View all news

SCU tourism project aimed at reconciliation


31 October 2004
The son of one of only six survivors of nearly 2500 Australian and British POWs who were sent on the infamous Sandakan death marches in World War II has visited Borneo as part of an ongoing project to boost tourism to the area.

Professor Dick Braithwaite, a lecturer in Southern Cross University’s School of Tourism and Hospitality at Southern Cross University, has been working with fellow SCU lecturer Mr Yun-Lok Lee, who comes from the State of Sabah in Malaysian Borneo and who lost family members during WWII.

The two have been working with the Sandakan Tourism Committee to develop a historical tourism strategy aimed at changing the image of Borneo and increasing the potential for historical tourism.

Professor Braithwaite said the strategy included projects such as increasing airline services into the area and developing new tourism products related to the area’s history. This has included the development of a heritage walking track around Sandakan.

Professor Braithwaite said his father’s experiences as a POW of the Japanese
had had a profound effect on him and his family and he wanted to repay a debt to the Sandakan community, which had also suffered greatly at the hands of the Japanese.

“In Australia we have become a bit obsessed about what happened to the Australians, but there were a lot of other people affected by this. In Sabah the majority of the population were Chinese and they were seen as the enemy by the Japanese. The Japanese retribution was horrific. Sixteen per cent of the population were killed in the war.

“This in part is me sorting out something that has haunted me my whole life.”

Professor Braithwaite’s father, Richard Braithwaite, was one of only six out of nearly 2500 Australian and British POWs to survive the Sandakan death marches. He managed to escape into the jungle during the second death march, which left Sandakan on May 29, 1945, heading for Ranau.

Professor Braithwaite said his father spent six days in the jungle and had a range of adventures including narrowly escaping an encounter with a Japanese soldier and almost being taken by a swarm of army ants.

“He spent six days in the jungle on his own. That was very difficult, there was nothing to eat. When he came out he was extraordinarily light. He weighed something like 40 lbs (just over 18 kgs).”

For Yun-Lok Lee, who comes from Sabah in Borneo, the project has also opened up personal connections. His grandfather, who was a hospital administrator when the Japanese invaded, was beaten to death and hung up in the hospital as punishment for not coming out to greet the Japanese leaders.

Professor Braithwaite said the Sandakan area had never been promoted strongly as a tourism destination, despite its strong ties with Australian history.

“The tourism industry there has been primarily based on ecotourism, but we are building another dimension to it.”

He said there were now direct flights into Sabah and tourist numbers were increasing.

“Young people are really quite interested in it without having to be connected in a personal way. They say ‘it could have been me’. These prisoners were young people who ended up in such terrible circumstances.”

Professor Braithwaite said the project was aimed at reconciliation by creating a greater understanding of what happened in Sandakan.

The project is expected to be completed next year.

Media contact: Brigid Veale, SCU Media Liaison, 66593006 or m. 0439 680 748.