TRANSCRIPT: INTERVIEW WITH SUZANNE HILL, ABC LOCAL RADIO DRIVE PROGRAM
TRANSCRIPTION: PROOF COPY E & OE
DATE: 25 APRIL 2013
TOPICS: Anzac Day
SUZANNE HILL: Well, it's been 70 years since the Japanese Army sent hundreds of Australian prisoners of war to begin work on a railway cutting that today bears the name of Hellfire Pass. The name describes pretty accurately the torment suffered by prisoners as the Japanese forced the rapid construction of this section of the Thai-Burma Railway. Some 2800 Australians died on the railway, and this morning Defence Minister Stephen Smith was among those attending a dawn service at Hellfire Pass, and he joins us by phone from Bangkok tonight. Minister, good evening.
STEPHEN SMITH: Good evening, how are you?
SUZANNE HILL: Well. Describe for us this morning's dawn service at Hellfire Pass.
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it was very moving. I think all of the people who were there were in a sense awestruck. So the service starts at 5.30- so it starts in darkness other than lit candles, and as the service proceeds, the dawn breaks, and the sun comes up. And by the end of the service, you can actually see all of that vista and, most importantly, all of the actual cut which is Hellfire Pass itself. There were a half dozen or so POWs who were veterans, some of them veterans from Hellfire Pass itself, and so all round it was enormously moving, and just to attend was a great privilege and a great honour.
SUZANNE HILL: It's hard for those of us who haven't been there to get a sense of just how eerie the cutting is, because that's how I've heard it described by people. What can you tell us about what the pass is like and when you look at it, the sense you get of what went on there and how horrible it was?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, you can still see in parts of the cut broken drill bits, which just tells you how hard it was, how terrible a task it was and how inhumane the conditions were. I think in very many respects, and one of the reasons I attended was not just because it was the 70th anniversary of the start of the cut but because I think in very many respects Australia has underappreciated the historical significance of what occurred there. It is eerie as the sun starts to break the darkness of the night. It's in a sense quite small, but you can just see from the rock surface how hard and demanding a job it was, how narrow generally the old rail bed was, tough and demanding work in terrible conditions.
We were all advised- I've never done an Anzac Day service as a Member of Parliament where I haven't been in a suit and tie, but the very strong advice and indeed requirement from the locals was turn up in a shirt and a tie, don't wear a suit because you won't be able to suffer the conditions, and even at six, 6.30 in the morning that was right. So- oppressive conditions, confined space, thick jungle and then out of nowhere a man made passage, but man made in the most terrible of circumstances.
SUZANNE HILL: Minister, why do you believe that this particular story in this place has been underappreciated in our Anzac legend?
STEPHEN SMITH: Well, it was only back in the mid-1990s that work was actually done to effectively restore it and to make it an historic site. Former Prime Minister Keating visited Thailand in 1994 and asked to go and witness - to have a look at the pass. He had an uncle who served in the Pacific, and was involved in the Sandakan camp and so he had a keen interest in it, and the Australian who today manages the war cemetery at Kanchanaburi where the second service was held today where very many Australian graves are, he was given the job back in 1994 of essentially cutting a path from the road down to Hellfire Pass itself for the cutting itself, so that Prime Minister Keating could see it. He had to essentially get in there with a machete, and he's got a long-standing interest in prisoners of war and these matters, so he now essentially manages the cemetery in the town down the road.
When Prime Minister Keating was there he said basically we need to do more to restore this, and that coincides with the Australia Remembers program, the 1995, the 50th anniversary of the end of World War II, so Commonwealth funds were applied and that was to Prime Minister Keating's credit. To Prime Minister Howard's credit, he persevered with the program and now we find the cut has got open access to the public, there's a museum at the top of the hill and Prime Minister Howard opened that back in the 1990s, and he tells people, John Howard tells people, that the day he opened that museum was the hottest day he ever experienced in all of his time as a Member of Parliament or a Minister or a Prime Minister.
And so it was really, in a sense, lost to history other than those people who were directly involved, and that is the habit and the practice and almost the way of these things. Most of the prisoners of war who were involved who survived rarely spoke about it, only spoke about it with their mates, and so there's been, over the last 20 or 30 years, a reawakening of what occurred there. We've also seen appropriate memorials and almost shrines of devotions to Weary Dunlop, because Weary Dunlop of course epitomises the medical assistance that was given by POWs to their fellow POWs. So it's taken us a long time since the end of the war to actually come to where we are now.
And there was also the case that in the immediate aftermath of the war, there was in a sense a stigma that people had become - that servicemen had become prisoners of war rather than engaging in the full [indistinct] of war and took time for that to be overcome. We know make no effective distinction between someone who was a prisoner of war and someone who served, and that's an unambiguously good thing.
SUZANNE HILL: Minister, we spoke on this program a couple of hours ago with Professor Joan Beaumont, who's been very involved in working up the Defence website and telling the story of Hellfire Pass on it. And she said that one of the amazing things about the museum there is that it's seeing extraordinary numbers of people come through but the vast majority of those are actually Thai people who are also taking ownership of the story. Do you think Australians at this point aren't taking enough ownership of that or - she suggested that perhaps it would be the Thais who would be left to do the bulk of the carrying on of the story?
STEPHEN SMITH: There are three stories, I think. Virtually there's the story of the prisoners of war of the Australians and others including New Zealanders and British, the story of movement of prisoners of war from Singapore, the establishment of prisoner of war camps and then the working on the Thai-Burma Railway and Hellfire Pass itself. There's that story.
Secondly there's a story of the forced labour. There were - and the precise figures aren't known but people estimate over 250,000 Asians who were essentially forced labourers, either Malays or Thais or Burmese or even people who were brought from what we then described as Dutch East Indies, now Indonesia, and estimated over 75,000 of those lost their lives. Most if not all of those would have been cremated so there's no row of graves or row of headstones to represent their tragic deaths. And then thirdly is the local Thais themselves who, in selfless acts of courage, rendered assistance to the POWs as best they could.
So there are three stories to be told and when I was at the museum yesterday and speaking to people who attended this morning did an appreciation of all of those things. The Australians who were there are either just - they're tourists and they happen to coincide with Anzac Day or they're there in a sense on a pilgrimage, they're there because they've got a relative who was on the railway line or they're family members of one of the POWs who was there - one of the six or seven who were there for Anzac Day, or they're Australians who are expats who are living in Thailand and they just come to essentially see a part of our own history. But there's a responsibility I think on all of us to bring more of a focus to this. I don't think - it's one of those things where there's a shared ownership. We owe a lot to the Thai people for the courageous work they did helping our prisoners of war and we have our own history there as well.
SUZANNE HILL: We're speaking with Defence Minister Stephen Smith who's joining us from Bangkok on the phone. Minister, this is your first Anzac Day as Defence Minister. Does the solemnity of the day change for you knowing that you are the person responsible for our Defence Forces/ Does it add another angle to what you experience on this day?
STEPHEN SMITH: In a sense, yes. I spend all of my time as a local Member of Parliament going to my local Anzac Day ceremonies. For those people who know Perth, I used to start at Halliday Park in Bayswater and I'd end up at Bassendean. And ever since I've been a Minister I've been engaged representing the country at a service overseas, variously Bomana in Port Moresby, Gallipoli itself, Hellespont, Afghanistan and now Hellfire Pass. So it does change it.
And I was actually asked by someone, you know, when you're standing there for the two minute silence, you know what goes through your mind- and it's the point I've made in the context of Afghanistan, which is in any conflict it's the easiest thing in the world to get in, but it's the hardest thing in the world to get out. So whether you're a Minister for Defence, whether you're a Prime Minister, whether you're a member of a Cabinet, whether you're a Member of Parliament, if you are thinking of committing your country's forces to a conflict, you have to think very, very carefully that this is in your country's national interest and national security interest?
Because the aftermath you'll never - the aftermath of decision to enter the conflict, you'll never know the circumstances will unfold, but what you do know is that there is inevitable tragedy which will attend upon the individual's concern, whether they're service personnel, whether they're service men or women, whether they're innocent civilians of the country where the conflict is and the like. And Hellfire Pass epitomises all of that: tragic circumstances forced upon prisoners of war, courageous act by local civilians who are also punished and then forced labourers from the area and adjoining country. So there are always terrible individual outcomes as a result of entering into a conflict.
So if you're going to do it, you want to make sure that it was absolutely in your country's national interest and national security interest to do it.
SUZANNE HILL: Minister, thank you so much for your time this evening, and for talking to us from Bangkok.
STEPHEN SMITH: A great pleasure. Thanks very much. Thank you.