Bitter Memories Over the River Kwai

THROUGHOUT Southeast Asia, a flood of Japanese trade and aid is starting to submerge memories of wartime atrocities. But here, amid sugar cane plantations and jungle-covered hills in western Thailand, memories are big business. Just north of this agricultural center of 35,000 people, the bridge over the River Kwai stands as a grim reminder of the last great war. The infamous bridge, lionized in books and film, was part of the 260-mile "Death Railway" built by Japan to link Thailand and Burma and provide an alternative to threatened sea lanes.

The railroad was constructed at a staggering cost: More than 100,000 Asian slave laborers and 16,000 allied soldiers died from Japanese brutality and execution, or from malnutrition, and disease.

But thanks to Hollywood, the bridge has become one of the region's most bustling tourist attractions. Bus loads of westerners and Japanese arrive daily to swarm over the simple iron span, ride a stretch on the railway and stay in the growing number of nearby resorts.

A group of Japanese war veterans last year decided they had just the way to say thank you to area residents who helped out during the war: build a new bridge over the River Kwai. Thai officials, always ready to accept a gift, thought it was a good idea. Thailand has never been as anxious about Japan as its neighbors, who suffered more during the war. The day after the attack on Pearl Harbor, the Thai government capitulated and then collaborated with the Japanese, declaring war on the allies.

Still, a tenacious Thai underground did much to help Western prisoners in the labor gangs working on the railroad.

But in addition to stunning critics here, the proposed US$12 million bridge finally ran afoul of environmentalists and civic leaders who not only questioned the project's propriety, but complained that it would knock out historic landmarks in Kanchanaburi. The new bridge is on hold.

Yet all is not cynical and commercial at the River Kwai. Thousands of war veterans every year make emotional pilgrimages to the site and its cemeteries, remembering savagery and survival.

Even some former Japanese soldiers, in contrast to officials who have tried to discount the war record, visit to expiate their guilt. One elderly Japanese soldier has returned more than 60 times and established a peace memorial near the bridge.

Almost a half century later, the tragedy continues to unfold.

Last November, local residents discovered yet another mass grave holding the remains of more than 700 Asian laborers including Malays, Indians, Indonesians, Chinese, and Burmese.

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