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Authenticity versus Commodification: Atrocity Heritage Tourism at the ‘Death Railway’ of the Bridge over the River Kwai and its Associations, Thailand

Authenticity versus Commodification: Atrocity Heritage Tourism at the ‘Death Railway’ of the Bridge over the River Kwai and its Associations, Thailand

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05/12/2014

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Authenticity versus Commodification: Atrocity Heritage Tourism at the ‘DeathRailway’ of the Bridge over the River Kwai and its Associations, ThailandIntroduction
Thailand’s international popularity as a tourist destination has been built sincethe early 1970s on an unbridled hedonistic appeal. However, starting in the late 1980s,official tourist promotion has greatly emphasised on the cultural heritage as culturaltourism. The quest for a distinctive cultural heritage was promoted as part of the nation-building enterprise. Also, the UNESCO World Heritage Sites status bestowed on Sukhothaiand Ayutthaya in 1991 has given not a small contribution to the repackaging of Thailand’stourism industry. These designations have also highlighted their importance as physical lociof national historical narrative.In the process of standardising, modifying and commodifying cultural assets foruse in cultural tourism there is a serious risk of loss of authenticity. The problem is that toooften the “packaging and presentation” of heritage is carried out by the tourism industry forthe benefit of its members and not by those responsible for the safeguarding of culturalheritage. As a result, both the physical fabrics of a heritage property and its intangibleaspects are trivialised and compromised. Further, Thailand is lagging behind on educatingits people to understand the value of their cultural heritage, an inheritance from the pastwhich contains events, places, people, etc…Thailand cultural heritage, like in manycountries, is very much under threat.
Background to the place
When the Second World War started in South East Asia around December 1941,all countries in the region were affected. Especially, the European- colonised countries like;
 
Indochina, Burma, Singapore, Malaya and the Dutch East Indies. Thailand (Siam, at thetime) although, not colonised, located in the centre of South East Asia, was forced by theJapanese Imperial Army to cooperate in the construction of the strategic railway line toconnect the Malay peninsular with Burma. The purpose was to use this cross-nationalrailway as a military supply line through Burma to reach India without risking the alliedsubmarine attacks on the sea-routes.

The Thailand-Burma railway line, which was later to be widely known as the‘Death Railway’ was built during June1942 until October 1943 by British, Dutch,Australian and American prisoners of war and impressed Asian labourers, predominantlyIndian, Tamils, Indonesian, Malay and Burmese. During its construction more than 12,000of the 60,000 allied prisoners of war died--mainly of disease, sickness, malnutrition andexhaustion-- and were buried along the railway. The Asian labourers also suffered highdeath rates, and between 80,000 and 100,000 of the more than 200,000 Asian workersperished. The Japanese kept no records of these deaths and it was not possible for anyoneelse to do so. The graves of Asian workers remained unmarked.The rail route in Thailand was 303.95 kilometres in length, most of which passedthrough dense rain forests, deep valleys and streams, and high mountains before arriving atthe Burmese border. From then on, the line went through similar topographic landscapesfor 111.05 kilometres. The whole length of this cross-national railway line was 415kilometres. With such difficult terrain, the construction of this line was extremely difficult.The Japanese planned to complete the line within one year, while in normal time theconstruction would require 5 - 6 years for completion.
 
Shortly before the end of the war, the Bridge was bombed twice. After the end of the war, British Army sold the section of railway in Thailand to the Thai Government. Theremains of those who died (except the Americans whose remains were repatriated to U.S.soil) were transported from the camp burial grounds and solitary sites along the railwayinto three war cemeteries. At Chongkai and Kanchanaburi War cemeteries lie the remainsof those who were recovered from the southern end of the railway. In Thanbyuzayat WarCemetery, Burma lies those from the northern end. After inspection in 1947, the StateRailways of Thailand (SRT) decided it was feasible to rebuild or re-lay the line only as faras Namtok Station (Sai Yok waterfall/ wartime called “Tarsao”). This strengthened and re-laid track, became a famous tourist vintage route, highly recommended as an
in situ
 experience, and it is a successful operation in achieving its goal as the time machine back tothe past.
Study Boundaries
The study focus on the Second World War heritage in Kanchanaburi province,where the Death Railway was ordered to be built and only at places where tourist’scommodification are taking place at high rate. The war heritage related in this study are thearea around the Bridge over the River Kwai and the train station; the Kanchanaburi Warcemetery; two museums, the JEATH War Museum, (run by the temple); the Thailand-Burma Railway Centre (TBRC) (privatised); and the ride on vintage train, routing fromBangkok pass several stations and end up at the waterfall station (Nam Tok).
Cultural Heritage Significance Assessment
Places related to the Second World War in Kanchanaburi are highlyimportant to both Thai and international history, it shows evidence of a significant human

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