Monument for Death Railway victims – P. Ramasamy

Monument for Death Railway victims – P. Ramasamy

Prai in mainland Penang possible site for tribute to 120,000 forced workers

ACCORDING to the late historian, Michael Stenson, about 120,000 workers, mostly Tamils, were forcibly recruited to work in constructing the infamous Death Railway that was supposed to link Thailand to Burma and India.

The objective was to enable the Indian forces aligned with the Japanese imperial army to liberate India from the British occupation and rule. Before the railway was built, Japan lost the war and the project was abandoned.

More than half of the workers sent from Malaya died in Thailand as a result of hunger, malaria, cholera, snake bites and other diseases. After the war ended, the remaining workers returned to Malaya stricken with diseases and other ailments.

More than 78 years have elapsed since the end of World War II, the sad and tragic plight of those who perished in the construction of the Death Railway and those who returned to the country remains a mystery.

Apart from certain historical narratives, testimonies of those who returned and from family members of the victims, a substantial account of the Death Railway victims remains to be written.

When I wrote my book on the political economy of plantation labour in the early 1990s, some attention was devoted to the Death Railway episode.

Much remains to be explored and explained.

The effort on the part of the group on the Death Railway Interest Group headed by one P. Chandrasekaran is a praiseworthy effort. Recently, Chandrasekaran had the opportunity to visit me in Penang last week.

He was keen on putting up a monument in Thailand specifically in Kanchanaburi in remembrance of the Death Railway victims. In fact, there is an existing memorial but there is little or no reference to those who were forcibly recruited from Malaya in the early 1940s.

In fact, there is hardly any references to Tamil workers being forcibly recruited from the plantations of Malaya.

RK Jain, who wrote on the plantation frontier in Malaysia, paid attention to the sad and tragic stories of how labour recruitment took place in the plantations. How the Japanese Kempeitai (secret police) used the Asian managers and supervisors (Kangani) to forcibly recruit and kidnap workers to be part of the labour force for the Death Railway.

Needless to say, there are many personal narratives of the former workers or their family members of the sad episode of the Death Railway. Years back, my sister, Muthammal, a retired school teacher, recorded the oral testimonies of some of the remaining victims and family members of those who perished in Thailand.

Her manuscript was titled Siam-Burma Railway Survivors.

I suggested to Chandrasekaran that since the bulk of those recruited were from the estates in Malaya, maybe the time has arrived to think of a monument in Peninsular Malaysia. In this respect, I might have found a place in my constituency Prai, on the mainland of Penang state.

However, before a monument could be built, there is a necessity to obtain the permission of the Penang state, the local authorities and others. For the moment, a monument for the victims of the Death Railway in Prai remains an idea to be explored seriously.

Meanwhile, the information that the Japanese government paid a compensation of RM207 billion to the Malaysian government in the 1990s is still shrouded in mystery. The amount would have benefited 30,000 families, victims of the Death Railway; each family would have received about RM3 million.

– The Vibes, April 18, 2023

P. Ramasamy is Penang’s deputy chief minister II

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