The Indonesian Confrontation 1963-1966

Causes and general description

The Confrontation or Konfrontasi was a conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia that took place mainly on the island of Borneo. British and Commonwealth forces including Australians supported Malaysia. At stake was the future of the former British possessions, Sabah and Sarawak, which bordered Indonesia's provinces on Borneo.

Malaya gained official independence from the British in 1957. The Malayan Prime Minister Tunkul Abdul Rahman and the British wanted North Borneo to join Malaya in a New Federation of Malaysia, which was to come into being in 1963. Indonesian President Sukarno, however, not only opposed the idea of a greater Malaysia, but also aimed to incorporate North Borneo into Indonesia – as had recently occurred in the case of the former Dutch colonies in western New Guinea.

The Confrontation was set in motion in December 1962 by an attempted coup d'état in the tiny pro-British sultanate of Brunei in north Borneo. The Indonesians backed the coup leader Sheikh A.M. Azahari, and gave military training to his supporters. Although the coup itself was quickly suppressed by British and Ghurkha soldiers, armed incursions from the Indonesian side of the border into northern Borneo continued, and Indonesian soldiers began to join Azahari's supporters in these incursions.

In January 1963 the Indonesian Foreign Minister Dr Subandrio announced that his country's attitude to Malaysia would be one of Confrontation or Konfrontasi. This terminology suggested that the Indonesians were sanctioning – and indeed promoting – violence, without going so far as to declare war. Later in the same year President Sukarno declared that he would 'gobble Malaysia raw.' Indonesian-sponsored incursions into northern Borneo increased in strength and frequency throughout 1963. Most of the incursions led to raids on police and army facilities, and there were substantial clashes with British Army Ghurkha soldiers.

In January 1964 the United States attempted to end the fighting in Borneo by threatening to withdraw aid-money to Indonesia. President Sukarno replied that they could 'go to hell.' Sukarno then raised the intensity of the Confrontation by committing regular Indonesian Army units to the conflict. And in September 1964 the Indonesians stunned the British and Malaysians by beginning a series of paratroop and seaborne raids into southern Malaya leading to fears that the Malayan Emergency would be renewed.

Commonwealth troops in Malaya, including Australians, were called into action to deal with the raiders, and the Australian Government agreed to the deployment of an Australian Army battalion in Borneo as part of a build-up of Commonwealth forces on the island. The Commonwealth reinforcements began by setting up strong points along known infiltration routes. The British Government also gave its approval for Commonwealth forces to conduct clandestine patrols across the border into Indonesian territory. These secret operations, which were codenamed 'Claret', forced the Indonesians onto the defensive and prevented Indonesian incursions into northern Borneo.

Although the situation in northern Borneo had stabilised by the end of 1965, events within Indonesia led to an official end to the conflict in the following year. Amid social and economic turmoil, President Sukarno lost power in the aftermath of a coup d'état. The new Indonesian leader, General Suharto, did not persist with Confrontation, and a treaty between Indonesia and Malaysia was signed in Bangkok in August 1966. The treaty recognised that the North Borneo states of Sabah and Sarawak would continue to be part of the Malaysian Federation. The policy of Confrontation, which had been intended to prevent this outcome, had cost the lives of 590 Indonesians and 114 Commonwealth soldiers.

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