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Sunday July 31, 2005

A brief uprising, a long remembrance


IN the early morning of Jan 21, 1944, a total of 176 men were brought out from the Batu Tiga Victoria Barrack in Jesselton (Kota Kinabalu). 

Tied together in batches, the men were herded into a goods train and taken south. 

The train stopped outside the village of Petagas and the men were marched towards two large holes, freshly dug and half-filled with water from rain the night before. The Japanese first mowed down 171 of the men with machine guns and rifles. Then they beheaded the remaining five who were considered leaders of group. The bodies were buried in the holes.  

The men who were killed were members and supporters of a guerrilla movement known as the Kinabalu Guerrillas. They were responsible for launching an armed uprising against the Japanese Military administration on West Coast on the night of Oct 9, 1943.  

The Kinabalu Guerrillas was started by a group of young Chinese men in Jesselton in mid-1942, led by Albert Kwok Fen Nam. The guerrillas’ main objective was to overthrow the Japanese and to get rid of collaborators. 

The guerrillas enlisted the help from all quarters, including Li Tet Phui and Jules Stephens, who were lieutenant and sergeant respectively in the pre-War Volunteer Force; Lim Keng Fatt, a partner in Ban Guan company, one of the larger business establishments in town; and Charles Peter, the Eurasian Chief Police Officer of Jesselton. 

Kwok also tried to obtain arms and supplies from the remnants of the US Forces in southern Philippines. The guerrillas also worked closely with several native chiefs on the west coast including Musah, a former rebel against Chartered Company rule who had a wide following in Kinarut. 

By October 1943, the guerrillas’ strength had grown to around 300 core members who were based in Mensiang in Menggatal, about 20km from Jesselton.  

Many reasons were offered as factors that had led to the formation of the guerrillas and the uprising. Economic difficulties were certainly a major factor as many were left without jobs and money. The inherent hatred of the Chinese population towards Japanese administration was another. The fact that 80% of the guerrillas were Chinese clearly supported this argument. 

But the reason accepted by many as the immediate motive to act were rumours that the Japanese planned to conscript 3,000 young men to serve in the army and 3,000 girls for immoral activities. 

On Oct 9, the guerrillas struck the Jesselton police station and the Kempeitai office, killing 48 Japanese. The guerrillas took over Jesselton and waited for Allied forces in southern Philippines to arrive to reinforce them. However, none came. After midnight, the guerrillas withdrew to their respective bases in Mensiang, Kinarut and the off-shore islands.  

The Japanese retaliated by launching a series of punitive expeditions against the guerrillas who were no match for the well-trained and better equipped Japanese Army. They were forced to disperse after their position near the hills at Tamparuli was attacked into the jungle where they became easy targets for the Japanese. Many were arrested while trying to find food near the villages; others, exhausted and starving, surrendered.  

In all, the Japanese arrested several hundred people who were suspected of being directly involved in the uprising, or abetting the guerrillas or were simply sympathizers of the movement. 

While the Japanese would later release some suspects, the majority were sent to the police barracks and jail at Batu Tiga. There, the prisoners were further interrogated and tortured. As a result, many died in the prison. 

On Jan 20, the prisoners were gathered in front of the prison courtyard. Those whose names were called were marked for execution at Petagas. Among them was Kwok. He, Li Tet Phui, Charles Peter, Kong Tze Phui and Tsen Chau Kong were beheaded.  

The remaining prisoners were sentenced to jail terms that ranged from one to 15 years. Of the 130 who were sent to Labuan, only seven survived the war.  

News of the execution at Petagas soon spread. When peace returned to Sabah, the Chinese community in Jesselton set up a committee to care for war victims and their families. The committee’s official name was War Victims Caring Committee. 

It was this committee that was responsible for organising the first memorial service for the war heroes at Petagas on the morning of Jan 21, 1946, the second anniversary of the execution. 

The site was marked with flowers and an arch made of palm leaves. A banner in Chinese declared “The Burial Site of Anti-Japanese Chinese of October 1943”. 

Among other things, the committee pledged to care for the children of those who were killed. The Committee proposed to the Colonial Government to mark Jan 21 as a memorial service day and erect a plaque to commemorate the event. Since then, memorial services have been held every year at the site. 

In 1949, the Committee decided to bring back the remains of the guerrillas and supporters who had died in Labuan to Petagas. 

The remains were placed in six jars and brought to Jesselton on April 24, 1949. Four days later, the burial jars were taken to Petagas by train where a memorial service, presided by priests of different religions, was held. 

Since then, the Petagas War Memorial has been maintained by the government. The site has undergone several rounds of renovation to beautifying the area. Today, the wooden plaque has been replaced by a permanent concrete structure with the names of the 389 heroes engraved on a copper plate. Every year, the Jan 21 service is attended by families of the victims, state and community leaders, representatives of the Malaysian Armed Forces and the Royal Malaysian Police, as well as uniformed voluntary groups.  

The service is a reminder of the sacrifices of the people of different races who were able to work together to fight against a common enemy. – Danny Wong Tze Ken  

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