Kanchanaburi is a tiny town nestled at the foot of the mountainous, jungled Thai-Burma border, 80 miles west of Bangkok.
Kanchanaburi is a tiny town nestled at the foot of the mountainous, jungled Thai-Burma border, 80 miles west of Bangkok. About two miles outside the town stands the ugly Bridge on the River Kwai, a black steel arched bridge carrying a single-track railway, atop concrete pilings. The bridge was brought from Java during the war and assembled at the river by prisoners. It was bombed several times in 1945 and one of the two central "box" spans was dropped in the river by American bombs. After the war the bridge was rebuilt although the curved spans are the originals.
The "Death Railway" was built by impressed labourers comprising Allied PWs and Asians from Japanese-occupied countries--Chinese, Vietnamese, Malays, Indonesians, and Indians. An estimated 16,000 PWs and 100,000 Asian labourers died building the railway. 6,982 British, Australian and Dutch PWs lie buried at Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in the town, Another 1,750 lie at Chungkai, along the river, about a mile from the Bridge. The railway was built to create a new route to Rangoon when Allied air and naval forces pinched off the sea route through the straits of Malacca.
British, Australian and Dutch pilgrims visiting Kanchanaburi, graveyard for 116,000 Allied PWs and Asian impressed labourers on the wartime "Death Railway", have been shocked by a sign erected near the infamous Bridge on the River Kwai.
The sign, erected in 1971 by the Japanese Association in Thailand, thanks the labourers who "died through illness" for their "help" in the railway construction. The sign is in a compound, about 200 yards from the bridge, where stands an obelisk erected as a memorial to the dead by the Japanese Army during the war. Many Japanese tourists visit Kanchanaburi these days and the sign may have been erected for their benefit.
It reads in full:
"This monument (the obelisk) was erected by the Japanese Army during World War II in memory of the personnel of the Allied Forces and the nationals of the many countries who had helped in the construction of the Thailand Burma Railway and had died through illness during the course of the construction.
"Once a year in March the Japanese residents in Thailand assemble here in a ceremony to commemorate this memorial.
"The Japanese Association in Thailand 1971."
Thousands of visitors, relatives of the 8,732 Allied PWs buried in two cemeteries, make the pilgrimage to Kanchanaburi each year. On April 25th, Anzao Day, delegations from the British and Commonwealth Embassies hold a formal memorial service at the main Kanchanaburi War Cemetery--a neatly tended garden graveyard--and the smaller Chungkai War Cemetery outside town along the River Kwai. Chungkai's white crosses cover the site of a former riverside POW camp and, where tourist boats now dock, the prisoners used to bathe in the evening.
Last Anzao Day, the sign caught the attention of the Reverend RH Kingston, 58-year old Vicar of the Anglican Christ Church in Bangkok who was officiating at the memorial service. The Vicar, from Barkway, Hertfordshire, UK, has approached the British Embassy with suggestions that the Japanese be encouraged to remove the offensive sign. So far no action has been taken.
Reverend Kingston, who was a chaplain with Orde Wingate's Chindits in Burma had an elder brother labouring on the railway under the Japanese. His brother survived; thousands of others were less fortunate. But he remembers the brutality of "Speedo", Japan's desperate push through to Burma to create an alternative to the sea- route to Rangoon via Singapore. The thousands of graves are a direct result of Speedo, a testimony to inhumanity and insensitivity.
The new sign, says ???everend Kingston, shows that the Japanese do not regret what ???appened and is a???blaspheny of the dead at Kanchanaburi. The people who died, expired from malnutrition and brutality resulting eventually in illness. They did not help or collaborate in the building of the railway, the PWs and the thousands of impressed Asian labourers were under vicious compulsion. It now appears, he says, that the japanese refuse to admit this; that they would like to rewrite history. He had no bitterness against the Japanese; time has dulled those feelings. But he would like to arouse some feeling of sensitivity among the Japanese, to make them manifest some spark of compassion for the feelings of the relatives whose sons, fathers and brothers lie at Kanchanaburi.
The British Embassy in Bangkok, he feels, should approach the Japanese through the Thai government to remove the sign. The Thais, despite their submission to Japanese occupation during the war, intensely disliked (and still do) the Japanese presence. The land where the graves and memorials stand is Thai government land and, if requested, Reverend Kingston considers the Thais would take appropriate action. However, so far as he knows, the British Embassy has made no moves on the matter, nor have the Australians or Dutch.
Meanwhile, the hollow sarcasm of the sign serves as an insight into the personality of the people who created the mass graveyard at Kanchanaburi. It is not only the Japanese economy that is resurgent.