Hon­our­ing the for­got­ten

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - Insight -

MORE should be done to recog­nise and re­mem­ber the hun­dreds of thou­sands of Malayans who suf­fered build­ing the ThaiBurma Death Rail­way, say his­to­ri­ans and the fam­i­lies of sur­vivors.

Of the 300,000 or so men forcibly drafted by the Ja­panese army to work on the rail­way, some 200,000 were South-East Asian labour­ers, or ro­musha in Ja­panese. About 100,000 of them are be­lieved to be Malayan Tamils.

The ro­musha were dis­tinct from prisoners of war (POWs) and were treated dif­fer­ently, with some be­ing paid a wage (a pal­try 1 Thai baht ac­cord­ing to some records) while POWs were, ob­vi­ously, not paid. How­ever, ac­cord­ing to an Aus­tralian gov­ern­ment web­site, Aus­tralia’s Wartime Her­itage: The Thai–Burma Rail­way and Hell­fire Pass (hell­fire-pass. com­mem­o­ra­tion.gov.au), ro­musha who worked along­side Al­lied POWs on the rail­way died in far higher num­bers.

Prof Datuk Dr Teo Kok Seong – who is head of the his­tory, her­itage, and so­cio­cul­ture clus­ter at the Na­tional Coun­cil of Pro­fes­sors – says there is very lit­tle aware­ness about the Death Rail­way among Malaysians.

“Lit­tle or noth­ing sig­nif­i­cant about it is taught in our school cur­ricu­lum,” he says, ad­ding that the Death Rail­way has not been con­sid­ered as part of Malaysian his­tory be­cause the con­struc­tion took place in Thai­land and Myan­mar (then called Burma).

“But when we scru­ti­nise it, it is our his­tory too, be­cause the num­ber of Malayan labour­ers forced to work on the line was sig­nif­i­cantly big,” he says.

The sufferings of the forced labour­ers, he says, “can­not be a for­got­ten chap­ter of our his­tory, es­pe­cially if we are to hon­our those who died from mal­nu­tri­tion, tor­ture, bru­tal­ity, ex­e­cu­tion, and dis­eases”.

Be­sides “se­ri­ous men­tion” in our his­tory books, he also sug­gests that a mon­u­ment be built in hon­our of the vic­tims, a sec­tion in the Na­tional Mu­seum be ded­i­cated to the event, and its vic­tims be re­mem­bered dur­ing the an­nual War­rior’s Day marked on July 31.

Deputy Perak State Assem­bly Speaker Datuk Nasarudin Hashim, whose late fa­ther, Mohd Ha­tim Itam Manas, es­caped the Death Rail­way, strongly be­lieves that the his­tory of Malayan in­volve­ment in the tragedy should be re­mem­bered and pre­served.

“We must know what hap­pened be­cause it shows us the re­sult of war. War cre­ates havoc and suf­fer­ing. Even in­no­cent peo­ple were killed. Those who died were not only from the army. The whole na­tion suf­fered,” says Nasarudin, who is a former his­tory stu­dent.

Nasarudin’s fa­ther had just got mar­ried and was only in his early 20s when the Ja­panese Army came to take young men from his kam­pung to work on the rail­way.

Fac­ing daily abuse, many un­doubt­edly con­sid­ered es­cape. How­ever, it was a risk not ev­ery­one was will­ing to take. Those who at­tempted to run away but were un­for­tu­nate enough to be caught were made to dig their own graves be­fore be­ing ex­e­cuted by the Ja­panese sol­diers, Nasarudin ex­plains at a re­cent in­ter­view.

De­spite the hor­rific reper­cus­sions, Mohd Ha­tim hatched a dar­ing plan and es­caped with two oth­ers from the same vil­lage by flee­ing into the jun­gle while ev­ery­one was busy work­ing on the rail­way.

“When my fa­ther came back, my mother said he was so skinny she could barely recog­nise him. He re­ally suf­fered there,” Nasarudin says about the daily abuse his fa­ther lived through.

Fear­ful that the Ja­panese might find him again, Nasarudin’s fa­ther changed his name from Mohd Ha­tim to Hashim; he later joined the po­lice force.

Nasarudin’s fa­ther has died but a small num­ber of el­derly sur­vivors still live to tell their tales to­day.

“If we don’t record them now, the sto­ries will dis­ap­pear for good,” says P. Chan­drasekaran, chair­man of the Death Rail­way In­ter­est Group, whose late fa­ther worked on the line as a lo­co­mo­tive as­sis­tant.

He is on a mis­sion to chron­i­cle as much as pos­si­ble about the rail­way and the peo­ple that worked on it.

For now, the group is call­ing for any­one di­rectly or in­di­rectly af­fected by the Death Rail­way to come for­ward so that vic­tims and their fam­i­lies can be given a voice.

“We want to doc­u­ment their ex­pe­ri­ences, and pre­serve and pub­li­cise their sto­ries to see that these in­di­vid­u­als get their right­ful place in his­tory,” Chan­drasekaran says.

To con­tact the Death Rail­way In­ter­est Group, send an e-mail to P. Chan­drasekaran at siambur­madeathrail­way@gmail.com or call 017-888 7221.

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Prof Teo be­lieves this in­ci­dent should be em­pha­sised more in his­tory books.

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