The soldiers forced me to get into the lorry. There were already thirty other people there. I was wearing only a pair of shorts and sandals. The Japanese soldiers did not allow me to go home; instead they sent me directly to Kuala Lumpur and loaded me onto a freight train for Siam. There we started cutting dense jungle. I had to work in the jungle and sleep on the bamboo floor in a hut, half naked and without any blanket.
[Mooniady Ramasamy, quoted in Nakahara Michiko 'Malayan Labor on the Thailand-Burma Railway' in Paul H. Kratoska (ed.) Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire: Unknown histories, New York, East Gate, 2005, 257.]
In 1943 under pressure to complete the construction of the Burma-Thailand railway, the Japanese recruited approximately 200 000 Asian labourers, or rǒmusha, to supplement their workforce of about 60 000 prisoners of war. The treatment of these labourers epitomised the ruthless exploitation by the Japanese of the countries they had occupied in 1941–42. Although it is difficult to be precise about numbers, up to 90 000 rǒmusha died on the railway.
The rǒmusha were drawn from across Asia and included Burmese, Karen, Thai, Malay, Tamil, Chinese, Javanese and Indochinese. The largest group came from Burma and Malaya, the regions which were closest to the railway and subject to complete Japanese control. It seems that around 90 000 Burmese worked on the railway, although the exact number is difficult to determine as thousands deserted before or soon after reaching the railway. From Malaya, around 75 000 workers were recruited or conscripted, including Malays, Tamils and Chinese.
There were small numbers of Javanese and Singaporean Chinese—approximately 7 500 and 5 200 of the total workforce respectively. Over 5 000 Chinese living in Singapore were also recruited as well as around 200 Aminese.
Thousands of Thais also worked on the railway, particularly during its initial phase of construction in 1942. Although they were employed on the least difficult section of the line, between Nong Pladuk and Kanchanaburi, the Thais proved difficult to manage. Since they were in their home country, they found it easier to abscond—and thousands did so. Moreover, because Thailand was not formally an occupied country, the Japanese were restricted by the need to negotiate with rather than coerce their Thai workers.
Elsewhere the Japanese recruited labourers through a mixture of financial inducements and outright conscription. In some locations they worked in association with local government and social hierarchies to recruit workers. In Burma, for example, local officials raised levies of workers, which were then employed in the so-called 'sweat army'. In Java, local headmen chose who would work.
In Malaya the Japanese recruited workers by advertising in early 1943. Men were initially attracted by the prospect of pay and a Japanese promise of three-month contracts. Some rǒmusha seemed also to have been persuaded by the Japanese claims to be freeing Asia of the former European colonial powers. In Burma also, the railway was portrayed by the Japanese as a part of their efforts to reduce Burma's former isolation from the rest of Asia.
However, when the first intakes from the railway did not return after their contracts expired, and money promised to families failed to materialise, recruiting became more difficult. Consequently the Japanese resorted to forcible conscription. In some instances in Malaya free films were shown, the doors to the 'cinemas' locked and all suitable workers rounded up. Often those taken were sent with nothing more than the clothes on their back.
Women and young children also travelled to the railway, often accompanying family members. This practice was common enough for the Japanese to have a pay scale for children under the age of twelve.
Few rǒmusha left written records of their experiences. However, many Allied POWs commented on their suffering, among them the Australian surgeon, Lieutenant-Colonel E.E. 'Weary' Dunlop who witnessed rǒmusha marching past Hintok Mountain camp in July 1943:
Endless streams of wretched Coolies from Malaya are plodding their slippery way to the jungle road. Those who speak English frequently have sad words to say about the recruiting methods the Nipponese used to secure their services. These poor wretches are dying up here in countless thousands.
[E.E. Dunlop, The War Diaries of Weary Dunlop, Ringwood, Victoria, Penguin, 1989, 264.