- The Washington Times - Friday, July 4, 2003

KANCHANABURI, Thailand — Rod Beattie sweeps a metal detector over a watermelon field along the River Kwai, where six decades ago 2,000 Allied prisoners of war perished. The detector buzzes, and the wiry Australian anxiously claws the earth with his bare hands.

“This is just brilliant,” he says, breaking up a clod of soil to reveal a brass badge, a neat likeness of a propeller airplane perhaps crafted by a captured airman longing for the free, blue skies.

Sweating under the tropical sun, the 54-year-old Australian places the find alongside razors, toothbrushes and belt buckles, surmising that these may have been items cremated with prisoners who succumbed to cholera and other diseases at the Chungkai hospital camp.

The fruit of this morning’s excavation is headed for a bulging repository of artifacts from the Death Railway, which spelled the deaths of some 100,000 Allied POWs and Asian slave laborers forced to build a line between Thailand and Burma for the Japanese army during World War II.

The best of these items, Mr. Beattie explains, may find their way into displays of the Thailand-Burma Railway Center, a world-class museum recently opened after four years of painstaking effort by Mr. Beattie and several colleagues passionate about telling the story minus the myths and misinformation.

Until then, Kanchanaburi was poorly served by two small, rather shabby museums and Thai tourist guides who often pass on meager, or outright fictitious, stories. This despite an industry built around the railway, bridge and river that have attracted millions of tourists and piles of cash since Hollywood released its classic film “The Bridge on the River Kwai” in 1957.

Mr. Beattie says he strived for an unbiased presentation through information panels, photographs, artifacts, video clips and an interactive, detailed topographical map of the 258-mile railway, its stations and POW camps. The collection includes rare Japanese photographs provided by Ranichi Sugano, believed to be the last surviving senior engineer from the railway.

The museum doesn’t stint on displays of Japanese cruelty, depicting POWs turned into walking skeletons while hacking through disease-ridden jungles under their captors’ guns. Neither does it portray all Japanese soldiers as brutes or their railway engineers as blustering incompetents.

Conditions varied from camp to camp; Japanese soldiers also were subjected to harsh punishment from their officers; and some POWs developed decent relations with their guards. Mr. Beattie points out that a third of the 10,000 Japanese prisoners under British control in postwar Singapore perished, whereas less than 23 percent of British POWs on the railway died.

The museum has drawn praise from both Japanese visitors and former POWs. (“Bloody brilliant,” wrote John Reid of Brisbane, Australia, in the guest book.) Even those far too young to remember the war are moved by the displays and a view from the museum’s second floor: 6,982 crosses of the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

“This place will never be finished. It’s organic. As I find and discover more things, we’ll have more to explain and exhibit,” says Mr. Beattie, a civil engineer from Gympie, Queensland, who became deeply involved with this slice of history in 1994 when he was consulting for a sapphire mining company in Kanchanaburi.

He was later appointed caretaker of the area’s two cemeteries by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. A third POW burial ground is located in Burma.

Before the advent of the museum, which opened in January, Mr. Beattie had logged about 1,240 miles on foot mapping the railway, clearing sections of the invading jungle and collecting artifacts.

He also scoured archives around the world to build up a database, now containing more than 12,600 names of Australian, British, American and Dutch POWs who died working on the railway or in captivity elsewhere.

Relatives seeking information about deceased POWs are welcome to search the still-expanding data and a substantial library on the railway.

Unfortunately, Mr. Beattie and his colleagues couldn’t have picked a worse time to open the center. The Iraq War and especially the SARS outbreak have devastated Thailand’s tourism industry, and visitors to the center average 35 a day. The break-even point is 170 people paying the $1.45 entrance fee.

Mr. Beattie, who funded a large chunk of the museum’s costs from his own pocket, says he’s prepared to borrow against his successful gem-cutting business to keep it going.

“We can’t close down,” he says.

• • •

Kanchanaburi is a two-hour drive from Bangkok, the Thai capital served by international airlines. A train and many buses also run from Bangkok. The railway museum is located next to the Kanchanaburi War Cemetery.

Many visitors come to Kanchanaburi on tourist packages from Bangkok.

Those seeking more flexibility can rent cars in Bangkok. Car-with-driver rentals also are available in Kanchanaburi. Bicycles and small cabs, called “tuk-tuks,” can be hired for city travel.

A day trip from Bangkok is possible, but Kanchanaburi offers several fine hotels along with backpacker lodges. The Kasem Island Resort, on a small island in the Mae Klong River, is a green oasis with double rooms, including breakfast, going for about $24 a night; phone 66-2-255-3604.

Most travel agencies in Bangkok and Kanchanaburi list other hotels and resorts in the city and surrounding province. Some English is spoken at the bigger hotels.

The Thailand-Burma Railway Center can be contacted at 66-34-510-067, or e-mail: admintbronline.com; on the Internet, www.tbronline.com. Jumbo Travel, an excellent Kanchanaburi travel agency, is reachable at 66-34-514-906, e-mail: jumbo?travelhotmail.com.

Kanchanaburi is a striking and not overtouristed province. Highlights include several national parks, river rafting trips and exotic atmosphere along the Thai-Burma border.

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