Bekenu is a small fishing town near Miri at the northeastern part of Sarawak. It is a humble town with many of the shophouses dating from the 1930s.
Many might not remember that this small town witnessed an important historical event during the Brunei Revolt 1962.
The Brunei Revolt was an insurrection to oppose Brunei inclusion in the Federation of Malaysia.
The insurgents were members of the North Kalimantan National Army (TNKU), a militia linked to the Brunei People’s Party (BPP) and supplied by Indonesia.
At that time, the town was briefly taken over by the rebels.
Brunei Revolt in Niah
The rebellion first broke out at 2am on Dec 8, 1962. The rebels attacked police stations throughout Brunei, the fifth division of Sarawak along the the western edge of Sabah.
Then came the news that Bekenu was in rebel hands and there was also uncertainty as to the situation in Niah.
C Company from 99th Gurkha Infantry Brigade under Major Mark Pennell was sent to deal with the situation in Niah.
During the Brunei Revolt, hundreds of Dayaks were immediately called to help fight and contain the rebels.
The Ibans decorated their longboats with bright red feathers and set off by river to Niah.
By the time that C Company arrived in Niah by river, there was no sign of rebel forces.
Reportedly, after hearing the Iban party was about to arrive, the rebels made their escape to the jungle.
Brunei Revolt in Bekenu
Meanwhile, the mission to liberate Bekenu fell under B Company.
Under the command of Major David Mostyn, the company approached on foot, arriving in Bekenu early morning of Dec 13, 1962.
It took them 16 hours of hiking along the coast through mangrove swamp from Tanjung Batu in Bintulu to the west of Bekenu.
The moment they arrived in Bekenu, the soldiers engaged in a brief firefight with the rebels who then fled downriver. There, they were ambushed by another platoon.
During the operation, six rebels were killed, six captured and about 10 escaped into the jungle.
For the next three to four days, patrols went up and down the river searching for escaped rebels.
Overall the operation to secure Bekenu during the Brunei Revolt was considered an immediate success.
Lesson to learn from the Brunei Revolt, especially in Bekenu, according to Tom Harrisson
One of the lessons from the Brunei Revolt taught Sarawak was that greater attention should be paid to the small racial groups.
Sarawak’s then museum curator Tom Harrisson was in charge of all irregular forces in the Sibuti, Baram, Upper Limbang and Trusan headwaters to prevent rebels from escaping into the interior during the Brunei Revolt.
According to Harrisson, looking at what happened in Bekenu where the rebellion gained support from the local Kedayans, in the modern world one small group can break up the whole of pattern of a nation.
“Some people have asked me if there are any lessons Sarawak can learn from this revolt. Well, of course, there are all sort of lessons for the administration and intelligence and so on which are right above my head. But in my mild capacity as government ethnologist and curator of the Sarawak museum, there is an ethnological problem that comes of this- that is you cannot afford to ignore small racial groups,” Harrisson wrote in an article published in 1963.
He continued, “The Kedayans have played a major role in this. There are only about less than 10,000 of them in Sarawak but they have not been taken into account. There are practically no responsible Kedayans in any positions. They are not represented adequately in government and this applies equally to many other group in the north.”
He then gave an example of how large groups of Sarawak back then were given attention not only in administration but over the radio where only they had programs.
“Although the population of people like the Kedayans, the Kayans, the Kenyahs, Kelabits and Muruts are relatively small, they occupy enormous area of this country,” Harrisson wrote.
“In my view, what happened at Bekenu, among the Kedayans there, who I know quite well and who are extremely industrious farmers, is that they did get completely confused and misled. They are guilty all the same, no one is denying that, but there is a lesson that the same sort of thing can happen widely and I do not think the argument is sufficient that this group is small one, therefore we can ignore it.”
By Dec 17, some 40 rebels were dead and 3,400 were captured, putting an end to the rebellion. Though the rebellion was cut short, it is seen as one of the first stages of the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation.