This project, and particularly the way some of the labour employed in it was obtained, has become one of the most controversial wartime actions of the Japanese in Southeast Asia, largely as a result of enemy propaganda, which promptly called it the “death railway” because so many labourers, including war prisoners in the hands of the Japanese who were put to work at it, died of sheer hunger, disease, and exhaustion.
For years the British painted it as almost the foulest crime of the war in Asia of a foul-hearted people, the Asian counterpart of the Nazi butcheries in Europe. There is nothing I can say with regard to this charge. I do not know all the facts, but only those relating to the Burmese side of the matter. I will narrate fully what I know.
Late in 1942 Colonel Sasaki, who subsequently became the chief of the project, discussed with me a proposal to build a railway line across the border between Burma and Thailand as a section of a wider communication system linking together the Far Eastern countries.
Sasaki was a deeply dedicated man. He spoke with an intense faith in a more dynamic concept of Asian unity, in the need to act up to it by building roads and railways which would bring the neighbouring countries physically closer to each other, and consequently, coming to the point, to build a railroad between Burma and Thailand.
His words gave me a glimpse of the Asian future we were fighting for. More than that, the railway would wipe out a past deep historical wrong, for these two countries had been kept isolated from each other by the European imperialist powers in the region as one way of preserving their spheres of interest.
I was immediately captured by Sasaki’s scheme, which seemed to fulfill something I had dreamt of for long. Looking at it more tangibly, the railway would be a means of procuring our wartime necessities quickly and safely. So looking at it from all aspects it was a great undertaking.
All the members of the Burma government were won over by it. By participating in the project the Burmese would really be doing something that would widen their future, and so we agreed at once to supply the labour for the Burmese part of it.
We were so carried away by the very thought of such a doorway being opened towards the east and the rich promises it held out to the Burmese that I am afraid we did not think enough of some of the hard realities; for example, of the prodigious difficulties we would meet when actually raising and caring for a vast labour force to be employed in a totally new form of manual labour for the Burmese, in one of the wildest and most pestilential jungles in Burma and with the enemy continually attacking from the air.
But perhaps, taking a long view, it was better that we did not think too much of all that. Thakhin Ba Sein, the labour minister, took charge of our part of the job. He got together a large team to recruit, organise, transport, and settle in the border jungles the labour contingents, which he called the Let-yone, or strong-arm, force after the name of the political volunteer organisation the Thakin Party had formed before the wax.
The name was later changed into Chwe-tat, or sweat army, to bring it into line with the regular military force, which we called Thwe-tat, or blood army. We were at last doing something that promised to be big and futuristic, which would also add to our weight in our other dealings with the Japanese.
Sasaki asked for 26,000 men for the first year, and we gave him as many as we could recruit and he could accommodate and use. In return we put up certain conditions, that the families of the labourers should be allowed to join them after a period, that before leaving their homes for the camps the labourers should be paid an advance out of their future wages as well as a travelling allowance, that they should be provided with all essential commodities as well as care during the period of their employment.
Sasaki willingly accepted these conditions. Other measures also were taken to see that all went well: a strong labour bureau and service were set up, our political organisation, the Dobama Sinyetha Asiayone, took an active part in the drive for recruits, permanent inspectors as well as periodic inspection teams composed of high Burmese officers, including ministers of the government, visited the construction area and also the recruiting grounds from time to time and reported the conditions.
For instance, at the end of 1942 Thakin Mya, the deputy prime minister (who was assassinated together with Aung San and other cabinet colleagues on 19 July 1947), and Thakin Ba Sein visited Thanbyuzayat, where the new railroad started, saw 10,000 men of the sweat army at work under proper conditions, and reported to me accordingly.
Meanwhile, other inspection squads composed of ministers, secretaries of the government, permanent labour officers, and leading politicians like Ba Hein, a frontline communist, toured Pegu and Insein districts to whip up recruitment. The atmosphere of complete harmony and understanding in which everything was proceeding was reflected at a banquet held on January 11, 1943, to celebrate the success of the initial stage of the project.
The first period was rich in dreams as well as in actual work done, but the price the Burmese were paying for it was staggering. Upon their arrival the men were at once swallowed up by a scrubby, steamy, malaria-infested land inhabited only by a few wandering jungle-dwellers, and there they had to rebuild their lives and homes in an aboriginal emptiness.
At the end of the first stage of the project a good part of the jungle had been cleared and tamed, but more than half of the labourers had disappeared, having either fled or been killed off like flies by black-water fever, the deadliest form of malaria, and other jungle-camp epidemics.
When the true history of the war is written, as it will be one day, these labourers, who knew they were doomed to die and yet carried on to the very end, will most certainly be accorded their place among the truest heroes Burma produced in that world-wide conflict, although they are now unknown, unhonoured, and unsung, and even unburied in fitting graves.
Not even a solitary post stands to this day to tell later generations where their bones lie. We went into this shocking tragedy very thoroughly and were able to discover most of the truth behind it. A large part of it was certainly due to the nature and magnitude of the undertaking, the war conditions in which it had to be carried out, and the race with time in completing it.
Sasaki and the other top Japanese officers working in the project really did their best for the men, but in those first months a whole primordial wilderness had to be penetrated and conquered, materials and supplies were still on the way, very much remained to be organised, and there were endless other problems to be coped with by men who were doing it all for the first time.
Sasaki gave us facts to prove that conditions would get much better soon. “It is clearly necessary for the Japanese to keep the workers fit and strong and content in order to get the full amount of work needed from them,” he added. His explanation seemed reasonable.
As he promised, conditions got better gradually, the jungle yielded, the railroad moved in steadily, tidy little stopping stations began to appear alongside it, and at the same time permanent settlements sprang up in the clearings nearby, all clean and orderly in a typical Japanese way, and soon small dispensaries with medical men in charge followed and even a few white little pagodas gleamed here and there.
There were electric lights in some of the large settlements, an unheard-of amenity in a Burmese village before. To prevent water pollution with the resultant spread of disease the utmost care was taken in these settlements to obtain a continual supply of fresh running water and to dispose of the refuse in a proper sanitary way.
According to the figures we kept, the total number of labourers sent to the construction area was roughly 65,000, out of which at least half must have reached and worked in the wide stretch of dense jungle, so it was inevitable that the problems which were created should be new and formidable.
There were great improvements in many settlements, but there were also numerous small out-of-way camps where conditions continued to be most primitive and even brutal. These small labour camps lay within the deep jungle and were inaccessible to our labour officers and the visiting inspection teams. The Japanese superintendents in those unvisited spots were in many cases war- brutalised men who drove the workers like slaves, seized whatever they needed for their work from the neighbourhood often without giving sufficient compensation, and behaved thoroughly like slave-drivers.
As a result the construction camps presented a double picture; the large and more accessible settlements were well cared for, and the Japanese officers posted there conducted themselves properly, whereas many camps out of reach of the inspection teams were run like slave-camps by men who thought only of the work and not of the workers.
The villain was the superintendent on the spot. The only good thing that might be said of him is that he lived in exactly the same conditions as any worker in the camp and worked as hard and often much harder. He was a dedicated slave- driver who drove himself as hard as he drove the workers under him.
There is yet another side to the picture, an even more brutal one for the Burmese workers and their families in general. For them it was a total exile from their life-long homes, from which they were suddenly uprooted and hurled into an utterly unknown region. That was cruel enough, but the way it was done to a large number of them was so foul that it became one of the most abominable crimes committed on the people during the war.
The worst part of it was that the principal criminals were some of the Burmese themselves. The central government had enforced a system which gave the whole power of recruitment to the local Burmese administration, while the Japanese labour officers would merely stand by, fix the number of labourers needed, help when asked, and take them to their destination.
Out of this system, which was really intended to protect the Burmese, there grew a colossal racket, particularly in areas remote from central control. Thus a Japanese officer would ask for a certain number of labourers from a locality.
If the local Burmese officer who received the request happened to be corrupt, he would make up a list for each town and village under him, taking care to enter into it all his enemies and also some of the wealthiest inhabitants, who could be squeezed to pay the largest bribes. The list would contain more people than the required number in order to give a wider range for blackmail. Then these people would be told of their fate.
There would be a mad rush to get out of the list, and in the end those who had bribed most would succeed in doing so. If as a result the total number of labourers needed was not obtained the bums and tramps in town would be rounded up, appeased with a small payment, and packed off with secret instructions to take the first chance to run away before reaching the construction camp. One labour officer told me that three-quarters of the recruits did not arrive at the camp.
For various reasons we could not wholly stop it; the central administration was never strong enough to impose its authority completely in the remote areas, the more so when the Japanese would for their own reasons often come in the way. Thus we very seldom knew the full truth in time, and even when we did the fast-crumbling war situation prevented us from acting really effectively, and, of course, there was always the final argument of “war necessity” to intimidate our local officers.
All that most of the Japanese labour officers bothered about was to get the right number of workers; they did not care how it was done, particularly when the Burmese themselves were doing it. So the racket went on in one form or another throughout 1944 and has left behind the most indelible memories among the people.
It was remembered so searingly by so many in the country that the political parties which had actively taken part in the recruitment tried to scuttle out by laying the whole blame on me personally as being at the head of affairs at the time.
I have refused to deny my guilt, for I was indeed guilty according to the constitution, although in no other way. I have accepted the accusation and abuse as an act of expiation for my inability to prevent such an appalling mass crime.
The great day arrived about a year later when the two tracks' approaching each other from Burma and Thailand at last met and the railroad was formally opened. The original plan was that I from the Burma side and Prime Minister Pibul Songgram from Thailand should ride the first trains leaving from opposite ends to greet each other dramatically at the border.
I looked forward with the greatest excitement to that meeting, but when the time came I was advised not to keep the rendezvous, because information had been received that there would be a fierce British air attack on the train on that day. It was in June 1945 that I actually saw the railway for the first time when I visited Thanbyuzayat, the Burma terminus, and only in August of that year that I travelled on it when, after the Japanese surrender, I fled by that railway to Thailand on my way to Japan.
With a remnant of the Burmese government, I had joined in the Japanese retreat from Rangoon in April, and so reached Mudon, in Moulmein District, some miles from Thanbyuzayat. I learnt at Mudon many facts about the railway and its labourers. The men and women from some of the nearby, better-off settlements travelled regularly to Moulmein to sell various goods supplied to them by the Japanese. I was told that these sales were an important source of the textiles and medicines needed by the people of that district.
The tracks, which had been laid by men labouring under the most dangerous possible conditions, kept firm and smooth throughout in spite of the violent kamikaze speed at which a badly battered engine was taking us, for the Japanese were racing against time at that juncture. The bridges were constructed of wood and bamboo, often held together by wire or ropes or even thongs in places.
Some of the longer bridges skirting and in places precariously overhanging the gorges or steep river banks were simply breath-taking, and so were the sharp bends and climbs and loops that our train took most cheerfully and without even seeming to slow down. This journey will remain as one of the deepest experiences of my life.
We stopped for the night at a settlement near the border, the name of which I have forgotten. I decided to see it for myself. While walking down one of its little lanes I shouted out to all I passed that the war was over and they would be able to return to their old homes soon. I was laughing, but I noticed that hardly anyone else was.
Surprised, I asked them if they were not happy at the thought of going back, upon which some scratched their heads and looked confused and seemingly unable to make up their minds about it. When I repeated my question one of them replied, “We have settled down here nicely, and the place has now become our own village. Our families as well as many friends have also joined us. It will mean a lot of hardship to go back.”
I then looked at the little village more closely. Only then did it strike me as a surprisingly well-built and well-organised group of huts, many of them with a small garden plot bright with monsoon flowers or filled with rows of vegetables. The jungle around had gone, and| there was a tiny pagoda, a school, and even a make-shift dispensary.
I have told the Burmese side of the story. None of us here really knew how the railway was being constructed in Thailand, or the nature of the labour employed there, or the labour conditions. Remembering our own experience in Burma it is easy to believe that there must have been an enormous toll in human life and suffering in many labour camps elsewhere too.
But on the other side of the picture there was an enormous gain as well, the conquest of a vast jungle frontier which had kept two neighbouring peoples apart since time began, and this in the long reckoning of history might well be judged as outweighing everything else. If we take that historical view it will be seen that few enterprises during the whole war showed more essential vision than the construction of this railroad.
But with the defeat of the Japanese it vanished forever and only the most lurid wartime memories and stories remain. The region is once again a wilderness, except for a few neatly kept graveyards where many British dead now sleep in peace and dignity. As for the Asians who died there, both Burmese, and Japanese, their ashes lie scattered and lost and forgotten forever.
(Encyclopaedia Britannica: Ba Maw, (born Feb. 8, 1893, Maubin, Burma [Myanmar]—died May 29, 1977, Yangon), politician who in 1937 became the first Burmese premier under British rule; he later was head of state in the pro-Japanese government during World War II (August 1943–May 1945).
Ba Maw was educated at Rangoon College, Calcutta University, the University of Cambridge, and the University of Bordeaux, Fr., where he received a doctorate in 1924. Admitted to the English bar the same year, he first came into prominence as defense lawyer for the Burmese rebel leader Saya San in 1931.
When the new constitution, providing for separation of Burma from India, went into effect on April 1, 1937, he became the first premier, and he held office until he was defeated by a coalition in February 1939.
After his defeat, Ba Maw allied with other Burmese leaders to form the Freedom Bloc, which opposed Burma’s participation with the Allies in World War II. In August 1940 he was arrested by the British for sedition and remained in prison until the Japanese invasion in 1942.
During the Japanese occupation (1943–45), he was adipati (head of state) of a theoretically independent Burma, although the country was actually a Japanese satellite. He fled to Japan when the Allies reentered Burma. After a brief time in an Allied prison, he returned and unsuccessfully attempted to reenter politics. He later retired to private life.)