Peacekeepers in Indonesia - Then and Now

By Peter Londey

In September 1999, Australian peacekeepers moved into East Timor, as part of a multinational force sponsored by the United Nations, to assist East Timor's transition to independence from Indonesia. It has been the largest Australian commitment to a peacekeeping operation to date.

It also represented a full turning of the circle, for it was in this same month, but 52 years earlier, that the very first Australian peacekeepers were deployed, and the state whose independence they helped bring about was Indonesia itself.

In 1999, we sent over 5,500 peacekeepers to East Timor. In 1947, our first group of military observers - probably the first United Nations peacekeepers anywhere in the world - numbered just four.

The end of the Japanese occupation in 1945 had given the Indonesian nationalists, led by Sukarno and others, their chance to bid for independence. The Dutch, whose colony Indonesia had been until the Japanese advance engulfed it, had no desire to let it go. A long drawn-out struggle ensued, with Java and Sumatra divided between Dutch and Indonesian nationalist (or Republican) control.

In July 1947 the Dutch lost patience with the increasingly protracted negotiations and launched what they called, in the way that war and euphemism have of going hand in hand, a “police action”. In fact, it was an invasion of Republican territory, pushing east from Jakarta (then known as Batavia) and from Surabaya to take over as much of Java as possible, and grabbing extra territory in Sumatra.

By this time, Australia's Labor government had moved from an initial stance on the side of its wartime ally, the Netherlands, to an anti-colonial position favouring Indonesian independence. When the great powers proved reluctant to refer what was going on in Indonesia to the United Nations, Australia and India took the lead and raised the matter with the Security Council.

In early August, the Security Council got the parties to agree to a ceasefire. A few weeks later, it set up two bodies: a Consular Commission, to report on observance of the ceasefire, and a Committee of Good Offices to help negotiations towards a final settlement. The Indonesians chose Australia, as a friendly power, to be their representative on the Committee of Good Offices.

The Australian government was suspicious of the ceasefire, and in particular how well the Dutch were observing it. The plan for the “police action” had been that fast moving columns should break through the immediate Republican defences and then fan out in order to take key positions. After the ceasefire, the Dutch declared that a line linking the forwardmost positions they had reached was now the frontier between the two warring parties.

The Indonesians still had substantial forces stranded on the Dutch side of this line, and the Dutch, under the guise of “maintenance of law and order”, were now conducting mopping-up operations against these Indonesian forces. Under cover of the ceasefire, the Dutch were steadily improving their position.

Australia wanted to put a stop to this. The tool would be the UN's Consular Commission. The Commission consisted of the Australian, Belgian, Chinese, French, British and American consuls in Batavia. By a stange irony (in view of current events), Australia's representative, Charles Eaton, had just come from a position as Australian representative in Dili. At its first meeting, on 1 September 1947, the Commission asked its members to provide military observers to help it monitor the ceasefire. In modern terminology, these observers were the first UN peacekeepers.

Australia responded with a speed which demonstrated that it had foreseen (and no doubt lobbied for) the request. Within a week, four Australian observers had been chosen and were ready for departure. Their leader, Brigadier L.G.H. Dyke, had been to the area before, commanding Timor Force which accepted the Japanese surrender on Timor in 1945. The others were a naval officer, Commander Henry Chesterman, decorated by the Americans for his role as a liaison officer in the Pacific during the war, Squadron Leader Lou Spence, a distinguished fighter pilot who had won the DFC in the Middle East and who was later to be killed in Korea, and Major D.L. Campbell.

The observers' training for the mission was limited to a brief meeting with the Secretary of the Department of External Affairs. But Australia's haste paid off when the four Australians were the first to arrive in Indonesia and were out in the field reporting on the situation while the Commission was still waiting for its other observers to arrive. What the Australians found (and their initial report can still be read in National Archives of Australia files) was that the ceasefire was unworkable and that, effectively, there was no peace to observe.

All was not plain sailing. Multinational peacekeeping was in its very infancy, and it was in Indonesia that some of the first steps were taken in working out how to make it effective. Nevertheless, the observers' presence ensured that the situation on the ground was at least known to the outside world, and ensured that events such as the massacre of 150 unarmed Indonesians at Rawahgedeh did not go unreported.

Although the Renville agreement of January 1948 favoured the Dutch, they had lost the free hand they otherwise might have had to use their military superiority to end the Republican cause. Instead, Dutch frustration was such that in December 1948 they launched a tactically successful but strategically disastrous second “police action”, capturing the Republican leaders but also putting an end to any international support they may have enjoyed and ensuring that a year later Indonesia would become an independent nation.

At a critical stage, the United Nations limited the freedom of the Dutch to impose a military solution on their recalcitrant colony. To that extent, Indonesia owes its relatively smooth and early transition to independence to the world body.

For Australian peacekeeping, East Timor is a return - with a twist - to where it all began.

Peter Londey is a Senior Historian at the Australian War Memorial. He is currently writing a history of Australian peacekeeping.

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