KUALA LUMPUR, March 17 ― In late February, Arumugam Kandasamy, 91, traced the painful journey he took more than seven decades ago when he was part of the infamous Death Railway camp.
Between February 20 and 26, Arumugam, with another survivor Ponnampalam Veechan, 84, and several next-of-kin of others who had been sent to work on the railway, travelled to the Myanmar border to pay their respects and remember those who had perished.
The group of 18 began their journey at the Kuala Lumpur railway station to Padang Besar, Perlis, before continuing on to the western Thailand town of Kanchanaburi, a key rail junction and site of the bridge over the River Kwai.
The legacy of the Japanese occupation of Malaya during the Second World War continues to haunt those who had to live through some of history's darkest days.
Arumugam, who was pressed into service at the age of 15, told Malay Mail how he was recruited from Sua Grensing Estate, near Rantau in Negri Sembilan.
“They (the Japanese) were looking for able-bodied men during a recruitment drive in 1943,” he said, adding that he was able to converse in Japanese and English.
He was assigned to an interpreter's post for Japanese soldiers in Nikkei, Thailand near the then Burmese border.
“It was difficult but definitely conditions were not as harsh as those who were forced to work on the railway. I believe working in that capacity actually saved my life,” he said.
However as the war progressed, Arumugam was confronted by the realities of the situation and was at one point forced to trek through the dense jungles of the Thai-Burma border to get home.
“I walked through muddy jungle paths that were trodden on by thousands of people who were trying to get home towards the end of the war,” he said.
The paths were littered with the bodies of those who could not make it home.
Many succumbed to disease and starvation.
“I also learnt that my elder brother, Kaliaperumal, who had been recruited in the first batch for the railway construction, had died,” he added.
Despite it all, Arumugam said he has come to terms with what happened — they were all victims of a conflict that left millions dead and displaced in its wake, and ordinary people could do little against.
“I did not have to face the harsh conditions that many others did, conditions that claimed many lives but I do not hold it against the Japanese and I bear no ill feelings towards them.”
Ponnampalam, meanwhile, was eight when he accompanied his father to the site of the bridge in 1943. He said he would never forget what he saw despite his young age.
“There were atrocities, the work was difficult and the conditions unacceptable. Many died due to the lack of clean drinking water and medicine,” he added.
“Despite people from South Asia, especially Indians, making up the bulk of the labour force, they were given little attention. They formed the bulk of those who died during the war.”
Ponnampalam said there was little time to mourn the dead and their bodies were discarded without much thought or respect, adding that the visit to the site had great meaning for the participants.
“Those who died either ended up in mass graves or in the river. There was no sentiment, no proper burial for them.
“It is far too late for those who did not survive but coming to pay our respects helps put us at ease and hopefully remind people of what happened there.”
The infamous Siam-Burma Railway is known for forcing the Allied prisoners of war (POWs) to build what later came to be known as The Death Railway.
There is little awareness of the hundreds of thousands of Asian forced workers from the Japanese colonies of Burma, Thailand, Indochina, Malaya and Indonesia, who worked on the railway, far outnumbered the POWs, and whose sufferings were no less, if not worse.
The actual number of Asian workers who died as a direct result of the railway is estimated at more than 100,000 civilian labourers and 12,000 POWs believed to have died due to the inhumane working conditions.
Dave Anthony, a historian who has written two books on the railway, said his work would contribute to other efforts to document the railway and its history, especially that of the South Asians who died there.
“One of the significant discoveries of the pilgrimage was to learn of a place in Kanchanaburi where builders recently unearthed remains of human bones buried in layers, indicating it could have been one of the mass graves. The builders conducted a prayer service on the spot.
“What hurt this delegation of Tamil people most was history did not bring to light the plight of their beloved ones. They have been lost and forgotten. The museums display only Caucasians.”
The Death Railway Interest Group, an organisation dedicated to preserving the memory of the episode and of documenting the suffering of its victims, organised this visit to the site.
One of its committee members, Vimalan Gunushakran, said the trip was not merely some “tourist activity”.
It was important to its participants who sought some closure for themselves and their relatives.
“This trip was organised specifically with the families of victims and survivors in mind, who never had the opportunity to perform final rites for their loved ones.
“It was an opportunity for some to fulfil a long-cherished hope late in their lives. A pilgrimage that will be documented to promote the cause of the forgotten victims,” he said, adding that the participants were able to finally pay their respects at a known workers camp-site.
Vimalan encouraged those with knowledge of or connection to the railway to contact the group to give this overlooked event its rightful place in Malaysian history either at its Facebook group “Death Railway Interest Group” or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.