The Thailand-Burma Railway Centre, Kanchanaburi
Located across the road from the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery, the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre was developed and opened in 2003 by Australian citizen Rod Beattie. As the manager of the Kanchanaburi and Chong-kai War Cemeteries for over 14 years, Rod became aware of the need for a museum and research centre that offered visitors to the cemeteries a more detailed overview of the history of the Thai-Burma Railway, and for those who had lost family members during the war, a place to source further information about their last days. After ten years of researching various aspects of the railway, including mapping the tracks with GPS technology, collecting prisoner records and data, camp locations and original grave sites, Beattie along with the financial support of veterans, their families, benefactors and the Dutch Embassy, opened the self-designed and curated museum and research centre.
The museum consists of eight separate galleries, each focusing on different aspects of the war, the railway and the experiences of both the Allied POWs and the conscripted Asian labourers. Entering beneath a replica of a wooden bridge as seen on the original railway, the opening gallery outlines the Japanese take-over of Southeast Asia and the subsequent imprisonment and dispersal of Allied troops across the region. Moving through the exhibition space, the interpretation panels proceed in a chronological order, outlining detailed aspects of the railway’s history, including: the engineering techniques the Japanese used to plan and design the railway; the movement of prisoners between track sites; the diseases that affected prisoners; and the overall human cost of constructing the railway. The final gallery provides a detailed description of what occurred following the Allied victory, moving the focus to the liberation of prisoners, the recovery of bodies, the formation of war cemeteries and the eventual sale of the railway to the Thai authorities in 1947. To further engage and inform visitors, descriptive text is coupled with photos and videos, a large selection of original artefacts collected from the railway line, illustrations drawn by prisoners, and various models and replicas such as a full-scale boxcar used to transport prisoners to their allocated labour sites.
The other part of the centre focuses on research and assembling a comprehensive personnel database for all the men who worked and died on the railway. Visitors to the research centre, many of who had family members connected to the railway, have access to a library that features a large selection of books, including rare and out of production memoirs, archival documents, maps, photographs and video interviews with survivors. For those sourcing more information on a specific prisoner, both Allied or otherwise, the personnel database is continually collecting data on the individual men involved. Through the information collected, data files list the prisoner’s personal details, the period of captivity, the location of labour, and if the prisoner died, the place of death and the date the remains were recovered. With the support of various Dutch, Australian and British organisations, the personnel database, as of 2012, has details on over 105,000 men and continues to grow annually.