Former Japanese soldier wants the Thai-Burma Death Railway to be given world heritage status

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A repentant soldier who helped interrogate prisoners of war on the Thai-Burma Death Railway wants to make the bridge on the River Kwai a UNESCO World Heritage site.

Takashi Nagase, a teacher who has spent the past 60 years attempting to atone for what he and the Japanese Imperial Army did during the Second World War, spent his 88th birthday yesterday arguing that the United Nations should pay homage to those who died working on the bridge.

More than 16,000 Allied PoWs, mainly British, Dutch and Australians, and 100,000 Asians died during the 18 months it took to build the 400-kilometre railway.

"I may be the only Japanese who truly understands the hell of war," Mr. Nagase said. "We must make sure that the memories of the horrors we committed do not fade away."

Accompanied by the wife of Ryutaro Hashimoto, a former prime minister of Japan, Mr. Nagase proposed during talks in Bangkok with the Tourism Authority of Thailand -- an organization with considerable political influence -- the idea of applying to Unesco for the ruins of the railway to be given world heritage status.

About 125 kilometres of the infamous railway are still in use, while the bridge on the River Kwai -- the subject of the 1957 film -- remains a draw for foreign visitors.

The railway and bridge, Mr. Nagase said, should be recognized by Unesco and, stand as reminders of the "horrors and evils of history."

The Thailand tourism authority described the proposal as a good idea, but added that an application to the UN would have to wait until Thailand secured the approval of the countries whose PoWs had died on the railway.

Mr. Nagase, who acted as an interpreter for the Japanese military police, offered his idea last August when representatives of the Commonwealth gathered in Yokohama for a memorial ceremony. "I spoke to all the ambassadors gathered there and they nodded and smiled. But I know that I must present this idea to various PoW societies around the world to discuss it with them," he said.

Mr. Nagase said he would be travelling to Britain in May to meet Eric Lomax, the British survivor of the Death Railway who recorded his loathing of the man who had interpreted during his torture.

Rod Beattie, a historian who runs the Thai-Burma Railway Centre in Kanchanaburi, believes Mr. Nagase carries little weight with former PoWs.

"Only three or four people in the world know exactly where the railway was. I am one of them, but Mr. Nagase is not," he said. "The concept of remembering the railway is absolutely fine; making it a UN site serves no purpose."

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