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The Thailand-Burma Railway in WWII

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Thesis Statement: The Japanese made a mistake in executing the construction of the Thailand-Burma Railways.

            The Japanese are pioneers in many aspects of technology and modern life. However, in the history of Asia, they have also been the cause of bloodshed and destruction in their quest for power and new territory. During the Second World War, the Japanese made history by being one of the major proponents that led to violence and the sacrifice of thousands of innocent people. One of the greatest Asian holocausts caused by the Japanese occurred during the construction of the Thailand Burma Railway, a project that would have allowed the Japanese entry into Burma and India through Thailand.

The Second World War started in 1939. The world was divided; it was a battle between two allies, the Allied Powers and the Axis Powers. The Allied Powers were the countries opposing the Axis Powers, and were known as the United Nations. On the other hand, the Axis Powers were the alliance of countries mainly the Fascist Italy, Nazi Germany, and the Imperial Japan. These are the three major proponents of the Axis Powers. There are of almost seventy nations that engaged in battle. World War II was the bloodiest war in the human history and it has killed over sixty million of people.

Thailand supported and became an ally of Japan during the World War II. It all started out on Dec. 8, 1941 in the morning, just right after the attack on the Pearl Harbor, Japan immediately invaded Thailand. The first reaction of Thailand was to oppose the Japanese but later on after thirteen days, Thailand became a military alliance of Japan. 1

Conquering or making Thailand as a military alliance was only one of the missions of the Japanese and indeed, according to the “Asian labor in the wartime Japanese empire” of Kratoska, the Japanese was successful enough in making Thailand as one of their ally.

 Thailand became then involved in the Axis Powers and engaged on war with Britain and the United States. The Britain reciprocated the declaration of war with Thailand but the United States did not. 2

The Japanese made Thailand as a passage to conquer Burma and to invade India during the World War II. The Japanese used Thailand aside from the purpose for the expansion of power they also used Thailand to conquer other nearby countries like India and Burma which is currently occupied by the British.

They transported the support troupes and army from Thailand to Burma having a route through the sea, at the Strait of Malacca. Later on, their situation became much more vulnerable. This led the Japanese of no choice but to find an alternative way going to Burma. The Japanese had thought of constructing a railway connection between Thailand and Burma to deliver the support groups and to maintain operation of the army. But according to the British intelligence, who had already conducted a survey this kind of situation and on this plan of construction in the beginning of the twentieth century, it would be much more complicated in constructing the railway than having a route through the sea and completing it would be too difficult. 3

The idea of building a permanent rail link between Burma through Thailand to China was first raised in the 1880’s by the British colonial authorities in Burma. The route considered was between Phitsanoluk in northern Thailand (then the Kingdom of Siam) and Moulmein in Burma. However no investment was forthcoming and the idea was shelved. 4

But the Japanese continued their plan and executed the project. The Japanese have targeted that they should be able to finish the railway with in fourteen months. 5

In the first place the Japanese should not have executed the construction of the railway. As we all know, according to the British the construction of the railway would be too difficult and complicated and it is very impossible to complete. With regards to this, it implies that a huge investment and a larger man power are needed for the construction of the said railway.

At that time, Japanese engineers estimated that the 257-mile line would take five years to build because of the harsh conditions and treacherous terrain. Much of the railway, particularly the roughly 175 miles of track that ran through Thailand, required high bridges (more than 600 along the entire line) and deep mountain cuttings. 6

It means that even though the Japanese had already new that it would be too difficult and the requirement for the construction is a great deal, they went on to continue the plan. This only implies that they are willing to sacrifice the lives of the people for the war.

The Japanese army started the building the Railway on June 1942. It extends for about four hundred fifteen kilometers across the two countries Thailand and Burma. This railway starts at the west of Bangkok in Nong Pladuk at Ban Pong District in Ratchaburi Thailand passing through Burma in the province of Thanbyuzayat and ends at the East of Ragoon near Singapore. The major part of the railway is located in Thailand which is about three hundred four kilometers long and on other hand; one hundred one kilometers of the railway were located across Burma. The Japanese intended to connect the said two countries passing through the Bilauktaung Mountains which is the boundary of Thailand and Burma, also known as the Three Pagoda Pass. The Japanese stared at both ends of the railways in order to shorten the time of the construction. They recycled and utilized the dismantled materials of the old Federated States of Malaya Railways and used it in building the new railway. 7

The Japanese utilized the man power and the labor force of the prisoners of the war and the people of Thailand and Burma. As we all know, during that time most of the prisoners of war were from South East Asia and the Pacific. Some of them are the coolies from Malaya and Dutch Indies. 8

There were actually almost 61,000 British, American, Dutch, and Australian Prisoners including some of the Thailand and Burmese villagers were forced to work on the railway. They suffered severely form the tortures of the Japanese and the Korean Army. They did also suffer from malnutrition for not having a proper and nutritious diet. They suffered from cholera, dysentery, malaria and tropical ulcer. They do not have clean or proper places to stay. They are forced to work for straight weeks without giving them enough or even just a little time to rest and relax. Having this much of a situation Japanese had problems on maintain the men needed for the construction. They provide Doctors to regularly treat and cure the men. 9

These are the problems that the Japanese should have anticipated in the first place. Knowing the possible consequences, they should have not continued their plan. This scenario only reflects what mistake the Japanese had done for giving it all out for the battle.

The prisoner’s diet consisted of rice and salted vegetables served twice a day. Sometimes they were forced to work up to sixteen hours a day under atrocious conditions. Many prisoners were tortured for the smallest offenses. The Japanese commander’s motto was “if you work hard you will be treated well, but if you do not work hard you will be punished”. 10

The Doctors were also exhausted in taking turns, in curing and treating the workers of the railway from day till night. They too have to work very hard to maintain the camp functioning and to maintain the speed of the construction of the railway. The Doctors were indeed great in battling against the sickness of the men but most frequently men who were in a hopeless case, a situation where doctors were not able to cure them are forced to be sent out of work. 11

Let’s take into account that the Japanese had already began the construction of the railway, one of the major investment that they should have thought before they had executed the plan is the working place and the labor forces. The Japanese intended to sacrifice the lives of innocent people which they should have done. Imagine, they are obviously tightening their belts with regards to the construction of the railway. As much as possible they did not a lot greater investments for the construction. As I have mentioned they only used the dismantled materials of the Federated States of the Malaya Railways. And aside from that, it is evident enough that the Japanese were not giving a proper diet to their workers, and forcing them to work beyond their physical capabilities.

The most frightening sickness that hit Thailand and became epidemic was Cholera. The laborers who were advised to rest are sleeping only on a wood and mostly covered with mud since the construction of the railway happened during the rainy season. 12 Cholera was easy to spread for it can be transfer from people to people due to the contaminated water, uncooked foods and from person to person contact. Indeed, the laborers were very susceptible for the disease for the kind of the environment they are in. The people who are infected with cholera dies within twenty four hours and their bodies were dumped a few meters away from the camp site where the laborers stay. Bacteria causing cholera would still be present in the feces and in the corpse. 13

The doctors available were not enough to control and prevent the outbreak of cholera, so they asked for medical volunteers to help them. According to the doctors, infected workers needs constant attention and must be treated immediately. They had to make a full time contact with the patient, even though this would make them more prone to contagion. Due to the contamination and unsanitary environment of the working area, combating the disease would be much more difficult. The disease would spread more rapidly for many of the volunteers and other not infected co-workers of the laborers would have to be in contact with the infected person. 14

It was only then after eighteen months, the railways were finally finished. It was then on Oct 17, 1943 that the two ends of the railways met. It is located 18 kilometers south of the Three Pagoda Pass. After finishing the railways, most of the prisoners of war were transported to Japan but some are left to maintain the railway still suffer from the torture of the Japanese.

The Thailand-Burma Railway was primarily built by the Japanese during the world war two for the transportation of support of the Japanese Army in Burma and as well as to conquer and invade India. The construction of the railways is the cost of the lives of men especially Asian. About 200,000 of the laborers were Asian and 60,000 of them were prisoners of war. The construction of the Railway has killed of about a hundred thousand Asian laborers and sixteen thousand prisoners of war. Today the railway is known for as the Death Railway. 15

The Japanese had indeed made a mistake in pursuing the construction of the railway. For me, it was actually intended by the Japanese to use and sacrifice the lives of the prisoners of war and as well as the villagers of Thailand and Burma. In the first place they have already studied the possibility and the consequences of constructing the railway and it was almost impossible.  Obviously they did rush the construction of the railway and did force the laborers to work hard for according to their study that they have conducted it would require them to finish it with in five years but they finished it with in 18 months. If we are to analyze, the construction of the railway wouldn’t be that fast if the workers will not work over time. This would only imply that indeed the Japanese inflicted pains and sufferings to the workers for them to work harder and force them to work for hours, days, and weeks. With this, the construction of the railway wouldn’t be that strong and it would not last. Actually the railway only for about 21 months only and then it was already destroyed by the Allied weapons. “Most of the railway was dismantled soon after the war’s end with the rest lost to the Thai and Burmese jungles”. 16


The construction of the Thailand-Burma Railway was a waste of time, a waste of money, and most importantly a waste of innocent lives.

1 Paul Kratoska, Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire: Unknown Histories. (Armonk, NY: Sharpe, 2005).

2 Rod Allanson, The Lost Legion: An Account of an Australian Prisoner of War in Thailand and Japan and his Subsequent Involvement in Australian Intelligence. (Surrey Hills, Vic., 2005, accessed November 22, 2006) available from http://home.vicnet.net.au/~a23mgb/f_hist/tbr_hist.htm.

3 Paul Kratoska, Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire

4 Paul Kratoska, The Thailand-Burma Railway, 1942-1946: Documents and Selected Writings. (London and New York: Routledge, 2006).

5 Paul Kratoska, Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire

6 Case File: Bridge on the River Kwai. (Educational Broadcasting Corporation, 2003,  accessed November 25 2006) available from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/case_kwai/.

7 Paul Kratoska, Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire

8 Ibid.

9 Rod Allanson, The Lost Legion; Gavan McCormack and Hank Nelson, The Burma-Thailand Railway: Memory and History. (Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books, 1993); Scott Murray, The Death Railway. Accessed November 24 2006. Available from http://www.scottmurray.com/bridge.htm.

10 Scott Murray, The Death Railway

11 Rod Allanson, The Lost Legion; Gavan McCormack and Hank Nelson, The Burma-Thailand Railway

12 Rod Allanson, The Lost Legion

13 Cholera, (Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research [MFMER], 2005, accessed November 24 2006) available from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cholera/DS00579/DSECTION=3.

[14] Rod Allanson, The Lost Legion

[15] Rod Allanson, The Lost Legion; Gavan McCormack and Hank Nelson, The Burma-Thailand Railway

[16] Scott Murray, The Death Railway


Allanson, Rod. 2005. The Lost Legion: An Account of an Australian Prisoner of War in Thailand and Japan and his Subsequent Involvement in Australian Intelligence. [Surrey Hills, Vic.]: R.T. Allanson, ©1990. Accessed November 22, 2006. Available from http://home.vicnet.net.au/~a23mgb/f_hist/tbr_hist.htm.

Case File: Bridge on the River Kwai. 2003. Educational Broadcasting Corporation. Accessed November 25 2006. Available from http://www.pbs.org/wnet/secrets/case_kwai/.

Cholera. 2005. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research (MFMER). Accessed November 24 2006. Available from http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/cholera/DS00579/DSECTION=3.

Kratoska, Paul H. 2005. Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire : Unknown Histories. Armonk, NY: Sharpe.

Kratoska, Paul H. 2006. The Thailand-Burma Railway, 1942-1946: Documents and Selected Writings. London and New York: Routledge.

McCormack, Gavan and Hank Nelson. 1993. The Burma-Thailand Railway : Memory and History. Chiang Mai, Thailand: Silkworm Books.

Murray, Scott. n.d. The Death Railway. Accessed November 24 2006. Available from http://www.scottmurray.com/bridge.htm.

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