Curtain raiser for Soekarno's anti-Malasia campaign
For proof that ‘military intelligence’ is an oxymoron, The Brunei Revolt is your book.
It’s supposed to be a serious account of insurgents rising against the sultan’s rule in the former tiny British protectorate clinging to the North Borneo coast. The rebels, influenced and maybe directly supported by Indonesia, failed miserably.
The brief encounter that cost 55 lives with almost 3,300 men taken prisoner was a curtain raiser for Sukarno’s Konfrontasi campaign against the creation of Malaysia.
The Brunei experience should have served as a warning to military adventurers driven by ideology. The Indonesian military’s heart was never totally in the fight; once Sukarno had been deposed by Soeharto, Konfrontasi quietly disappeared.
This is the sort of history that academics and old colonialists enjoy but the rest of us find tedious. Do we really care how many rounds a Bren gun fires or how the Mark V .303 performs?
Yet this book is full of laugh-out-loud moments as author Nick van der Bijl retells the farce and underlines what most of know by instinct – that armies succeed through happenstance rather than masterful planning.
This was a quality in short supply in late 1962. Although rumors had been rolling, the British only found facts when an old woman asked the police to release her grandson from the army.
When asked ‘which army?’ she produced his green uniform complete with the buffalo insignia of the pro-Indonesian North Kalimantan National Army (TNKU). The police then found most supplies of green cloth had sold out in the markets.
There were dozens of other indicators that trouble was marching. Soekarno was becoming more belligerently anti-Western. The 14,000 Indonesians working in plantations were probably communist sympathisers. But intelligence was either not shared or ignored.
So senior officers and some troops headed back to Singapore for Christmas, only to hear that rebels in Brunei had attacked strategic buildings and kidnapped oil company employees and administrators. The troops were rapidly retrieved from their golf clubs, parties and families.
Many thought the alert a training exercise or a mistake – a view reinforced when a commander was told to fly to Brunei but given a map of Kuching by an intelligence officer.
When a proper map was found in Brunei it was aligned west, not north.
Another soldier, learning how to use an unfamiliar weapon while flying fired four shots through the fuselage.
Men loading a Land Rover were told to drain the fuel tanks – yet the vehicle had to be ready for instant action once the plane landed.
A warning banner designed for riot control was discarded because it was often unfurled upside-down causing laughter rather than fear, or got blown away.
The silliness wasn’t limited to one side. TNKU troops stalking a police post stumbled into a drunken Chinaman in the darkness whose abuse woke the defenders.
When British aircraft approached a TNKU controlled airfield they met no resistance. The rebels saw the colors red and white on the tail and assumed the plane was Indonesian.
Insurgent vehicles identified themselves by flashing headlights three times – a code quickly used by the British to lure the rebels into ambushes.
Further south in Jakarta the left-leaning author Pramoedya Ananta Toer called the British action ‘reprehensible’. However the West applauded the speedy crushing of a pro-communist movement at a time when it was feared all Southeast Asia might fall.
The TNKU uprising, led by A M Azahari who had trained as a vet in Java and fought against the Dutch, failed for multiple reasons. The men were poorly armed (many just had staves and shotguns) and ambivalent about their cause.
A people’s revolution it was not. The masses did not arise. Confronted by disciplined Gurkhas hundreds surrendered.
When the guns stopped firing, attention shifted to Sarawak, Sabah and Peninsula Malay where British Commonwealth troops fought communist insurgents and Indonesian invaders. The Sultan of Brunei rejected the opportunity to join the new Malaysia and opted for independence, though this wasn’t consolidated till 1984.
He could do this because of vast oil reserves. This tiny authoritarian and charmless Islamic kingdom of only 400,000 people has a per capita income of around US $50,000 (Rp 500 million), and relies on Indonesians to do most of the manual work.
Author van der Bijl, a former British intelligence officer, gets some things wrong. He calls Indonesia’s first president ‘Ahmed Sukarno’ and describes the Indonesian government as ‘communist’. He seems more at home with firearms than politics.
Although there’s ample military minutia to excite armchair warriors, these details can be zipped past with no loss of storyline.
Compensating is an occasional droll line. An officer in Singapore tried to requisition a Comet ferrying soldiers and their families back to UK for Christmas and use it in Brunei. Writes the author: ‘RAF movements staff were not entirely in favor of his proposal.’
He cross references to the 1982 Falklands War, which he has also researched, and the way mistakes made and lessons learned in Borneo impacted in the South Atlantic, though the environments and politics were entirely different.
More significant is that the jungle warfare experiences of the British were useful when the US and its allies started fighting in Vietnam. However looking at the final result in the former Indochina, it’s clear some military intelligence didn’t translate.
The Brunei Revolt
By Nick van der Bijl
Published by Pen and Sword, 2012 222 pages
(First published in The Sunday Post 14 July 2013)