Anzac Day in Thailand
Just before dawn a few shadowy forms gathered on the road [at 75-Kilo camp, Burma]. … The still solemnity of this Anzac morning—their day since 1915—garbed their emaciated forms with imagined uniforms … [They marched] to where a large wooden cross had been erected. A wreath of timid jungle flowers and ferns were reverently laid before this simple shrine, in memory, not only of the fallen of 1914–18 and of this last war, but also of the all too many mates, whose resting places were marked by an almost endless chain of pitiful little wooden crosses throughout the length of this trail of tribulation.
[William P. Webb memoir, AWM PR87/183]
The Burma-Thailand railway has had a long association with Anzac Day.
By a remarkable coincidence Australians in D force started work in the vicinity of Hellfire Pass on or very near 25 April 1943.
Despite their sickness and exhaustion Australian prisoners along the railway found the energy to commemorate the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli in 1915. It was important for them to position their experience of war within the foundational national narrative of the Anzac 'legend'. They had been defeated in 1942 but they could still display the qualities for which Australian soldiers were renowned—resourcefulness, laconic humour, endurance, courage and mateship.
Anzac Day 1944 saw four hundred men attending a service at Chungkai hospital camp near Kanchanaburi. After a minute's silence the padre, according to the Australian doctor Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. 'Weary' Dunlop 'gave us all a rocket that we only turn up to church in large numbers on this one day!' He also forgot to mention the New Zealanders in his sermon—perhaps because there were so few New Zealanders taken prisoner by the Japanese [The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Melbourne, Nelson, 1986, 346].
After the war in the 1950s and 1960s Anzac Day services began to be held at the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery. From 1987 they were held at Hellfire Pass (Konyu Cutting).
It was on Anzac Day 1987 that Hellfire Pass was dedicated after being reclaimed from the jungle by returning POWs. In 1994 Anzac Day was the occasion for the burial of a portion of Dunlop's ashes and the dedication of a plaque to Australian POW doctors.
In recent years the Anzac Day ceremonies at Hellfire Pass, held at dawn, have attracted increasing numbers of 'pilgrims'. In 2012 an estimated 1100 people gathered around the commemorative memorial installed by the Australian government in 2005. Urged by the Australian officials they passed around bottles of water 'in the Anzac spirit'.
After the ceremony visitors share a 'gun breakfast' of tea, coffee and Anzac biscuits at the Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum above the cutting before travelling to Kanchanaburi War Cemetery for the 10 am service. In recent years this has been moved from the traditional time slot of 11 am because of the oppressive heat of Thailand in April. Here the rituals are more multicultural. Anzac Day, though a ceremony for Australians and New Zealanders, is being invested with meaning by other national groups that worked on the Burma-Thailand railway. Thai authorities and defence personnel also lay many wreaths while young Thais play in the bagpipe band.
An official part of today's Anzac Day in Thailand is the gathering on 24 April of Australians staying at the Home Phu Toey resort, near Hellfire Pass. Many of these 'pilgrims' are members of a Western Australian based Quiet Lions tour.
Their host is Thai businessman Mr Kanit Wanachote who became a close friend of Dunlop and other Australian prisoners when they returned to find the railway's remains in the 1980s. In honour of Dunlop Kanit has created a Weary Dunlop Park in the grounds of his resort. This is the site of multi-faith ceremonies in memory of the dead while a Sound & Light show nearby re-enacts the bombing of a specially created miniature 'Bridge on the River Kwai'.