Monument for those POWs whose remains couldn't be found
Bit of history fill in for you first. Kanchanburi is the site of the famous River Kwai and the legendary Bridge on the River Kwai. If you are reading this and have never seen David Lean’s “Bridge on the River Kwai” with Alec Guinness, I would suggest you don’t own a TV, or don’t live in the UK, as it is shown about once a year. It’s a great film; rent it if you haven’t seen it. Particularly if you're one of those people that thin Alec Guinness was only Obi Wan Kenobi.
The Bridge is part of the Death Railway, so called because in Japan’s attempts to conquer South East Asia in the second world war, they used mainly British, Dutch, Australian Prisoners of War and Malay, Thai, Indonesian men as slaves to build a railway to link Bangkok with Burma, as a supply route for the Japanese army. During this time (1943-1945), the POWs we’re hardly fed, forced to work 19 hours a day, given next to no medical assistance and brutalised generally. A railway that should have taken four years to build was built in sixteen months and the first train that traveled along it was full of prostitutes for the Japanese officer.
Over 100,000 POWs died and many more Thai, Malays, Indians and Indonesians also died as a result of malnutrition, disease, blood poisoning or execution. Here is the War cemetery in the centre of Kanchanaburi. A great deal of Scottish soldiers are buried here, from the Gordon Highlanders, Argyll and Sutherland regiments alongside English, Welsh, and Dutch. Most were 20-30 years old. There are a lot of British and Dutch in Kanchanaburi visiting the various sites of remembrance. On Koh Lanta for example, we met a couple who had visited the cemetery to see the grave of an uncle who had died as a POW. I wonder how many more we saw today had a personal connection.
The railway is still in use today but the original rails have been replaced. You can still see the original structure in places such as this viaduct. Small gauge rails with 1943 stamped into them. Many men died here, from accidents, either by falling rock or drowning whilst building the railway. We went on a train along the Death Railway and every minute you are thinking about what went on here. You know the facts but we have absolutely no real concept of how horrific it must have been for these men. The whole time we were in the area of the River Kwai and the cemetery was incredibly sobering.
Despite the heinous acts committed by the Japanese Army in this area (using POWS as slave labour, poor nutrition and lack of medical care are all contraventions of the Geneva Convention) I am most surprised to see a great deal of Japanese tourists. I’m not sure about how I should feel about this. Particularly at the Bridge on the River Kwai itself there’s the usual Japanese malarkey of photographing one another a thousand times over, posing smiling in front of whatever landmark they are visiting. This poses a couple of questions for me.
- How is this war taught in Japanese schools- i.e what have these people been taught about the actions of the Japanese during this time?
- Am I being unreasonable to expect that Japanese people maybe don’t visit this site of the darkest part of their history?
- That aside, if we say that yes, the Japanese should visit these areas in the same way that German children are taught about the Holocaust in honest detail, should a little bit more decorum and respect be present?
Don’t get me wrong, I am in no way anti Japanese. I hope one day to visit Japan, but it strikes me as odd that this be an area marketed to Japanese tourists. We have been in three other areas in Thailand and have seen next to no Japanese. Kanchanaburi is full of them. Do Americans visit Hiroshima? Is it long enough ago that we should move on? Am I being overly sensitive? After all these people are not responsible for the sins of the previous generation. They have as much to do with the actions of the Japanese Army as I do with British Imperialism and slave trading.
I don’t know, I can’t help thinking of the families who have placed messages and wreaths of remembrance for their fathers and grandfathers in Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, or of the few surviving POWS who return here for reasons of their own. How do they feel about a Karaoke barge full of singing middle aged Japanese tourists floating down the River Kwai belting out “Rawhide” in Japanese?