CHENNAI: Sometimes long after history vanishes from the archives, it lives on in people. Considered one of the Japanese Army’s darkest secrets, the lives of thousands of native labourers who put their lives on the line — a railway line between Thailand and Burma — find a voice in the documentary Siam-Burma: Marana Railpathai (Thailand-Burma Rail Link A Killing Field).
After traveling to six countries and tracing the lives of a handful of survivors, academician R Kurinjivendhan screened the documentary in Chennai to a packed house of 400. The screening itself had its share of turbulence. An hour before it began, police objected to the documentary while audience had already begun taking their seats. However, the organisers refused to budge.
Set in the Second World War, the story begins when Singapore fell in 1941, allowing Japan to realise that its dream of ‘A Greater Asia’, of which the Thailand-Burma railway track project was a part, could be fulfilled. The 415-km track was intended to transport troops and supplies through the notorious terrain spanning dense rainforests, rivers and mountains. “When Britain left Malay, unemployment and mass destitution were rampant. Many plantation workers left their homes to work on the railway track,” said Kurinjivendhan.
Most native labourers involved in the project were from Tamil Nadu and migrated to work in the plantations in Malay, Singapore and Burma after The Great Madras Famine of 1876. Some worked to fight poverty while others were simply spirited away.
Govindammal recounted how her brother never returned after he left home to buy coffee powder. Another academician said the Japanese took advantage of the proverbial Tamil love for cinema. They would lure them into theatres and bundle them out through a different exit.
The survivors, some almost 100 years old, recalled the worst excesses of the Japanese army, as if it happened only yesterday. Seventy five years after the tragedy, some broke down in front of the camera; while others, perhaps hardened by time and the ferocity of the experience (like the survivors of Auschwitz in Poland), narrated tales of decapitation, helplessly watching loved ones die and of mass cremation of the dead and nearly-dead.
“The project, which was estimated to be completed in five years, was over in just 15 months,”said Kurinjivendhan, summing up the suffering labourers had endured before the first train ran on those tracks.
It happened in 1943 when, according to the film, call girls arrived by the first train, to celebrate the ‘achievement’ with the Jap army.
According to Kurinjivendhan, although the Tamils were not alone in the struggle to satisfy the venality of the Japanese, their struggle was the most poorly documented. Apart from Asian labourers, prisoners of war from the allied forces also suffered. But their ‘graves were marked at least’, said a researcher.
The Kanchanaburi War Cemetery in Thailand is home to the graves of almost 7,000 prisoners of war. Whereas of the 1.8 lakh Tamil labourers who worked on the rail project, only 35,000 returned, according to a British Census after the Second World War, Kurinjivendhan asserted.
Researchers believe the records had systematically been destroyed, and with them the stories of almost 1.5 lakh Tamil labourers. The fate of the others is known only to two witnesses: the Japanese Government and the River Kwai.