Saturday, May 2, 2015

A Road to Reality: Japanese at War in Burma

(A quick note and some pictures without edit. Please excuse any errors – long days and little time.)
There are signs in many parts of Myanmar describing Japanese aid projects. Yesterday I headed to Kalagong village to investigate a massive war crime committed by Japanese in 1945 during World War II. 
My findings will be published later. This entry is road report for journalists or investigators who wish to go there and perhaps audit my findings.
Firstly, do not take a car. Go by truck or better yet something 4-wheel drive. I had two guides. One that I brought from Yangon and another local but neither realized how bad the road is. Though it was only 61 kilometers from my hotel, it took about three hours to get there, and over four hours to get back.
(The guides are paying off. I found a 97 year-old witness after about three days of searching, while I was told today that a journalist searched for three years before locating her today in another village.)
About 10 kilometers of the road is too rough for a car, and as we snailed along, I thought how lucky that this is not rainy season, and that if a rain comes along we are truly in a mess, far from anything other than occasional villages with no electricity, and beyond cell phone coverage.
The driver became worried that he would damage the car. He did not want to go on. I was not pressing them. 
I said do only what you feel is comfortable. The car is their responsibility and I would not press them to damage the vehicle. 
This puts the guides in a tough spot. 
I spent a great deal of time and money to come to this village and they did not realize the road was so poor. 
Nevertheless, they are good guides and everyone slips up now and then, so I did not say this or pressure in any way, and even mentioned a couple of times that if the car cannot make it, we can abort. Time is important, and so is common sense.
We could come back the next day with a better ride. The guides wanted to press on, so the driver got in the backseat and the main guide became the driver and he did well.
Somehow we made it to the village. 
The village elders crowded in and we began.
As the day rolled on the clouds rolled in and soon the winds picked up and I thought that we might need to overnight in the village. If the rain was too hard that would be the only wise choice. 
As we stepped into the car to test the road, the villagers sharply warned that we should not leave the village, and that we should stay with them in the village. 
But the rain was not too bad and we thought it might be possible. They strongly warned to stay with them.
So we negotiated to hire some villagers and a truck with a rope and some wood. The truck would drive ahead of us in case we got stuck. The villagers thought that might work and wished us luck. 
Earlier in he day I had asked a village elder to come along with us for the next day’s research in another village. He had agreed.
The elder would not have continued with us if he thought the truck idea would not work. His name is Mawlawi Ali. 
Mawlawi Ali speaks and writes Urdu due to his Islamic school studies, and also Bengali which is the language of the village, and Myanmar, the language of the country.
We had a full car: driver in the backseat along with the local guide, and Mawlawi Ali, while the country guide was driving, with me in the passenger seat.
And the villagers were right. They normally are about their environment. The car had difficulty from the first ten feet. It was difficult even to drive from the village, but the elder thought we could do it, so my confidence was higher. 
He runs the village generator at the mosque. A thin wire runs around the village, with some families having up to three lights. (I did not check all the details: this is what I was told in the village.) The charge is about $3 per month to run a light, and this money runs the mosque. So a family can have an electric light for $3 month. 
In 1945, Japanese had collected about 600 villagers in the mosque and a nearby building, and then murdered nearly all of them with bayonets, tossing their bodies in the village wells. The wells are still there with their remains. 
The British also attacked villages that were loyal to Japanese, but since the allies won the war, we were not on trial.
The Japanese kidnapped the stepmother of the village elder who was driving with us, Mawlawi Ali, and she vanished along with other women they had taken. 
Ali got clues that she was in Thailand and went there twice, 1978 and 1983, but never found her.
As for the road, there were different sorts of surface. The red mud was slimy-slippery and difficult, and when we saw black soil ahead, I thought good, the black will be better. But it wasn’t. 
Several times the car veered almost out of control even though we were going slower than walking speed, and several times some of us got out to walk just in case the car went over a dangerous side. Someone had to be okay to rescue the driver.
We came to lighter soil, which was just as bad.
We got stuck twenty times -- at least. Sometimes just pushing by hand got us out, other times we had to use the truck and rope, but then even the truck got stuck several times, and we needed the wood. 
The ground was so slippery that we had to be careful walking. At least one man fell, causing the others to burst into laughter. 
We were having problems with modern vehicles but the farmers with oxcarts and wooden wheels -- like something out of a Bible story -- were plodding along without interruption. (I do not know if there are oxcarts in Bible stories, but the oxcarts remind me of these old stories.)
When the truck and car were attached by the rope, it was possible that the truck might go over a side and take the car with it. The fall would not be far, but in some places it could be serious and possibly lethal.
Night fell. 
The drizzle continued, and as the men worked the rope and car, I walked ahead in the darkness to a village I could barely see. 
I had seen a twinkle of light up there and wanted to see what sort of people lived there. I came to a Karen (?) village and the people were friendly, but appeared confused as to why a white man was walking through their village at night, alone. My two lights were in the car so I was really coming in from the dark so to speak. 
Even with the drizzle of rain, some moonlight was starting to peak through.
A village man came up in the darkness – lights from the truck a couple hundred meters back gave us some light, and the villagers had some lamps.
The village man wai’d almost like Thai’s, and his greeting sounded vaguely Thai but was not Thai. Burmese will wai, so maybe he was Burmese.
We tried to talk, but if he spoke a word of English it was not showing. I was not sure what language he was speaking. It may have been Karen or Mon or something else. 
Numerous languages are spoken just within a short few miles from here. This country is so complex. You drive through a Karen village, into a Mon village, then Bengali, then who knows what. The people look and dress differently.
There are languages and cultures in Myanmar whose names I have never heard. And they come with many religions, again, some of which I probably never heard about. Many of the Karen are Christian.
As the Karen (?) man tried to talk, he made me feel welcome, and village women came closer and were smiling along with the man. 
If we managed to get the car and truck completely stuck, we could ask the villagers for a place to sleep and rent some work animals or another truck to pull us out in the morning. (Most likely another truck.) 
Clouds began to disappear and the moon brought more light. The stars were very bright and looked closer than normal.
It occurred to me under the stars that if Japanese are trying to cover up their past, they are not doing a good job with the cover up. They are building a road straight to village where a major but obscure atrocity occurred. 
The case is famous among military legal experts who use it as case law, and some British military types, but not famous in most circles.
No doubt that after the road is built, this will become an attraction. Twenty wells still contain the remains of about 600 villagers, according to reports and locals.
Japanese are trying to get attention from people like me who will tell the good, bad, and the ugly no matter what, knowing that I will find things like this slippery road to this tragedy, that I never knew about before, and no doubt many of my readers never heard of Kalagong village and the massacre and abduction of about 15 women. (There is some variance in the reporting on whether it is 12, 13, or 15, and I may have found the cause.)
Mawlawi Ali, the village elder with us, said the Japanese will finish the road next year. 
He told me that a Japanese journalist had come to tell their story and help them. His name is Tetsuro Usui -- the elder gave me Tetsuro’s wife’s number today and I called her some hours ago but have not reached Tetsuro. 
Apparently from Tetsuro, villagers derived the idea of asking Japan to build this road for their village. Before that it was only a trail, they said. 
We were on the Japanese road before its completion, and Japanese built numerous small bridges that we were using this day.
The elder Mawlawi Ali told me that he brought the need of a road to the attention of the Japanese Embassy, but then Japan got hit with the tsunami at home. Despite the tsunami, Ali said that Japan approved the idea six months later. The road should be ready in one year, he said.
Bottom line: If you go before the road is completed, bring a 4-wheel drive vehicle. 
And Japan is not covering up its history. It is building a road to the graves.
(Apologies again for the quick post -- much work here, and monitoring Nepal.)

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