The Burma Thailand railway, also called the Burma–Siam railway or just Thai–Burma railway was built during the World War 2.The period that the Burma railway was built was around 1942-43. The railway connected Ban Pong, Thailand to Thanbyuzayat, Burma (Myanmar). The purpose of the building of the railway was to support the Japanese forces in Burma during the Burma campaign. The need to build the rail line was necessitated by the fact that during that time, the sea routes had become vulnerable. The Japanese naval strength had been substantially weakened during their defeat in the Coral Sea battles between May and June in 1942.
The Construction of the Burma Thailand railway
While the initial plan was to use the Asian workforce (from Burma, Malaya, and Java) for the purpose of constructing the railway, all that changed with the turn of events in 1942. The fall of Malaya, Indonesia, and Singapore in early 1942 led to the occupying forces having a large number of Prisoners of War (POW). This is an event that the Japanese armed forces had not anticipated. For the first few weeks of the rule of the Japanese administration, the question about what they were to do with the prisoners troubled them. It was agreed later that the prisoners of war were to be utilized in furthering the interests of the Japanese war efforts. The POWs were to provide labor in the construction of the Burma railway.
The Allied prisoners of war
The Allied prisoners of war that were used by the Japanese administration to construct the Burma Thailand railway included British Empire troops (30,000), Dutch (18,000) and even a small number of US troops (700). There was also the presence of Australian laborers, about 13,000 in number. It was when it proved clear that the workforce that was available was not able to meet the set tight deadline by the Japanese for completing the rail line that a further huge number of 200 000 Asian laborers were added. The Asian laborers or rōmusha were either coerced or enticed into working for the administration of the Japanese.
The Death Railway
The 415 km or 258 miles railway ran from Thanbyuzayat, Burma, now referred to as Myanmar, to Ban Pong in Thailand. The cruel conditions
that the Allied Prisoners of War had to go through during the construction of the Burma railway are well documented in various platforms. Apart from the Japanese inflicting cruel forms of torture and punishment on the prisoners, the prisoners also suffered from diseases (dysentery, malaria, and beriberi) and malnutrition.
Since the Japanese wanted the Burma Thailand railway to be completed as soon as possible, the working units of prisoners were spread over the entire length of the route. Construction of the railway route was difficult because of the prevailing extreme working conditions. The terrain was uneven, monsoon conditions prevailed, and the jungle was thick and mosquito infected. Additionally, canyons and rivers were required to be bridged and some mountains sections required to be cut away to create a straight and level bed for accommodating the railway
track.Moreover, the Japanese forces made the workers work for longer hours of up to 18 hours a day. The Japanese forces also provided limited medicine and unsatisfactory equipment. The food was also inadequate and also often infested with maggots and contaminated with rat droppings and water was not fit for human consumption.
In conclusion, because of these extreme conditions posed by the Burma railway route, it is estimated that thousands of forced workers died. Because of the horrendous experiences of
the workers, the Burma Thailand railway has been made a place of commemoration and pilgrimage. There are memorial sites along the routes of the railway including Kanchanaburi War Cemetery and Hellfire Pass Memorial Museum.