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Romusha constructing the Thai-Burma Railway

Romusha constructing the Thai-Burma Railway

Romusha is a Japanese word for labourer, but it came to mean forced labourer during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia in World War II. It is estimated that in Java, between 4 and 10 million Romusha were forced to work by the Japanese military. Indonesian Romusha were involved in the building of both the Thai-Burma railway, and the Pekanbaru death railway between Pekanbaru and Muaro.

Even before the Dutch capitulation in 1942, the Japanese had identified Java as a major source of labour. In the beginning the Romusha were promised good food, wages and accommodation in return for carrying out easy work for the Japanese. Some even brought their wives and children to these camps. However, they found themselves dumped in huts, driven to exhaustion and brutally beaten by the Japanese and Korean guards. They were unable to buy extra food and became sick, bewildered and frightened. As the number of Romusha volunteering for the work declined, the Japanese began using force and intimidation with the threat of punishment. Using this method the Japanese gained many extra labourers.

Freed Romusha sitting beside the railway. (Argus collection)

When the Pekanbaru railway began in April 1943, the Romusha were used to build the embankments, cuttings and passes with nothing more than pickaxes and shovels. Later in 1944 they also built the camps that the allied POW’s lived in along the length of the railway. They also worked as miners in the coal mine near the village of Petai. 

The treatment received by the local Romusha was far worse than that of the allied prisoners. With very little food, experiencing malaria and dysentery and no access to medical treatment, the sick were left to die alongside the railway.

As the railway progressed and extended into the Kuantan Gorge, the Japanese used dynamite to remove sections of the mountainside and cliffs, rather than building the tunnels suggested previously by the Dutch surveyors. The Japanese intentionally detonated dynamite while the Romusha workforce in the vicinity, crushing the Romusha under landslides and rubble that fell. The next work party was then required to remove the rubble brought down by the dynamite along with the bodies of the dead Romusha caught amongst it.

The railway beside the cliff in the Kuantan gorge

The cliffs beside the railway in the Kuantan gorge

There are varying reports on the number of Romusha that were sent to work on the railway, although many state that the number was in excess of 120,000. Of this number, it is estimated that only 16,000 survived the work on the railway, less than 20%. Compared to this, it is estimated that around 85% of the allied POW’s survived to see the completion of the railway and the end of the war.   

Freed Romusha of the Sumatra Railroad

Freed Romusha at the end of the war

When liberation of the allied prisoners began at the end of the war, little was done to ensure the wellbeing of the Romusha who were left. The majority of the Romusha never returned home and stayed in Sumatra in areas surrounding the railway. Some remain there to this day. 

Pekanbaru Death Railway Monument

The monument in Pekanbaru to the building of the railway

Pekanbaru Death Railway Monument

The monument in Pekanbaru to the building of the railway

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