DECLINE OF THAI MONARCHY, RISE OF DEMOCRACY AND WORLD WAR II IN THAILAND

CRISIS OF 1893

The steady encroachment of the two most aggressive European powers in the region, Britain and France, gravely threatened Siam during the last years of the nineteenth century. To the west, Britain completed its conquest of Burma in 1885 with the annexation of Upper Burma and the involuntary abdication of Burma's last king, Thibaw. To the south, the British were firmly established in the major Muslim states of the Malay Peninsula. [Source: Library of Congress]

Even more than Britain, France posed a serious danger to Siamese independence. The French occupied Cochinchina (southern Vietnam, around the Mekong Delta) in 1863. From there they extended their influence into Cambodia, over which Vietnam and Siam had long been struggling for control. Assuming Vietnam's traditional interests, France obliged the Cambodian king, Norodom, to accept a French protectorate. Siam formally relinquished its claim to Cambodia four years later, in return for French recognition of Siamese sovereignty over the Cambodian provinces of Siem Reap and Battambang.

The French dreamed of outflanking their British rivals by developing a trade route to the supposed riches of southwestern China through the Mekong Valley. This seemed possible once France had assumed complete control over Vietnam in the 1880s. The small Laotian kingdoms, under Siamese suzerainty, were the keys to this dream. The French claimed these territories, arguing that areas previously under Vietnamese control should now come under the French, the new rulers of Vietnam.

Auguste Pavie, French vice consul in Luang Prabang in 1886, was the chief agent in furthering French interests in Laos. His intrigues, which took advantage of Siamese weakness in the region and periodic invasions by Chinese rebels from Yunnan Province, increased tensions between Bangkok and Paris. When fighting broke out between French and Siamese forces in Laos in April 1893, the French sent gunboats to blockade Bangkok. At gunpoint, the Siamese agreed to the cession of Laos. Britain's acquiescence in French expansionism was evident in a treaty signed by the two countries in 1896 recognizing a border between French territory in Laos and British territory in Upper Burma.

French pressure on Siam continued, however, and in 1907 Chulalongkorn was forced to surrender Battambang and Siem Reap to French-occupied Cambodia. Two years later, Siam relinquished its claims to the northern Malay states of Kelantan, Trengganu, Kedah, and Perlis to the British in exchange for legal jurisdiction over British subjects on its soil and a large loan for railroad construction. In terms of territory under its control, Siam was now much diminished. Its independence, however, had been preserved as a useful and generally stable buffer state between French and British territories.

Thailand Under King Rama VI

Chulalongkorn's son and successor, Vajiravudh (Rama VI, ruled 1910- 25) was more of a scholar than a leader. The first Thai monarch to be educated in Europe, he liked Western architecture and literature and translated several works by Shakespeare into Thai in the 1920s, including As You Like It and The Merchant of Venice. He also wrote hundreds of books, poems and plays. He sent 32 Thai princes to Europe to study foreign values and their applications to Thailand. "His version of the 'Merchant of Venice," wrote author S.P. Somtow, "was required reading in Tai schools—indeed was considered by many to one of the high points of Thai literature."

Rama VI had received his education in Britain. during his reign he introduced educational reforms, including compulsory education. He further ‘Westernised’ the nation, Cummings wrote, by conforming the Thai calendar to Western models. Before Vajiravudh’s reign Thai parents gave each of their children a single, original name, with no surname to identify family origins. In 1909 a royal decree required the adoption of Thai surnames for all Thai citizens – a move designed to parallel the European system of family surnames and to weed out Chinese names.

Rama VI’s reign was characterized by strong push for Thai nationalism that resulted in an equally strong anti-Chinese sentiment. As much as the theme of modernization had typified the policies of his father, Vajiravudh's reign was characterized by support of nationalism. The king wrote extensively on nationalist themes. He also organized and financed a military auxiliary, the Wild Tiger Corps, which he looked on as a means of spreading nationalist fervor. On the positive side, during the reign of Rama VI tertiary education was introduced, and the School for Civil Servants, earlier established at King Chulalongkorn, was upgraded into Chulalongkorn University, the first university in Siam. UNESCO honored him as a king with distinguished achievements in culture as a scholar and a writer.

To the consternation of his advisers, who still smarted from Siam's territorial losses to France, Vajiravudh declared war on Germany and took Siam into World War I (1914–18) on the side of the Allies, sending a token expeditionary force to the Western front. The Thai soldiers that fought in Europe on the Allied side were regarded as brave and fierce fighters and companionate to the men they captured. Siam’s limited participation won Siam favorable amendments to its treaties with France and Britain at the end of the war and also gained a windfall in impounded German shipping for its merchant marine. Siam took part in the Versailles peace conference in 1919 and was a founding member of the League of Nations.

Rama VI (ruled 1910- 25) was very fond of his dog, Ya-Lei. Ya-Lei was a hybrid dog born in the Nakhon Pathom prison. King Rama VI found him during an inspection of the prison. Ye-Lei was very fortunate to have caught the eye of the King and was brought to the palace. Ya-Lei was a very smart and loyal dog. The King was so fond of Ya-Lei that Ya-Lei was envied, and was later shot by an envious person. King Rama VI was much saddened when Ya-Le passed away and commanded that a copper statue of Ya-Lei be cast and placed on a pedestal in front of his palace in Nakhon Pathom. The King composed a poem for Ya-Lei that was inscribed below the sculpture.

Rama VII, Thailand’s Last Absolute Monarch

The youngest son of King Chulalongkorn and 76th of 77 children, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII, 1925-35) was an unlikely selection to succeed his much better prepared elder brother (Rama VI). After coming to power amidst the economic turmoil that soon spiraled into the Great Depression, Prajadhipok reigned for just 10 years and is best known today for serving as the last absolute monarch of the Kingdom of Siam, abdicating his throne after a Constitutional Monarchy was established in 1932.

Early in his reign, King Prajadhipok (Rama VII, 1925-35) showed a tendency to share responsibility for political decision making with his ministers. He also appointed an advisory council to study the possibility of providing the country with a constitution, but its royalist members advised against such a measure. The civil bureaucracy, by contrast, considered the time ripe for such a move. Siam faced severe economic problems because of the world depression, which had caused a sharp drop in the price of rice. Discontent among the political elite grew in reaction to retrenchment in government spending, which necessitated severe cutbacks in the numbers of civil servants and military personnel, the demotion in rank of others, and the cancellation of government programs.

In March 1935, Prajadhipok abdicated without naming a successor. He went into retirement in Britain. His ten-year-old nephew, Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII, 1935-46), who was attending school in Switzerland, was named king to succeed him, and a regency council was appointed to carry out those functions of the monarchy retained under the constitution. The new king did not return to his country until 1945.

Rise of Anti-Chinese Sentiments

In 1929, there were almost a half million Chinese living in Thailand. Wealthy from trade with Europeans, they contributed great sums of money to Chaing Kai-shek's campaign against the Japanese in China.

Thai nationalist attitudes at all levels of society under Rama VI were colored by anti-Chinese sentiment. For centuries members of the Chinese community had dominated domestic commerce and had been employed as agents for the royal trade monopoly. With the rise of European economic influence many Chinese entrepreneurs had shifted to opium traffic and tax collecting, both despised occupations. In addition, Chinese millers and middlemen in the rice trade were blamed for the economic recession that gripped Siam for nearly a decade after 1905. Accusations of bribery of high officials, wars between the Chinese secret societies, and use of oppressive practices to extract taxes also served to inflame Thai opinion against the Chinese community at a time when it was expanding rapidly as a result of increased immigration from China.

By 1910 nearly 10 percent of Thailand's population was Chinese. Whereas earlier immigrants had intermarried with the Thai, the new arrivals frequently came with families and resisted assimilation into Thai society. Chinese nationalism, encouraged by Sun Yat-sen, the leader of the Chinese revolution, had also begun to develop, parallel with Thai nationalism. The Chinese community even supported a separate school system for its children. Legislation in 1909 requiring adoption of surnames was in large part directed against the Chinese community, whose members would be faced with the choice of forsaking their Chinese identity or accepting the status of foreigners. Many of them made the accommodation and opted to become Thai--if in name only. Those who did not became even more alienated from the rest of Thai society.

Weak Democracy and Military Rule in Thailand in the 1930s

Democracy in Thailand has been characterized by complex, weak, ineffective and short-lived coalition governments that accomplished little punctuated by coups and military rule. Most of the rulers were weak prime ministers and military strong men, sometimes referred to as field marshals. There were 18 successful coups—only slightly less than the the number of general elections— and almost too many prime ministers to count between 1932 and 2009.

Thailand adopted a constitution and a parliamentary form of government in 1932 when Rama VII was ousted in a bloodless coup by a military junta led by a group of Western-educated radical Thais—Pridi Phanomyang, Maj. Phibun Sangkhram and Col. Phanon Phonphaywhasena. The absolute monarchy was abolished and constitutional monarchy was created. Since 1932 Thamasat University has been the venue for a lot of the political activity in Thailand.

After the coup in 1932, Phrayo Manopakorn was appointed Prime Minister. In 1933 he dissolved the National Assembly and ruled by decree until he was removed in another coup, when he was replaced at prime minister by Phanon, one the three leaders involved in the 1932 coup

The constitutional government helped support independence movements throughout the region. The prime minister of Thailand in the 1930s, Pridi Banomyong, established the Southeast Asian League which offered assistance to revolutionary groups in Indonesia, Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. Ho Ch Minh used bases in Nakorn Phanom and Sakon Nakon in Thailand to fight against the French.

1932 Coup

The long era of absolute monarchy was brought to a sudden end on June 24, 1932, by a bloodless coup d'etat engineered by a group of civil servants and army officers with the support of army units in the Bangkok area. The action was specifically directed against ministers of the conservative royal government and not against the person of the king. Three days after the coup a military junta put into effect a provisional constitution drawn up by Pridi Phanomyong that called for the establishment of a constitutional monarchy along the lines of the one in Britain. Prajadhipok (Rama VII) reluctantly accepted the new situation that had stripped him of his political power but in principle had left the prestige of the monarchy unimpaired. [Source: Library of Congress]

the coup was inspired by French-educated Thais exposed to democratic ideology. A permanent constitution was promulgated before the end of 1932. It provided for a quasi-parliamentary regime in which executive power was vested in a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly, of which half of the members were elected by limited suffrage and half appointed by the government in power. The constitution provided that the entire legislature would be elected when half of the electorate had received four years of schooling or after ten years had elapsed, whichever came first. The National Assembly was responsible for the budget and could override a royal veto. Real power resided with the promoters, however, and was exercised with army backing through their political organization, the People's Party.

The coup leaders, who were known as the "promoters," were representative of the younger generation of Western-oriented political elite that had been educated to be instruments of an absolute monarchy--an institution they now viewed as archaic and inadequate to the task of modern government. The principals in the coup identified themselves as nationalists, and none questioned the institution of the monarchy.

The promoters, both civilian and military, had given their political movement a nationalist label, but unanimity among them went no further than acceptance of the official ideology. Although it was essential for the stability of any cabinet that they work together, relations between the civilian and military factions steadily deteriorated. In addition to factionalism and differences among the coup leaders, the new government was also confronted with a serious royalist revolt in October 1933. The revolt was led by the king's cousin, Prince Boworadet, who had been defense minister during the old regime. Although the king gave no support to the prince, relations between Prajadhipok and the political leaders deteriorated thereafter.

Joe Cummings wrote in the Lonely Planet guide for Thailand: “The royalist revolt in 1933 sought to reinstate absolute monarchy, but it failed and left Prajadhipok isolated from the royalist revolutionaries and the constitution-minded ministers. One of the king’s last official acts was to outlaw polygamy in 1934, leaving behind the cultural underpinnings that now support Thai prostitution. In 1935 the king abdicated without naming a successor and retired to Britain. The cabinet promoted his nephew 10-year-old Ananda Mahidol, to the throne as Rama VIII, although Ananda didn’t return from school in Switzerland until 1945.” [Source: Joe Cummings, Lonely Planet guide for Thailand]

Major Figures from the 1932 Coup: Pridi, Phibun and Phahon

The coup leaders included the major figures in Thai politics for the next three decades. Pridi Phanomyong, the young law professor, Pridi who drew up the provisional constitution, was one of the country's leading intellectuals and the most influential civilian promoter. His chief rival among the other promoters was Phibun, or Luang Plaek Phibunsongkhram, an ambitious junior army officer who later attained the rank of field marshal. Phahon, or Phraya Phahonphonphayuhasena, the senior member of the group, represented old-line military officers dissatisfied with cuts in appropriations for the armed forces. These three exercised power as members of a cabinet, the Commissariat of the People, chosen by the National Assembly that had been summoned by the promoters soon after the coup. To assuage conservative opinion, a retired jurist, Phraya Manopakorn, was selected as prime minister. [Source: Library of Congress]

A rift soon developed within the ranks of the promoters between civilian technicians and military officers. As finance minister, Pridi proposed a radical economic plan in 1933, calling for the nationalization of natural resources. This plan was unacceptable to Manopakorn and the more conservative military members in the cabinet. The prime minister closed the National Assembly, in which Pridi had support, and ruled by decree. Accused of being a communist, Pridi fled into exile, but army officers opposing the civilian prime minister's move staged a coup in June 1933 that turned out Manopakorn, restored the National Assembly, and set up a new government headed by Phahon. With sentiment running in his favor, Pridi was permitted to return to Bangkok and was subsequently cleared of the charges against him.

Elections in 1933

, Thailand’s First, and the Face Off Betweem Pridi and Phibun

The first parliamentary elections in Thailand’s history were held in November 1933 amidst threats of civil war. Although fewer than 10 percent of the eligible voters cast their ballots, they confirmed Pridi's popularity. Pridi and his supporters in the civilian left wing of the People's Party were countered by a military faction that rallied around his rival, Phibun. In 1934 Phibun was named defense minister and proceeded to use his ministerial powers to build his political constituency within the army. Campaigning for a stronger military establishment in order to keep the country out of foreign hands, he took every opportunity to assert the superior efficiency of the military administration over the civilian bureaucracy, which looked to Pridi for leadership. Prime Minister Phahon had to maintain a precarious balance between the Pridi and Phibun factions in the government. [Source: Library of Congress]

The civilian conservatives had been discredited during the Manopakorn regime and by the support some had given to the royalist revolt. Their loss of influence deprived the king of effective political allies in the government. In March 1935, Prajadhipok abdicated without naming a successor, charging the Phahon government with abuse of power in curtailing the royal veto. His ten-year-old nephew, Ananda Mahidol (Rama VIII, 1935-46) was named king to succeed him, and a regency council, which included Pridi, was appointed to carry out those functions of the monarchy retained under the constitution. The new king did not return to his country until 1945.

Relations between the civilian and military factions steadily deteriorated as more civil offices went to military personnel. Sensing a tendency toward military rule that he could no longer contain, Phahon retired in December 1938. Phibun took office as prime minister, with his rival, Pridi, as finance minister.

Phibun and the Nationalist Regime

The Phibun administration that took power in 1938 promoted nationalism and in 1939 officially changed the nation’s name from Siam to Muang Thai (Land of the Free), or Thailand. Foreign-owned businesses (mostly Chinese-owned) were heavily taxed, and state subsidies were offered to Thai-owned enterprises. The people were encouraged to emulate European-style fashions. Betel chewing was prohibited, and opium addicts were prosecuted. Irridentist claims for lost territories in Cambodia and Laos were revived amidst new anti-French sentiment. Phibun cultivated closer relations with Japan as a model for modernization and a challenge to European power.

The Phibun regime sold nationalism to the public by using propaganda methods borrowed from authoritarian regimes in Europe, and nationalism was equated with Westernization. To make clear to the world--in Phibun's words--that the country belonged to the Thai, in 1939 the name of the country was officially changed to Muang Thai (Land of the Free), or Thailand. That same year Pridi introduced his "Thailand for the Thai" economic plan, which levied heavy taxes on foreign-owned businesses, the majority of them Chinese, while offering state subsidies to Thai-owned enterprises. The government encouraged the Thai to emulate European fashions, decreeing, for example, that shoes and hats be worn in public. Betel chewing was prohibited, and opium addicts were prosecuted and, of Chinese, deported.

Although nationalism was equated with Westernization, it was not pro-Western, either politically or culturally. Thai Christians, especially those in government service, as well as Muslims, suffered official discrimination. The clear inference of government statements was that only Buddhists could be Thai patriots. At its source Thai nationalism was anti-Chinese in character. Regulations were enacted to check Chinese immigration and to reserve for the Thai numerous occupations that had formerly been held predominantly by Chinese.

Phibun's nationalist regime also revived irredentist claims, stirring up anti-French sentiment and supporting restoration of former Thai territories in Cambodia and Laos. Seeking support against France, Phibun cultivated closer relations with Japan. The Thai nationalists looked to Japan as the model of an Asian country that had used Western methods and technology to achieve rapid modernization. As Thailand confronted the French in Indochina, the Thai looked to Japan as the only Asian country to challenge the European powers successfully. Although the Thai were united in their demand for the return of the lost provinces, Phibun's enthusiasm for the Japanese was markedly greater than that of Pridi, and many old conservatives as well viewed the course of the prime minister's foreign policy with misgivings.

Japanese Occupation of Thailand During World War II (1941–44)

Thailand responded pragmatically to the military and political pressures of World War II. When sporadic fighting broke out between Thai and French forces along Thailand's eastern frontier in late 1940 and early 1941, Japan used its influence with the Vichy regime in France to obtain concessions for Thailand. As a result, France agreed in March 1941 to cede 54,000 square kilometers of Laotian territory west of the Mekong and most of the Cambodian province of Battambang to Thailand. The recovery of this lost territory and the regime's apparent victory over a European colonial power greatly enhanced Phibun's reputation. [Source: Library of Congress]

The war for Thailand began in earnest on December 8, 1941, when after several hours of fighting between Thai and Japanese troops at Chumphon, Thailand had to accede to Japanese demands for access through the country for Japanese forces invading Burma and Malaya. Phibun assured the country that the Japanese action was prearranged with a sympathetic Thai government. Later in the month Phibun signed a mutual defense pact with Japan. Pridi resigned from the cabinet in protest but subsequently accepted the nonpolitical position of regent for the absent Ananda Mahidol.

Seni Pramoj, the anti-Japanese Thai ambassador to Washington, refused his government’s orders to deliver the declaration of war, and the United States refrained from declaring war on Thailand. With American assistance Seni organized the Free Thai Movement, recruiting Thai students in the United States to work with the United States Office of Strategic Services (OSS). The OSS trained Thai personnel for underground activities, and units were readied to infiltrate Thailand. From the office of the regent in Thailand, Pridi ran a clandestine movement that by the end of the war had with Allied aid armed more than 50,000 Thai to resist the Japanese.

Thailand was rewarded for Phibun's close cooperation with Japan during the early years of war with the return of further territory that had once been under Bangkok's control, including portions of the Shan states in Burma and the four northernmost Malay states. Japan meanwhile had stationed 150,000 troops on Thai soil and built the infamous "death railway" through Thailand using Allied prisoners of war.

As the war dragged on, however, the Japanese presence grew more irksome. Trade came to a halt, and Japanese military personnel requisitioning supplies increasingly dealt with Thailand as a conquered territory rather than as an ally. Allied bombing raids damaged Bangkok and other targets and caused several thousand casualties. Public opinion and, even more important, the sympathies of the civilian political elite, moved perceptibly against the Phibun regime and the military. In June 1944, Phibun was forced from office and replaced by the first predominantly civilian government since the 1932 coup.

Death Railway Between Thailand and Burma

The Bridge over the River Kwai—made famous in a film by the same name—was part of the notorious "Death Railway" built from Bangkok to Rangoon across 257 miles of mountains covered by dense tropical forest and malarial jungles in Thailand and Burma by 61,806 Allied prisoners of war—from Britain, Australia, the Netherlands and the United States—captured in 1942 and 1943 and 200,000 and 300,000 Asian slave laborers, mostly from Malaysia, Burma, and other Southeast Asian countries.

The railroad was intended to be a supply line for an invasion of India from Burma by the Japanese. It crossed a relatively narrow isthmus shared by Thailand and Burma, bypassing the inconvenient Malay peninsula, which required ships to travel 1,200 miles between Bangkok and Burma. The railway journey was just over 350 miles. A 130 kilometer stretch of the Thai-Burma railway is still in use.

Construction of the railroad lasted for 16 months. Most of the work was done by hand or with the help of elephants, which, according to one Japanese account, were better treated than the workers who were typically put to work clearing jungle, grading the land, crushing rocks and hammering ties. Construction of the railroad was marred by bedrock, hills and thick jungle. The workers suffered from heat, starvation and poor sanitation. About 60,000 Allied prisoners of war, 12,000 Japanese soldiers and 300,000 laborers from Asian countries died of malaria, dysentery, and other diseases, exacerbated by day hard work and lack of good sanitation.

About 20 percent of the Allied prisoners who worked on the railroad died of starvation, disease and execution (“One death per sleeper”). Two British prisoners accused of having a radio and map were beaten to death and their bodies were tossed head first into a latrine. A Japanese translator said he saw one British POW with broken arms bound behind his body almost drown from water pour on his face. A former British POW who worked on the River Kwai Bridge told the Washington Post, "If I saw a Japanese soldier here now, I would kill him."

Film: Bridge of the River Kwai (1957) with David Niven and directed by David Lean won several Academy Awards. It was based on a best-selling novel by the same name by Pierre Boulle. River Kwai March was a popular, whistleable song from the film. At least a dozen other memoirs and books on the railway have been published.

Bridge Over the River Kwai and Allied POWs Who Helped Build It

Kanchanaburi (85 miles west of Bangkok) is home of the famous "Bridge over the River Kwai," immortalized by the Pierre Boulle novel and the academy-award-winning David Lean movie with David Niven. The original bridge was brought to Thailand from Java by the Japanese during World War II, and reassembled by prisoners of war and forced laborers, only to be destroyed by allied bombs in 1945. The present bridge was built after the war on arched supports left standing after the 1945 bombing.

The work done on the Kwai River bridge by Allied POWs was done at several camps. The conditions varied from camp to camp. In some camps the workers had relatively good relations with the Japanese. In other places the Japanese soldiers were treated more cruelly by their commanders than the POWs were by their captors. About 23 percent of British soldiers on the railway died. In comparison, one third of the Japanese POWs under the British died.

One survivor, Loet Velmans, wrote in his memoirs that his survival was due to luck, youth and optimism. “The prospect of death was so unappealing that I chose to ignore it. Life, I thought, was bound to go on somehow until my new and real life would start after the war was over... The despair was gradually replaced by a determination: one way or the another, I was going to beat the horrors of this living hell...humor and the capacity to laugh were indispensable to survival... The joke, the quip, and funny sketch all worked like powerful tonics.”

“Japanese officers, NCOs and privates alike showed us only one face: cruel, ruthless, and devoid of any humanity.” Velmans learned that prisoners in the eyes of the Japanese “were cowards” who “had surrendered too quickly, without a fight.”

It is estimated that 16,000 allied POWs and 100,000 to 150,000 Malay and Indonesian laborers died during the construction of the bridge. A total of 6,982 Allied prisoners who died in captivity during the war are buried in a beautifully maintained cemetery with rows of flowering plants. Some died building the Bridge Over the River Kwai and others perished while laboring on the notorious "Death Railway" to Burma, which claimed more than 60,000 lives. A plan to rebuild on an unused section of the railroad has been equated with “turning Auschwitz into an amusement park.”

Many of the graves are in inscribed with poignant epitaphs like the one for H.S. MecLeod, a 34-year-old Australian sergeant who died in 1943: “A smile and a wave of the hand, he wandered into an unknown land.” The memorials resemble the memorials for fallen soldiers at Normandy. For the Asians that died there are few memorials. The mass graves where many of them were buried and now covered by orchards.

Book: Long Way Back to the River Kwai: Memories of World War II by Loet Velmans (Arcade, 2003)

Asian Workers on the Death Railway

The Asian prisoners put to work on the Death Railraod included Malays, Tamils, and Chinese from what is now Malaysia; Burmans and other groups from what is now Myanmar; and Javanese from present-day Indonesia. About one third of the Allied POWs died, The death toll among the Asian laborers was as high as 80 or 90 percent. The prisoners died of malnutrition, disease and brutality while building the railroad. They suffered from malaria, dysentery, beriberi. Some died of heat stroke caused by intense heat and a lack of water. Other suffered infections and wounds from brutality inflicted by Japanese soldiers. [Source: New York Times]

Some of the Asian were press ganged into working. Others volunteered for promised wages. They were told the they would be working on a glorious project that would help liberate India from the hands of British colonial oppressors. In Malaysia, the Japanese visited many rubber plantations demanding that each family supply at least one able-bodied son for the project. Few Thais were put to work on the railroad. This was because the Japanese did not want to antagonize their hosts.

An estimated 70,000 Asian workers died making the railroad. Japanese records show that of the 85,000 workers brought in from Malaya, 33,000 died. Many of Asian were thrown into mass graves. One Thai woman told the New York Times, “Sometimes the people were not yet dead, They were still groaning when they threw them into the hole.” Despite the scale of the tragedy little is mentioned of the Asian railway workers in history books from Southeast Asia and there have been no government efforts to find or reclaim bodies still in the jungle.

The Asians railway workers were generally kept separate from the Western prisoners. Eric Lomax, a British POW wrote in his memoir The Railway Men of seeing “thin columns of Asians” that soon became a “flood, a tide of unhappy men...It was possible even then with my small knowledge of events overtaking all of us, to guess that these pathetic laborers would die in enormous numbers and be the biggest victims of the railway.”

One man who was a teenager from Malaysia at the time of the war told the New York Times he volunteered after his mother was offered a large cash payment in return for his labor. He spent two years breaking rocks and hammering railway ties. Fearing he would be thrown into a mass grave, he said, “I was getting sick and I knew I would end up in the hole.” He escaped by jumping into the river and floating downstream for a week, clinging to a piece of bamboo, before being rescued and cared for by Buddhist monks.

Japanese WWII Vets That Stayed in Thailand

Matsukichi Fujita is one of six Japanese soldiers who stayed in Thailand after the end of World War II featured in the Japanese documentary "Hana to Heitai" (Flowers and Soldiers) by by Yoju Matsubayashi. This documentary film depicts the twilight years of the six men and the stories they told. Fujita built a white memorial tower beside his house in a bamboo forest in a suburb of Lamphun, northern Thailand to commemorate those who died in the war. He died in January 2008 at the age of 90; now the tower is also his grave. [Source: Norimasa Tahara, Yomiuri Shimbun, September 9, 2009]

Norimasa Tahara wrote in the Yomiuri Shimbun: In 2006, Matsubayashi “flew to an area on the border between Thailand and Myanmar. Walking around the town, unable to speak the local language, Matsubayashi eventually reached the homes of the former Japanese soldiers. He asked about their memories of battle and their feelings about Japan--the home country to which they dared not return. The former soldiers told him about killing local people and days in which they ate their fellow soldiers' flesh to avoid starvation. One said he deserted from his military unit, but still felt guilty toward his parents in Japan.

Matsubayashi was shocked by their grim words, but also noticed their smiling wives by their sides. When Matsubayashi asked how they got married, the wives smiled shyly like young girls. "I feel sorry for him," one of the woman said about her husband, who also began to smile. Matsubayashi felt he could understand at least partly why the men did not return to Japan. Perhaps the couples met when they were about his own age. With such things on his mind, Matsubayashi concentrated on shooting the film.

Fujita suffered a leg wound on the front line in Burma (Myanmar today) and became separated from his unit. About 10 years after the end of the war, he met his wife in northern Thailand. Fujita stayed there believing a rumor that the Japanese army would return to Burma, and earning his living as a road construction worker, he married a woman who worked at the same site. Fujita raised a family and later was appointed supervisor of the site. His life was austere but stable. Though he worried about his parents in Nagasaki, Fujita chose to stay in Thailand thinking he could not get a job even if he returned to Japan.

The wounds of World War II have largely been healed in Southeast Asia. The acclaimed Japanese director Shohei Imamura also made a documentary about Japanese soldiers who did not return home after World War II.

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, Tourist Authority of Thailand, Thailand Foreign Office, The Government Public Relations Department, CIA World Factbook, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2014

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