Royal visit helps lay ghosts of the Kwai

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The Independent Online
The little piece of Thailand that will for ever be British was appropriately drenched in a rain shower when the Duke of Edinburgh arrived yesterday to join 33 pilgrims paying their respects to relatives who died building the infamous bridge over the river Kwai.

Those who know the bridge from the film, starring Alec Guinness, will recall his famous pose standing hands firmly clenched to his sides as his gazes in approval at the final product. The bridge looks massive on the silver screen. In real life it is rather more modest, even though it required the shifting of 7 million cubic metres of rock and earth to build.

Just before the brief commemoration ceremony at the nearby Kanchanaburi war cemetery, Japanese tourists were moving up and down the bridge conscientiously photographing each other and looking nothing like the occupying Japanese force who were responsible for the deaths of 16,000 workers on the bridge and as many as 100,000 people who perished in building the Siam-Burma railway as a whole.

By the side of the bridge are the inevitable stalls with the T-shirts which prove you've been there. Also on sale were cigarette lighters in the shape of hand grenades and guns. The painful reality of the disease, malnutrition and brutality which killed thousands of prisoners of war, and Malay and Burmese labourers, has been eclipsed by time and sanitised by tourist trinkets.

However, the reality of what happened was alive in the minds of the pilgrims at the cemetery. Rachel Jones, 74, from Carmarthen, came to Thailand with excerpts from the diary of her brother, Evan Lloyd Thomas, who died at the age of 26 from beriberi and dysentery. Written on small scraps of paper, it traces the agonising decline of a jokey young soldier to a desperate man. The diary ends: "We have suffered enough now, I think. I'm afraid we won't stick it much longer, here's hoping for the best."

The only British prisoner to have survived and returned to live close to the bridge is 76-year-old Trevor Dakin, from Duffield, Derbyshire. "I retired and came back to lay the ghost to rest," he says. "To a great extent I've done that." A Japanese reporter approaches and says that he would very much like to have a word. "You're very famous in Japan," he tells him.

Margaret Sam from Colestream, Berwickshire, says her father died when she was just four years old. She never knew him but is comforted by her visit and seeing him at rest in a well-kept cemetery.

Jean Walters, 63, and her sister Margaret Smith, 59, from Monmothshire, also lost their father before being old enough to know him. They remain emotional about their loss, but feel their sorrow has been eased.

As the "Last Post" was played and a two-minute silence observed, the small group with their royal visitor, looked relaxed, their duty done. The ghosts may not be quite exorcised but at least they seem to be under control.