Indonesian Confrontation (Konfrontasi) 1962–66

Background  

It is often said that soldiers are called in when politicians and diplomats have failed, but in this case the conflicts were fought by politicians, diplomats, and soldiers simultaneously.”

Peter Edwards, “Confrontation: Australia’s curious war of diplomacy” Wartime 5, Summer 1999, p. 44.

In 1961 Malayan and British officials proposed the creation of a federated state that would include the Federation of Malaya, Brunei, Singapore, and the British colonies of North Borneo and Sarawak. While Britain was granting independence to its south–east Asian colonies, it preferred them to align with the pro-British Malayan government rather than Indonesia, which it feared would become communist-aligned and a threat to western interests. 

 

Map showing the island of Borneo in 1962.  Map courtesy of the National Army Museum https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/indonesian-confrontation

Map showing the island of Borneo in 1962. Map courtesy of the National Army Museum https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/indonesian-confrontation

Sukarno, the first President of Indonesia following independence, did not support the formation of Malaysia, which he believed was part of British attempts to maintain control in the area. Sukarno was particularly opposed to the inclusion of the British territories on Borneo, as most of Borneo was under Indonesian rule. The Philippines, who felt they were the rightful rulers of North Borneo, were also opposed to the creation of Malaysia. 

 

Sukarno, future President of Indonesia, with Australian Consul-General Charles Eaton, Indonesia, 1947. (Indonesian Press Photo Service, AWM P03531.001)

Sukarno, future President of Indonesia, with Australian Consul-General Charles Eaton, Indonesia, 1947. (Indonesian Press Photo Service, AWM P03531.001)

In January 1963, Indonesia declared a policy of Konfrontasi, destabilising the proposed Malaysian federation with the aim of breaking it up by engaging in economic, political, and military action without directly declaring war.

Britain, Australia and New Zealand already had military personnel in the area from the Malayan Emergency. They remained in place as Confrontation escalated, while the British increased their troop numbers. When Indonesian forces launched raids across Borneo in early 1963, the Australian Government found itself in a difficult position. Australia wanted Malaysia to be formed without open opposition from Indonesia. It also faced pressure to assist the British, and was mindful of its relationship with the United States. While the United States was supportive of the creation of Malaysia, it was concerned that military intervention against Indonesia could lead to it aligning with communist powers.

When the US threatened to withdraw aid from Indonesia in an attempt to end fighting, Sukarno told the Americans to “go to hell” and committed further troops to the conflict. The Australian Government needed to employ delicate diplomacy as it acted as peacemaker between Malayan, Indonesian, and Filipino leaders in the lead up to 16 September 1963 when the Federation of Malaya, Sarawak, 

Australian Active Service Medal 1945 – 1975 with Malaysia clasp. (AWM REL31524)

Australian Active Service Medal 1945 – 1975 with Malaysia clasp. (AWM REL31524)

Following the announcement of the creation of Malaysia, mobs in Jakarta attacked the Malayan Embassy and burnt down the British Embassy. Indonesia had recognised that Australia’s policy was different from that of the British and the United States, which went some way to explaining why the Australian Embassy was untouched.

In 1964, Australia joined other Commonwealth forces to protect Malaysia’s independence

All three services of the Australian Defence Force joined other Commonwealth forces to protect Malaysia’s independence, providing materials and training, while constructing airstrips, roads, and bridges. To appease Britain and the United States, the Australian Government adopted a policy of “graduated response”, providing the minimum forces necessary to meet the Indonesian threat. It was not expected that the armed services would have direct contact with the Indonesians.

However, when Indonesian forces landed on the Malayan peninsula and the Indonesian military presence expanded in Borneo, combat was inevitable. The Australian Government eventually approved that military forces move from defending borders to engaging in more aggressive cross-border action. Australia and New Zealand troops took part in patrols and raids to destabilise Indonesian forces and protect the Malaysian border. There was a ban on the media knowing anything about cross-border raids, which were not made public until 1996.

Members from the 4th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment carrying out patrols along the Malaysian-Indonesian border, Borneo, 1966. (AWM FIL/66/0241/MC)

Members from the 4th Battalion, The Royal Australian Regiment carrying out patrols along the Malaysian-Indonesian border, Borneo, 1966. (AWM FIL/66/0241/MC)

 

In 1966, President Sukarno was removed from power by a military coup. Indonesia and Malaysia were then able to negotiate an end to the confrontation, signing a peace treaty.

Of the 114 Commonwealth soldiers who lost their lives as a result of Confrontation, 22 were Australian. While some were killed in action, other causes of death include drownings, motor vehicle accidents, illness, and injuries caused by a wild elephant. The role of the Australian Defence Force in south–east Asia continued after Confrontation, with an increasing commitment to the war in Vietnam.

24 Construction Squadron struggle to get a Land Rover up a muddy slope, North Borneo, 1965. (William Cunneen, AWM CUN/65/0910A/MC)

24 Construction Squadron struggle to get a Land Rover up a muddy slope, North Borneo, 1965. (William Cunneen, AWM CUN/65/0910A/MC)

Exploring perspectives on a divided country

  1. Create a table outlining the Malayan, Indonesian, British, Australian, and American perspectives on the creation of Malaysia.
  2. Familiarise yourself with the current areas of Malaysia and Indonesia using Google Maps. Find Borneo, and name the three countries who share this island today. This link outlines other islands that are shared by more than one country: https://www.worldatlas.com/articles/islands-that-are-shared-by-more-than-one-country.html.
  3. What are some of the advantages and disadvantages of dividing an island into multiple countries?
  4. Why did Australia feel obliged to assist Britain in the 1960s?
  5. Do you think Australia had a responsibility to get involved in Confrontation regardless of its ties with Britain? Why or why not? Divide into pairs or small groups to discuss the reasons for and against Australia’s involvement in this conflict.
  6. The Australian, New Zealand and United States Security Treaty (ANZUS) was signed in 1951, ensuring that the three countries come together to face military matters in the Pacific region.
  • Research the ANZUS treaty.
  • Although the United States had signed the ANZUS treaty, why do you think they chose not to get involved in Confrontation?
  • What can you find out about New Zealand’s commitment to Confrontation?
The first meeting of the ANZUS representatives in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 1952. (AWM 044320)

The first meeting of the ANZUS representatives in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, 1952. (AWM 044320)

Various terms have been given to past conflicts, including “confrontation”, “emergency”, “incursion”, and “ongoing violence”.

7. Why do you think governments would choose to use these terms instead of “war”?

John Frith, Indonesian Ocean, (1963, pencil, ink and gouache on paper, AWM ART94931)

John Frith, Indonesian Ocean, (1963, pencil, ink and gouache on paper, AWM ART94931)

8. Examine the cartoon above.

  •       Whose perspective is being represented in this cartoon?
  •       What is the artist implying?
  •       What symbolism, graphics, and textual clues lead you to this conclusion?
  •       Create your own cartoon relating to the Confrontation, from an Indonesian, Malaysian, British, American, or Australian perspective.

 

 

Case study: 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR)

The gate badge of the Royal Australian Regiment outside the 3rd Battalion guardhouse, Malaysia, 1964–65. (G.K. Bradshaw, AWM P04762.008)

The gate badge of the Royal Australian Regiment outside the 3rd Battalion guardhouse, Malaysia, 1964–65. (G.K. Bradshaw, AWM P04762.008)

3rd Battalion, the Royal Australian Regiment (3 RAR) is a light infantry battalion of the Australian Army. Formed in 1945, 3 RAR served in Japan, Korea, Malaya, Borneo, South Vietnam, Timor-Leste, the Solomon Islands, Iraq, and Afghanistan.

Colour patch of 3 RAR. (Image courtesy of Australian Militaria Sales https://www.militaria-sales.com.au/)

Colour patch of 3 RAR.

(Image courtesy of Australian Militaria Sales https://www.militaria-sales.com.au/)

For “fine display of courage and steadfastness” during the Battle of Kapyong in Korea, 3RAR was awarded a United States Presidential Citation. From 1957 to 1959, the battalion gained jungle operations experience through its involvement in the Malayan Emergency. It would be the first RAR unit to return to Malaya when Confrontation commenced.

Once the Australian Government had approved their involvement in Borneo, 3 RAR began patrols and ambushes on both sides of the Indonesian­–Malaysian border, and conducted 32 cross-border operations in Borneo, code-named “Claret”.

Details about 3RAR’s role during Confrontation can be uncovered in its unit diaries

  1. Study the following photographs depicting some of the work undertaken by 3RAR during Confrontation, and complete the following table (photographs and related information can be access at www.awm.gov.au):

The majority of these photographs were taken by Defence photographer Warrant Officer Class Two William Cunneen. Cunneen served in Japan, the Korean War, Malayan Emergency, Confrontation, and the Vietnam War. He died in 2016, having provided an important record of the Australian Defence Force in action. The Australian War Memorial holds over a thousand of his photos.

“For 50 years his shutter recorded the actions and sacrifices of legions of Australian servicemen and women.”

Brigadier Adrian D’Hage (retd), 2017 http://www.contactairlandandsea.com/2017/02/08/vale-billy-cunneen/

  1. Does knowing that the majority of photographs were taken by a person serving in the Defence Force alter your interpretation of them? Why or why not?
  2. View the short film below and answer the following questions:
  •   Who made this film?
  •   Who do you think this film was made for?
  •   What perspective is being presented?
  •   What techniques has the film maker used to present the content in a positive way?
Video of Fighting patrol (DPR130)

A film showing how Australian infantry patrols operated during Confrontation, Borneo, 1965. (Defence Public Relations AWM F03173)