What role did the Thai population play in the Thai-Burma Railway?
One has to begin defining this role a few years before the TBR was begun. In the spring of 1941, the Japanese brokered a cease-fire then a peace treaty between Thailand and French-Indo China who had gone to war over border disputes. While the Thais did not actually re-gain any territory, it was perceived by them that the Japanese favored their side.
A few months later, Japanese forces invaded Thailand at a number of entry points. After only a few days of futile resistance, the Thai gov’t capitulated much as the Dutch would do in the coming months. Those decisions were seemingly made in light of the overwhelming military superiority of the invading Japanese forces.
Much as had happened in Europe with the Vichy French, the Thais agreed to split the country roughly in half. The Japanese would fully occupy the entire southern portion of the country up to Bangkok. This area contained the vital railway links to Singapore in the south, Phnom Penh and Saigon to the east and the planned link to Burma to the west. In addition, they demanded to be allowed to garrison troop in the far north to guard against incursions by Chiang Kai Shek’s Chinese army. There were also some troops along the Eastern border with Cambodia and Laos since they were part of Indo-China and overseen by the Vichy French.
The overall political division was very much akin to the partition of France into German-held and Vichy French-ruled territory. In those early days of the war (1941-42), government relations between the two countries were rather cordial if not overtly friendly. It must also be remembered that as part of the take-over agreement, Thailand was supposed to have declared war on all the mutual enemies of the three Axis Powers. While the Thai Ambassador to Britain did exactly that, Seni Pramoj in WASH DC refused to do so. Seni remained very active in efforts to garner support for the Free Thai Movement (guerrilla / resistance fighters).
Within that broader setting, we can place the direct Thai involvement with the Thai-Burma Railway. The Thai government gave an official title and right of way for the 50+Kms of the railway that ran from NongPlaDuk to Kanchanaburi. Thai workers were hired to lay that track. Since the terrain over which they worked was flat agricultural land, they completed that task in a matter of weeks during Sep-Oct 1942. It is also thought that Thais worked the 3Km section of the TBR from the river crossing at ThaMakam to near ChungKai. At ChungKai, British POWs began their TBR labors while LtCol Toosey’s force and Dutch POWs were building the two bridges.
In Dec 1942, local relations between the Japanese occupiers and the Thais in Kanchanaburi and the neighboring Province of Ratchburi soured with what is known as the BanPong Incident. (see Section 20.3 for the full story of that episode). After that, Thai labor on the TBR all but ceased. At about that same time, the HQ for the Railway Engineers moved from BanPong to Kanchanaburi. Logistical problems were already beginning to develop as huge numbers of POWs and romusha were moved farther and farther west. The Japanese contracted with the Sirivejjabhandu family to ferry supplies up the Kwae Noi River to those camps. Khun BoonPong was the elder brother of that family of traders (their father was a physician and herbalist and was not directly involved in the trading business). Noting the dire plight of the POWs, BoonPong was instrument in setting up a secret society known only to a few as the ‘V Men’s Club’. These men, possibly as few as five – hence the V as a Roman numeral – funneled money, medications and other vital supplies (such as batteries for their clandestine radios) to the POW camps. (see Section 21 for his story)
At the various POW camps that spanned some 240 Kms of Thai territory, the common Thai villagers operated a thriving black market of supplies to the POWs. The conditions under which these transactions occurred varied greatly according to severity of control that the local camp commanders exercised. Most were quite lax, ignoring if not openly permitting contact between the Thais and the POWs. Others were more severe making it harder for the POWs to buy food and tobacco (the main two commodities in demand).
Early on, the POWs bartered their meager possessions with the Thais. But watches, pens and rings were in relatively short supply. Cash provided by the Men’s Club saved many POWs lives as in-the-know officers were able to purchase items if only clandestinely. BoonPong drew upon his father’s access to medications to smuggle small quantities into these camps as well. In a few of the camps closer in to Kanchanaburi, where access was relatively easy via the river, he actually persuaded the Japanese to allow him to establish ‘canteens’ where he was permitted to ‘sell’ basic commodities. It was in supplying these that specially marked packages were sent containing those smuggled goods.
Even when there wasn’t time for commercial exchanges, Thais would often hand over water and jungle fruits to the POWs as they made their trek westward to their work camps. Survivors describe the joy and pain as hands of bananas were throw into the trucks as the POWs passed by.
Following the completion of the TBR in OCT 43, the POWs and romusha (less the Burmese and few remaining Thais who simply melted back into the lands) were consolidated mainly at Thamarkam and a few camps to the SE. Once again there was a thriving black market exchange of goods as the camp guards became more lax with time.
British Lt John Coast describes in his memoirs, how at war’s end, a throng of Thais set up a daily market place on what had been the parade ground adjacent to his section at the south end of the Thamarkam camp near the Paper Factory. The (now former) POWs could only marvel at the richness and variety of the foodstuffs on offer.
When all is said and done, while the official Thai government acquiesced and openly cooperated with their Japanese occupiers, they were never fully associated with them. Although it came too late in the war effort to have any impact, thousands of Thai men migrated to the Thai-controlled parts of the country-side and were training as resistance fighter funded by the OSS and SOE. (see Section 9.21 for that portion of this saga)
As for the Thai people, they were clearly sympathetic to the Allies and did what little they could to ameliorate if not alleviate their suffering. No records exist to chronicle if this interaction and assistance in any way extended to the romusha.