The flocks of foreign tourists who visit this western Thai city usually head straight to the storied bridge on the River Kwai and the meticulously maintained cemeteries containing the remains of thousands of Allied prisoners of war who died building a railway here during World War II.
If they come to the quiet residential neighborhood where Urai Bosap lives, it is probably because they have taken a wrong turn. No memorials attest to the horrors that took place here six decades ago, just a small orchard of banana plants and lime trees wedged between the walled compounds of well-to-do families.
But Urai, 78, knows better. She refuses to eat fruit from the orchard because as a teenager she watched the bodies of hundreds of emaciated Asian laborers being thrown into mass graves where the trees now stand.
ILLUSTRATION: MOUNTAIN PEOPLE
"Sometimes the people were not yet dead," Urai said, her eyes narrowing at the memory. "They were still groaning when they threw them in the hole."
The construction of what is sometimes called the "Death Railway" linking Thailand with Japanese-occupied Burma in the 1940s became a symbol of the cruelty inflicted by Japanese troops as they sought to conquer the lands of East Asia and beyond. Yet the largest group of victims of the railway construction, an estimated 70,000 Asian laborers, is barely commemorated here in Kanchanaburi, about 100km northwest of Bangkok.
Their remains lie, for the most part, where the Japanese dumped them: scattered up and down the railway line that is still partly in use today.
Between 200,000 and 300,000 Asian laborers -- no one knows the exact number -- were press-ganged by the Japanese and their surrogates to work on the rail line: Tamils, Chinese and Malays from colonial Malaya; Burmans and other groups from present-day Myanmar; and Javanese from what is now Indonesia.
"It is almost forgotten history," said Sasidaran Sellappah, a retired plantation manager in Malaysia, whose father was among 120 Tamil workers from a rubber estate forced to work on the railway. Only 47 survived.
Sasidaran, who is helping lead a campaign for compensation from the Japanese government, says he has met many families who knew so little about the railway that they did not understand why their fathers or grandfathers left for Thailand and never returned.
By contrast, the travails of the 61,806 British, Australian, Dutch and US prisoners of war who worked on the railway -- about 20 percent of whom died from starvation, disease and execution -- have been recorded in at least a dozen memoirs, documented in the official histories of the governments involved and romanticized in the fictionalized 1957 Hollywood classic The Bridge on the River Kwai and the bestselling novel by Pierre Boulle that inspired it.
The two cemeteries in Kanchanaburi dedicated to the prisoners of war are decorated with rows of flowering plants and watched over by 15 full-time groundskeepers. They resemble the Normandy memorials to the fallen soldiers of the D-Day invasion.
Many of the graves here are inscribed with poignant epitaphs like the one on the headstone of H.S. McLeod, a 34-year-old Australian sergeant who died in 1943: "A smile and a wave of the hand, he wandered into an unknown land."
The Western prisoners of war were usually kept separate from the Asian laborers. Eric Lomax, a British POW, remembers seeing "thin columns of Asians" that soon became a "flood, a tide of unhappy men."
"It was possible even then, with my small knowledge of the scale of events overtaking all of us, to guess that these pathetic laborers would die in enormous numbers and be the biggest victims of the railway," Lomax wrote in his 1995 memoir The Railway Man.
Having conquered Southeast Asia, the Japanese built the railway to keep their troops supplied as they pushed toward India. The railway bypassed an inconvenient piece of geography, the Malay Peninsula, which required ships to sail 3,200km from Bangkok to Burma. The rail journey was just over 560km.
Today a handful of residents and a dwindling number of Asian survivors, most in their 80s and 90s, are the only remaining witnesses to the years of disease, malnutrition, abuse and killings.
When they die, an important piece of history will die with them, says Muthammal Palanisamy, a former teacher in Malaysia who has found 12 former railway laborers, mostly Tamils, and is compiling their wartime accounts for a book.
She has placed advertisements in Tamil-language newspapers asking survivors to contact her but says very few have responded. That is probably for the same reason they have not written memoirs: Most cannot read or write.
The dozen laborers she has spoken to tell similar stories, she says. They were told by the Japanese that the railway was a glorious project that would help liberate India from the grip of British colonialists. During the penury of wartime, some went voluntarily for the promise of wages. The Japanese forced others.
Tongyu Chalawankumpi was taken as a teenager from what is now northern Malaysia after the Japanese offered his mother a handsome cash payment in exchange for his labor.
Tongyu spent two years hammering railway ties and crushing rocks. The railway, about 414km long and built through mountainous and malarial jungle, would have been a challenge to build even with the most modern engineering equipment. But it was mainly built by hand or with the help of elephants, which, according to one Japanese account, were better treated than the workers.
Tongyu escaped, fearing he would be thrown alive into a mass grave. "I was getting sick, and I knew I would end up in the hole," he said in an interview at his house, not far from where the railway passes.
He jumped into the river and floated downstream for seven days and nights, clinging to a piece of bamboo before being rescued and sheltered by Buddhist monks.
After the war, the British colonial government in Malaya distributed US$1.5 million to the widows and the dependents of Malayan residents who died building the railway. The post-independence government of Malaysia settled its overall claims with Japan in 1967, accepting several million dollars as reparations.
It is not clear why there is so little awareness in Southeast Asia of the role of Asian laborers on the railway, especially given the scale of the suffering. On many Malayan rubber plantations, the Japanese demanded at least one able-bodied son from each family for the project.
Of the more than 85,000 workers who were drafted from Malaya, 33,000 died, Japanese records at the time show.
Yet little is taught about it in Malaysian history books. And no government efforts have been made to find and reclaim the many bodies that remain in the jungles alongside the railway tracks.
Worawut Suwannarit, a history professor at Kanchanaburi Rajabhat University here, has spent decades trying to increase recognition for the Asian laborers and has come to a harsh and bitter conclusion.
"This is why these are called undeveloped countries, Third World countries," he said. "They don't care about their people."
Others blame the British -- the colonial rulers before and after the war in Burma and Malaya, the countries with the most workers on the railway -- for not doing more to honor the dead.
The Thai government has had little incentive to honor the victims because few Thais worked on the railway.
That is because the Japanese feared antagonizing their hosts, who had signed a treaty with Japan allowing the stationing and transit of troops in exchange for the preservation of Thailand's sovereignty.
In 1990, a Thai charitable organization, hearing from a Kanchanaburi resident about the possible existence of a mass grave, partly dug up the area where the lime trees and banana plants stand today.
Using a backhoe, a piece of equipment not normally used for historical excavation, the crew found more than 500 skeletons. After an inspection crew from the Australian embassy determined the remains were not those of Allied soldiers, the charitable group took the bones to a crematorium in Bangkok and incinerated them.
This angered Worawut, who pleaded with local officials that the grave site be made into a museum and memorial to the Asian laborers.
"They never answered me," Worawut said.
With no financing available, he removed 33 skeletons he had unearthed and filled in the hole.
"I believe there are still more bodies there -- a lot," he said. "But nobody wants to do anything about it."
He entrusted the skeletons to the historical department of Kanchanaburi Province for safekeeping. In February, accompanied by a reporter, Worawut returned to the department's offices to ask what had happened to the skeletons.
He was greeted by Pichit Rongrithikrai, a department manager, who said the bones had been discarded three or four years earlier because workers and visitors complained of an odor.
"There was a stale smell," Pichit said.
The bones, he said, were buried by a maintenance worker, not far from the compost heap.
The second wave of COVID-19 in Taiwan is cause for increasing concern. For four consecutive days, starting on Monday, the government has announced new confirmed cases, including several members of a tour group who visited Turkey. Among 23 new cases that the Central Epidemic Command Center announced on Wednesday, four were members of that tour group. As of Thursday, only two individuals in the entire tour group have tested negative for the virus. Minister of Health and Welfare Chen Shih-chung (陳時中), who heads the center, has expressed concern over this cluster of infections. As of Thursday, Turkey and Egypt had reported only
Swirling within the cybersphere’s vast ocean of reports, statistics and graphs about the international coronavirus pandemic, there is a short sentence out there in the worldwide web, which the Chinese government doesn’t want people to notice. It is on the Johns Hopkins University website “https://coronavirus.jhu.edu/map.html” which houses the popular “live map” of Wuhan coronavirus disease-2019 (COVID-19) data from individual countries. That sentence reads: “The map’s names of locations correspond with the official designations used by the US State Department, including for Taiwan.” Most readers may think this merely is an unremarkable footnote, akin to other source data on the site. But
On March 6, China announced through Hong Kong’s Chinese-language Ming Pao that Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) would visit Wuhan “soon.” On the same day, US-based Chinese-language IPK Media published an article by Chinese tycoon Ren Zhiqiang (任志強), with the headline: “An official call to arms against Xi: The clown who insists on wearing the emperor’s new clothes.” Will the truth about the struggles inside the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) in the wake of the COVID-19 outbreak finally be revealed? Ren’s article is reminiscent of Tang Dynasty poet Luo Binwang’s (駱賓王) “An official call to arms against Empress Wu Zetian (武則天)
While countries worldwide are fighting the havoc caused by the spread of the Chinese coronavirus, Beijing is busy playing games to suppress Taiwan’s visibility on the international stage as the nation has gained attention for its superb campaign to protect its citizens from the virus. At the onset of the pandemic in late December last year, pundits predicted that Taiwan would be the second large red zone following China. By the middle of last month, those predictions were utterly debunked. At the time, Taiwan registered fewer than 40 cases and the nation has since expeditiously geared up the production and supply of