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Monday, 23 February 1987
Page: 422

Senator McKIERNAN —My question is directed to the Minister for Veterans' Affairs. It relates to Press reports on the weekend that a Japanese company is seeking financial support from the governments of Japan, Australia and the Netherlands to repair and improve the 170 kilometre Burma-Thailand railway. Considering Australian and other allied prisoners of war played such an important part in the construction of the railway at a cost of many tens of thousands of lives, will the Minister inform the Senate whether such a request for assistance has been received and, if so, whether the Government is considering becoming involved with this reconstruction project?

Senator GIETZELT —No doubt there is considerable public interest in the suggestion which has been made by the Chiyoda Engineering Consultant Co. to repair and improve the 170 kilometre railway in the Burma-Siam area of South East Asia. It has been suggested that some approaches will be made to the Australian Government to provide funds for this restoration. It has to be recognised that it is 42 years since the end of World War II and that a considerable two way process of trade and relationships between Japan and Australia has developed. Therefore, relationships between our two countries need to be maintained and extended.

I agree with the statement made by my colleague the Minister for Local Government and Administrative Services, the Hon. Tom Uren, that restoration of this railway could be useful to the people of Asia and good for the interests of peace in the region. I remind the Senate that the Returned Services League of Australia has always taken a keen interest in reconciliation between past enemies and our country. I remind Senator McKiernan that the Returned Services League organised a trip to Gallipoli in 1960, some 45 years after that event. It is now 42 years since the involvement of Australian prisoners of war in the building of the death railway. In no way do I want to glorify the horrific experiences of those prisoners of war, of whom about a third perished during the construction of the railway. However, I have to endorse the general sentiments of the National President of the Returned Services League, who takes the view that we need more information about this matter before we are able to take a definitive position on it.

Certainly the Australian Government would not be attracted to providing funds for the railway's restoration, although, as Sir William Keys has said, the RSL has provided $30,000 to supply a diesel electric generator to a village on the line as a practical memorial to those who worked on and died in the railway's construction. It is a question of understanding our practical approach to this proposition and not taking a racist position in respect of it. I believe that we should express compassion for those who died in the construction of the railway and concern for those whose lives have been affected by it. It is not something we can sweep away. It was a very horrible experience for those who worked on the railway. We need to take steps to find out the details. Some organisations or companies may have an interest in the project, not for the purpose of glorifying what happened in the construction of the railway, but rather to commemorate those who died in its construction.