Brunei gained its independence from the United Kingdom more than 34 years ago, on January 1, 1984. That it was able to do so as an autonomous state, one that had seen off attempts from Malaysia and Indonesia to absorb it, owes much to the contributions of the Gurkha Rifles.
The Federation of Malaysia was formed in 1963 after Abdel Rahman, prime minister of what was then Malaya, proposed combining the territory with Singapore and what was then British Borneo.
Things didn’t quite go to plan, however. President Sukarno of Indonesia had always considered the whole of Borneo Island, or Kalimantan to the Indonesians, to belong to Greater Indonesia, and he was determined to recover the northern territories.
As a prelude, Sheikh Azahari, who had fought for Indonesia’s freedom from the Dutch in 1945, initiated an uprising against Brunei’s proposed membership of the Federation of Malaysia in December 1962. It was quickly quashed, as his undertrained forces were routed on four fronts: at Tutong, on the coast of Seria by the 1/2nd Gurkha Rifles; at Seria by the Queen’s Own Highlanders; at Limbang by 42 Commando Royal Maries; and at the Shell depot at Miri by the 1st Royal Greenjackets.
Azahari fled to Manila but his military commander, Yassin Affendi, and his guards were finally captured in May 1963 by the 1/7th Gurkha Rifles.
Skirmishes between British Allied Forces and the Indonesian Army were to escalate, however. The Borneo Confrontation in fact lasted until May 1966, when Indonesia’s new president Suharto brought hostilities to a close.
All eight Gurkha battalions played a significant role in the fighting, and Lance-Corporal Rambahadur Limbu of 2/10th Gurkha Rifles won the Victoria Cross (VC) for bravery in 1965 at the Battle of Bau.
The sultan of Brunei at the time, Omar Ali Saifuddien III, showed his gratitude to the Gurkhas by saving the 2nd Battalion of the Sirmoor Rifles as the military was downsized. A Gurkha infantry battalion has since been stationed in Brunei ever since.
In 1973, some prisoners from the 1962 uprising managed to escape. After consulting the Singapore Gurkha Contingent, the Sultanate of Brunei decided to hire ex-Gurkhas from Hong Kong and Singapore as security. On February 25, 1974, Mohansing Gurung became the first of many to serve as a Brunei security guard. The service was named the Gurkha Reserve Unit in 1980, and at its peak the GRU had 2,300 ex-Gurkhas providing security for royalty and others around the country.
Tales abound of Gurkha officers carrying briefcases full of money for Prince Haji Jefri Bolkiah, the younger brother of the current Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah, who would throw the money around at parties and functions. Gurkha officers are among those said to have benefited financially from the prince’s outrageous antics.
Gurkha numbers in the GRU had dwindled by the late 2000s. Since the Gurkhas’ landmark victory allowing them to reside in the UK, many ex-Gurkhas and their families have moved there. There are still some ex-British Gurkhas on the GRU’s staff, but many posts have been filled by ex-Indian Gurkhas.