Other national memories

The Burma-Thailand railway was built by a multinational workforce, consisting of Allied prisoners of war (POWs), Asian labourers (rǒmusha) and Japanese and Korean engineers and guards. Although their experiences had much in common, the way in which they remembered the railway after the war varied according to national 'politics of memory'.

For the British the memory of 'Far Eastern' POWs was somewhat eclipsed by other events in World War II; notably, the Battle of Britain, the 1940 Blitz, Dunkirk, El Alamein and D-Day. The war against Japan took a secondary place to the war in Europe and the Mediterranean. Not only did it involve the 'difficult' memory of the humiliating defeat at Singapore in February 1942 but it foreshadowed the collapse of British imperial power in Asia.

So far as there was a British 'myth' of captivity during World War II, then, it was one of escape from German POW camps and particularly Colditz, the high-security fortress in Saxony. The image of the prisoners of the Japanese in popular media—films such as The Bridge on the River Kwai (1957) and King Rat (1965)—was less glamorous and unflattering.

In the last years of the 20th century British prisoners of the Japanese at last received greater recognition at home, including the compensation they had long sought. But even then the British government did not play an active a role in commemoration of the railway in Thailand, believing that memorialisation was best left to veterans' associations and individuals.

In the Netherlands the memory of prisoners of the Japanese was more prominent. This was partly because the Netherlands East Indies had been such an important part of the Netherlands Empire for some four centuries. There were also large numbers of 'Dutch' (including Eurasian) soldiers and civilians captured in 1942 who emigrated to the Netherlands after Indonesian independence in 1949.

The war cemeteries Kanchanaburi and Chungkai which contain the remains of over 2200 Dutch POWs became a focal point of remembrance for Dutch ex-POWs and their families. A church, the Beata Mundi Regina (Beautiful Queen of the World), found near the Kanchanaburi war cemetery, was funded by a Dutch ambassador to Thailand in 1955–56 to serve as 'war monument' where visitors could 'pray for the deceased'.

The numbers of other Westerners on the railway were so small that their experiences were marginalised in their national narratives of World War II. There were only 650 Americans on the railway, 132 of whom died. The New Zealander and Canadian dead were fewer than ten each.

Despite their terrible losses the rǒmusha struggled to find a place in any national memory. Firstly, they lacked the organisational structures of the Allied armies and, being illiterate, left few records of their experiences. Unlike some Australian POWs they did not write memoirs of captivity.

Secondly, they were the subjects of European empires during World War II. Their suffering therefore had no place in the triumphal narratives of independence of the post-war states of South East Asia. The wartime exploitation of civilian populations by the Japanese occupiers with whom some independence leaders had cooperated was an uneasy and uncomfortable memory.

The Burma-Thailand railway also has an ambiguous place in Thai memory. Faced with the Japanese demand for free passage for its troops through Thailand in December 1941, the Thai government capitulated after short resistance by their defence forces. On 25 January 1942 Thailand declared war on Britain and the United States.

This was a pragmatic accommodation to the realities of power in the Asia Pacific but it meant that World War II has an uneasy place in the national history of Thailand. Unlike Singapore, the Philippines and Burma, Thailand does not have a national day remembering the war. Only at the local level in Kanchanaburi is the railway and the workforce who built it actively remembered.

For the perpetrators, the Japanese, the memory of the Burma-Thailand railway is even more difficult. Since 1945 Japanese society has been divided on the question of its responsibility for the war in the Asia Pacific.

Hence it has been mainly individuals, not the Japanese State, who have sought reconciliation for the war crimes committed by their countrymen during the building of the Burma-Thailand railway. Driven by a desire for peace, the former Japanese interpreter Nagase Takashi invested in education and peace temples in Kanchanaburi while various Japanese associations created the Peace (Heiwakinan) Memorial Park at Lat Ya nearby.

Last updated: 17 January 2020

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2020), Other national memories, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 3 October 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/locations/remembering-railway/other-national-memories
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