Dia, an 80-year-old labourer of Indian origin, lives in the corner of a cotton field in the western province of Kanchanaburi, Thailand. His rundown shack contains very little besides a military medal and a few clothes. The medal is a remnant of Dia’s eventful, if tragic, past.
It is a past that has included a stint at Myanmar (then Burma), as a prisoner captured by the Japanese Imperial Army during World War II (1939 – 45). During this time he was made to work in the construction of a railway between Burma and Thailand.
Railway of Death
Dia has lived for years in obscurity in Thailand, doing menial jobs to support himself. But now he has been given a chance to tell his side of the story. A Japanese film-maker Hideki Nakamura, made a documentary on Dia and other prisoners of war who were involved in the construction of the railway. The documentary is called: Railway of Death: Those Left Behind.
The documentary narrates the story of the Asian prisoners of the Japanese Imperial Army. These men had been captured while fighting for the Allies – countries like Britain that were their rulers as well. Japan was on the side of Germany and Italy.
India, being a British colony, was naturally expected to fight on behalf of Britain. Many Indian soldiers and others were sent to various countries in Asia (the Far East), Africa and Europe, to aid the British war-effort. Dia was one among many.
The documentary highlights the plight of prisoners such as Dia and the subsequent years of loneliness and misery that all of them faced at being left behind in a strange land.
So brutalised is Dia due to the experiences of the war, that he is unable to speak today. Nakamura say it is because of his great loneliness and sorrow from being separated from home.
“He kept nodding when I asked him about his work for the Japanese military,” says Nakamura in the report by Inter Press Service, published in ‘The Telegraph’.
Dia’s gestures have convinced Nakamura that he must have worked on the long railway that was constructed between Thailand and Burma by the Japanese army.
In one scene in the film, Nakamura takes Dia to the railway site and watches as the old man suddenly starts to pick weeds. He picks the weeds for hours suggesting that he is doing it out of force of habit.
Nakamura says this must have been Dia’s work at the site of construction of the railway for several years, till the end of World War II. Another moving scene shows Dia tracing with a finger his route through Burma to Thailand.
Hollywood got there first
The “death” railway was made famous by the Hollywood motion picture of 1957, ‘Bridge on The River Kwai’. The film featured the experiences of prisoners from the Allied forces who were used to build a 415-kilometre-long bridge.
More than 60,000 Allied prisoners of war were reported to have worked on the railway. Of these 15,000 died, many of them succumbing to either malaria or harsh working conditions at the Japanese-run camps.
But Nakamura is of the view that many more men were brought from South and Southeast Asia and forced to work on the railway. He estimates the number to be around 100,000.
“Apart from Dia, I met several Thai men who said they had to work for the Japanese army,” he says. “The reason I decided to film this documentary was to publicise their plight that is hardly known as compared to their western counterparts”.
And that is why his attempt to narrate the stories of Dia and the others becomes doubly significant.