Burma-Siam Railroad

Digital relief map of Burma-SIam Railroad

The Burma-Siam Railroad was constructed by the Japanese Army to link Bangkok to Moulmein. Its purpose was to allow the Japanese to transport reinforcements and supplies to Burma by land, thereby avoiding the long haul around Malaya and reducing exposure to the Allied submarine blockade. The orders to construct the railway were issued by Imperial General Headquarters in June 1942.

The British had surveyed the route from Bangkok to Moulmein, some 258 miles (415 km) in length, decades before war broke out in the Pacific. However, the mountainous, jungle-clad terrain was challenging enough that railroad construction did not begin in earnest until November 1942, after the Japanese had taken control of the area. Construction began at both ends of the route, and the sections met in October 1943 near Three Pagodas Pass. The first trains went through on Christmas Day (25 December) 1943.

According to Romanus and Sunderland (1953), construction of the railroad was carried out by 61,806 Allied prisoners of war and 269.948 conscripted civilians. Both groups were horribly mistreated and death rates were appalling. Throughout the rail route, prisoners who were too ill to work were dumped in makeshift hospitals to die, since the rule was "No work, no food." The prisoners were housed in cramped huts with no walls, inadequate roofs that provided little protection against the monsoon rains, and no bedding whatsoever. The work day was typically eighteen hours, and the limited sleep time for the prisoners was constantly interrupted by guards who demanded that the prisoners rise and salute them whenever they passed by. As the Japanese became desperate to finish construction on schedule, the prisoners' work day was increased, sometimes to over twenty hours. It has been estimated that 16,000 Allied prisoners of war and at least 60,000 civilian laborers perished during construction of the railway or, in the words of Romanus and Sunderland (1953), "For every mile completed, 325 men died."

A significant number of the civilian laborers pressed into service were ethnic Tamils who were unaccustomed to the damp climate. One British prisoner wrote that the Tamils "require a lot of care and die like flies of pneumonia if exposed to wet" (Gilbert 1989).

Responsibility for this mistreatment rested primarily on Terauchi Hisaichi, who died of a stroke before he could be indicted for war crimes. Terauchi justified his policy by citing a vague statement by Tojo in the spring of 1942 that during the war everyone would have to work. This statement later became part of the basis for the indictment of Tojo for war crimes.

The British were aware of the terrible conditions along the railroad by 1943 and protested to the Japanese Government through neutral countries. The Japanese Foreign Minister, Shigemitsu Mamoru, blandly replied that (Hoyt 1993):

The Government, by exercising great vigilance as to the health and hygiene of prisoners of war, and taking added measures such as monthly medical examinations of each prisoner of war camp, has enabled sickness to be treated in the first stage.

None of this bore any relation to the truth.

Completion of the railway probably influenced Mutaguchi's decision to carry out the disastrous U-Go offensive. However, the railway only marginally improved Japanese logistics in Burma, which fell to pieces during U-Go.

The railroad included, not one, but two bridges on the river Kwai. These were destroyed by Allied bombers on 24 June 1945.

The railway was hastily constructed and fell into disuse after the war. Although sections have since been reconstructed, as of 2009 there were no plans to reconstruct the entire route.


Drea (2009)

Gilbert (1989) (accessed 2014-1-24)

Hoyt (1993)

Romanus and Sunderland (1953)

Russell (1958)

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