The Brunei Rebellion (Malay language: Pemberontakan Brunei) broke out on 8 December 1962. The rebels began co-ordinated attacks on the oil town of Seria (targeting the Royal Dutch Shell oil installations) and on police stations and government facilities around the protectorate. This rebellion against the Sultan, his government and loyal subjects is seen as one of the first stages of the Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation.
The northern part of the island of Borneo was composed of three British territories: the colonies of Sarawak and North Borneo (to be renamed Sabah) and the protectorate of the Sultanate of Brunei. Brunei became a British protectorate in 1888, had an area of about 2,226 square miles (5,800 km2) and some 85,000 people, just over half Malays, a quarter Chinese and the rest Dayaks, the indigenous people of Borneo. Oil was discovered in 1929 near Seria and the Shell Petroleum Company concession provided the Sultanate with a huge income. The capital, called Brunei Town in those days, was on a river some 10 miles (20 km) from the coast.
In 1959, the Sultan, Sir Omar Ali Saifuddin III, established a legislature with half its members nominated and half elected. Elections were held in September 1962 and all of the contested seats were won by the Brunei People’s Party.
Between 1959 and 1962, the United Kingdom, Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak were involved in negotiations to form a new Malaysian Federation. However, the Philippines and particularly Indonesia opposed any move towards unification of North Borneo and Sarawak with the new federation. This support was given strength by evidence of widespread anti-Federation sentiment in Sarawak and Brunei itself. The Brunei People’s Party was in favour of joining Malaysia on condition it was as the unified three territories of northern Borneo (total about 1.5 million people, half Dayak) with their own sultan, and hence be strong enough to resist domination by Malaya or Singapore, Malay administrators or Chinese merchants. Local opposition and sentiments against the Malaysian Federation plan have often been under-represented in historical writings on the Brunei Rebellion and the subsequent Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation. In fact, political forces in Sarawak had long anticipated their own national independence as promised (but later aborted) by the last White Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Vyner Brooke, in 1941.
The North Kalimantan (or Kalimantan Utara) proposal was seen as a post-decolonization alternative by local opposition against the Malaysian Federation plan. Local opposition throughout the Borneo territories was primarily based on economic, political, historical and cultural differences between the Borneo states and the Malayan peninsula, and an unwillingness to be subjected to peninsular political domination.
However, before the Brunei People’s Party electoral success, a military wing had emerged, the North Kalimantan National Army (Malay abbreviation TNKU), which saw itself as an anti-colonialist liberation party. Its sympathies lay with Indonesia which was seen as having better ‘liberationist’ credentials than Malaya and Singapore. Its 34 year old leader A.M. Azahari had lived in Indonesia and was in touch with Indonesian intelligence agents. He had recruited several officers who had been trained in clandestine warfare in Indonesia. By late 1962, they could muster about 4000 men, a few modern weapons and about 1000 shotguns.
Hints of brewing trouble came in early November 1962 when the Resident for the 5th Division of Sarawak, Richard Morris (an Australian), who was based in Limbang (sandwiched between the two parts of Brunei) received information. Special Branch police from Kuching visited Limbang but only found some illegal uniforms with TNKU badges. Later in November, Morris heard that an insurrection was planned for Brunei, but not before the 19th of December. Claude Fenner, the Inspector General of the Malayan Police flew to Sarawak to investigate but found no evidence. However, the Chief of Staff in the British Far East Headquarters in Singapore did review and update the contingency plan, PALE ALE, for Brunei. However, the risk was assessed as low and the British Far East Land, Sea and Air Commanders-in-Chief were away from Singapore as was the operational commander of land forces, Major General Walter Walker.
On 6 December, Morris heard the rebellion would start on the 8th. On 7th, similar information reached John Fisher, the resident of the 4th Division of Sarawak, based in Miri some 20 miles (30 km) west of Brunei. As a result police were put on full alert through Brunei, North Borneo and Sarawak, and Police Field Force reinforcements were flown from Kuching to Miri.
Contrary to popular belief, no firm evidence has ever been unearthed to support claims that the Indonesian President, Sukarno, had territorial ambitions over Sarawak (he always held firmly to the 1945 decision which delineated Indonesia's boundaries to territories inherited from the former Dutch-Indies, and this might explain why he eagerly pursued Papua's–but not East Timor's–annexation). More likely was that Sukarno invested hopes for the establishment of a North Kalimantan state aligned to Jakarta's anti-colonial/imperialist geopolitics, in which he found suitable allies.
In effort to thwart any effort to form Malaysia, Indonesia became actively involved in subterfuge operations and later declared war on Malaysia. During this period, Indonesian agents came into contact with local opposition that was against the idea of a federation.
First ten days
The rebellion broke out at 2:00 am on 8 December. Signals from Brunei to British Far East Headquarters reported rebel attacks on police stations, the Sultan’s Istana, the Prime Minister’s house and the power station, and that another rebel force was approaching the capital by water. Far East Headquarters ordered ALE YELLOW, which placed a force of two Gurkha infantry companies on 48 hours notice to move.
Most of the attacks in Brunei town were repulsed although the electricity supply was cut off. At this stage it was not known that rebels had attacked police stations throughout Brunei, in the 5th Division of Sarawak and on the western edge of North Borneo. Miri was still in government hands but Limbang had been taken by the rebels. The situation was most serious in Seria where the rebels had captured the police station and were dominating the oilfields.
Nine hours after ALE YELLOW, ALE RED was ordered and two companies of 1st Battalion, 2nd Gurkha Rifles, of 99th Infantry Brigade, moved to the RAF airfields at Changi and Seletar in Singapore to fly to Labuan Island in Brunei Bay. The Gurkhas' embarkation went slowly because the RAF was unprepared and following normal peacetime procedures. The troops were in a Bristol Britannia and three Blackburn Beverleys and the latter were diverted in flight from Labuan to Brunei airfield when it was learned that this was not in rebel hands.
The Beverleys landed at about 10:00 pm and the Gurkhas advanced into Brunei. They fought a series of actions, suffering six casualties, two fatal. A small group of Gurkhas led by Captain Digby Willoughby rescued the Sultan and took him to police headquarters. An advance to Seria met strong opposition and returned to Brunei to counter a rebel threat to its centre and the airfield.
On 9 December, John Fisher called on the Dayak tribes for help by sending a boat with the traditional Red Feather of War up the Baram River. Tom Harrisson, the Curator of the Sarawak Museum in Kuching and leader of resistance to the Japanese in the Second World War also arrived in Brunei. He summoned the Kelabits from the highlands around Bario in the 5th Division, the centre of his wartime resistance. Hundreds of Dayaks responded, and formed into companies led by British civilians all commanded by Harrison. This force reached some 2,000 strong, and with excellent knowledge of the tracks through the interior (there were no roads), helped contain the rebels and cut off their escape route to Indonesia.
Meanwhile reinforcements flowed into Labuan. 1/2 Gurkhas were brought up to battalion strength. On 10 December, the Far East ‘spearhead battalion’, the Queen’s Own Highlanders began arriving in Brunei. Brigadier Patterson, commander 99th Gurkha Infantry Brigade arrived to take overall command from Brigadier Pat Glennie, normally the Brigadier General Staff at Far East HQ. Both reported to Lieutenant General Sir Nigel Poett, the Far East Land Forces Commander in Singapore. Seria and Limbang remained in rebel hands. Further reinforcements arrived in the following days. These enabled Seria and Limbang to be recaptured.
By 17 December, the rebellion had been held and broken. Some 40 rebels were dead and 3,400 captured. The remainder had fled and were assumed to be trying to reach Indonesia. Of the leaders, Azahari was in the Philippines and Yassin Affendi was with the fugitives.
The road route to Seria was judged too vulnerable to ambush and there were no naval resources for a move by sea. Reconnaissance by an Army Air Corps Beaver revealed rebel flags over the Shell complex, and the 6 miles (10 km) of coast seemed in rebel hands. However, there appeared to be a potential landing site for light aircraft west of Seria and east of the town - the runway at Anduki Airfield had been cleared by a small group of western civilians who had managed to escape the rebels. One escapee, Hugh McDonald, a shell contractor and WWII veteran, made contact with Singapore installations to confirm a safe landing. On 10 December, a company of the Queen’s Own Highlanders boarded five Twin Pioneers and a Beverley at Brunei. The Twin Pioneers landed west of Seria and the Beverley at Anduki. A police station 2 miles (3 km) from the western landing was recaptured and so was the Telecommunications Centre after a brief fight. Anduki airfield was quickly recaptured. However, the main Seria police station, with 48 hostages, most Shell expatriates, was not secured until the 12th.
Anduki Airfield is today a grass airstrip with a concrete ramp used almost exclusively by Brunei Shell Petroleum aircraft and helicopters servicing Brunei's extensive offshore petroleum production installations. The Sultan of Brunei and members of the Royal Family sometimes use it in their helicopters when they wish to visit Seria, especially on State occasions. Regarded as strategically important because of its proximity to the oil town of Seria, its history in the Brunei Revolt and the paucity of other Brunei airstrips usable by fixed-wing military aircraft, Anduki and the adjacent highway to Bandar Seri Begawan is one of the first areas to be secured by Gurkha and Brunei Army troops when they deploy on contemporary war exercises.
Executions at Temburong
On 8 December 1962, from two till five in the morning, shots could be heard near police stations all over Brunei. According to news received from Temburong, the District Officer Pengiran Haji Besar bin Pengiran Haji Kula and a few others from Brunei security forces and a number of civilians were executed for refusing to join in the rebellion.
By five in the morning, TNKU already managed to control Pekan Besar. More news came out that a number of civil servants at Pekan Besar had managed to escape capture. Around an hour later at downtown, the Deputy Chief Minister was granted audience by the Sultan. After the meeting, the Sultan made a radio declaration condemning TNKU, the armed wing of the Brunei People's Party, for treason.
The assault on Limbang
In Limbang, rebels attacked the local police station, killing five local policemen. The rebels then obtained the surrender of British official R.H. Morris, his wife, four other Europeans and an American Peace Corps worker, and took the remaining police officers hostage. On the first night of their captivity, they were crowded into the police cells, the second night they were moved to the local hospital where they overheard the rebels planning their hangings the following day.
Eighty-nine Marines of 42 Commando had arrived in Brunei on 11 December, led by Captain Jeremy Moore (who later commanded the British Forces during the Falklands War). After acquiring two landing craft, the Marines were transported to Limbang by Royal Navy crews led by Captain Black (who later commanded HMS Invincible during the Falklands War) and staged their arrival at dawn, 13 December. The landing craft had manually operated ramps which took too long to lower and the senior officer took the decision that the Marines would vault over the sides or over the ramps under covering fire from Vickers machine guns mounted on the bridges. One landing craft's bridge was raked with Bren Gun fire, disabling the crew, and the craft rammed into the river bank and quay.
It is worth noting that the only map they had was 10 years old at the time. The Marines lost the element of surprise due to the loud noise of their boats, but succeeded nevertheless in suppressing the rebels' machine guns and landed.
The attackers started their search for the hostages who, on hearing shots, began singing the English song "She'll be coming round the Mountain", allowing the first rescue party to quickly locate them. The first rescue party was attacked and two of the three Marines were killed. A second rescue party fought off the rebels from around the hospital and freed the hostages. About 200 rebels, who had little if any military training and a paltry assortment of weapons (about a dozen Bren and Lee-Enfield rifles, but mainly shotguns, muskets and daggers), tried to resist, but were beaten back.
Five Marines were killed and eight wounded in the attack. British sources do not list rebel losses in this incident, but Clodfelter estimates losses in the Brunei Rebellion as 40 rebels and six Marines.
There is a memorial to all the dead in Limbang. The leader of the Limbang rebels was caught and tried and received an eleven-year prison sentence. He lives (2007) on the outskirts of Limbang.
By 17 December, 42 Commando was complete in Brunei and 1st Green Jackets had landed from the cruiser HMS Tiger in Miri. 40 Commando aboard the commando carrier HMS Albion was diverted from Miri to Kuching. On 14 December, most of the unit reinforced the artillery battery sent there as infantry on 12 December to pre-empt trouble from the Chinese of the Clandestine Communist Organisation (CCO) who were openly sympathetic to the Brunei rebels. The last company of 40 Commando landed near Seria. Albion also provided helicopters from the embarked Naval Air Commando squadrons.
Major General Walter Walker took over as COMBRITBOR and Director of Operations (DOBOPS) on 19 December with command of all land, sea and air forces assigned to Borneo and reporting directly to the Commander-in-Chief Far East Forces, Admiral Sir David Luce. Three weeks after the rebellion started, 99th Gurkha Infantry Brigade had 5 infantry battalions and HQ 3rd Command Brigade was in Kuching. This force was supported by the Brunei Malay Regiment, the Sarawak Rangers, police of the three territories including paramilitary Police Field Force, and Harrison’s force of now 4000 Dayaks. Suitable coastal patrol naval vessels were lacking (the Royal Navy didn’t have any) so minesweepers were used. The RAF had medium and short range transport aircraft. In January, the Queen's Own Highlanders and 1/2 Gurkhas were replaced by the King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry and 1/7 Gurkhas and special forces troops had also arrived.
Mopping up operations, by this time including a commando artillery battery with their guns, continued until May 1963. On 18 May, a patrol of 1/7 Gurkhas were guided by an informer to a camp in the mangrove. They flushed a party of rebels towards an ambush. Ten rebels were killed or captured. They were the remnants of TNKU headquarters and one of the wounded, shot in the hip, was Yassin Affendi.
However, on 12 April, the police station at Tebedu in the 1st Division of Sarawak was attacked and captured. The attackers had come from Kalimantan. This marked the beginning of Confrontation.
The rebellion also played a role in the Sultan of Brunei's subsequent decision for Brunei to not join the Federation of Malaysia.
Order of Battle
The following units, or significant elements of them, deployed to Borneo in response to the rebellion before May 1963:
- 40 Commando Royal Marines
- 42 Commando Royal Marines
- Queen's Royal Irish Hussars
- 29th Commando Light Regiment Royal Artillery
- Queen's Own Highlanders
- King's Own Yorkshire Light Infantry
- 1st Green Jackets
- 22 Special Air Service
- 1st/2nd Gurkhas
- 1st/7th Gurkhas
- Pocock, Tom (1973). Fighting General – The Public and Private Campaigns of General Sir Walter Walker (First ed.). London: Collins. ISBN 978-0-00-211295-6.
- Paul, James; Spirit, Martin (2008). "Index of the Borneo–Malay Peninsula Confrontation". Britains-SmallWars.com. http://www.britains-smallwars.com/Borneo/. Retrieved 1 August 2012.
- "Brunei Revolt Archive Documents". ARCRE. http://www.arcre.com/archives/92-bruneirevolt. Retrieved 8 December 2012.
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