Reviews

Published: Tuesday December 31, 2013 MYT 12:00:00 AM
Updated: Tuesday December 31, 2013 MYT 7:48:26 AM

Limbang Rebellion: 7 Days In December 1962

  • Author : Eileen Chanin
  • Genre : Non-fiction
  • Publisher : NUS Press

Review

Seeds of Konfrontasi

THE Limbang Rebellion in Borneo was the prelude to Malaysia’s confrontation – or Konfrontasi, as it’s more popularly known – with Indonesia and helped to convince Sarawakians of the wisdom of joining in the formation of Malaysia. Yet it is not mentioned in our school history textbooks and unless our families or our friends were directly affected, many of us know little about the weeklong uprising in December 1962. That’s why Limbang Rebellion should be on your year-end list of books to read.

Sydney-based historian Eileen Chanin brings a very personal angle and touch to her tale.

Australian-born Richard “Dick” Morris was British Resident of Sarawak’s Fifth Division when he and his wife Dorothy were taken hostage.

OPTIONAL PIC: Leader: Former police constable Salleh Sambas led the rebels in Limbang. -- Photos from Limbang Rebellion 
Rebel leader: Former police constable Salleh Sambas led the rebels in Limbang. — Images from Limbang Rebellion: 7 Days In December 1962

Chanin, who later became their daughter-in-law, had access to the couple’s unpublished manuscripts and letters.

She interviewed many of the players – including the Royal Marines who came to the rescue – and delved into archives in Australia, Malaysia, Singapore and Britain.

In an extensive bibliography, she has meticulously listed all her reference material – right down to the date on which she accessed various websites.

But don’t let the pages of maps, glossary, footnotes, bibliography and index overwhelm you.

Limbang Rebellion reads more like a thriller, drawing you into the lives of the people caught in the conflict.

Chanin sets the stage, pointing out that rebellion has had a long history in the region of Borneo, starting with the 1841 rebellion which British adventurer Sir James Brooke helped the Sultan of Brunei to suppress.

By 1962, Sarawak had passed through World War II and the Japanese Occupation. “Britain wanted out – but most Sarawakians wanted the status quo preserved,” writes Chanin.

She traces the responses to the plan for the British territories of Borneo to form a new Federation of Malaysia, noting that “many in Sarawak were wary”.

Abang Omar (centre) with his Red Cross 'workers', in their hastily assembled new uniforms, came to the rescue of the wounded and the hostages during the Limbang Rebellion. -- Photographer unknown. 
Abang Omar (centre) with his Red Cross ‘workers’, in their hastily assembled new uniforms, came to the rescue of the wounded and the hostages during the Limbang Rebellion.

And she notes that Britain’s Colonial Office was “apprehensive about Indonesian moves in the Borneo region. It was expecting that the Indonesian Government would distract attention from serious domestic problems by launching ‘claim’ to neighbouring territory.”

By Dec 6, although Dick had received reports about a possible uprising from Limbang and from Miri, he accepted the official opinion that there was no certainty of trouble.

“We agreed that the Police should be placed in a state of alert but that no further action should be taken.”

But at 2am on Dec 8, the armed wing of the Brunei People’s Party (which opposed the formation of Malaysia) launched coordinated attacks across Brunei, in Sarawak’s Fifth Division and the western edge of North Borneo (now Sabah).

Chanin then picks up the pace with a blow-by-blow account of the rebel action, the experiences of the hostages and the rescue mission that succeeded even though the Royal Marines were vastly outnumbered.

She also recounts the bravery of many of the locals.

For example, Dorothy had earlier begun to revive the Limbang Group of the Red Cross, which had lapsed due to lack of support and funds.

She had held a first meeting, at which the business community promised building material and labour for a Red Cross headquarters.

A local headman and Limbang’s postman, Abang Omar Abang Samaudin, offered to help and his daughter was appointed cadet officer.

When the rebellion broke out, Abang Omar and his daughter treated the wounds of both the revolutionaries and the police, and he told the rebels to send the bodies of the policemen who had been killed to the mosque for burial. That night, his family sewed Red Cross “uniforms” and the following day, he insisted that all civilian patients be released.

Then he met rebel leader Salleh Sambas and demanded permission to visit the prisoners under the rules of the World Red Cross conventions on the treatment of prisoners of war. The following year, Abang Omar was awarded the Queen’s Commendation for Brave Conduct. His story is just one of many woven through the account, making what happened 51 years ago come to life.

 

Limbang Rebellion: 7 Days In December 1962 is available at Kinokuniya Bookstores at Suria KLCC and other leading bookstores.

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