Union Jack still flies at Britain's last military outpost in Asia

by AFP/Ian Timberlake, Oct 7, 2006 | Destinations: Brunei / Nepal

BRITISH ARMY GARRISON, Brunei, July 28, 2006 - The Union Jack hangs limp in the muggy tropical air at the British army's last outpost in Asia, where Nepalese Gurkha troops stand on guard for the Sultan of oil-rich Brunei.

An infantry battalion of about 700 Gurkhas is based in the coastal region of Seria, about one hour's drive southwest of the capital Bandar Seri Begawan. About 100 British soldiers work alongside the Gurkhas at a base which also hosts a jungle warfare school and a small helicopter unit.

Brittania once ruled the waves but in the 21st century, the Brunei garrison is one of just a handful of British military outposts remaining in the world, and its continued presence has its roots in Southeast Asia's turbulent history.

"There's us and then if you go west, of course you've got Cyprus next, then you've got Gibraltar and then of course you've got the Falkland Islands. But out Far East, we are the only force," says Lieutenant Colonel David Wombell, 40, commanding officer of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Gurkha Rifles (2RGR). He is also commander of the Brunei garrison which supports the Gurkhas, who have been in Brunei since 1962.

Brunei became the army's sole Asian base when British troops withdrew from Hong Kong in 1997 and the enclave reverted to Chinese rule.

"Before, Brunei as a station was supported from Hong Kong," says the garrison's chief of staff Major John Dawson, a 35-year army veteran.

"Because Hong Kong is not there now, Singapore is not there -- it was when I joined the army -- you have to have it here, on base," he says referring to the garrison which provides the Gurkhas' logistical and administrative support.

The last British forces withdrew from Singapore in 1975 -- more than a decade after they were called to action in Brunei when rebels linked to the opposition People's Party attempted to seize power in December 1962.

"The sultan called on British military support under a treaty of 1959; troops were dispatched from Singapore and put down the revolt within a matter of days," Michael Leifer wrote in his "Dictionary of the Modern Politics of Southeast Asia".

Gurkhas have been in the sultanate ever since.

While the Brunei revolt was dealt with quickly, Gurkhas saw more action during the 1963-66 "Confrontation" when Indonesian forces launched incursions into Malaysian Borneo.

A plaque outside the guard post at the Brunei garrison lists the names of eight men who died during that conflict.

The sultanate became fully independent in 1984 but Gurkhas remain in Brunei under an agreement which British officers say is renewable every five years. It is operated through a joint commission of foreign and defence ministry officials from both countries.

The agreement states that British forces are prepared to come to the assistance of the sultan, "should it be required, and on request," Wombell says.

Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien, in power during the 1962 uprising, "held on to his implicit faith in the British, that they would always be there to back him," former Singaporean prime minister Lee Kuan Yew wrote in his memoirs.

"He refused to have anything to do with Indonesia or Malaysia."

Saifuddien abdicated in 1967 to make way for his son, the current Sultan Hassanal Bolkiah who Wombell says pays about 40 million pounds (74 million US dollars) annually to support the Gurkha presence.

From Afghanistan to Aceh

The relationship between the two nations is akin to that between brothers, Dawson says.

"Both countries have still got very close links between the two royal families, have got reasonably close economic links, reasonably close educational links and when you put all that together, it's just not surprising that we have a military partnership as well," he says.

The sultan attended Sandhurst Royal Military Academy in Britain and maintains his own armed forces which Wombell calls capable, well-manned and well-resourced.

British troops have not been called into action in Brunei since the 1962 uprising but in recent years have been deployed from the sultanate to other missions overseas.

Gurkhas were a key component of an international force dispatched to East Timor during unrest in late 1999.

Since then, Gurkhas have gone to Sierra Leone and have completed two tours of duty in Afghanistan, most recently last year, all without suffering any fatalities. The garrison's 7 Flight Army Air Corps helicopters helped provide emergency relief to survivors of the December 2004 tsunami in nearby Aceh, Indonesia.

While the sultan does not pay for the battalion's overseas missions Wombell says the sultan is in favour of nation-building efforts, "particularly in Islamic nations ... So he was very supportive of the deployment last year to Afghanistan."

Iraq would be a different story.

"We would be reluctant to go from here to Iraq because I think the sultan would be reluctant also to get involved ... and we entirely understand that."

Afghanistan was the highlight of their three-year deployment to Brunei, say the members of 2RGR, which is currently being rotated back to Britain and replaced by the 1st Battalion, the Royal Gurkha Rifles.

The sultan recently visited the garrison to wish 2RGR goodbye.

Gurkhas have served with British forces since 1815 and are renowned for loyalty to their officers and bravery in battle.

"We want to go in our forefathers' footsteps and we want to help our families," Corporal Dillikesham explained during a break from an English-language course.

Lower-ranked Gurkhas earn an average minimum salary of about 1,000 pounds a month, a fortune in their own country.

Wombell, a British officer who has served with the Gurkhas since 1985, said about 15,000 applications are received in Nepal for close to 230 new postings with the Gurkhas.

"They have a mixture of qualities, the combination of which makes them not only good soldiers but very easy to get along with: humility, resilience, honesty, general happiness," Wombell says, dressed in jungle fatigues in his office where one wall is covered in maps. A picture of Prince Charles and a black-and-white portrait of a highly-decorated World War II Gurkha officer adorn another wall.

The Gurkhas spend much of their time training for jungle warfare in the country's south which is accessible only by Army Air Corps helicopter.

"The jungle offers such a demanding environment for a soldier that there is nothing quite like it," says Wombell.

Training Team Brunei, the jungle warfare school, offers five- and six-week courses to foreign as well as British soldiers.

Three Gurkha students were recently learning tracking techniques. As nearby oil derricks nodded up and down, the soldiers crouched, scanning and touching the grass for signs of "enemy" movement.

In all, the British base is home to about 2,000 people and includes a school where British and Gurkha children study together, a Hindu temple, British and Nepalese supermarkets, a swimming pool, gym, post office and pubs.

The region has matured politically since the Gurkhas were first deployed to Brunei during the tensions of the early 1960s.

Yet the British outpost remains and Wombell says that, in his personal view, there is no reason why the garrison will not be there in another 30 or 40 years.

"The relationship between the two countries is very strong," he says. "We will continue to station people here until the Bruneians decide that they don't want us here any more."

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