Plans to build Thailand-Myanmar rail link stir wartime memories

Remembrance crosses sit among the railway sleepers, rail pegs and track at the site of the infamous Hellfire Pass, built from 1942 to 1943. Photo: Kate Geraghty The Thai-Burma railway is set to have a modern counterpart.

Bangkok: One in five prisoners of war and forced labourers died on the Thai-Burma railway – one for every sleeper laid.

Seventy years after jungle reclaimed the infamous death railway at the end of World War II, negotiations are under way to rebuild a track from Thailand to the country now known as Myanmar, as part of a huge network of new railroads criss-crossing Asia.

In the postwar decades the 427-kilometre railway emerged as a central place in Australia’s memory of the war.

Australians make the pilgrimage in greater numbers each Anzac Day to Thailand’s Hellfire Pass, where they cram before dawn into an eight-metre-deep stone cutting where the shouts of “speedo, speedo” once reverberated, as Japanese guards forced the pace of construction of the track.

About 2800 Australians died on the railway and more than 23,000 suffered terribly.

Many of their descendants travel to Thailand to visit their graves and museums depicting how they succumbed to starvation, beatings and disease.

A new museum has also just opened on the site of the original railway in Myanmar’s Thanbyuzayat township, and an Anzac Day ceremony is likely to be held nearby in April.

The original railway was built in 1942-43 to supply Japanese forces in Burma, bypassing sea routes that were made vulnerable when Japanese naval strength was reduced in the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway in May and June 1942.

The new line taking a different route to Myanmar’s coast is inked into ambitious planning for high-speed rail networks that will eventually connect Kunming, the capital of China’s Yunnan province, to Singapore via Bangkok, a route stretching 4500 kilometres.

Preliminary work has begun on one of the largest projects, a 427-kilometre railway linking the Lao capital Vientiane to the Chinese border, costing more than $US6 billion ($A8.57 billion).

About 100,000 workers will be needed to build the track through Lao jungles and across its mountains.

The line is designed to open up a route for China to send goods through Laos and Thailand to the maritime highways of the Gulf of Thailand and Bay of Bengal.

Plans are well advanced for a Chinese-backed 850-kilometre dual-track railway in Thailand connecting the Lao border to Bangkok and then east to Thailand’s Map Ta Phut industrial zone, which faces the Gulf of Thailand.

Thailand and China are haggling over the terms of financing the $US14 billion project.

There are also plans to build a railway from Kunming through Vietnam and Cambodia to Thailand, part of what China calls the “pan-Asia Railway Network”.

Trains will be designed to travel at speeds of up to 250 kilometres per hour, according to State Railway of Thailand governor Wutthichart Kalayanmitr.

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