ASIAWATCH — A memorial to honour Allied troops who died fighting to liberate North Borneo from Japanese occupation towards the end of World War II was unveiled in Sandakan on Sunday. Luke Hunt reports. Listen here to Radio Australia broadcast.
The statue of a standard issue 303 rifle with its barrel in the ground and a slouch hat slung across the butt symbolizes the military practice of marking where a soldier has fallen.
A crowd of more than a hundred local and international dignitaries, including veterans from the Australian invasion force, were on hand for the unveiling of the memorial marking the 66th anniversary of the end of the war and the liberation of Sandakan.
For Roy Atkinson of the Royal Australian Air Force, the memorial also commemorated the civilian deaths and the atrocities committed upon them by the Japanese, including a barbaric practice he called ‘hamstrung’, which he discovered upon landing here in 1945.
‘Hamstrung’ was a practice wherein the Japanese would simply sever the hamstrings, behind the knee, on both legs with a knife.
It was inflicted on men, women and children and was designed to stop them from running away or causing trouble.
“We visited the kampung out of curiosity and here was this little boy on the ground dragging himself along by his elbows – he’d been hamstrung – unfortunately we couldn’t do anything for him.
“It makes you bitter and I can understand people who retaliate and do things equally as bad.
“This is how war affects men. I can understand if you lose a mate, you are affected but when it’s callously done (like this), it’s not warfare…but that’s me,” he said.
The memorial is also designed to address a historical oversight. It is the first of its type constructed in Borneo by Malaysia dedicated to the fallen from all nations in World War II.
North Borneo was a British colony, only joining Sarawak, Singapore and the Malayan federation on Sept 16, 1963.
As such responsibility for war graves and memorials in this part of the world has remained almost solely under the auspices of Canberra and London.
Some like Dr Kamarulnizam Abdullah, Associate Professor of Strategic Studies and International Relations at Universiti Kebangsaan Malaysia, believe that this war memorial represented much more to Malaysians, particularly in light of the country’s sometimes tense relations with the West.
He said recent trips by Prime Minister Najib Tun Razak to the United States and Europe – where formal ties were established with the Vatican – and the deal struck between Australia and Malaysia involving the processing and resettlement of refugees were enormous strides designed to improve Malaysia’s standing.
“I look at the war memorial in Sandakan and see the more larger picture.
“It shows a kind of warmer relationship between Kuala Lumpur and Canberra, a sign that I think we haven’t seen for the last 20 years.
“I think that Najib in general has tried to, you know, produce a good relationship with the Western powers,” he said.
In recent years Australia has led a concerted effort to clean-up and renovate Allied war memorials scattered around Malaysian Borneo and this is important for the thousands of Australians who come here every year to remember the fallen.
And this has taken on an added sense of urgency given that the ranks of surviving veterans are thinning.
Just two made it to Sabah for the unveiling, Roy Atkinson who is eighty-eight and former Lance Corporal Keith Ireland, also eighty-eight.
Ireland remembers well the great destruction by the allied bombings ahead of the invasion of Borneo and coming ashore with a great sense of trepidation.
But he said the troops had held it together because of their training and values – a sense of mateship, honour and a toughness in adversity.
“Out of the 150 who joined there are only four of us left, which is, as we are getting to that age of nearly the 90 mark, I suppose we’re doing pretty well.
“The only trouble with diminishing numbers is it’s something that we should not forget.
“Ah, be like the ode, we will remember them and so you’ve got to stick to that and stick to what a lot of our chaps fought for and put our lives through and surely you can think of that, which is a great thing,” he said.
Those sentiments were echoed around Sandakan Park yesterday as the Sandakan Liberation Monument was unveiled by Chief Minister Musa Aman, in honour of Atkinson and Ireland’s fallen comrades.