restricted access Limbang: Seven Days in December 1962 by Eileen Chanin (review)
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Limbang: Seven Days in December 1962. Eileen Chanin. Singapore: Ridge Books, 2013

In the wee hours of Saturday, 8 December 1962, an armed insurrection in the Sultanate of Brunei jolted a sleepy little backwater state in Southeast Asia. The armed rebels, almost all of them local Malays, easily ransacked the Seria oilfield area and many key installations of the Brunei town, while their counterparts simultaneously staged attacks on police stations and key installations in the Fourth and Fifth divisions of Sarawak, including Limbang. The surprise attacks gained quick initial successes but, as might be expected, the protecting power, Great Britain, invoking the British–Brunei Agreement of 1959, moved swiftly and suppressed the outbreak within a matter of days. By 17 December the rebellion was crushed, leaving 40 rebels dead and 3000 captured. That single fateful event changed the future of Brunei history, snuffing out the advantages for a popular government and instead paving way for an unassailable ascendancy of the Brunei monarchy.

The Brunei Rebellion of December 1962 ‘provided the sparks which were in due course to be flamed into the conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia’ wrote J. A. C. Mackie, the author of the acclaimed book Konfrontasi (1974). The rebellion remains an enigmatic episode in Brunei history. Having been a sensitive taboo topic for many years within the circle of Brunei officialdom, several recen publications have broached the subject. My book Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddin III and Britain: The Making of Brunei Darussalam (Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press, 1995) was among the earliest to deal with the rebellion. Previously, Dr Haji Zaini Haji Ahmad, a former PRB stalwart and one time Secretary of the Brunei People’s Party (better known as Partai Rakyat Brunei (PRB)) published some papers related to the Party in 1987 and he elaborated on the topic in his MA thesis which was published in 2004 under the title ‘Pertumbuhan Nasionolismedi Brunei. In 2013 a revised version based on his subsequent PhD thesis submitted to the University of Malaya was published under the aegis of the official Brunei History Centre. Another Bruneian author Harun Abdul Majid’s Master’s thesis, which focused solely on this topic, [End Page 104] was published in London in 2007. In the same year also appeared a book by the Brunei Foreign Minister, HH Haji Mohamed Bolkiah entitled Remember Remember … The 8th of December, which was almost a cryptic account of the events. Now the latest author to add to this literature is Eileen Chanin, a Sydney-based historian who has won several awards for her previous books based on historical themes.

Eileen Chanin’s book is not a historical monograph; it reads more like a historical novel. The story of the rebellion is only the backdrop to her theme; there are no fresh revelations about the causes or conduct of the rebellion. The author’s main objective is to narrate the events surrounding the brief imprisonment (8–13 December 1962) and ordeal of her parents-in-law in Limbang, one of the principal towns in Sarawak that came under the control of the rebels. The author’s late Australian father-in-law Dick Morris and his wife Dorothy had just moved into the Fifth Division of Limbang. Dick Morris, a colonial public servant who had served in the region for many years, had been appointed the District Resident and he soon faced the ugly events of the rebellion. In the words of the author, ‘the intention of this book is to reflect the experiences of those who in Limbang showed courage, resilience and dignity’. In particular, the book provides some meticulous details about the rescue mission by the British forces to free a few European captives, including the Morrises, from the rebels’ clutches. The author is privy to personal knowledge of events passed on to her from her parents-in-law, and she has also drawn on ‘the contemporary accounts of those involved and narrates their hour– by-hour experiences’. Dick Morris retired from Sarawak colonial service in 1964 aged 64 and returned to Australia with his wife.

Unlike other published accounts of the rebellion, this book’s focus is the events in Limbang...