to perpetuate the memory and history of our dead

26.3 Atrocity Heritage

The world’s social scientists (anthropologists, psychologists, historians and the like) have a knack for creating unique terms to encompass the concepts that they discuss. Atrocity Heritage is one such term. Under that title, they discuss the attraction of tourists to sites that are linked to wars and other atrocities like the Holocaust of World War II. The concept of the commercialization of such sites is termed Commodification.

[see above for the discussion of concept of commercialization of some TBR-related sites.]

In many ways, the surviving TBR-related sites fall under both of these terms. And yet they are fundamentally different from other such sites around the world. One of my other personal passions is with the Battle that took place in 1863 during the American Civil War at a place called Gettysburg. Other than for that three-day clash of armies, there would be no reason for history to note the existence of that tiny town. And yet nearly 170 years on, there is an on-going battle between commercial interests and preservationist; the latter attempting to keep (and restore) the landscape to its 1863 appearance. In recent years this group has managed to reclaim large portions of the battlefield and to tear down motels, restaurants and even a water park that had ‘invaded’ (in their perspective) the hallowed ground on which men fought and died.  

At sites too numerous to count in all corners of the world, tourists flock to see those places where ‘atrocities’ of various sorts were carried out. As to the TBR, there were no battles fought here. The tiny slice of history that occurred here was a monumental construction project that turned into a battle for survival. Even the ‘atrocities’ that occurred during that 1942-45 period were not so much planned (as was the Holocaust) as the result of incompetence and insensitivity. IOW, the IJA did not intend to kill 12,000 POWs and uncounted thousands of romusha, they simply could not provide the means necessary to keep them alive.

But even here, the TBR is something of an outlier in this concept of Atrocity Heritage. Visitors to the Gettysburg battle site generally know what transpired there. Not necessarily so for the day-trippers to Kanchanaburi. As has been discussed at length in other portions of this site, what transpired on the TBR is not truly seen as part of Thai history. It is highly unlikely that the majority of Thais taking selfies at the Bridge could relate any of the history that that structure is linked to. Even those riding the restored portion of the Thai-Burma Railway generally have little concept of the construction of that system or the ‘atrocities’ associated with it. For most, it is simply a diversion, a place to come that is not work or home, and is easily accessible and even fun; thanks to the commodification that had taken place at the site of the Bridge.

To those few of us who know and appreciate the horror that transpired with this wartime construction project, the concept of Atrocity Heritage could be a boon to keeping alive the story of those who labored and died there. And yet, in 2022, the actual story is being lost rapidly. As is discussed at length in Sections 29.1 and 29.2 above, there is currently no organized effort to perpetuate the full story of the DEATH RAILWAY! With the exception of the Thai-Burma Railway Center, there is no group attempting to keep the story of the TBR alive. There is certainly no group of preservationists attempting to restore the area to its wartime status. In point of fact, such an attempt would be nearly impossible. Even in the immediate area of the Bridge, there is simply too much commercial development over the sites that might possibly be set for preservation. Add to this the lack of a true stake-holder or ‘owner’ of the TBR story that would lead such an effort. The TBR happened on Thailand but not actually to Thailand. There is simply no agency – governmental or otherwise – that can be readily identified as having ‘ownership rights’ to even attempt to tell the TBR story in such a way as to keep it alive for future generations.

It seems inevitable that nearly 100 years on, the underlying history of the TBR and the linkage of that history to the surviving sites will soon be lost completely. People will continue to spend a few hours taking selfies and buying refreshments and souvenirs but fewer and fewer will know WHY they have been transported to this particular point of geography to do so.

One of the problems related to even attempting to tell the story of the TBR is whose story or which portion of the story to tell. The accessible area – up to and including HellFire Pass – is but a portion of the 412 kilometer rail system. Some 100+ kms of that lie across the border in Burma (Myanmar) which, given the political situation in that country, makes it nearly impossible to access. Other than the cemetery and small memorial (museum?) at Thanbyuzayat, there is almost nothing left of the TBR in that country. Even if remnants of the larger bridges could be found, they are in such remote and inhospitable places as to render them inaccessible. Having said that, the Burma Sector of the TBR was the more benign portion. Not that it wasn’t a horrid place to work (and die) but the conditions in the highlands on the Thai side of the border were infinitely worse! Add to this the fact that immediately post-war, at the insistence of the Thai government, Japanese soldiers (then post-war prisoners) were forced to destroy almost all remnants of the TBR beyond HellFire to the Burmese border. It wasn’t so much an attempt to destroy history as to avoid political and economic entanglements with Burma. But none the less, a large portion of the TBR has simply been reclaimed by the jungle or submerged under the reservoir behind the dam on the Kwae Noi River.

It is somewhat fortunate that the surviving portion of the TBR is in the lower third closest to Bangkok and therefore easily accessible. Two of the surviving remnants are in the Province of Ratchburi between Bangkok and Kanchanaburi. These, however, are undeveloped, largely unknown and never visited by tourists. The vans and buses of the day-trippers simply cruise (unknowingly) past them. Both of these have the potential for development into major — or perhaps secondary – tourist visitation sites except that their linkage to the TBR demands a deeper understanding of the full saga of the TBR in order for their significance to be fully appreciated. Atrocities of various kinds were indeed perpetrated at these sites but their occurrence is known only to true aficionados.

Social scientist would classify the Bridge on the Rive Kwai and its associated local sites as Atrocity Heritage sites, but fewer and fewer of the actual visitors have any knowledge as to why would be so.

26.3b Archeology in Thailand

In the above on-line article, the author cites “a rich archaeological record” and intensive research, particularly in the post-WW2 era. However, almost no effort has been expended to recover the remains of the thousands of romusha who died in the Thai highlands during that period. In the immediate post-war period, mainly Australian military personnel worked tirelessly to recover and consolidate the remains of the Allied POWs who died along the TBR route. No such effort was expended concerning the romusha. It is worth repeating that the majority of these were Tamil-Indians from Malaya. Even though the British had brought them there from India to work the plantations they were never afforded a proper place in British class system. Technically, they were British subjects but that status was rarely acknowledged — they were not eligible for British passports. Post-war, the British government all but abandoned them and the Singaporeans who were at the camps in Kanchanaburi.

So, too, no government or organization has ever mounted a search for romusha remains in Thailand. Given that these are not ancient nor directly accepted as part of Thai cultural history, this is reasonably understandable that the Thai authorities would not undertake such an effort. One is forced to ask then about the lack of interest on part of the Malaysian government.

Immediately post-war, Malaya reverted to British colonial status, but within a few years the fervor of independence that swept across the world emerged there. This then overlapped into what became known as the Malayan Emergency as communist elements made a play to rule Malaya.

It wasn’t until 1957 that the new country known as the Federation of Malaysia gained independence for Britain. In 1963, it became the country of Malaysia with 14 internal States. One of those was Singapore, which then separated as an independent country in 1965. I relate this incomplete history only as a way to suggest that for two decades anyone who might have been interested in the fate of their countrymen in Thailand were somewhat preoccupied by other pressing matters.

Within modern day Malaysia, Indians of Tamil heritage have grown to a large minority within the country’s population and have generally progressed well beyond the ‘coolie’ status of the per-war years. Yet, they remain a minority and have not achieved any great amount of political power. Seemingly, even 80 years on, there are periodic calls for ‘reparations’ from the British whose colonial ancestors were largely responsible for ‘displacing’ them from southern India.

I relate this fragmentary history only to offer an explanation for why the Malaysian government has never involved itself in a quest to recover remains in their neighboring country of Thailand. Other more pressing matters constantly override any such effort to reach back nearly 100 years into the past and awaken memories probably best left dormant.

As with the Allied POWs who worked the TBR, few of the romusha who were actually involved remain alive. Their voices and stories are about to be lost. Few of their descendants are willing or able to keep their memory alive. Many atrocities occurred but that heritage is nigh on being lost!