Thursday, 8 September 2011

War Memorial Sandakan Death March

The Kundasang War Memorial is a poignant monument that commemorates the British and Australian soldiers who perished in the Sandakan Death March during the War. Careful thought and considerable skill have clearly gone into its construction, as the architectural designs are heartfelt with many evocative structures that may leave an idelible mark on visitors expecting just another staid memorial park. Indeed, the horrendous memory of the event contrasts strongly with the peaceful garden surroundings, carpeted with a blissfully ignorant sea of green grass mixed with colourful flowers, hedged in by imposing stone walls. Emotionally-charged messages and poetry, inscribed on stone plaques erected by survivors and families of victims, emanate with the powerful feelings of loss and longing arising from this tragedy. 

Read and reflect thoughtfully on their words as you stroll through the gardens, and the impact becomes tearfully - and painfully obvious. It was in 1962 that the building of the Kundasang War Memorial was commissioned (along with the opening of Kinabalu Park) by Major Carter, a Kiwi employed with an oil company, to remember the events associated with the Sandakan Death March. Between 1942-1943, 2,400 Allied soldiers were captured by Japanese forces (mostly in the Battle of Singapore) and sent to work on an airstrip in Sandakan together with forced labour comprising 3,600 Javan civilians. Living conditions were harrowing and the prisoners suffered terrible losses among their ranks from disease, malnourishment and summary executions by their captors. In 1945, towards the end of the war, the Japanese forced what remained of their prisoners (about 1,900 people) on a series of marches towards Ranau from Sandakan.

Meanwhile, brave natives of Borneo risked their lives helping prisoners who escaped during the marches - though many of the escapees did not eventually make it. The brutal march, compounded by lack of rations and brutal treatment, wiped all of them out save six Australians who escaped succesfully. Three of them lived long enough after the war to give their testimonies at war crime trials and punish those responsible. When the war memorial was completed in 1970, it too fell into disarray over time because of neglect. It was not until Sevee Charuruks, a Thai-born retiree came visiting that he saw, and was appaled at its condition. Taking on the responsibilities of a caretaker, he restored and embellished the war memorial with money from his own pocket and funding from various sources, including Australian authorities.
Expanding the park grounds, he build four memorial gardens, the first three dedicated respectively to the countries involved (Australia, Britian and Borneo) and the final one, a contemplation ground for personal reflection on the matter - complete with pergola, pool and balcony overlooking Mount Kinabalu. The gardens are incredibly well-kept and planted with roses, orchids and hibiscus flowers but please don't pick any of them. Tickets are priced at MYR2 for Malaysians while international travellers pay MYR10 per person. It's a quick walking distance from the vegetable market in Kundasang, just down the road towards Mesilau. The war memorial is certainly worth the visit, not just for appreciating the beauty of its landscape and architecture, but also for honouring the fallen soldiers and brave people of Borneo in our hearts.

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