A forgotten Gurkha rebellion

GRU in Brunei in the early 1990s, with Ram Kangdangwa, sitting third from right.

It was evening in September 1996, and some of us Gurkha soldiers who were fed up with the way we were being treated by our British and Brunei officers were holding a meeting inside the military base to discuss the form of protest to press our case.

With me were Puranjan Rai, Gajendra Isbo and Naren Rai. Our grievances were that we were not getting proper pay, pension, not allowed free meals, as well as being insulted and mistreated. It had got out of hand.

We also felt that Gurkha recruitment for the Brunei security forces should not be conducted by the British Army, but be governed by a separate treaty between Nepal and Brunei.

Our meeting formed a governing committee as well as sub-committees, and more than 2,400 out of the total 2,500 Gurkha force strength in Brunei signed up in support of the movement.

We held talks with the hierarchy, and had started boycotting some of the senior officers. One of our demands was that the 16-year-old Gurkha Reserve Unit (GRU) be disbanded and revert to a security guard force. We submitted a written memorandum, but it was ignored. This dragged on for months.  

Then, suddenly one middle of the night, all GRU weapons were returned to the Brunei government, and our unit went back to being a security guard force. However, other demands of salary increment, end of mistreatment by arrogant officers were yet to be addressed. Notwithstanding, the officers had learnt an important lesson that Nepalis will not tolerate injustice and oppression.

The situation was again on the boil, and pressure was building up. It was obvious that the brass would come down heavily on what it considered a mutiny and insubordination in order to instill military discipline.

One evening, I gave a short speech at our meeting, saying that the situation was nearing a make-or-break point, the higher-ups were about to take stern action, and talked about what steps the team should take in case some of us were dismissed and sent back to Nepal.

Three days later, I had a premonition of disaster. Sure enough, 11 of us considered to be instigators were secretly dismissed, and without the rest of the unit having any inkling we were dispatched to the airport for a flight back to Nepal.

We were waiting to board at Bandar Seri Begawan airport, and did not know that back at camp word had spread about our dismissal and deportation. The Nepali soldiers then surrounded the headquarters building to protest and demanded that their leaders be returned, and failing that, to dismiss them too. HQ brought out the riot police to contain the escalating situation and vandalism.

A few hours later, the Permanent Secretary of Brunei (the King's brother-in-law) rushed to the airport to find out from us what had happened. He asked me questions, and after hearing us out, wanted to know if I could convince the Nepalis back at camp to go back to their dormitories and end the protest.

I replied that I would do it if our employment was restored, and I was allowed to deliver a short speech to our people at the base. The Permanent Secretary agreed and drove me, along with two fellow Nepalis, to the camp in his Mercedes Benz

The Gurkhas were still protesting and shouting slogans when we reached camp. I got up and in a two minute speech told them they should now return to their quarters in a disciplined manner because the senior most official of the Brunei government had promised to address our longstanding grievances. I assured them that if we were betrayed, we would once more gather to protest and raise slogans.

After I spoke, there was pin-drop silence and the Nepali troops all dispersed. The discipline and obedience of the Gurkhas seems to have surprised the Permanent Secretary who then went to confer with GRU officers. He then asked us to assemble in the gym hall.

He began by informing us that he had just fired Col F D Scotson, the British officer in charge of the GRU who was our principle nemesis. Now that Scotson was gone, and the GRU had reverted back to security guard status, the Permanent Secretary assured us that all our other demands like salary and pension would be resolved.

We then collectively took the decision to suspend our agitation, and keep a low profile. Things went back to normal for a few months, but then some Gurkhas challenged the authorities again regarding their promotions. This time, the brass decided that this new rebellion needed to be nipped in the bud, and dismissed the 11 leaders from service. We decided to accept the decision because so many Nepali jobs were on the line if the Brunei unit was disbanded.

In the next 15 months, the GRU became the Gurkha Security Guard. A rare near-mutiny  resulted in a successful resolution of our just demands. This was possible because we were united, well educated, patriotic, courageous, and willing to take the risk for the sake of justice and our beliefs. By insisting on a bilateral treaty, we had also acted to stand up to the principle of Nepal’s sovereignty.

We finally returned to Nepal with our heads held high on 14 December 1997. It has been  23 years since our run-in in Brunei, and the events are still fresh in our minds. The Brunei Security Guard is still functioning, but the British Army’s involvement in recruiting Nepali servicemen to the unit still continues and there is still no Brunei-Nepal treaty. 

The Brunei force was set up in 1974 with 27 former Gurkhas of the British Army and Gurkha Contingent, Singapore (Nepalis serve as policemen in Singapore). It was originally called Gurkha Security Guard but in 1981, the British and Brunei government decided to form the GRU, and had former British Gurkha soldiers serving in the new unit had to work as regular soldiers. 

Ever since it was converted into GRU, the Brunei government kept augmenting its strength. By 1996, the GRU’s numbers crossed 2,500 -- as big as a brigade strength in the British Army. I was a British Gurkha soldier, and joined the GRU in May 1996 even though I had signed the contract paperwork as ‘security guard’. When we got there, we were forced to work as infantry soldiers.

Most ex-British Gurkha soldiers serving in the GRU were above 45, and the situation was pathetic. Us over-the-hill Gurkhas were compelled to run Battle Fitness Test (BFT) and Combat Fitness Test (CFT), fire heavy weapons and often had to participate in weeks-long exercises in the dense tropical jungles of Borneo.  

Despite being fit, some ex-Gurkhas died of exhaustion during physically demanding jungle exercises. Their salaries had remained stagnant for many lustrums. The other big transgression was that the British government used to charge 2,500 Brunei dollars (USD 1,870) per Gurkha soldier as monthly salary from Brunei, but but gave us only BND1,100.  

Essentially, Britain has been trading in Gurkhas for the last 205 years, ever since the Rana oligarchy in Nepal used us as its main tool of diplomacy. As scholar May Des Chene writes: ‘Gurkhas have been sold and bartered and they have been the coin of international diplomacy at key moments in Nepalese history.’

The ‘Gurkha Contingent’ in Singapore has 2,000 young Nepali soldiers serving as policeman. The Singapore contingent itself was formed in 1949 after the end of the Pacific War, and after 71 years there is still no bilateral treaty between Singapore and Nepal governing recruitment.

It is the British Army that recruits Nepalis on behalf of the Singaporeans. The question is: Who authorised this arrangement? Why is it still going on? Scores of so-called democratic governments have come and gone in Nepal, and no one has shown much concern about this affront to the country’s sovereignty.

The Gurkhas in Singapore were kept in British Army enclaves until the late 1990s. Many of them are married, but some 1,500 of these young, educated and dynamic Nepali women are confined to the base and not allowed to work in Singapore.

Over the years, there were more than 15 retired Gurkha majors and about 50 retired captains serving in the GRU. But their status was lower than that of second lieutenants. However, they had handsome salaries, perks and facilities compared to the other ranks. Most Nepali officer regarded them as sycophants, as many of them used to kowtow to British and Bruneian officers.  

Des Chene writes: ‘The soldiers look upon them with mistrust and regard them as moles who misrepresent their views to the British officers in order to curry their favours in the forms of promotions, good postings, longer services, granting of honorary ranks which carry some monetary benefits on their retirement, etc.’

There was a lot of arbitrary discipline enforced, most soldiers who had been in the British Army found the rules confusing and the officers did not have the same discipline and respect of the rank and file.

When the British were in India, and after the 1816 treaty they did not actually have to colonise Nepal, and never really recognised Nepal as a sovereign independent country until the Chandra Shumshere Rana’s Friendship Treaty of 1923.

But at the heart of the Gurkha dilemma is the anomaly that even today, nationals of one country fight and die for another. It is absurd that the United Kingdom, a sovereign country, recruits soldiers from another sovereign, independent country (Nepal) to serve in still another sovereign independent country, Brunei. 

Despite this, elected leaders of Nepal and its intellectuals and historians, forever gloat about Nepal's independence and sovereignty, and that the country was never colonised.

Read also: The resistance by Sita Mademba in Dharan

Ram Kandangwa is a former soldier in the British Army Brigade of the Gurkhas and served in the GRU in Brunei, where he led a rebellion against his commanding officers in 1996, and returned to Nepal on 15 December of 1997. He has a PhD in Nepal-Britain relations.