‘Death Railway’ tag debated for World Heritage application

‘Death Railway’ tag debated for World Heritage application

Soldiers and police inspect the popular bridge across the River Kwai, the
Soldiers and police inspect the popular bridge across the River Kwai, the "Death Railway" bridge in Kanchanaburi, on Jan 19, 2017. (Bangkok Post file photo)

KANCHANABURI: As Thailand pushes for a notorious railway built by the Japanese military during World War II to become a Unesco World Cultural Heritage site, local people are debating whether the track's widely known name "Death Railway" should be used in the campaign.

The debate is framed by a strong sense that future generations must be taught history for what it is, and on the other hand by a concern that using the popular name in the application could cause a diplomatic rift with Japan, with which Thailand has long-standing ties.

At a recent public hearing in Kanchanaburi, capital of the province of the same name in western Thailand, nearly half of about 450 participants from four districts along the Thai-Burma Railway raised their hands in agreement when asked if they were concerned using the name "Death Railway" could cause bad feelings and an unnecessary friction with Japan.

Borvornvate Rungrujee, president of the Thai chapter of the International Council on Monuments and Sites, or ICOMOS Thailand, has advised Thailand not to use "Death Railway" for official heritage designation on the grounds that doing so would seem like pointing the blame at Japan.

"We will mention in the tentative list (of potential properties to be considered for nomination) that the railway can also be called 'Death Railway,' but I do not recommend using it as an official one," Mr Borvornvate said at the July 22 hearing, adding that Japanese officials have expressed concerns about the use of the name to him.

The roughly 400-kilometre-long railway connecting Thailand and what is now Myanmar was built to support Japanese forces in the Burma campaign of World War II, using Allied prisoners of war and Asian civilians, including Thais, as forced labour.

Construction began in 1942 and was completed in slightly over a year. But harsh working conditions and infectious diseases like malaria took large human tolls, with the undertaking thought to have claimed the lives of over 100,000 people, many of them PoWs.

Sites envisioned for listing by the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization include a dark steel bridge that was featured in the 1957 Oscar-winning movie "The Bridge on the River Kwai."

The others include the Tham Krasae Bridge, a wooden viaduct that hugs a cliff along the Khwae Noi River; the Hellfire Pass, a narrow cutting completed quickly but with tremendous loss of human life; and the Chong Kai Allied War Cemetery, where many Allied POWs were buried.

Local authorities claim that the proposed sites, which draw a huge number of foreign tourists to the region, present an outstanding example of human interaction with the environment and are associated with ideas or beliefs of outstanding universal significance.

A preliminary draft for World Heritage recognition is expected to be submitted to a government working group after September this year.

If recommended by the Thai government, the tentative list in English and French will be handed over to the Unesco World Heritage Secretariat by early 2020.

Pisun Chansilp, Kanchanaburi Province's chief cultural affairs official, says the main objective of pushing the railway for World Heritage designation is that the line has strong potential to serve as a reminder to mankind that war should not happen again.

Echoing the view of Mr Borvornvate, the president of ICOMOS Thailand, Mr Pisun also says the proposal is not intended to highlight how cruel the Japanese soldiers were and instead suggests using an alternative term like "Historical Railway -- World War II" for the official title.

Meanwhile at the public hearing, half the participants seemed to consider "Death Railway" the most suitable title as it is the most recognizable name internationally.

"I insist on using the same well-known name. I do not want to point out Japan's past conduct, nor do I blame them, but it is the fact," one of the participants said.

ICOMOS Thailand will hold a meeting to finalize the name later this year. If the selection process proves successful, according to ICOMOS Thailand, the historic railway will become Thailand's first World Cultural Heritage site in 25 years.

"It is not about blaming each other now. It is the past and we can learn from it," said Chutimon Sitthiwong, a 42-year-old tour guide who says visiting railway-related museums in Kanchanaburi would be an eye opener. "The point is that the cruel war must not happen again."

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