Labeling of wartime laborers

In Roger Pulvers’ Dec. 1 letter, “POWs on the Burma-Thai Railway” (a reply to my Nov. 16 letter, “Who worked the Burma-Thai rails?“), Pulvers apparently reasserts the claim from Richard Flanagan’s book “The Narrow Road to the Deep North” that the Asian laborers who toiled on the Burma-Thailand line were “prisoners of war.”

There is no evident support for Pulvers’ characterization among World War II historians. “Noncombatant prisoner of war” is a term generally reserved for citizens of belligerents — not colonial subjects caught in the middle of a war between imperial powers.

The reason this issue concerns me is that Pulvers’ joint characterization strongly implies that Allied POWs and Asian laborers harbored the same wartime aims.

In his recent letter, Pulvers strengthens this sense of fraternity by stating that the Asian laborers were “captured.” In reality, the initial intake were coerced. When many wisely fled, the Japanese resorted to strong-arm recruitment.

Whether intended or implied, the suggestion of a common wartime aim would not be appreciated by contemporary Southeast Asians, and would prove detrimental to a fuller understanding of the war in the West. I suggest that Pulvers settle on a classification for those unfortunate laborers other than “prisoner of war.”

paul de vries
kawaguchi, saitama

The opinions expressed in this letter to the editor are the writer’s own and do not necessarily reflect the policies of The Japan Times.