This has thrown up a terrible irony. Alongside the 16,000 Allied soldiers who died as slaves on the Japanese "death railway" that linked Myanmar with Thailand during World War II were some 100,000 Burmese and other Asian dead. In southern Myanmar, the death railway is still there. A life was lost for every railroad tie laid, one survivor calculated.
History is repeating itself. An extension of this line is being built between the towns of Ye and Tavoy on the Andaman Sea. Although human-rights groups have documented the testimonies of the slave workers on the death railway, few outsiders have seen it or the slave camps along the route. Most of Mon state in the south, where the railway is being built, is closed to foreigners. It is Myanmar's gulag.
In filming a television documentary for screening in Britain, my colleague David Munro and I entered the country under the subterfuge of travel consultants. Following the line of embankments north into the jungle, by chance we came upon a clearing that presented a sight that might have been a tableau of Victorian England. Scores of people were building embankments and a bridge across a dry riverbed that, with the arrival of the monsoon, was an ocherous torrent. An embankment 20 feet high had been built with earth dug by hoe and hand from huge holes.The skilled were paid about 50 cents a day; the majority were slave laborers, of whom many were children.
The child workers carried heavy loads of mud mixed with straw in baskets and dishes on their heads and clearly agonized under the weight. After they poured the mixture into a vat and grinder, the sticky clay, now almost as hard as rock, was gathered by two small children, one of them small enough to fit up to his shoulders in a hole directly beneath the grinder. Horrified, I watched a load of clay, like fresh cement, tip over, almost burying him. I reached under his arms and pulled him out. The others laughed as if this was normal. How many children are trapped and injured and die like that? As many as 300 adults and children have been killed or have died from disease and exhaustion, according to one estimate.
Every village along the way must give its labor"voluntarily," regardless of a person's age or state of health. "I had malaria but they still made me work on the railway," a former civil servant told me in a nearby safe area controlled by the Karen National Union [the most effective of the country's ethnic-based insurgency groups. -WPR] ''' was so sick I kept falling down as I worked. I saw one old man accidentally drop his load into the river. As he tried to retrieve it, the soldiers shot him in the head. I could see the water turn red with his blood. Then the river carried him away."
I asked a woman if she knew why she was being forced to work in this way. "We were told nothing," she said. "We overheard we were building a railway for a French company to run a pipeline through, and foreigners came to look over the site."
The oil company is Total, which is part-owned by the French government. In partnership with the American Unocal Corp., Total is building a $1-billion pipeline that will carry Myanmar's natural gas from beneath the Andaman Sea into Thailand. The deal will give the Yangon generals about $400 million a year for 30 years. Since SLORC put an end to democracy in 1990, it is estimated that the junta has received 65 percent of its financial backing from foreign oil companies.
In its 1993 report on human-rights abuses throughout the world, the U.S. State Department said that SLORC "routinely" uses slave labor and "will use the new railway to transport soldiers and construction supplies into the pipeline area." Unocal says reports of slave labor are a "fabrication," and both oil companies deny the railway is linked to the pipeline project. But more than 5,000 troops have already been shipped to the pipeline area, and army patrols protect Total personnel.
"At last the doors to Myanmar, the magic golden land, are open," waxes Naw Angelene, the director of tourism, in an official handout. "Roads will be wider, lights will be brighter, tours will be cleaner, grass will be greener, and with more job opportunities, people will be happier."
South China Morning Post (centrist), Hong Kong