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LONDON (Kyodo) Former Far East prisoners-of-war in Britain have given a mixed reaction to a proposal by an Imperial Japanese Army veteran to have the ruins of the infamous Thailand-Burma railway designated a World Heritage site.

Some former POWs are suspicious of the initiative and fear it could be aimed at glossing over their continuing demands for compensation for their suffering and a meaningful apology from the Japanese government.

Others worry that giving special status to the railway could lead to commercialization of the site, where over 13,000 Allied POWs died and 100,000 Asian forced laborers perished. Around 60,000 POWs were made to work on the railway.

But other former POWs and those working for reconciliation between the former enemies back the proposal, believing preservation of the ruins will serve as a permanent reminder of the horrors of war.

In February, tourism officials in Thailand welcomed proposals by former Japanese military interpreter Takashi Nagase to seek UNESCO World Heritage Site status for the railway line.

But they said that to apply, they would need the backing of former POWs in Britain, Australia and the Netherlands who worked on the railway.

World Heritage sites are designated by the United Nations Scientific Educational and Cultural Organization as important for the conservation of humanity’s cultural and natural heritage. Well-known sites include the Pyramids and the Great Wall of China.

Naming the remains of the 415 km railway a World Heritage Site would bring prestige and likely attract more visitors to the area.

It is also hoped the designation would raise tourism standards and preservation funds.

A 130 km stretch of the railway is still in operation in Thailand. Much of the abandoned section has been reclaimed by the jungle, but embankments, cuttings and bridge sites can still be found.

But Thai officials face an uphill struggle in getting the backing of surviving British POWs, many of whom still harbor bitter feelings over their treatment at the hands of the Imperial army.

Steve Cairns, 88, formerly national welfare adviser for the now defunct National Federation of FEPOW Clubs and Associations and a former railway laborer, said he is keeping an “open mind.”

“I think that, on balance, most of our members would see it as a good thing if it sustains the dignity of the area and passes on the message of peace.

“However, I’m worried that getting World Heritage status could boost the number of tourists coming to the railway and lead to increasing commercialization. Somebody could be making a fast buck and I would like some of these additional profits to go toward humanitarian organizations.”

Cairns said he remained suspicious of Japanese involvement in the plan. He said the Japanese government has arranged many reconciliation projects over the years to try and gloss over the fact that most POWs are not able to forgive Japan for its wartime brutality.

Arthur Titherington, from the Japanese Labour Camps Survivors Association, said, “I would much rather Mr. Nagase put his energies into a more positive action, like supporting us in our claim for a meaningful apology and compensation from Japan.

“This is much more important to us than turning the railway into a World Heritage site, which is neither here nor there.”

The “Death Railway” was built between June 1942 and October 1943 to move supplies into Burma (now Myanmar), where the Japanese army was preparing for an invasion of India.

The POWs and forced laborers suffered disease, poor living conditions, starvation rations and brutality at the hands of their captors.

Nagase, who assisted with interrogations of prisoners working on the line and who now lives in Kurashiki, Okayama Prefecture, believes World Heritage status will serve as a warning to Japanese society, which, he says, is becoming increasingly belligerent.

Eric Lomax, a former POW who was personally interrogated by Nagase but now counts him a good friend, said he supports the plan but warns that most POWs feel ambivalent on the subject.

Julie Summers, author of a recent book about the construction of the famous rail bridge over the River Kwai, said, “Anything which reminds people about the folly and horror of war is a good thing and to be welcomed.”

Nagase’s plan also received support from Tomoyo Nakao, an academic from Okayama University who studies POWs.

She said she hoped the plan would contribute to reconciliation and greater understanding of the site, adding that many of the POWs took great pride in their work on the railway and would want it to be remembered.

Former POW Fred Seiker, 90, who worked on the line said he broadly backed Nagase’s plan, particularly if there was a need for money to keep it running.

Carol Cooper, from COFEPOW, which represents the children of POWs, said she would personally back the plan if it came in the form of a joint British, Australian and Dutch initiative, and not from one person seeking “personal glory.”

Cooper, whose father died working on the railway, said the ruins should be preserved as a place for “quiet reflection.”

“It has annoyed me that near the bridge it has become very touristic, with music playing. There are lots of Japanese flocking over the bridge, but I don’t think they really reflect on what actually happened there,” she said.

Rod Beattie, managing director of the Thailand-Burma Railway Center, in Kanchanaburi, Thailand, does not think the proposal is necessary.

“The main issue is that the true story is kept alive. The two very good museums in Kanchanaburi . . . plus the fact that 130 km of the railway are still in use, and traveled over by huge numbers of visitors every year, means that there is very little point in having the railway declared a heritage site,” Beattie said.

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