Great heroes need great sorrows and burdens, or half their greatness goes unnoticed. It is all part of the fairy tale.

Peter S. Beagle, American novelist and screenwriter

Chief Minister Datuk Patinggi Abang Johari Tun Openg’s proposal to upgrade ‘Ngemah Development Area’ (NDA) whose loyal inhabitants have made great sacrifices to support the government is a long-overdue ‘gift’.

The project, which will cover the area under the former Rajang Security Command (Rascom), will alleviate the socio-economic status of the predominantly native enclave.

If you look at Ngemah area, it has a history of being steeped in blood for over 160 years since the killing of Brooke officers Charles Fox and Henry Steel at Kanowit on June 7, 1859.

On that fateful day Melanau rebels Sawing, Talip and Sakalai under their charismatic chief Sharif Mashor assassinated the two officers while they were building Kanowit Fort.

Incensed by the killings, Charles John Brooke, the nephew of Rajah James Brooke, went on a murderous rampage killing dozens involved in the plot.

On May 20, 1863 Charles led the Great Kayan Raid when his army of 15,000 Iban soldiers in 500 boats sailed up the Rajang River and defeated the Kayan of Belaga in one of the Sarawak’s biggest war expeditions.

Colin Crissswell in ‘Rajah Charles Brooke: Monarch of all he Surveyed’ said during the 200-mile journey up the Rajang River Charles almost died when his boat sank at Pelagus Rapids.

It was during this expedition that Charles and his army discovered the ‘notorious Bakun Rapids’ which is now part of the massive Bakun hydroelectric dam which covers an area as large as Singapore.

It was a tragic expedition because Brooke’s soldiers massacred hundreds if not thousands, including women and children, then plundered and torched their longhouses.

The month-long expedition broke the backbone of Kayan resistance forcing chieftain Oyong Hang, who had 25,000 followers, to surrender the heads of Talip and Sakalai and Sawing.

For the next 100 years the people of Kanowit lived in peace until in 1963 when the Clandestine Communist Organisation (CCO) launched a major putsch to topple the Sarawak government.

During this time there was divided loyalty when one section of the natives led by a charismatic Kanowit rebel, Ubong Nuing, teamed up with the communists to fight the Malaysian security forces.

On August 27, 1970, Ngemah suffered one of its worst tragedies. Twelve Border Scouts were ambushed and killed by the armed unit of the 2nd Bureau of the North Kalimantan Communist Party (NKCP) at Sg Matau in Ulu Ngemah.

Special Branch head Datuk Lawrence Lim Eng Liong in a 1970 report said the Border Scouts had set up an ambush in a narrow river junction where the terrorists opened up with its arsenal of semi-automatic weapons.

Sadly, the victims of the ambush were poorly compensated and the Kelabit officer-in-charge, a decorated British-trained army veteran, who was away on duty at Kanowit, had to take the blame and was demoted to the rank of constable to “justify” killings which were due to the ineptness of the constabulary.

On March 10, 2002, Lim in a letter to the then chief minister lamented that despite the sacrifices of the security forces they had to bear the burden of being labelled as government-sponsored “running dogs”.

He said, “I will always remember myself as a running dog. In real life, who would challenge the loyalty of dogs? They remain faithful all their lives to their masters.”

Two years after the Ngemah massacre, the terrorists were still involved in ‘hit-and-run’ killings of members of the security forces as well as natives who were loyal to the government.

On February 25, 1972 communists insurgents murdered Iban headman and grandfather, Penghulu Imban Medan, in the presence of his longhouse followers at Nanga Skuau.

Penghulu Imban, who was in his 70s, had to face a ‘Kangaroo court’ headed by a communist leader who demanded that he pledge his loyalty to the NKCP.

When he refused, the terrorists tortured him, stripped him and took away his ‘pengaroh’ amulets and charms and cut off his genitals before killing him.

On April 18, 1972, Rascom — a joint civil, police and military organisation — was established to curb the influence of the communists over the native communities.

Between 1972 and 1975 six Iban communities at Penghulu Imban’s village Nanga Skuau as well as Jagau, Ngugun, Tada, Dap and Rantau Panjang were regrouped and resettled.

Another sad incident occurred in July 2000 when another Ngemah inhabitant army commando Cpl Mattew Medan was tortured and killed by Al-Maunah Muslim extremists at Bukit Jenalik in Perak.

He was later bestowed the Panglima Gagah Berani (PGB) for gallantry and courage and buried at Nanga Tada resettlement scheme.

In July 2015 his army colleagues honoured his family when they held a special ‘miring’ thanksgiving ceremony at his grave.

But what about the 12 Ulu Ngemah Border Scouts? Is there a plaque at Song or Kanowit to honour them?

Fifty years have passed and the memory of their sacrifices and family members are now a forgotten story. All have disappeared in the mists of time.

The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the New Sarawak Tribune.