HC Deb 28 January 1944 vol 396 cc1029-35
Sir John Wardlaw-Milne (By Private Notice)

asked the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs whether, in view of the importance of giving this information to the House at the earliest possible moment, he can make a statement regarding the Japanese treatment of British prisoners of war and civilian internees in the Far East.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Eden)

I fear I have grave news to give to the House. Members will be aware that a large number of postcards and letters have recently been received in this country from prisoners in the Far East: and that these almost uniformly suggest that the writers are being treated well and are in good health. There is no doubt from what we know about particular areas that some of these communications, at any rate, are in terms dictated by the Japanese authorities. I regret to have to tell the House that in- formation which has been, reaching His Majesty's Government no longer leaves room for any doubt that the true state of affairs is a very different one so far as the great majority of prisoners in Japanese hands is concerned.

The House is already aware that a very high proportion, perhaps 80 to 90 per cent., of the prisoners and civilian internees in Japanese hands are located in the Southern area, comprising the Philippine Islands, the Netherlands East Indies, Borneo, Malaya, Burma, Siam, and Indo-China, and that the Japanese Government have hitherto withheld permission for any neutral inspection of any of the camps in question. We have not even been allowed to know the numbers of prisoners detained in the various areas nor have the names of a large number of those who must have been taken prisoner by the Japanese, yet been communicated to us.

For some time past, information has been reaching His Majesty's Government regarding the conditions under which prisoners are detained and worked in some of these areas, and as it was of so grave a character as to be likely to cause distress to relatives of prisoners and civilian internees in Japanese hands His Majesty's Government felt bound to satisfy themselves that it was authentic before making it public. We are now so satisfied, and it becomes my painful duty to tell the House that in Siam there are many thousands of prisoners from the British Commonwealth, including India, who are being compelled by the Japanese military to live in tropical jungle conditions without adequate shelter, clothing, food, or medical attention: and these men are forced to work on building a railway and making roads. Our information is that their health is rapidly deteriorating, that a high percentage are seriously ill, and that there have been some thousands of deaths. Here, may I add that the number of such deaths reported by the Japanese to us is just over 100. The railway and roads concerned lead into Burma, and the conditions I have described apply throughout their whole length. One eyewitness reports of a camp in Siam that "I saw many prisoners clearly. They were skin-and bone, unshaven and with long matted hair. They were half-naked." The same-witness reported that they wore no hats or shoes: and this, may I remind the House, in a tropical climate, where the neighbouring country is virtually uninhabited, so that there are practically no local resources which could provide medical or other material relief.

Of one other part of this huge Southern area we have some information. From Java comes evidence which leaves no doubt that many of our prisoners are confined in camps with no adequate protection from malarial infection and lacking in proper provision for sanitation: except in so far as prisoners may sometimes obtain food from local sources, the food and clothing provided are insufficient to maintain them in health. Reports from the Northern area have referred to the emaciated state of prisoners arriving from Java. I have, so far, no information to give the House regarding conditions in other parts of the Southern area. Before I leave the Southern area, there is one exception I can make to what I have said. There are civilians interned in our old military camp at Changi and in the neighbourhood of Bangkok and Saigon, and our information suggests that conditions in those particular camps are at least tolerable.

The refusal of the Japanese Government to permit neutral inspections of camps in the Southern area is difficult to understand, in view of the fact that they have allowed visits by neutral inspectors—though on a scale which we cannot regard as adequate—to camps in the Northern area, which comprises Hong Kong, Formosa, Shanghai, Korea and Japan itself. His Majesty's Government are reasonably satisfied that conditions generally in this area are tolerable, though as my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State for War has said on more than one occasion, the scale on which food is provided is not adequate over long periods to maintain the health of prisoners. I should add, however, that conditions in Hong Kong appear to be growing worse.

If that were the whole of the story it would be bad indeed; but there unhappily is worse to come. We have a growing list of cases of brutal outrage on individuals or groups of individuals. I could not burden the House with the full tale of these. But in order to give an idea of their nature I must, I fear, quote a few typical examples. First, two cases affecting civilians. The first is that of an officer in the Shanghai Municipal Police Force. Along with some three hundred other Allied nationals, he was interned, by the Japanese in the detention camp for so-called "political suspects" at Haiphong Road in Shanghai. He incurred the displeasure of the Japanese gendarmerie and was taken away to their office in another part of the town. When he emerged from the building he was practically out of his mind; his arms and feet were infected where ropes had left deep scars; and he had lost 40 lbs. of weight. He died within a day or two of his release. The second case comes from the Philippine Islands. Here, on the 11th February, 1942, three British subjects escaped from the Japanese civilian internment camp at Santo Tomas, Manila. They were recaptured and flogged by the camp guard. Two days later, on the 14th February, they were sentenced to death by a military court, despite the fact that international law prescribes the imposition of only disciplinary punishment for attempts to escape. The firing party used automatic pistols, and the three men were not killed outright I now turn to cases affecting soldiers. A number of Indian soldiers captured in Burma, having had their hands tied behind their backs, were made to sit in groups by the side of the road. They were then systematically bayoneted from behind in turn, each man receiving apparently three bayonet thrusts. By some miracle, one man who collapsed subsequently recovered and escaped to our lines. That is how we know. The other case concerns an officer of a well-known regiment of the line, who was captured in Burma. After being clubbed across the face with a sword he was tied to a stake and a rope was passed round his neck so that only by raising his body could he just get enough air to keep him alive. He was then subjected to further torture. Fortunately an Allied attack developed, the Japanese fled and the officer was rescued by a British tank. The third case concerns a transport called the Lisbon Manu which was being used to convey over 1,800 British prisoners of war from Hong Kong. Conditions on board were almost indescribable. The prisoners were seriously overcrowded. Many of them were under-nourished and many had contracted diphtheria, dysentery and other diseases. There was no medical provision; and the sanitary arrangements were virtually nonexistent. Two of the prisoners in one hold died where they lay and no attempt was made to remove their bodies. On the morning of the 1st October, 1942, the vessel was torpedoed by a United Nations submarine. The Japanese officers, soldiers and crew kept the prisoners under hatches and abandoned ship forthwith, although she did not sink until 24 hours later. There were insufficient life belts and other safety appliances on board. Some of the prisoners managed to break out and swim to land. They were fired on when in the water. In all, at least 800 prisoners lost their lives.

I have said sufficient to show the barbarous nature of our Japanese enemy. He has violated not only the principles of International Law but all canons of decent and civilised conduct. His Majesty's, Government have repeatedly made the strongest possible representations to the Japanese Government through the Swiss Government. Such replies as have been received have been evasive, cynical or otherwise unsatisfactory. Sir, we had the right to expect that, once aware of the facts, the Japanese Government would remedy this state of affairs. The Japanese know well what are the obligations of a civilised Power to safeguard the life and health of prisoners who have fallen into their hands. This was shown by their treatment of prisoners in the Russo-Japanese war and the war of 1914 to 1918. Let the Japanese Government reflect that in time to come the record of their military authorities in this war will not be forgotten. It is with the deepest regret that I have been obliged to make such a statement to the House. But after consultation with their Allies who are equally victims of this unspeakable savagery, His Majesty's Government have felt it to be their duty to make public the facts.

Sir J. Wardlaw-Milne

This horrible story to which the House has listened is so dreadful that it makes it difficult even to ask a question about it. I am quite certain that the Government have done everything possible to make representations to the Japanese in the ways normally open to them. I am wondering only whether it would be possible for the American Government and ourselves not only to give notice to the Japanese, through neutrals, that every atrocity that has taken place will be remembered and that they will be brought to account for them, but also whether it would be possible to arrange for a commission, comprised of, say, Spanish, Portuguese and other neutrals to examine the facts and by that means definitely make these conditions public to the world. A threat of this kind might force the Japanese to alter the existing conditions.

Mr. Eden

We have tried every representation we could possibly devise. We have put up every suggestion we could think of. Neutral inspection we have asked for over and over again, in any form or any condition. We have been met throughout, not only with refusal, as I have said, but often cynical refusal, and His Majesty's Government felt—and our Allies felt the same, and the Dominion Governments too—that there was nothing left to do, but to make the facts public and hope that that action would perhaps, at long last bring the Japanese authorities to an understanding of their responsibility.

Mr. Shinwell

The right hon. Gentleman's disclosures must have shocked not only hon. Members but the whole civilised world, and for this side of the House, may I be permitted to express the fullest sympathy with those concerned. May I ask the right hon. Gentleman whether it is not possible, in addition to the representations made by the Allies, to request the Russian Government—I put this with some measure of reserve, because it is a matter of delicacy—whether it is not possible for the Russian Government, who are not engaged in hostilities with Japan, to make direct representations; and whether, also, it is not possible, having acquainted neutral Governments with the facts, to ask them in the name of civilisation, which no doubt they respect, to make representations with us, to the Japanese Government?

Mr. Eden

Of course, we have considered and will consider everything, including the suggestion the hon. Member has made. So far as the neutral Governments are concerned, it is my belief that representations have been made by them, or anyhow by those charged with this particular care. I would not like to say more now than to state that it is certainly true that we have tried everything we can think of—and we shall continue to do so—in order to try to remedy this state of affairs, which is intensely painful to any civilised person, anywhere on the earth's surface.

Mr. Molson

Can my right hon. Friend say anything reassuring about the present conditions of prisoners of war in the concentration camps at the present time? I am so much afraid that these revelations may cause a very great deal of anxiety to those who have relatives who are prisoners of war at present in the hands of the Japanese. Would it be possible for him to say anything reassuring about the conditions in those prisoners of war camps?

Mr. Eden

I cannot quite understand my hon. Friend. I have given as full an account as I could of all we know, and I have put, where I can, the relatively satisfactory part against the other.

Mr. Granville

There is no doubt that the grave statement the right hon. Gentleman has made will be given publicity, but will he see that the power of the B.B.C. is used to broadcast this statement to the four corners of the earth?

Mr. Eden

I have said this now, because it is necessary to time it with other statements which are being made in other parts of the world.

Mr. Rhys Davies

Like all Members of the House I am shocked by what the right hon. Gentleman has said. I would like him, if he could, to make clear what is the position of the International Red Cross in this very important matter. They are above the battle and they have done some very excellent work.

Mr. Eden

Unfortunately, in the main, the Japanese have refused even gifts through the International Red Cross, except on a very small scale. Of course, we should welcome any help they can give.

Mr. Godfrey Nicholson

Does my right hon. Friend not think that some effect might be caused by a solemn national expression of our horror? I believe that if the full depth of the feeling aroused throughout every section and class in this nation and in the Empire, particularly in India, were brought home to the Japanese Government, it might make them realise the seriousness of the effect on the future of their nation.

Mr. Eden

We have had to consider this question of publicity very carefully. We had to weigh the anxiety which is bound to be caused to relatives by the revelations, against the possible effects on the Japanese. On balance, I made this statement. I do not think Lean say more.

Mr. Nicholson

What I mean is some more formal solemn national expression of our horror.

Mr. Thorne

I take it that prisoners in prisoners of war camps other than Japanese have not been treated in the same brutal manner?