Heading south on the road from Mawlamyine towards Dawei and the tropical Tenasserim hills, there are two moving memorials to the loss inflicted on civilians and Allied forces during the Second World War whilst building the infamous Burma Railway.
Often dubbed the ‘Death Railway’, the 424 kilometre-long line was constructed using forced labour in hellish conditions in order to secure Japanese supply lines between Thailand and Burma. Two labour forces worked on the railway from either end – one from Ban Pong in Thailand, and the other from what is now an otherwise unremarkable market town in central Mon State, Thanbyuzayat.
About 330,000 men were forced to work on the railway. Among them were 60,000 allied prisoners of war and more than 180,000 forced-labour civilians living in the region. Over 90,000 of these civilians were from Myanmar. About 75,000 men were hired from Malaysia, enticed with false promises of easy work, good pay and good housing. They were kept apart from the POWs. Their housing, sanitation, and food conditions were extremely poor and it is said that about 20 civilian workers died each day. Living conditions in the prison camps were equally atrocious. Each camp held 1000 men, held in barracks with open sides built of bamboo and roofed with palm leaves. The men slept on raised platforms, each in a two-foot-wide space. Malnutrition, beatings, ill health, exhaustion, and starvation were part of daily life. They were fed only rice and pickled vegetables twice a day and were harshly punished if they could not work fast enough.
An estimated 90,000 civilians and 13,000 allied prisoners of war died during the construction of the Burma Railway, of which fewer than 3,000 are buried at the cemetery in Thanbyuzayat. The bodies of Americans were repatriated, but the graves of soldiers from a number of other countries, including Australia, the UK, the Netherlands, India and a number of Commonwealth countries can be found here.
The first commemoration of the fallen is the beautifully maintained Allied War Memorial Cemetery; originally built by the Army Graves Service to lay to rest those who had perished along the northern section of the Burma Railway, it is now the responsibility of the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. Although foreigners only head to this part of Myanmar in small numbers (if you visit, you are unlikely to encounter anyone else other than the friendly old groundskeeper, who will greet you in broken English), the cemetery is meticulously tended to, with grass, trees and flowers all neatly pruned – and verdant, staying well watered even in the heat of the dry season.
Being at the memorial cemetery is a sobering experience. After you pass through the large entrance gate, you are faced with a white stone slab which says, simply, ‘Their name liveth for evermore’. And as you wend your way through the uniformly-designed metal grave headstones, which are laid out in a huge semi-circle between the entrance and a large stone cross at the back of the site, you will find that many carry personal – and affecting – messages. Some of the names are notable for their distinctiveness and bring real character; a personal favourite of mine was a machine gunner named T.J. Fury. But the wide variety of nations and cultures you will find reflected in the names reflects the global horror wrought in this corner of Southeast Asia – and possibly even more moving are the sheer number of graves belonging to the unidentified dead, simply marked ‘A Soldier Of The War, known unto God’.
The Death Railway
Around 2km south of the cemetery is a smaller memorial site that marks the western end of the Burma Railway itself (a short drive or long walk through the town of Thanbyuzayat – its streets lined with shops and simple teahouses). Just beyond a level crossing where the main road southwards crosses the Yangon to Dawei railway line, you will find an old, lone steam locomotive that has been placed on an isolated section of track to memorialise the events that took place here; it is surrounded by the eerie, broken remnants of stone statues of soldiers. A few metres further down the track is a sign that reads ‘Myanmar Thailand Japanese Death Railway line starts here 1942.1943’.
There is talk of sprucing up the area and opening a museum – and if they do as thorough and sensitive a job as at the other end of the Burma Railway at Kanchanaburi in Thailand, then that should be welcomed. But for the moment, Thanbyuzayat remains a quietly atmospheric addition to a trip down south.
Mawlamyine, the capital of Mon State, is a charming gem that sits near the mouth of the Thanlwin (Salween) river. At its heart is the imposing KyaikThan Lan Pagoda, which offers great views of the city and islands across the river mouth, a view which inspired Rudyard Kipling to write his famous poem, Mandalay. The streets below are lined with colonial-era buildings, including a number of churches and the city’s university – and Mawlamyine’s riverfront Strand Road is a great place to finish off your day, watching the sun set over some barbeque and beer.
Story by: Ma Thanegi