Most tourists come to Thanbyuzayat – the terminus of the Thai-Burma railway – for its war cemetery and museum, but traces of the Japanese occupation can also be discovered in the mountains surrounding the town.
Words & Photos THOMAS KEAN | FRONTIER
AT THE TOP of a steep slope, we find it: a concrete bunker with a narrow slit, about 10 feet by 15 feet, now half-full of soil. The position once offered a commanding view over the flatlands leading to the Gulf of Mottama a few miles away, but today the coast is barely visible through rows of rubber trees.
It’s one of the few physical reminders of the Japanese occupation of southern Mon State, which lasted just a few years during World War II. The most well known is, of course, the Thai-Burma Railway (also known as the Death Railway), which we can make out from the rear of the same hill when we look inland, towards the terminus at Thanbyuzayat. But, like the bunker, there are more traces scattered around the area – if you know where to look.
Some are hidden in plain sight: At the end of the railway platform in Thanbyuzayat, for example, there’s a concrete bunker, ignored by all except the small store that rests against one of its walls. At 21 Paradise hot springs, concrete baths built for Japanese officers sit incongruously beside hotel rooms and modern, tiled bathing areas.
I’m not hunting these out on my own though: I’m travelling with a guide, Jack from Green Season Travel, and a former local, Henry, who now lives in Yangon. Together they’ve created a tour package focused on Thanbyuzayat’s history and the Mon culture, including a homestay in the village of Wae Ka Wah. Henry’s father, a Wae Ka Wah elder, is leading us through the rubber plantations behind the village to the World War II sites, together with another resident who is being trained up so he can guide visitors in the future.
We press on, circling around the crest of the hill, and soon find a network of shallow trenches and man-made caves, now abandoned and half-hidden beneath the undergrowth. These stretch on for several kilometres; we end at a water tank filled year-round by a mountain spring, near where the Japanese officers used to live.
I’m told that when Allied forces bombed the area, the Japanese troops would take cover in the caves. It’s an elaborate setup, and it makes me wonder whether there was more to the bunkers and caves than just defence and repelling a coastal offensive.
The locals certainly seem to think so. Most believe that the caves contain treasures, presumably gold, left by the Japanese. An underground railway is said to have once linked the hills with the main line near Thanbyuzayat, its rusted tracks lying beneath the soil just waiting to be uncovered.
Treasures were hidden elsewhere, too. Beside the railway line is a pagoda and a Japanese memorial guarded by lion statues, which, unusually, have empty sockets where the eyes should be. The story goes that Japanese officers hid rubies inside the eyes; when the veterans later returned, they secretly recovered the precious stones.
Similar tales exist over the border in Thailand, particularly at a cave called Ban Lichia in Thong Pha Phum district. In July 2000 the Bangkok Post reported that six treasure hunters died from suffocation while searching the cave “for gold they believed was hidden there by Japanese soldiers during World War II”.
In 2014, the writer of an article in the state-owned Global New Light of Myanmar recalled speaking to elders in their village who had escaped from forced labour on the Thai-Burma Railway. They spoke of “finding discarded or hidden treasures, which they hid in caves somewhere. Of how they drew up sketchy maps of those hidden treasures and how they split the map into pieces and kept a piece each among those who escaped together, with promises of going back to that place when the situations permitted.”
So believed are these stories that our trekking through the rubber plantation – and, in particular, interest in the caves – aroused suspicions in Wae Ka Wah because some residents had presumed we were searching for the hidden gold.
Of course, they didn’t let this on when we had dinner in the village that evening. We opened a bottle of whiskey and the entrance to the wooden house, built on stilts in the Mon style, quickly filled up with relatives.
One, an 84-year-old man, was the oldest in the village. He recalled that during the occupation, the Japanese pretty much left Wae Ka Wah alone.
Then, towards the end of the war, he was up in the hills searching for wild durian. This was long before the fruit trees common to the area – the durian, rambutan, grapefruit and mangosteen – had been replaced with rubber. As he gazed up at the trees, the humming of engines slowly filled the air. From his vantage point he watched as Allied aircraft circled Thanbyuzayat several times – possibly alerting residents to take cover – and unleashed a hail of bombs on the town.
We thought that was the end of the story. But, of course, the conclusion of World War II was less the end of armed conflict in Myanmar than the beginning of a bloody new phase. And so, as he helped himself to another glass of whiskey, the relative continued the story of his war. In his thick Mon accent, he explained how he and about 150 locals had, at the encouragement of a Thailand-based Kuomintang agent, rallied at a monastery in nearby Pa Nga, opposite the town’s railway station, before marching all the way to Shan State for military training. It was an arduous trek over the mountains; some died along the way. And after all that, the training was a disappointment – they were given just a few guns between them. They marched all the way back, ready to be called into action.
To complement their handful of arms, they were given matches and told to burn Mudon, south of Mawlamyine. Nobody seemed too enthusiastic about this plan and when one of their leaders was shot they used it as a pretext to call off the attack, before later surrendering to the government. He settled down, got married, and here we were, 60 years later.
As the story went on, the people around us grew more silent and attentive; only the man’s wife looked bored. I learned later that most had never heard him speak of his time as an insurgent.
I had no way of knowing how true this story was, or even whether I had understood the details correctly (let alone whether he remembered it accurately). The translation came in snatches, and there was little chance to ask follow-up questions.
But it largely fits with accounts of the period. The Allies bombed Thanbyuzayat heavily in 1943, for example – an offensive that forced the evacuation of a labour camp near the railway marshalling yard.
In February 1952, Mon political leaders rebelled against the U Nu government and formed the Mon People’s Solidarity Group, which would later become the Mon People’s Front. Its leader was Nai Aung Htun, a native of Pa Nga, just south of Wae Ka Wah.
In Mon Nationalism and Civil War in Burma: The Golden Sheldrake, Ashley South wrote that in its early years the MPSG sought assistance from the KMT, which was then also allied with the Karen National Union. During the 1953 dry season the Mon group fought together with KMT troops in an unsuccessful attempt to defend Pa Nga. “[I]t seemed at first that the MPSG would receive significant amounts of arms and money from the Chinese nationalists. However, little assistance was actually forthcoming and the relationship soon waned,” South wrote.
After a series of defeats, most of the MPF forces – said to have been 1,111 soldiers in all – surrendered to the U Nu government in exchange for an amnesty and the right to form a political party. Some, including Nai Aung Htun, won seats in the 1960 election, but most were arrested during General Ne Win’s coup two years later. The junta ignored the promises made to the Mon in 1958. The online Mon News Agency recently described the MPF’s surrender as “the darkest day for the Mon people”.
With the Mon nationalist movement snuffed out under Ne Win, the people of Wae Ka Wah, Pa Nga and other villages in the area instead got down to business. This being the socialist period, that meant smuggling. By night they loaded rickety boats with rubber and other commodities and travelled down the coast as far as Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore, before returning with impossible-to-find consumer goods that would be resold in Mawlamyine and Yangon.
Pa Nga was also famous – and still is – for its salt fields and nga pi (fish paste), two intertwined industries. One street at the eastern edge of the town is lined with warehouses where trucks drop off a reeking cargo of fermented fish and prawns. This is shovelled into baskets and then dumped on the floor of the warehouses, where workers shovel in salt and mix it around. The rest happens out the back – an area I wasn’t too keen to explore due to the smell.
The work is hard and hot, particularly out on the salt fields, where the sun reflects fiercely off the white ground. Many of the workers are migrants from other parts of Myanmar, lured by the slightly higher wages, and they live in bamboo houses on the edge of the town.
It’s an indication of how the two R’s – rubber and remittances – have reshaped the local economy. Many working-age Mon have migrated to Thailand, and the money they send back supports entire families. The paucity of labourers drives wages up and draws in workers from around the country. The remittances are often used to purchase land for small rubber plantations that then provide a steady income for migrants and their families when they return home. As a result, the Thanbyuzayat area seems to enjoy relative prosperity, and there’s a relaxed and comfortable atmosphere.
In the late afternoon, we stop in at the Thanbyuzayat War Cemetery on our way back to Wae Ka Wah. Maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission, it hosts the remains of more than 3,000 Commonwealth and Dutch prisoners of war who died while building the Thai-Burma railway.
Outside, three teenage boys sit in the shade. We started a conversation, and one remarked that they no longer went to school. “We don’t need to worry,” he said, “our families have rubber plantations.”