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Monday, 24 November 1997
Page: 11053

Mr LAURIE FERGUSON(1.38 p.m.) —I am pleased to second this motion on a number of fronts: firstly, as the shadow minister for Veterans' Affairs; secondly, as the leader of a delegation in October 1994 as chairman of the subcommittee of the foreign affairs committee; and, thirdly, as a representative of western Sydney which has seen Australia's main Thai-Australian cultural connection, the Loy Krathong festival, germinate in recent years.

That delegation of October 1994 included, amongst others, the Speaker, the honourable member for Throsby (Mr Hollis) and the right honourable member for New England (Mr Sinclair). Like the recent delegation of the member for Lyons (Mr Adams), we also visited the Hellfire Pass site. We also had the opportunity to visit the nearby Kanchanaburi cemetery where a large number of the 2,800 Australians and 12,000 allied servicemen in toto who died are buried.

It is quite pleasing to put on the record the degree of interest that there is in this site and in the sufferings that the Australians experienced there on the part of the Thai government and the Thai community. It is also vital to put on the record not only the work of the Ex-POW Association but also the work of the Australian-Thai Chamber of Commerce in Bangkok. This chamber covers a large number of Australian companies that have a direct commercial interest and involvement in Thailand. They certainly were in there at an early stage.

As other speakers indicated, the work on the Hellfire Pass did involve tremendous suffering by those people with the spread of rampant diseases, starvation, no consideration whatsoever to the occupational safety of those involved and a fairly murderous straining timetable which took a major toll on these Australians and also on a very large number of conscripted Asian workers. It followed a murderous 200-kilometre route walk for the vast majority of these people. In one part it entailed the digging out 500 metres eight metres high of earth and stone. It involved the collapse of bridges, killing many people in the process. It also involved detonation work, without any real indication to those involved that it was about to happen, and related deaths from that.

Hellfire Pass is a very central consideration of people that have followed Australia's war effort. As others have strongly stated, Sir Edward `Weary' Dunlop was a seminal representative of that Second World War experience and his ashes are buried there. From recollection, the genesis of this project was in 1989 with the Ex-POW Association.

The motion moved by the member for Lyons is a very practical one with a variety of suggestions as to what should occur there. Importantly, it calls for the presence of a curator and the devotion of funds so that the museum can be maintained permanently in the very region where the development occurs. It is pleasing and quite understandable that both sides of the House are giving this motion very strong support. This is also an opportunity to put on the record the context of comments made by the member for Oxley (Ms Hanson) a few weeks ago when she misrepresented the nature of our connection with Thailand in the recent collapse of its markets that it was a loan rather than direct aid.

As a person who led an Australian delegation to Thailand, I would like to say that we had a great experience in regard to the feeling of Thais towards this country. They are appreciative of the efforts we made perhaps when their own leadership in the Second World War was a bit questionable. There is a very clear recognition by the Thai population of the sufferings experienced by Australians and the need to preserve recognition of that within that country.

This is part of a wider example of close contact between the two countries. It is certainly not something that the Thai government ignores and feels is very minor. They understand the feelings in this country about this site. They understand the interest of Australia in having it recognised as part of our heritage within their land. I once again put on the record my appreciation of the member for Lyons in moving this motion and of speakers on both sides in supporting this measure.