Burmese and Thai Involvement
Thailand will give cooperation and assistance for construction of the railway … Expenses for equipment that Thailand provides will be paid by the Japanese army.
['Agreement between the Government of Japan and Thailand concerning Construction of the Burma–Siam Railway' in Paul H. Kratoska (ed.), The Burma-Thailand Railway 1942–1946: Documents and Selected Writings, vol, I, London, Routledge, 71.]
The history of the Burma-Thailand railway is often told with little reference to the people on whose territory much of it was built: the Thais.
When the Japanese launched their attack on Malaya on 7–8 December 1941 they demanded that the Thai government grant them free passage for their troops through Thailand. Since it was clear that the British and the United States, from whom Thailand had sought assurances of support in the months before war, had no capacity to assist Thailand, the government of Phibun Songkram capitulated. Thai troops resisted the landing of Japanese troops on Thai territory for only a matter of hours.
In late December 1941 Thailand signed an agreement with the Japanese and then on 25 January 1942 declared war on Britain and the United States. It was a decision which split the government with the Thai foreign minister Direk Chaiyanam and the liberal leader Pridi Phanomyong advocating resistance against the Japanese. Overseas Thai diplomats and ex-patriots also opposed what they saw as a Japanese occupation of Thailand and formed the Seri Thai (Free Thai) movement.
In Thai accounts of the war the alliance with the Japanese is depicted—not unreasonably—as a pragmatic accommodation to the realities of power balances in the Asia-Pacific. It was a 'devil's choice' in which the only option available to the Thais, if they wished to preserve their sovereignty and some semblance of independence, was to collaborate with the Japanese. Indeed when the war ended Thailand, which installed a more liberal government with Seri Thai connections, in 1944, was 'cleared of any war guilt' and moved quickly into the US sphere of influence.
Yet, it remains the fact that the railway could not have been built without Thai compliance and reluctant assistance. During the war years the Thai government was compelled to loan the Japanese some 491 million baht to fund the railway. Food and other supplies for the railway personnel were also supplied by local traders who plied the Kwae Noi with their barges and drove their herds of buffalo up the road from Kanchanaburi.
Thai nationals also worked on the railway during its early stages. However, tensions arose between them and the Japanese as result of the latter's arrogance, their requisitioning of temples and their discourtesy to Buddhist priests. In late 1942 when Thai workers near Ban Pong were evicted from a temple in which they were lodging, they turned on the Japanese soldiers, killing four and severely wounding four others. After this incident the Japanese authorities reportedly ordered its troops to salute Buddhist priests.
When Thai workers working on the railway decided that they would abscond, the Thai government pressured the local Chinese to make up the shortfall. Between December 1943 and February 1945 the Chinese Association supplied 5200 workers, of whom 500 died. However, there is another narrative of Thai involvement in the railway's construction. This tells of a Thai population who were generally sympathetic and generous, taking pity on the POWs, supplying them illicitly with food, clothing, money, medicines and even radio parts so they could communicate with the outside world.
One such Thai was Boonpong Sirivejaphan, a shopkeeper in Kanchanaburi who was contracted by the Japanese to provide supplies to the railway workforce. In secret he also worked with a resistance group based in an internment camp in Bangkok, the V organization. With funding provided from this source and at great risk to himself and his young daughter, Boonpong smuggled life-saving medical supplies into POW camps along the railway. He also cashed prisoners 'cheques' and lent money on watches and jewellery, all of which he kept to be redeemed after the war. As Lieutenant-Colonel 'Weary' Dunlop wrote at Hintok Mountain camp on 2 September 1943:
There have been some pleasing signs of late as regards medical stores and emetine in particular. Certain gentlemen have supplied some 72 gains and offer a most hopeful avenue for either free supply of drugs or supplying a cheque for medical purposes.
[The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Melbourne, Nelson, 1986, 280.]
For many years after the war little was known of Boonpong's role in assisting the POWs. In 1985 however Sir Edward 'Weary' Dunlop included in an Anzac Day speech in Kanchanaburi a tribute to Boonpong and other Thais who helped the prisoners. Thereafter Boonpong gained increasing recognition. Through the efforts of ex-POWs, Keith Flanagan, Bill Haskell and Ken Wood, a Weary Dunlop–Boonpong Exchange Fellowship was established in 1986. A collaborative program between the Royal Australasian College of Surgeons and the Royal College of Surgeons of Thailand, it provides opportunities for Thai surgeons to undertake surgical training attachments in Australian hospitals.
Boonpong was also recognised by the United Kingdom (George Cross) and the Dutch government (Orange-Nassau Cross). In 1998, at the opening of the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum, the Australian government also formally recognised Boonpong's courage by presenting his grandson with a certificate of appreciation for the 'unrepayable debt' owed to his grandfather. It also donated $50,000 to the Exchange Fellowship.
The house in which Boonpong lived during World War II can still be found in Kanchanaburi in the old sector of the town at 96 Pak Prak Road. His family maintains a small museum there in his honour. His story and association with Dunlop has also been told in the 2008 Australian video The Quiet Lions.