together the various stakeholders to tell such a story in a unified way. Remember that the TBR spanned two countries and even within Thailand it extends into two Provinces.

Perhaps even more surprising is that a series of temples control the land on which significant TBR-related sites exist in the present day. They comprise the second largest group of stakeholders. Equally, there are four independent, private museums which would come into play as sources of educational information about the TBR. However, none of these 8 could be expected to lead an effort to tell the TBR saga. Participate, yes; lead, no.

The only other identifiable entity is the London-based Commonwealth War Grave Commission and it certainly not be within their mandate to lead such an effort.

In discussions of the DEATH RAILWAY in Social Sciences’ literature, the authors often debate who has the ‘right’ to relate a particular aspect of history. Obviously, the different participants (perpetrators versus victims) might relate the background story in drastically different ways. In this rather unique period of history, the Thais themselves were but casual participants. Their greatest claim to ownership of the ‘story’ is that they own the geography! But those whose story of horror and atrocity is being told are all foreigners (British, Australian, Dutch and American POWs as well as Asians of many national and ethnic backgrounds). As numerous as their stories might be, there is no one organization that could represent them to relate those stories. It would seemingly not fall under the purview of any of the many Embassies to even participate directly in the telling of such a saga. Although I personally could envision them raising questions and perhaps even demanding veto power over certain aspects of the full saga.

Given that Thais, by and large, were not participants in the majority of the full saga, even the TAT may be a fall-back agency as far as having the ‘right’ to tell the story. Perhaps the story-tellers should be independent of any such agency with a nation identity. Might not the best story-tellers be independent historians or other social scientists like anthropologists? Could any coalition of individuals with those backgrounds be able to tell the full TBR story in an impartial and un-impassioned way? Can such a story of inhumane treatment and deprivation even be told in an impartial way? Perhaps this identifies why 80+ years have passed with no attempt to relate the saga and link it to the actual geography. Maybe it is just too impossible to foresee an outcome that is ‘acceptable’ to all involved. How much should the ‘sensibilities’ of the perpetrators be balanced against those of the victims? Could the Thais be trusted to be independent arbiters of the story to relate it for the world to consume?

The target audience of such a story would be tourists of many nations to include domestic Thai tourists visiting the various TBR-related sites that still exist in an identifiable way. In the immediate post-war years, most of the 412 Km of the TBR were either deliberately destroyed (recycled) or has simply succumbed to the ravages of time and weather such that most everything beyond the 140 Km mark in Thailand as marked by HellFire Pass has been reclaimed by the jungle from which it was carved[1].

One might even be tempted to ask just what level of information would those tens of thousands of potential tourists wish to know. Would it be sufficient to simply state a series of dates as they relate to specific events? “The TBR was constructed between June 1942 and October 1943 and the two main bridges at Kanchanaburi between Nov 42 and Apr 43.” The story-teller could avoid relating the conditions under which the ‘builders’ worked, but would that be a full rendering of the saga? The simple facts that 412 Kms of track were laid and that the TBR operated from Oct 43 until Jun 45, while true, do not seem sufficient to convey the horrendous conditions and the massive loss of life that occurred during those bracketing dates. Would it be ‘right’ to leave out the more horrific portions of the full saga in an effort to cater to the sensibilities of the current day tourists – who may very well be descendants of the perpetrators?

Perhaps we have reached an impasse that cannot be crossed. Is it possible to tell the full uncensored saga of past events to modern day consumers? Might not too many subgroups take offense at the telling of the real story as opposed to a much sanitized one? Is it even fair to allow a period of history to be sanitized rather than to tell the full and un-redacted story? The full un-redacted version is out there in the world literature already; it has not been purged. It simply resides in numerous accounts spread over thousands of books and articles as opposed to consolidated into one place. Should anyone even try to do such a consolidation?

[1] A significant portion on the Thai side is underwater behind a huge dam on the Kwae Noi River.

Part 2: Atrocity Heritage

I stumbled onto an article that introduced me to two concepts that are bandied about in the Social Sciences world: Commodification and Atrocity Heritage. Both deal with the way historical events are perceived and presented in the present day. The former refers to a situation where something is treated as a mere commodity perhaps to the extent of losing the historical linkage. The latter deals with the visitation of battlefields and other sites that are linked to atrocities such as the Nazi Concentration camps; places where less than ‘cheerful’ history occurred if not outright atrocities. Apparently both of these concepts have a considerable amount of literature associated with them.

It occurred to me that the Thai-Burma Railway (TBR) might occupy a unique place in this genre. It seems unique in that it took place geographically in those places but the ‘participants’ are not directly linked to either country. The Japanese were the perpetrators and the victims were all from other countries. The only link to Thailand/Burma is the geography. Thai and Burmese citizens played a minor role early on in the construction but were soon supplanted by the Allied POWs and other Asian Forced Laborers (romusha).

Commodification seems to be particularly applicable here as well. The surviving bridge and the rails of the TBR (almost all the rails have been replaced over the ensuing 80 years) are owned and operated by the State Railway of Thailand (SRT). The immediate area around the bridge on the Thamakam bank of the river is essentially one large market catering to the tourists. Except for a few small plaques, there is nothing to explain the historical significance of the Bridge. There are frequent social media posts claiming that the existing iron bridge “is not the real one”. I assure you that it actually is the bridge built by the POWs. The iron portion was looted from Java and shipped to Kanchanaburi and reconstructed over the concrete piers fashioned by the POWs. When the SRT rehabilitated that portion of the TBR to Sai Yok, they purposely replaced the fallen (bombed) central spans with rectangular (actually a parallelogram) structures as opposed to matching the original semi-circular span sections. That repaired bridge is one of only a few sections of the TBR dating back to the original event. It is seemingly a credit to the IJA engineers and the POWs themselves that the bridge and the trestle at Wang Po are largely the original construct (save for repairs/upgrades made over the ensuing years). Today, the section of the TBR running from the Bridge to NamTok is primarily ridden by tourists seeking to experience a portion of the original TBR route.

In the 1960s, the Thais were somewhat confused when tourists arrived looking for a Bridge on the River Kwai popularized by the 1950s book and movie. There was no ‘River Kwai’. Once that confusion was overcome and the portion of the river to the west of the walled city of Kanchanaburi was renamed the Kwae Yai replacing the original name Mae Klong, the matter seemed to be settled. Never, ever was there a River Kwai!

It would not have taken the Thais long to ‘commodify’ the site. If tourists wanted to come to photograph a simple iron bridge, there were more than enough Thai vendors willing to sell them refreshments and souvenirs! It would not have taken long for a substantial parking lot and adjacent marketplace to develop. Restaurants and hotels followed soon thereafter. For perhaps 100 meters in an arc based at the bridge there is nothing but commercial outlets.

Lost in all this rush to separate the tourists from their pocket money was the oldest of ‘remembrances’ of the events of the era: the 1944 Japanese shrine to the deceased POWs and romusha. It sits today in a quiet park-like setting a short walk from the bridge largely un-visited by the thongs of tourists taking selfies on the Bridge and patronizing the shops and restaurants. The simple fact that the POW camp huts were just a few meters east of the parking lot is also lost on most tourists.

I’ll diverge a bit here and address those tourists and their motivation and reasons for visiting. Upon a bit of late-nite musing, I have come to the conclusion that there are two primary groups of visitors to the main POW-related sites in Kanchanaburi. I’ll call them the informed and the uninformed! The former are those there for a purpose. One might even equate it to a pilgrimage. They are the smaller of the two groups. They are aware of the history and significance of what occurred in 1942-45. Some are on a specific quest to visit the grave of a relative buried at one of the two CWGC cemeteries or perhaps to attend one of the commemorative events at those sites. For them, a visit to one or both of the two museums (TBRC and JEATH) is usually in store. Their visit to the Bridge is largely ancillary. It is part of the history of the era but not likely directly linked to their family.

I would suggest that the ‘uninformed’ group is by far the larger one! It can be further subdivided into Thais and foreign tourists. On any given day, busloads of such tourists are offloaded first at the main CWGC cemetery and then at the Bridge. Few, if any of them, have anything more than a superficial understanding of where they are or why they are there. Mainly, it is because the tour companies have a set itinerary. As often as not, the foreign tourists are of Asian origin (Chinese, Korean or Japanese). They are on pre-paid set tours in which they are ferried from site to site and pushed off the bus; given a limited time to ‘visit’ the site of the moment before they are herded off to the next location. Naturally, tour operators often have set contracts with restaurants or vendors to which they deliver these busloads of willing tourists who have agreed to go wherever they are led and nowhere else!

The second sub-group of these uninformed are Thais who are either on a day-trip from Bangkok or have surrendered their sovereignty to a tour guide. The Thai education system is not known for its emphasis on history. So while it is easy enough from them to drive themselves or ride the tour company van to the main CWGC cemetery and the Bridge, they, too, may have an extremely limited understanding of the actual historical events that are commemorated at those sites (aka Atrocity Heritage).  

Neither site has more than the barest minimum of historical information available to ‘educate’ the uninformed of what occurred there. Some Thai day-trippers will undoubtedly find one or both of the two associated museums. Those who pay the admission fee will indeed come away with a much fuller understanding of the ‘atrocity’ that occurred hereabouts.  

I also feel compelled to point out that while the Tourist Authority of Thailand (TAT) does a lot to promote and encourage these day-trips it has done little to provide any true historic context at any of the possible sites. There are no official commemorative plaques explaining the pertinent history of any of the sites that are TBR-linked. There are no websites dedicated to providing the historical context of the ‘atrocity heritage’ that transpired in 1943-45. There are no guides (on-line or otherwise) to suggest the route and stops for subsequent visits to the Kanchanaburi area.

But once again, I point out that all of this is only indirectly associated with actual Thai history and culture. Both the perpetrators and the victims were ‘foreigners’. The singular link to Thailand is geography, not Thai history. I would also suggest that geographical proximity is the primary driving force for which sites are visited. Whether they are Thais or foreign tourists, the vast majority of visitors are making a day-trip from Bangkok. From central Bangkok to the Bridge is roughly a three-hour drive; six hour roundtrip. Toss in lunch and shopping and you have a rather full day scheduled. That means that the number of stops and the time at each of those is rather limited. The main CWGC cemetery is on the same road that leads to the Bridge so it is a natural stopping point. Any of the other possible TBR-related sites are scattered far enough away that they are not on the most convenient, direct route.

The third most visited site – the Australian-operated museum at Hellfire Pass –is another one-hour drive past the Bridge. IMHO, those same tourist buses and vans drive past and completely ignore one of the most poignant sites in Ban Pong: the transit camp location at Wat Don Toom! [see Section 11.7 for the full description of this site and its role in the TBR] Likewise, for the simple reason that it is not easily explained as to how it relates to the overall TBR story, the 1944 Japanese shrine is also completely ignored. [see Section 14.3 for the fuller description of this site]

While the TBRC museum is immediately adjacent to the CWGC cemetery, the time that it takes (minimum 1 hour) to make one’s way through it is detrimental to the schedule of the day-trippers; it also closes at 4PM so timing may play as much a role at location. In the same vein, the older JEATH museum – while extremely informative – is located just a bit too far off the main thoroughfare to make it a convenient stop. To compound that situation, parking for buses is extremely limited at that site. If visited at all, these two locations are usually reserved for later than an initial (whirl-wind) day-trip to Kanchanaburi.

So, in terms of the above Social Sciences concepts, there is certainly enough atrocity heritage and commodification associated with the Bridge site in particular. There is currently an annual event billed as a ‘light and sound show’ that depicts, in a very sanitized manner, the building and eventual bombing of the Bridge; complete with the simulated collapse of the central portion of the span. To my mind, this is the epitome of commodification in that it is a week-long event aimed purely at the tourist trade! It is also perhaps the closest the TAT gets to linking to the atrocity heritage of the site; all the while mindful that not an insignificant number of those tourists are Japanese!

Part 3: Commodification

Within the Social Sciences literature, this term is most often used with a negative connotation. The premise is that commercial activity at or near historical sites is distracting from their meaning or even out-right exploitative of the visitors.

The actual commercialization of the TBR sites is limited to the Bridge only. It is true that a large market place has grown up along the tracks leading to the Bridge, but they in no way disrupt the right of way. Some visitors might consider that they detract from the solemnity of the site, but in reality the POWs who labored at that site had a much better experience than their counterparts farther west. Since this site was also quite near the place where the POWs were consolidated after the completion of the Railway, it is one where the vast majority of POWs experienced relief from the former harsh conditions. IOW, there was much less horror or atrocity perpetrated in the Bridge area than elsewhere along the TBR.

One could view the Bridge itself as a gateway to the area of Atrocity Heritage. ChungKai, located about 5 Kms from the Bridge was the first working camp where POWs performed the common tasks of berm building, making cuttings through the limestone and spanning small obstacles with bridges. At the famous Bridge, LtCol Toosey’s men had a much less excruciating experience.

Given the diversity of ‘ownership’ of the Kanchanaburi area TBR-related sites, I’d say that the level of commercialization of those sites is actually at a minimum and is truly limited primarily to the immediate area of the Bridge. Of the 9 local sites that I identify as carrying on the TBR heritage, only the Bridge has any significant level of commercial exploitation of the visitors; albeit quite an intense level of commercialization exists there. Handbags, hats and clothing aside, many of the outdoor stalls offer food and drinks to alleviate the effects of the tropical heat. They could be viewed as offering a service to the visitors as opposed to exploiting them. Among the items for sale, many would indeed fall into the category of memorabilia or souvenirs. I am speaking of the outdoor market place. Immediately adjacent to the Bridge is however an extremely exploitative enterprise. It is my understanding that a single local family operates a series of businesses purely to separate visitors from their money. They have even interposed these outlets between the parking lot and the Bridge in such a way that almost ever visitor must traverse that sales area as they enter or exit the historic Bridge area. They have even opened a series of exhibits of miscellaneous objects that have little or nothing to do with the TBR and have the audacity to call it a museum! If there is one item that stands out above all the others as commodification it is charging an admission fee to view sets of human remains that were excavated from the romusha portion of the huge Kanchanaburi camp.

At the same time, I would not classify charging a moderate admission fee (<US$3) for either of the two actual museums (HELLFIRE PASS is free), as commercialization. While both are for-profit businesses, neither is charging an outrageous fee for their exhibits. Few, if any, visitors would be turned away by those fees. Nor would I view the availability of restaurants and hotel accommodations as commodification. In short, with the single exception noted above the most negative aspects of commodification do not generally appear along the TBR route.

Having said that, there is roughly a 3 Km stretch of the roadway that traverses the length of the POW portion of the Kanchanaburi camp (between the Bridge and the Don Rak cemetery) that has developed into an entertainment and accommodations area catering to foreign tourists. It goes by several names but is commonly referred to as Kanchanaburi’s Walking Street to parallel the rather infamous adult entertainment area in the city of Pattaya. The vast expanse of land between the river and the rails has given way to commercial development and is known to be POW-TBR-related only to true aficionados. There are no longer any identifiable landmarks that connect these 3-4 square kilometers of land to the POWs. At the same time, very few of the entertainment and accommodations establishments make any reference to the TBR in a way that could be considered commodification. They simple exist on land that was once the domain of POWs, but in no way overtly exploit that. A few do utilize a bamboo and grass decor that is obviously linked to the TBR era, but it is even likely that that link is lost on the many tourists who visit the area.

In recent years, a new controversy has developed coinciding with the building of a Chinese-style temple near the Bridge. I will simply provide a reference and allow the reader to draw their own conclusions: