The forgotten Malayan labourers of Burma Railway during WWII

The Burma Railway is infamously known as the Death Railway. It is because thousands of people died building it during World War II (WWII).

The Empire of Japan built it from 1940-1944 to supply troops and weapons in the Burma campaign.

The railway is 415-kilometres long connecting Ban Pong, Thailand and Thanbuzayat, Burma.

It is understood that between 180,000 and 250,000 Allied prisoners of war (POWs) were forced to build the railway.

However, not many remember that there were civilians working along the railway sacrificing their lives along the way.

It is estimated that there must have been more than 180,000 civilian labourers working on the railway.

They were mostly Javanese from Indonesia, Thai, Burmese as well as Chinese, Malay and Tamil from Malaya.

Sometimes referred to as romusha (the Japanese language word for labourer) in writing, they were also known as ‘the coolies’ by the Allied POWs.

Bridge over the River Kwai Art.IWMARTLD6035
Bridge over the River Kwai by Leo Rawlings, a POW who was involved in the line’s construction (sketch dated to 1943). It depicts four POWs, waist-deep in the water, carrying a large log during the first bridge’s construction. Credits: Rawlings, Leo – This is photograph Art.IWM ART LD 6035 from the collections of the Imperial War Museums.

The recruitment of Malayan labourers

Speaking of Allied POWs, Australian POW Hugh Clarke described on how these civilian labourers were recruited in his work “A Life For Every Sleeper, A Pictorial Record of the Burma-Thailand Railway.”

He wrote, “The Japanese at the end of 1942 resorted to many ruses to recruit an additional labour pool of over 270,000 civilian labourers. They included Chinese, Burmese, Thais, Indians, Malays and Eurasians. As POWs began moving north the Japanese placed advertisements in Malayan newspapers seeking labourers for work periods of up to three months in Thailand. Free rail travel, housing, food and medical services were offered together with pay at a rate of one dollar a day. The response was negligible so the Japanese resorted to press-gang methods. Free pictures shows were advertised at various theatre around Malaya and when full, the doors were locked and all males in the audiences put abroad trains and railed to Thailand.”

However, could the civilians escape from being recruited? There were reports of locals agreed to become spies for the military police or Kenpeitai in order to avoid being sent to work on Burma Railway.

Dr Robert Hardie’s accounts on Malayan labourers on Burma Railway

Dr Robert was a British medical officer serving with the Federated Malay States Volunteer Force and a plantation manager in Malaya.

After the fall of Singapore, he became one of thousands of POWs forced to work on the railway.

Throughout this period, he managed to keep a diary despite the numerous searches. His diary entries were later published in a book entitled The Burma-Siam Railway: The Secret Diary of Dr Robert Hardie 1942-45.

He was reportedly an admirer of Malay culture.

On Aug 4, 1943, he wrote,

“When one hears of these widespread barbarities, one can only feel that we prisoners of war, in spite of all the deaths and permanent disabilities which result, are being treated with comparative consideration.”

Then on July 6, 1943, Hardie stated,

“A lot of Tamil, Chinese and Malay labourers from Malaya have been brought up forcibly to work on the railway. They were told that they were going to Alor Setar in northern Malaya; that conditions would be good – light work, good food and good quarters. Once on the train, however, they were kept under guard and brought right up to Siam and marched in droves up to the camps on the river. There must be many thousands of these unfortunates all along the railway course. We hear of the frightful casualties from cholera and other diseases among these people and of the brutality with which they are treated by the Japanese. People who have been near the camps speak with bated breath of the state of affairs-corpses rotting unburied in the jungle, almost complete lack of sanitation, frightful stench, overcrowding, swarms of flies. There is no medical attention in these camps, and the wretched natives are of course unable to organise any communal sanitation.”

Again on July 21, 1943, Dr Hardie wrote,

“The conditions in the coolie camps down river are terrible, Basil says. They are kept isolated from Japanese and British camps. They have no latrines. Special British prisoners parties at Kinsaiyok bury about 20 coolies a day. These coolies have been brought from Malaya under false pretence – ‘easy work, good pay, good houses!’ Some have even brought wives and children. Now they find themselves dumped in these charnel houses, driven and brutally knocked about by the Jap and Korean guards, unable to buy extra food, bewildered, sick, frightened. Yet many of them have shown extraordinary kindness to sick British prisoners passing down the river, giving them sugar and helping them into the railway trucks at Tarsao.”

What happened to the Malayan labourers when the war ended?

If you think that the suffering of Malayan labourers would end when the Japanese surrendered and the war finally ended, well, it’s usually not that clean-cut.

According to Anzac Portal, these civilians had no expectation of being rescued by military authorities when the war ended.

In other Japanese-occupied territories romusha were given supplies of food and medical attention by American troops arriving from August-September 1945 on.

Unfortunately, Allied authorities in Thailand and Burma prioritised their own military personnel leaving the romushas including the Malayan forced labourers perhaps last in line for help and supplies.

As for the repatriation of Romusha, it was managed by different authorities. The British Military Administration in Malaya sent missions to Thailand in November 1945 to aid the repatriation of Malayan laborers.

Overall for those who returned alive to their homes, no compensation were given to them. In Malaya, nonetheless, some received some clothing and a small amount of money… but many received nothing.

The unmarked and unknown graves of civilians of Burma-Thai Railway

After the war, the remains of the dead were relocated from former POW camps, burial graves along the railroad to official war cemeteries.

Overall, there were three war cemeteries which are maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

According to Paul H. Kratoska in Asian Labor in the Wartime Japanese Empire: Unknown Histories, there are 12,043 Allied soldiers are buried in cemeteries in Kanchanaburi, Thailand. Their gravestones seem to stretch on forever.

He further stated, “However, there are no cemeteries, and no individual gravestones, for the Asian labourers who died building the railway. They were buried if they were fortunate, or else abandoned in the jungle, or thrown into the river or into a common grave. In 1988, the site of a mass grave was found in Kanchanaburi by accident, and the bones of more than 700 bones were excavated. Villagers said it was a burial site used for the Asian railway construction labourers.”

According to Anzac portal, since they were not military personal they were not interred in the Commonwealth War Graves Commission.

Furthermore, the identification of their bodies would be extremely difficult given the lack of records of where they buried.

To this day, there is no official record of how many civilian labourers died building the Burma railway.

Why were the Asian workers of Burma Railway, including the Malayan labourers, forgotten?

According to David Boggett in his paper Notes on the Thai-Burma Railway, while dead men can tell no tales, so the illiterate can write no diaries.

He stated, “Many of the Asian romusha were illiterate; poor, helpless peasants most forcibly conscripted or callously lured by false promises of riches and unaware of their ultimate destinations. While it is a matter of dispute as to whether Japan ever made any efforts to observe the Geneva convention (certainly the experiences of the POWs led them to believe that the Conventions were being deliberately ignored), the records kept of POWs movements for example from Singapore’s Changi prison to Thailand or from Thailand to Japan proper – suggest that at some perhaps higher levels, the intention of Japanese bureaucrats (as opposed to military staff on the ground) was, indeed accurate records of the POWs’ fate as obligated under the conventions.”

Boggett also added, “However, no such Geneva Conventions existed to govern the impressing or treatment of civilian labour; few official attempts were made to record the fate of Asian romusha. This lack of official Japanese documentation, coupled with the absence of almost any written records by the survivors themselves, has allowed the situation of Asian romusha to be minimise or even ignored.”

With no marked graves and no official records of their existence, it is no surprise why the civilian labourers of the Burma Railway including those from Malaya had been forgotten, even if their number could be way higher than of Allied POWs.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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