‘Romusha’ is actually a Japanese word for labourer. However during World War II (WWII), it specifically referred to forced labourers during the Japanese occupation of Indonesia.
According to the US Library of Congress, it was estimated in Java between 4 to 10 million romusha were forced to work by the Japanese military.
Indonesia during Japanese occupation
The experience in Indonesia during World War II varied depending on where one lived and one’s social status.
The romusha’s services were supposed to be voluntary but in reality many were recruited against their will.
Some were taken from their homes while others were even seized in the middle of a movie in theaters.
Most of them were put to work through threats and violence.
If they were lucky, they were put to work on Java island itself. The unfortunate ones were those who werw sent to work outside Java.
These locations included New Guinea, Malaya, Singapore, Thailand, Burma, British Borneo (current day Sabah and Sarawak), Indochina and Hong Kong.
Regardless of the locations, these romusha were forced to work under harsh conditions with insufficient food, shelter or medical care.
They were often treated worse than Prisoners of War (POWs) from Allied countries.
Romusha in British Borneo
There is no exact number on how many romusha were sent to Borneo island during WWII. It is understood that they came here to work on oilfields and build facilities such as airstrips.
Richard Wallace Braithwaite in his book Fighting Monsters: An Intimate History of the Sandakan Tragedy gave one rough number.
“One estimate is that 31,700 Javanese were sent to North Borneo and another 48,700 to South Borneo. This occurred mainly in 1944. They constructed airfields in British Borneo, worked in the oilfields at Miri, and were used elsewhere in Borneo hacking tunnels and storage facilities out of rock.”
It was also reported there were about 3,000 Javanese romusha working in Sandakan airstrip alone during WWII.
Braithwaite further noted,
“Many romusha died in the transport ships before they reached their destination. While the Japanese kept good records, most records were destroyed after capitulation. The mortality rate for those who were sent outside was 74.3 per cent. However, only 5,000 survived of those who went to British Borneo, a much higher mortality rate of 85 per cent.”
Shigeru Sato in War, Nationalism and Peasants: Java Under the Japanese Occupation, 1942-1945 gave a different estimate number for North Borneo.
“Sending of Javanese labourers overseas was done mostly within the 1944 fiscal year. Like other commodities, the supply of labourers from Java fell below the levels set in the initial plan due to shipping difficulties. In the case of North Borneo, for which 17,000 men were approved for the year 1944, the total number of romusha who arrived from Java during the entire occupation period was 9,000 according to one estimate between 12,000 and 13,000 according to another.”
So did the romusha in Borneo return to Java after WWII?
After the end of WWII in September 1945, the Dutch Indies government established the Nederlandsh Bureau voor Documentatie en Repatrieering van Indonesiers (Netherlands Bureau for Documentation and Repatriation of Indonesians, or NEBUDORI).
This was to register, care for, and repatriate displaced Indonesians, most of whom were Javanese romusha.
The Japanese on the other hand did not make much effort to repatriate Indonesian romusha.
According to Shigeru, the repatriation of romusha by the Dutch began in May 1946, and by April 1947, a total of 52,117 Javanese romusha had been repatriated from Singapore, Malaya, Thailand, Indochina, Borneo, Celebes, New Guinea, the Moluccas and the Lesser Sunda Islands.
However, the repatriation of Indonesian romusha was not an easy job.
According to Braithwaite, when it came to repatriation back to Java, the romusha were the lowest priorities of the Allies.
“Some refused to go on Dutch ships as the Indonesian revolution was well underway and they did not trust the Dutch. Some presumably thought that going into a revolutionary zone in Java was likely to be worse than their situation in Borneo. In the end, only about a thousand returned from British Borneo. It was 1947 before authorities made ships available to them. By then, most had found employment and many were married to local women and had children.”
A thousand reportedly only managed to return home to Java out of the estimated number of 5,000 to 13,000 that were sent here.
This meant many had either decided to call Sabah and Sarawak home after the war or died working as romushas.
Nobody knows the fate of every romusha
There is no way to confirm these. The Japanese did not keep proper records of the romusha system and those who died were often buried in unmarked graves.
Historians believed the brutality of the romusha is one of the main reasons for the mass death rates among Indonesians under the Japanese occupation.
With no proper records documenting their arrivals or departures and no tombstones to mark their graves, the lives and sufferings of romusha outside of Indonesia, particularly in Malaysian Borneo, can be easily lost amongst the current and future generations.