Igor Bubelov
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Hellfire Pass: Burma-Thailand Railway

Travel ยท Feb 23, 2021

Photo by Diliff
Photo by Diliff

Many tourists and digital nomads come to Thailand to enjoy its warm climate and beautiful natural attractions. Staying in Thailand feels like staying in heaven on earth, but it was quite the opposite for the allied prisoners of war during World War II.

Russian people tend to have a biased view of recent history. WW2 was an important propaganda tool for Soviet leadership, and it continues to be exploited by the current post-Soviet autocratic regime. The goal of this propaganda is to frame WW2 as a conflict between socialism and fascism/capitalism. The whole narrative is focused on the war between Soviet Union and Nazi Germany. Of course, this narrative gives all the credits to the Soviet leadership and condemns Western countries for their perceived cowardliness and self-serving deals with the Nazis.

Do Western people have an unbiased view of WW2? I’d say it’s less biased because the Western countries don’t have enough tools to erode the truth and hide uncomfortable facts. Of course, it doesn’t mean some people are not trying, the recent trends don’t look very good. Let’s try to imagine an evil nazi. How should he look? Yes, it’s probably him. I bet many people imagine an angry white guy with a shaved head or something like that.

Of course, Americans should remember that many of the cruelest, and the most notorious war criminals were in fact Japanese. Anyway, Asia is “too far from home”, which also makes people living in the rest of the world less interested in Asian history. The image of Germany is still tainted but Japan is all about anime, hi-tech and pacifism. The role of Thailand in WW2 is also not very well known. For me, it was a surprise to find out that Thailand played a role in WW2, and it actually took the side of Nazis.

Recently, I’ve been driving trough Kanchanaburi province in Thailand. It isn’t the most popular tourist destination, but it has a few beautiful spots such as Erawan National Park. After visiting a few random places, I decided to find a local museum because I wanted to know more about the history of this province. It turns out, there aren’t many museums in Kanchanaburi, but there is a single place that stands out: Hellfire Pass Interpretive Centre and Memorial Walking Trail.

First, this place is unique and interesting in many ways, and it’s hard not to notice how clean, ordered and well-maintained this place is. It’s all relative of course, I wouldn’t be surprised to see this level of service and care in a big European city, but its very unusual for a place located in the middle of Thai jungles.

Those were my first impressions, I still didn’t know what is this place about. It turned out, this place is standing evidence of Japanese war crimes. During WW2, Japan captured a lot of allied soldiers and civilians, and used them to build it’s infrastructure. One of the most ambitious Japanese projects was a railway between Burma and Thailand. This railway was built by prisoners, and those prisoners were treated with cruelty that easily matches the German army.

Here are some numbers. This railway was built by 60,000 prisoners of war, and at least 12,000 of them had died during the construction. Measuring things and keeping numbers is a good way to understand the magnitude of events. 12,000 is a big number, but it’s not enough to understand what happened. These people could be victims of some terrible incident. Maybe fire, or a tsunami? Well, that’s why we need places like this which gives us more context and translate a set of dry numbers into personal stories and experiences.

It turns out, most of those deaths were preventable. Those people died from malnutrition, beatings and the lack of basic medical supplies. This interpretive centre has a lot of materials which help us to remember that human cruelty is a truly universal thing. It’s kind of obvious, but it feels like our culture has certain biases in favor of non-Western societies. There is something mystical about Asia, people often think that Buddhism must be better and more enlightened than our usual religions. It’s acceptable to criticise Christianity and uncover its flaws. It’s also acceptable (but probably dangerous) to criticise Islam, but Buddhism has a completely different image in Western culture.

Popular tourist attractions tend to exacerbate the stereotypes we have about different countries and their history, but there are many things they don’t really want to tell. That’s why I don’t use agencies and plan my trips by myself. Living where locals live, going where locals go and trying to grasp local history can be a good addition to standard tourist routes and activities.