By participating in the project [the Burma-Thailand railway] the Burmese could really be doing something that could widen their future, and so we agreed at once to supply the labour for the Burmese part of it.
[Burmese leader Ba Maw, Breakthrough in Burma: Memoirs of a revolution, 1939-1946, New Haven, Yale University Press, 290.]
The largest group of workers to die while constructing the Burma-Thailand railway were the Burmese (a term that encompasses ethnic minorities as well as Burmans). How many died is not known precisely but estimates vary from 30 000 to 42 000.
This huge tragedy was caused by the Japanese grossly mistreating their workforce and failing to provide adequate food, accommodation and medical care for the ill-equipped rǒmusha. However, responsibility for the Burmese deaths must also be shared by their own collaborationist government which enthusiastically supported the Japanese plans to build the railway.
The Japanese conquest of South East Asia was welcomed by ethnic Burmese as a way of ending British colonial rule. When the Japanese attacked Burma in early 1942, they were accompanied by a Burmese Independence Army, later to become the Burma Defence (National) Army under the command of Aung San, who had himself been trained in Japan.
Hopes that the Japanese would grant Burma independence immediately, however, were not realised. Instead in August 1942 the Japanese created a Burmese civilian administration to work in collaboration with their military administration. The leader of the Burmese Executive Administration (BEA) was a French-educated lawyer and politician, Ba Maw who had earlier opposed the participation of Britain, and by extension Burma, in World War II. In 1940 he had been jailed for sedition.
Like many of his colleagues Ba Maw was persuaded by the Japanese rhetoric of 'Asia for the Asians' and saw collaboration as a pathway to Burmese self-rule. In fact, the Japanese did grant Burma independence in a nominal sense in August 1943, in return for which Ba Maw declared war on Britain and the United States.
When the Japanese decided in early 1943 that they needed to supplement their workforce of Allied POWs in order to meet their tight deadlines for completing the railway, Ba Maw's administration readily agreed to assist in recruiting what was called the 'Sweat Army' (chwe-tat). As Ba Maw later wrote, ignoring traditional hostilities between Burma and Thailand:
The railway would wipe out a past deep historical wrong, for these two nations had been kept isolated from each other by the European imperialist powers in the region as a way of preserving their spheres of interest.
[Breakthrough in Burma, 290]
In January 1943 an official banquet was held to mark the start of the Burmese involvement in the project and a labour service board was established in March. BEA ministers publicly urged Burmese workers and peasants to enlist, arguing that the railway was essential for the importation of salt and other commodities, as well as a fulfilment of their promise to cooperate closely with the Japanese.1
The first recruitment campaign which promised the labourers payment, short-term contracts and the prospect of being joined by their families, was a great success, raising tens of thousands of workers. The initial labour gangs were sent to the railway with pomp and ceremony.
However, it soon became clear that conditions on the railway were nothing like what had been promised. News leaked out of maltreatment, primitive accommodation, overwork, starvation and illness. The Burmese civilian administration, which supposedly had set up systems to inspect and monitor the Sweat Army's conditions, proved incapable of relieving the plight of the workers, particularly those far up-country beyond the start of the railway at Thanbyuzayat.
With work on the railway becoming increasingly unpopular, further efforts at recruitment in mid-1943 failed. Ultimately, probably only a minority of the Burmese who worked on the railway were there of their free will. The vast majority were coerced to work for the Japanese.
Others, it seems, accepted money to take the place of those unwilling to go. According to Ba Maw's 1968 memoir—admittedly, a transparent exercise in self-justification—a 'colossal racket' developed as levies were imposed on villages. Local officials with quotas to fill compiled lists that included their own enemies and extracted bribes from those seeking to escape being conscripted.2
How many labourers were ultimately recruited is not known. Ba Maw claimed some 65 000 worked on the railway; a Dutch officer estimated after the war that the number was around 90 000.3 Vast numbers of Burmese deserted rather than work in the appalling conditions that faced them.
Not surprisingly the recruitment of workers for the Japanese became a source of searing anger, particularly against Ba Maw. However, given the political instability after the war and the rapid granting of Burmese independence, British officials did not move to bring him and his government to account for their role in the railway's construction. Aung San and the Burmese National Army had also transferred its support to the Allies in April 1945, though it played little role in the final weeks of the campaign in Burma.
Ba Maw remained unrepentant till the end, claiming that the railway had brought not only death but enormous gains in the form of 'the conquest of a vast jungle frontier'. His admission of liability in 1968 was deeply ambiguous:
I have refused to deny my guilt, for I was indeed guilty according to the constitution, although in no other way. I have accepted the accusation and abuse as an act of expiation for my inability to prevent such an appalling mass crime.
[Breakthrough in Burma, 297, 295]