KANCHANABURI, THAILAND – As Thailand pushes for a notorious railway built by the Imperial Japanese Army during World War II to become a UNESCO World Cultural Heritage site, local residents are debating whether its widely known nickname, the “Death Railway,” should be used in the campaign.
The debate is framed by a strong sense that future generations must be taught history for what it is, and on the other hand by a concern that using the popular name could cause a diplomatic rift with Japan, with which Thailand has built long-standing ties.
At a recent public hearing in Kanchanaburi, capital of the western province of the same name, nearly half of the 450 or so participants from four districts along the Thai-Burma Railway raised their hands in agreement when asked if they were concerned that using the name Death Railway could cause bad feelings and unnecessary friction with Japan.
Borvornvate Rungrujee, president of the Thai chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites (ICOMOS Thailand), has advised Thailand not to use Death Railway for the official heritage designation on the grounds that doing so would seem like directing blame at Japan.
“We will mention in the tentative list (of potential properties for nomination) that the railway can also be called Death Railway, but I do not recommend using it as an official one,” Borvornvate said at the July 22 hearing, adding that Japanese officials have expressed concerns.
The roughly 400-km railway connecting Thailand and what is now Myanmar was built to support Japanese forces in the Burma campaign of the war, using Allied prisoners of war and Asian civilians, including Thais, as forced labor.
Construction began in 1942 and was completed in slightly over a year. But harsh conditions and diseases like malaria took large tolls, with the undertaking thought to have claimed the lives of over 100,000 people, many of them POWs.
The sites envisioned for listing by the U.N. Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization include a dark steel bridge that was featured in the 1957 Oscar-winning movie “The Bridge on the River Kwai.”
Others include the Tham Krasae Bridge, a wooden viaduct that hugs a cliff along the Khwae Noi River; Hellfire Pass, a narrow stage completed quickly but with tremendous loss of human life; and the Chong Kai Allied War Cemetery, where many Allied POWs were buried.
Local authorities claim the proposed sites, which draw many foreign tourists to the region, present an outstanding example of human interaction with the environment and are associated with ideas or beliefs of outstanding universal significance.
A preliminary draft for World Heritage recognition is expected to be submitted to a government working group after September.
If recommended by the Thai government, the tentative list will be handed over to the UNESCO World Heritage Secretariat in English and French by early 2020.
Pisun Chansilp, Kanchanaburi Province’s chief cultural affairs official, said the main objective of pushing the railway for World Heritage designation is to have it serve as a reminder to mankind that war should not happen again.
Echoing the view of ICOMOS Thailand President Borvornvate, Pisun said the proposal is not intended to highlight how cruel the Japanese soldiers were. He instead suggests that an alternative like “Historical Railway — World War II” be used as the official title.
At the public hearing, however, half the participants seemed to view Death Railway as the most suitable title because it is the bridge’s most internationally recognizable name.
“I insist on using the same well-known name. I do not want to point out Japan’s past conduct, nor do I blame them, but it is the fact,” one participant said.
ICOMOS Thailand will hold a meeting to finalize the name later this year. If its application succeeds, the historic railway will become Thailand’s first World Cultural Heritage site in 25 years, according to the group,
“It is not about blaming each other now. It is the past and we can learn from it,” said Chutimon Sitthiwong, a 42-year-old tour guide who said visiting railway-related museums in Kanchanaburi would be an eye-opener. “The point is that the cruel war must not happen again.”