Posted: 26 Aug 2012 01:09 AM PDT
A documentary looks at the forgotten Iban heroes who did not receive a proper burial when they died fighting the communists during the Emergency.
LIEUTENANT Colonel (Rtd) Robert Rizal Abdullah was shocked to see the undignified conditions of a roadside grave in Alor Star, Kedah. It belonged to a Sarawak Ranger killed in the battles of the First Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) against the communists.
"I saw it four years ago in a blog. It was unbefitting of an Iban warrior who had sacrificed his life to defend a country that he didn't even know at that time," says Robert, referring to the fact that the soldier died before the formation of Malaysia in 1963.
"That's when the idea to bring back the remains of 21 Iban Trackers and Sarawak Rangers who had perished in the Emergency came about."
Formerly known as Robert Madang Langi, he is an Iban soldier who has received the Panglima Gagah Berani, the nation's second highest military gallantry award, after a courageous battle with communist fighters in 1973.
Robert's journey to exhume the heroes' graves is the subject of an upcoming documentary entitled Last Journey To Sarawak, which will be shown today on the History channel, in conjunction with the 55th Merdeka celebrations.
This is a story about forgotten heroes. Today, many unmarked graves of Iban Trackers can be found across Malaysia. Nameless and faceless, these fallen warriors were never given the proper burial they deserved.
Despite their important contribution to the safety of the nation, Robert believes the sacrifices of the Iban Trackers and Sarawak Rangers have almost been forgotten. For some of the families and relatives of the fallen heroes, their last ever contact was before they left for Malaya 60 years ago.
So he brought this to the attention of the Sarawak Chief Minister, Pehin Sri Abdul Taib Mahmud, at the end of 2008 and suggested all the remains be brought home to Sarawak, where they could be properly taken care of and be closer to their loved ones.
Preparations started immediately, recalls Robert, and after "two long years", the remains were finally brought home to their final resting place in Kuching in a Heroes Memorial on July 27, 2011.
"The relatives of the deceased were most thankful," says Robert. "It was beyond their wildest dreams of ever 'seeing' their long-lost brothers, fathers and husbands again. The reunion in 2011 was a heart-wrenching sight that could make even the stoutest of hearts shed tears."
In fact, the report of the event in The Star entitled "Home at last" described it this way:
"Family members of some 21 brave Iban Trackers and Sarawak Rangers, who fought against the communist in the peninsula during the Malayan Emergency, can finally find closure after about 50 years of separation.
A wave of honour, respect and pride swept through the hundreds who went to the Malaysian Air Force Base here yesterday to await the arrival of the remains of the heroes who were killed in action between 1948 and 1960.
After lying in graves throughout the peninsula and Singapore for years, the remains were flown back under Operation Mai Pulai ("come home" in Iban) in urns in wooden boxes draped in the Jalur Gemilang to be reburied in the state.
Accompanied by war veterans led by decorated Iban warrior Temenggong Kanang Langkau, the remains arrived at the base here at 1.15pm on a C130 military transport aircraft.
Officers on the tarmac saluted as the urns containing the remains of the trackers and rangers were carried out of the plane. Some came back only in name, as their bodies could not be retrieved."
How did Robert and his team manage to trace the graves?
"The Iban Trackers and Sarawak Rangers were serving under the British and Commonwealth forces at that time. Proper records were kept by the British Army on where those killed in the Emergency were buried," he explains.
"Many of them were killed and buried deep in the jungle, as it was impossible to bring the bodies back to base due to the difficult terrains. Thus, only their names are displayed in a Memorial Wall in Terendak Military Cemetry in Malacca."
Robert joined the Malaysian Rangers in 1969, after the era of the Iban Trackers and Sarawak Rangers and received the Pingat Gagah Berani for his role in crippling the 1st Company of "Pasukan Gerila Rakyat Sarawak" (PGRS) near Kuching in 1973.
"I was the Section Commander and killed seven communists in that assault. It helped expedite their surrender one year later."
However, after all these years, he has never met the former communists that he fought against.
"I've only heard of them. Some are doing very well now. They were not evil – they were misled and misguided."
What does he think of the Ibans and others who have been fighting for their NCR (native customary rights) land against encroachment by timber and oil palm companies in the past 10 to 20 years?
Robert sidesteps that question and replies, "Logging destroys habitats of wild animals as well as the eco-systems. Rivers become polluted and unfit for drinking. Indiscriminate logging must stop in order to bring back our formerly clean rivers."
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