Honouring the forgotten
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 firstname.lastname@example.org or call 017-888 7221.
Prof Teo believes this incident should be emphasised more in history books.