Viewpoint: Brunei Revolt And The Indonesian ‘Konfrontasi’- By Professor Michael Leigh

On the night of Dec 8, 1962, simultaneous attacks were launched against the government and police throughout Brunei, in Limbang and down as far as Sibuti in Sarawak.

Why such violence? In the most recent elections, the Parti Rakyat Brunei (PRB) swept all but one of the elected seats in the Brunei legislature, and expected the win would lead to legislative and executive power.

The sultan, his British advisers and the Malayan government were not happy with PRB exercising real power in Brunei.

So, the sultan kept postponing any meeting of the legislature, and meanwhile, was actively discussing the terms under which Brunei would become part of the proposed Malaysian federation. PRB was opposed to that policy, and firmly committed to a Borneo Federation of Sarawak, Brunei and North Borneo, with Brunei’s sultan as the constitutional monarch of “Bornesia”.

President Sukarno led Konfrontasi
Frustrated, a number of PRB members commenced military training in the jungles of Brunei and in the Lawas district of Sarawak. Their armed wing, Tentara Nasional Kalimantan Utara (TNKU), obtained a small supply of weapons from various sources.

For the PRB, the constitutional path remained blocked, and they feared that security powers would shortly be handed to a new Malaysian government, as was the British intention in Singapore.

Influential PRB members then planned to forcibly take over power in Brunei, and adjacent areas of Sarawak and North Borneo (Sabah), and to do so during celebrations on Christmas Eve — when it was assumed that the British would be least capable of responding!

Arrests of TNKU leaders in Lawas precipitated the early action and the revolt did not go as planned. Capturing the sultan was key to success, as was his cooperation, but PRB failed to reach him. Instead, the sultan was surrounded by expatriates, and with their encouragement, he requested British military assistance to defeat the rebellion.

Greg Poulgrain, in his book, The Genesis Of Confrontation, sees that revolt in the context of broader British strategy to undermine President Sukarno. He accords a more manipulative and Machiavellian role to the UK in the abortive revolt, but I think he gives too much credit to British intelligence. However, there is still much to be discovered about the events of December 1962.

After some significant casualties, especially in Seria and Limbang, the Brunei revolt was suppressed, but it sent shockwaves throughout Sarawak. The government immediately gazetted a range of emergency powers and gave wide publicity to these new threats of violence.

Newspapers were proscribed, political activists arrested and held without trial, and the participation in the revolt of many Malay and Kedayan Sarawak United Peoples PARTY (SUPP) members, especially those in the Sibuti area, was widely publicised.

Following the crackdown, there was a steady flow of young Chinese communist cadres across to West Kalimantan, training in preparation for armed struggle. TNKU was headed by a highly influential Sarawak Malay leader.

This threat to public order had a decisive impact on public opinion in Sarawak and was crucial in swinging Dayak opinion in favour of Malaysia. No longer was it easy to argue that Sarawak should continue as it was, or seek independence just on its own — as SUPP had been arguing.

With the welter of government publicity, there was a groundswell either toward active support for the idea of federation or the passive view that Malaysia was a better option than Indonesia.The Sarawak government made much of the links between PRB leader Azahari and Indonesia, even though it has since been shown that top Indonesian security officials had no confidence in Azahari’s ability to work strategically.

The government trumpeted clear that the simple choice for Sarawakians was a promising future in Malaysia. Radio Sarawak, beamed throughout the state, gave considerable publicity to resignations of native members of SUPP, and certain government officers pressured influential Dayaks to abandon their membership and support for SUPP, stressing the themes of communist influence and subversion.

Just the month before statewide elections in Sarawak, credibility was given to government arguments when Indonesian “volunteers” attacked the Tebedu police station, seizing weapons and killing officers — including the brother of Sarawak’s future first chief minister.

That was the start of the Indonesian armed konfrontasi against Malaysia. One might well argue that the title Bapa Malaysia should be held jointly by Tunku Abdul Rahman and President Sukarno, for without Indonesia’s support for the PRB and commencement of armed confrontation, it is quite unlikely that a majority of Sarawak’s Council Negri would have supported Sarawak making Malaysia.

Over 50 years, there have been four crucial state elections in Sarawak: 1963, 1969-70, 1974 and 1987, when the results were uncertain, the contest most vigorous and the course of history could have changed significantly.

The actual outcome from the 1963 District Council elections was much, much closer than many care to remember. The actual votes cast gave the SUPP/Parti Negara Sarawak (Panas) coalition 35.7 per cent, the Alliance 34.2 per cent and Independents 30.2 per cent.

In 1963, the composition of the Council Negri was based on a three-tiered system, with each district council selecting members of the Divisional Advisory Councils (DAC). They would then chose who would represent them in the Council Negri. At each level it was “winner takes all”. Whether the Alliance would carry the day was actually in doubt until the last minute.

That was because Panas and SUPP had formed a coalition, a link based upon pragmatism, not ideology. Panas and its leader, Datu Bandar, were savagely attacked for “selling out the Malays”.

Intervention of the Malayan Alliance added ferocity to that attack and the intense hostility between the top leaders of Barisan Rakyat Jati Sarawal (BARJASA) and Panas became both personal and political.

After polling, the SUPP-Panas coalition controlled the 1st DAC and only needed to win a majority in the 3rd DAC in order to nominate 21 of the 36 elected members of Council Negri.

In the 3rd DAC, the Alliance and the coalition had secured 10 votes. The outcome swung on the support of one independent member of the Binatang District Council, who held the pivotal swing vote (see Leigh: Rising Moon p 75-76 for the story of how that vote was won).

Had the Panas/SUPP coalition then won the 3rd DAC, with the support of just one of four Mukah independents, they would have gained control of the Council Negri. The Panas/SUPP coalition agreement, signed by their respective leaders, stipulated that the United Nations conduct a referendum before the implementation of Malaysia.

Had that agreement held, it is doubtful that the Tunku would have waited for a favourable outcome, given the international and domestic pressures bearing heavily upon his government, and his absolute refusal to merge with Singapore prior to the inclusion of the Borneo states.

About the Author: Professor Michael Leigh was appointed Professor of Contemporary Asia and Director of the Asia Institute, University of Melbourne (2004-6) and is now director of the Aceh Research Training Institute (2007-9). He is the immediate Past-President of the Asian Studies Association of Australia. His previous positions include director of the Institute of East Asian Studies at University Malaysia Sarawak 1997-2003, head of the Department of Government and Public Administration at the University of Sydney 1989-1991 and Director of the International College Penang 1992-6. He has published articles and monographs on elections in Malaysia and Indonesia. His most recent publication is Transformations in Eastern Malaysia University of New England Asia Centre, 2007.

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