50 years since the end of Sarawak’s ‘secret’ war
By Patricia Hului
Australian poet and commentator George Mansford recently wrote a poem titled ‘A Secret War’ dedicated to the young soldiers fighting on foreign soil in forgotten campaigns not widely publicised by Australian media.
So much so that even when the Royal Australian Mint came out with a special 25 cent coin to recognise the battles or campaigns Australia had been involved in, the collection recognised all the wars from WW1 to Afghanistan except these two: the Malayan Emergency (1948 -1960) and Confrontation (1962-1966).
The 3rd Royal Australian Regiment (3RAR) was the first Australian battalion to have arrived in Sarawak in March 1965 following a period of Confrontation between the Indonesian government and a Malaysia still in its infancy.
Then Indonesian President Sukarno was against the idea of the Malaysian Federation, calling it a British puppet state and claiming the formation would increase British control over Southeast Asia.
He may have never officially declared war against Malaysia but his deputy and foreign minister Subandrio referred to the conflict as ‘Konfrontasi’ or Confrontation.
In April 1963, the first infiltration and attack recorded in Sarawak happened at a police station in Tebedu followed by a second one in Kampung Gumbang, Bau.
After this came a series of infiltrations including the Battle of Long Jawai which caused the deaths of 13 British and Malaysian soldiers along with 33 Indonesians.
The Commonwealth troops were finally called in to help including the Australian troops who served here until the end of July during which they were involved in four major contacts against Indonesian troops.
The 4RAR deployment in Sarawak
A solemn commemorative service was held at the World War II Heroes Graves Memorial in Jalan Taman Budaya here on Apr 25 in conjunction with the visit of 4RAR war veterans.
The visit was led by John Burns which also marked Australian and New Zealand Army Corps (Anzac) day while the service was hosted by Sarawak Tourism Federation (STF) Heritage Development Committee chairman Lim Kian Hock and director of Australian Business Centre Rodger Chan Siong Boh.
Lt Col Brian Avery (Rtd) who wrote ‘Our Secret War: The 4th Battalion the Royal Australian Regiment Defending Malaysia against Indonesian Confrontation, 1965-1967’ based on his experience delivered the commemorative address during the event.
“On this day, 50 years ago, the main body of 4RAR arrived here in Kuching aboard the SS Auby, to commence its tour of duty in the defence of the new nation of Malaysia against a campaign of aggression by Indonesia, named confrontation by its President Sukarno,” he said.
Avery asked those who attended the service to remember that in total, 23 young Australians lost their lives in Malaysia during the course of the confrontation, including five members of 3RAR and three members of the Special Air Service (SAS) regiment.
“Many of our veterans survived these later conflicts but returned home with minds and bodies shattered by their experiences,” he said.
Even though at least 20 Australian lives were lost during the confrontation, very little is generally known about this campaign, Avery shared.
This was because the confrontation was subject to the Official Secrets Act until 1996 and Avery could only publish his collection of stories after that.
“When I wrote my histories of the 4RAR tours in Borneo and Vietnam, I compiled a nominal roll of the Borneo veterans, showing those who had served elsewhere, had died were wounded, or were decorated for their service.
He was struck by how much the 4RAR battalion had given to the nation and more.
After the troop returned to the Commonwealth Infantry Brigade in Terandak, Malacca, many of the 4RAR Borneo veterans were sent to 2RAR to strengthen that battalion before it commenced its tour of Vietnam in 1967.
“While another significant number of our young veterans was returned to Australia to become junior instructors training battalions,” he said.
“In May 1968, 4RAR deployed to Vietnam and again we saw the passing of many of our Borneo veterans in that conflict.”
According to Avery, a total of 10 4RAR Borneo veterans lost their lives in Vietnam.
Nonetheless, he wanted the commemoration attendees to not only remember those of 4RAR who gave their lives in the confrontation.
“I would like you to contemplate upon those who served alongside here in Sarawak and died or suffered in later conflicts who also gave their all during the defence of this country, with which Australia maintains strong ties to this day.”
The ceremony ended with a moment of silence, laying of wreaths at the memorial and tree planting to commemorate the contingent’s visit.
A Secret War
by George Mansford
Soon, old warriors will gather where once they had been
A harsh cruel arena of rugged mountains and thick jungle green
Fast rivers, steamy smothering heat and drenching rains
Seeking an elusive enemy far and wide, again and again
Mute soldiers with whispers and use of hand signals to speak
Tired, hungry, thirsty and dreams of crystal clear water from a creek
Ambushing day and night and wondering what tomorrow will bring
Watching, waiting, slipping, climbing, panting and softly cur-sing
Often the unknown and unexpected that suddenly is there
A deafening mines blast or the stutter of gunfire but from where?
The shouts and screams as the drills are quickly done
Adrenalin flows, gasping for breath and wondering who lost or won
Always the ANZAC humour and caring, sharing with each other
“Up the Red Rooster” was the battle cry for this band of brothers
Today on parade, now aged with time, they still stand tall and proud
Reflecting on absent comrades as the bugle sobs loud
Far away in Canberra, old hidden records are finally to be seen
No longer sealed lips of brave deeds by young diggers in jungle green
For ages it remained a secret war and our troops were never there
On those many well-trod tracks where phantom warriors did dare