The hushed riot of Sabah

News reports of the riot

by Gan Pei Ling / 14 Sept 2012 © Selangor Times

DID you know there was a riot in Sabah in 1986? Fish bombs were detonated at cities and towns. Buildings burned. Cars flipped over. Five people died. However, no one was held responsible and the instigators got away.

“I want people to know that it happened,” local filmmaker-writer Nadira Ilana, who wasn’t even born when the incident took place, told Selangor Times in an exclusive interview on Sept 7.

The 25-year-old Sino-Dusun from Kota Kinabalu only found out about the riot from her father last year. It inspired her to research the mayhem and subsequently submit a proposal to Pusat Komas to turn it into a documentary.

“The riot only happened in Sabah but the story is relevant to the entire country. It shows what could happen after the fall of a political regime,” she said.

Nadira’s 30-minute film “The Silent Riot”, also known as “Rusuhan Tersembunyi” in Bahasa Malaysia, will be shown at the PJ Live Arts Theatre, Jaya One next Saturday in conjunction with the Freedom Arts Fest.

She shares some information about the cause of the riot, the politicians and civilians who lived through it and how she feels about this black episode in Sabah’s history.

Can you give us some background about the riot, how did it happen?

It started in 1985 when PBS (Parti Bersatu Sabah, then an opposition party) first came to power. The previous ruling party, Parti Berjaya, had became increasingly unpopular among Sabahans. So [Tan Sri] Joseph Pairin Kitingan, then Berjaya’s deputy president, left the party to form PBS.

PBS was registered 47 days before the state elections in 1985. It formed a secret coalition with Usno (United Sabah National Organisation), which was headed by Tun Mustapha [Harun], to topple Berjaya.

Berjaya had swept 44 out of 48 seats in the 1981 elections so they were confident. But when the election results were announced on the midnight of April 22, 1985, PBS had won 25 seats, Usno 16 and Berjaya only had six.

Usno tried to contact PBS but there was a communication breakdown. In a panic, Usno called up Berjaya to form a coalition straight away. They then raced to the Istana to swear in Tun Mustapha as the Chief Minister. He was sworn in at 4am but was removed on the same day as the appointment was illegal. Pairin was sworn in as the rightful Chief Minister at 8pm the same night.

Did the riot begin then?

Not yet. Tun Mustapha filed an injunction against the State Governor. As far as Usno and Berjaya were concerned, he was still the Chief Minister. They didn’t want fresh elections. They were afraid PBS would win again. The riots didn’t happen until March 1986 just as the court verdict was to be announced.

Fish bombs did start going off in Kota Kinabalu and the other towns from May 29, 1985 but the incidents were sparse. These bombs were meant to shock people, not to kill or harm. But if you were at the wrong place at the wrong time, you could get hurt.

What happened in March 1986?

On the first day of demonstrations, about 1,000 Usno supporters gathered in front of the Kota Kinabalu High Court. That’s when several fish bombs started going off throughout town. A curfew was imposed for 39 days. There were other smaller demonstrations and arson attacks in Sandakan and Tawau too.

The demonstrators, led by Usno and Berjaya leaders, took to the streets of Kota Kinabalu to protest Pairin’s appointment because he was Christian. The anomaly was that a majority of the demonstrators were Filipino Muslims – many undocumented and legally unable to vote.

Many Sabahan Muslims didn’t have a problem with Pairin and supported him.

The demonstrators were given food, money and they stayed at the state mosque with their wives and children for a week. They were being used. These people were incredibly impoverished. Many of them were political or economic refugees from the Philippines. They fled to Sabah in the 1970s to escape the conflict in Mindanao. Tun Mustapha, being a Muslim Bajau-Suluk, was the first to open Sabah’s gates to them. (He served as the Chief Minister from 1967 to 1975.) So a lot of them felt indebted to Tun Mustapha and were demonstrating on his behalf.

Tun Mustapha led the demonstrations at the mosque?

Not himself although he did address them personally at the mosque. It was mostly Usno leaders who led the demonstrations in Kota Kinabalu. The smaller ones outside of town were led by Berjaya members.

So the riot started on March 13, 1986?

Burnt vehicles in KK

Several bombs went off in a span of two hours that day. Parents panicked and went to fetch their children from schools. There was tear gas from the FRU (Federal Reserve Unit) who was trying to contain the situation. Cars were being flipped over by demonstrators. They were also throwing rocks into shop windows.

People were terrified. By 10.30am the city was empty.

My father told me he was walking from his office to visit a friend when a bomb went off a few yards away from him at an Esso station. The roof collapsed and the windows shattered. He ran down the street and another bomb went off under his colleague’s car.

That must have been scary.

I was taken aback by how casual my dad was when he spoke about it. I was like “What?!” and he was like “It’s just a little bomb.” It’s scary to think that he could have been hurt. When I asked if people could die from the bombs, he said “Yeah, I guess but we didn’t die.”

After that I asked a lot of people about it and I think most of them have forgotten that it was a big deal. The newspapers weren’t censored. Their reporting was actually quite detailed. But the people who experienced it…They no longer talked about it. Maybe they don’t want to think about it. I don’t know how they came to terms with what happened.

Some people denied there was a riot. They told me “it was just a demonstration”. Someone even told me “yeah there were bombs but it’s Sabah, not Bosnia.” I thought: “Wow, these people are tough.”

Most of the people from my generation don’t know anything about the riot.

Five people died right? Was anyone caught and held responsible for the bombs and arson attacks?

img_2014It was estimated that 1,763 people were arrested during that period but they were all released after about a month. A newspaper vendor, fisherman, carpenter and two unnamed women died but who will stand up for them?

People suspect that the riot was manufactured to create a state of emergency so that the federal government can come in but that never happened. (The federal government had previously stepped in and proclaimed emergency in response to political turmoils in Sarawak in 1966 and Kelantan in 1977.)

Instead, then Prime Minister Datuk Seri (now Tun) Dr Mahathir Mohamad proposed a peace formula whereby PBS, Usno and Berjaya should form a coalition but this never came to fruition. Pairin dissolved the state assembly and Sabah underwent another election in 1986.

It was quite commendable that PBS kept their cool and kept the locals out of the riot.

Who did you interview for your film?

A mixture of politicians and civilians. People who were there, especially petrol station operators. A lot of petrol stations were attacked.

Sabah politician Datuk Mohd Noor Mansoor, formerly from Parti Berjaya, spoke to Nadira about the 1986 riot.

Sabah politician Datuk Mohd Noor Mansoor, formerly from Parti Berjaya, spoke to Nadira about the 1986 riot.

Who were the politicians?

Tan Sri Herman Luping who was the adviser to PBS at that time. Datuk Yahya Lampong, a former Usno member. And Datuk Mohd Noor Mansoor from Berjaya. He was state Finance Minister in Sabah.

What were the challenges you faced in making the documentary?

It’s the first time I’m doing a documentary. I’m more accustomed to narrative films. I only have 30 minutes but I wish I had more time. There’s so much to this story.

What were some of the things you wish you could have included in the film?

I wanted to include why Berjaya lost in the 1985 elections, add more interviews with civilians. When Usno first lost to Berjaya in the 1976 elections, there were fish bombs too, but not to the scale of in 1986.

I also had to cut out one of the interviews I did with a friend who was in school on that day. Demonstrators were marching past her school. Students were frantically trying to get home. The demonstrators surrounded her school van and rocked it. They were holding rocks, pieces of wood and chanting loudly. She was only 14.

They managed to get away. She thinks it’s funny now but back then she said she thought she was going to die that day.

So what do you think about the entire episode after making the documentary?

I will never join politics! (Laughs) I think my job as a filmmaker is hard enough. As a storyteller, I can’t control how people will react to my story. It will take a life of its own once I put it out there. But I hope people will respond by having constructive discussions rather than reactive ones.

I’m not interested in pointing fingers but I do want people to know what happened and acknowledge this incident as part of Malaysia’s history.

I feel that the best way for us to move forward as a society is to be honest with ourselves, about our past no matter how dark. It’s part of who we are and we grow from these collective experiences. That’s why we value history.

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