The other Holocaust

I saw something unsettling (to put it mildly) on tv last night. It’s about the Burma railway, and the horrible conditions under which it was built by forced labour. I knew about it, but not enough; not nearly enough. I especially didn’t know that it was built not only by prisoners of war but also by (as the show called them) Asians – simply conscripted people from South India, Malaya, Thailand and other places. Their death rate was much worse than that of the prisoners, which was bad enough.

There was one memorable segment where the film maker and the Indian engineer who accompanies him hike laboriously through dense jungle to arrive at the top of what is revealed to be a constructed embankment. The FM gets the engineer to climb down the embankment. The engineer takes only a few struggling steps down before saying how difficult it is; the FM says ‘And remember most of them were barefoot.’ ‘They had no boots?’ the engineer says. ‘Most of them had no boots.’ The engineer struggles all the way down; the FM calls down to him ‘Now find a 20 pound rock and carry it up.’ The engineer is very miserable, but finds this heavy rock (which stands for the basket of soil the workers had to carry up) and sets off; he falls down almost at once. With immense effort, panting, grunting, wretched, he finally manages it. The FM calculates the length and volume of the embankment and the number of baskets needed to build the embankment then brightly says ‘Now you need to do that only 12 million more times.’ One trip was a nightmare, and the engineer was fully dressed, rested, well fed, and not ill or injured; furthermore it wasn’t monsoon season. The people who did the work for real were all starving, exhausted, injured, ill, underclothed, and much of the time it was monsoon season. It’s hard to imagine.

Though records are sketchy, approximately 61,000 Allied prisoners of war are believed to have labored on the railway, including 30,000 British, 18,000 Dutch, 13,000 Australian, and 700 American soldiers. An estimated 16,000 of those troops died, many of them from diseases like cholera, beri beri, malaria, and typhoid, most during an intensified period of construction known as “speedo” that commenced in January 1943. Another 200,000 Asian laborers, mostly Thai, were forced to work on the railway. More than 80,000 lost their lives.

First thing today I googled Burma railway.

The construction of the Burma Railway is only one of many major war crimes committed by Japan in Asia during the war. It is regarded as a major event in the “Asian Holocaust”, during which millions of civilians and POWs were killed by Japanese personnel.

I didn’t know there was an Asian Holocaust – at least I didn’t know it was called that, and I didn’t realize how bad it was outside China. Something else I need to know more about. The narrator of the tv show did say the death rate among the Asians is not as well known (presumably in the West) as that of the prisoners of war. Well clearly it should be. And what about those Japanese textbooks…

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