Rǒmusha repatriation and memory

They were simply left to their fate and wandered around everywhere in the hope of managing to get a bite of food somewhere. They however were strangers in this land, and could not find shelter or even a small plate of rice anywhere. Some simply lay down on the side or the road … to die alone.

['Rǒmusha in South Celebes', cited in Henk Hovinga, 'The End of a Forgotten Drama: The Reception and Repatriation of Rǒmusha after the Japanese Capitulation' in Paul H. Kratoska (ed.) Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire: Unknown histories, New York, East Gate, 2005, 228.]

When World War II ended it may have seemed that the suffering of the Rǒmusha recruited by the Japanese to work on the Burma-Thailand railway and elsewhere was over. However, unlike Allied prisoners of war whose governments made their repatriation a priority, Rǒmusha were not quickly returned to their place of origin. Nor did they receive the same public recognition of their suffering, despite the fact that they had provided the majority of workers on the railway and had suffered a far higher death rate than Allied POWs.

Scattered around Asia, the civilian Rǒmusha had no expectation of being rescued by military authorities when the war ended. Cut adrift by the Japanese who thought that any contract they might have had with them was void, many wandered aimlessly. Some turned to banditry.

So bad was the threat the Rǒmusha posed in Burma and Thailand that the Allied War Graves Commission survey party had to post armed guards on its vehicles at every stop. On the other hand, some Rǒmusha were employed to keep the Burma-Thailand railway operating while captured Japanese personnel, prisoners of war and other Rǒmusha were being transported from locations further up the line.

In other Japanese-occupied territories Rǒmusha were given supplies of food and medical attention by American troops arriving from August–September 1945 on. However, Allied authorities in Thailand and Burma prioritised their own military personnel leaving Rǒmusha perhaps last in line for supplies.

The repatriation of Rǒmusha was managed by a number of different authorities. The British Military Administration in Malaya sent missions to Thailand in November 1945 to aid the repatriation of Malayan Rǒmusha. Dutch authorities in Java did the same for their colonial subjects, although this process was made more difficult by the Indonesian independence uprising. The Allied Bureau of Refugees and Displaced Persons and the Red Cross were also involved in the repatriation of Rǒmusha.

The return of Rǒmusha to their homes was a slow process given the worldwide scarcity of shipping and the priority accorded the repatriation of POWs by Allied authorities. While most Australian prisoners had returned home by the end of 1945, the last ship carrying Javanese from Thailand to Java did not leave until July 1947, nearly two years after the war's end. Given these difficulties many Rǒmusha remained in Thailand or started new lives elswhere in the Pacific.

Once back in their home town or region, Rǒmusha were often left to fend for themselves. In Malaya, some received some clothing and a small amount of money, but many received nothing.

In contrast to Allied POWs, the experience of the Rǒmusha was not paid much attention in histories of the Burma-Thailand railway and the Pacific war until relatively recently.

There is partly because the Rǒmusha, being mostly illiterate, kept no records of their suffering and published few accounts of their experiences after the war. The fact that they were non-English speaking also inhibited their spreading the knowledge about their suffering to a wider international audience.

In addition, while Allied POWs came to occupy a prominent place in their various national memories the Rǒmusha did not fit easily into the post-war narratives of the Asian nations from which they originally came. Rather than remembering the dark history of World War II—collaboration and exploitation—these nations have preferred to recall their heroic struggles of resistance, independence and national building. Moreover, in the case of the post-1949 Indonesian leader Sukarno, there was a troubling record of having been complicit in assisting the Japanese to recruit Rǒmusha in Java.

Few of the Rǒmusha received any formal compensation for their suffering. One exception has been the 'comfort women', whose campaign for recognition and compensation has attracted international attention since the 1990s. The Japanese government, while not providing direct financial payments, has set up a fund to provide aid to these women.

On the Burma-Thailand railway meanwhile, where up to 90 000 Rǒmusha died, there are few memorials to their suffering. Since they were not military personnel they were not interred in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission cemeteries at Chungkai, Kanchanaburi and Thanbyuzayat. The identification of their bodies up-country would in any case have been very difficult given the lack of records of where they were buried. Often the Rǒmusha simply crept into the jungle to die or were buried in mass graves.

However, privately maintained memorials to the Rǒmusha, can be found in Kanchanaburi, near the Chinese cemetery and in the World War II and JEATH Museum near the 'Bridge on the River Kwai'.

Last updated: 16 December 2021

Cite this page

DVA (Department of Veterans' Affairs) (2021), Rǒmusha repatriation and memory, DVA Anzac Portal, accessed 23 September 2023, https://anzacportal.dva.gov.au/wars-and-missions/burma-thailand-railway-and-hellfire-pass-1942-1943/workers/romusha-repatriation-and-memory
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