Australian peacekeepers in Indonesia from 1947 to 1951
In 1945, Indonesian Republicans declared independence from the Netherlands, resulting in devastating conflict. Australia was an important advocate for United Nations (UN) intervention when the fighting escalated.
Under the direction of the UN Security Council, Australia was one of 6 nations that sent a representative consul to form a Consular Commission in Batavia (now Jakarta) in 1947. Indonesian Republicans also nominated Australia to represent them within a second body, the UN Committee of Good Offices (UNGOC) that would be deployed to assist with peacekeeping in the field.
Between 1947 and 1951, Australian military observers (also known as peacekeepers) contributed to the UN's successful conflict resolution and safe withdrawal of Dutch forces from Indonesia. The skills, diplomacy and goodwill of Australian observers set an example for Australia's peacekeeping operations for decades to come.
We commemorate the service of all Australian military observers who contributed to the resolution of conflict in Indonesia, and to multinational peacekeeping operations that continue today.
Indonesia's fight for independence
During the 19th century, the Netherlands' territory expanded to include Indonesia. The archipelago of islands became a Dutch colony, known as the Netherlands East Indies (NEI), focusing on trade at the expense of the indigenous populations.
In the early 20th century, the Netherlands changed its colonial policies to focus on improving local welfare, living conditions, education and economic development. However, lack of funding and financial restrictions during the Great Depression hampered the policy's effectiveness. Instead, the policy gave a small group of Indonesian people the tools to voice their dissatisfaction with colonial rule. During the decades before World War II, the first Indonesian political parties emerged with ideas of democracy and freedom from Dutch colonial rule.
When the Japanese occupied the NEI in 1942, they promoted themselves as liberators. The Japanese supported Indonesian nationalists, fostering the idea of independence and elevating political leaders. By the war's end, much of the Dutch colonial state and economy had been destroyed.
After the Japanese surrender in 1945, Indonesian nationalists Achmed Sukarno and Mohammad Hatta formed the Republic of Indonesia, officially declaring independence from the Netherlands.
However, after the Japanese surrender, the Dutch colonial government wanted to re-establish control of the NEI. An armed conflict resulted between the Netherlands and the Republic of Indonesia, which lasted 4 years, until the end of 1949.
As the word of the revolution spread, so did pro-nationalist sentiment among the population. Japanese-armed Indonesians banded together to form militia groups, known as pemuda, to fight for independence.
In September 1945, Indonesian pemuda targeted Dutch internees, as well as Ambonese, Chinese and Eurasian people, subjecting them to intimidation, kidnapping, robbery, murder and organised massacres. During these first brutal conflicts, tens of thousands of people were killed, including around 600 British soldiers. Around 215,000 people were displaced.
By October, the Dutch government agreed to negotiate the terms of independence with Sukarno. At the time, Britain supported the Dutch colonial position. The United Kingdom deployed around 1,000 British troops to help maintain order in Java and Sumatra while negotiations happened.
While many remaining Japanese soldiers sided with nationalist Republicans and supplied them with arms with which to fight for independence, other Japanese worked with the British to help.
When the Dutch government offered autonomy to Indonesian nationalists on 12 October 1945, the proposed terms of independence were rejected by the Republicans.
The pemuda, later becoming known as the Indonesian People's Army, declared war against occupying British and Dutch government troops.
Between October 1945 and November 1946, dialogues between the Netherlands and the Republicans were tense, and conflicts erupted often. At the end of 1946, during a period of more successful negotiations, British troops stationed in the NEI withdrew. But the fighting continued, despite both parties signing the Linggadjati Agreement, which established the United States of Indonesia, consisting of Java, Madura, Sumatra and Borneo.
The Netherlands government presented 5 proposals for implementing the Linggadjati Agreement. When all 5 were rejected by the Republicans, the Dutch lost patience. They launched a coordinated military ‘police action' to invade Republican territory and forcibly take back the country.
The UN condemned the Netherlands' aggressive action, leading to support for the UN Security Council to intervene.
Australia demands action
[P]eace is not a featureless negative, the mere absence of military hostilities. We certainly want peace, but we want peace with social justice – a peace that shall afford to the peoples of all countries positive opportunities to lead full and happy lives.
[Herbert Vere Evatt, Attorney-General and Foreign Minister[Vol 1 Part 1 - 2 St George and the maiden (Netherlands East Indies, 1945-47)]
Initially siding with its former World War II Dutch allies, Australia saw the conflict between the Indonesian and Netherlands governments as an internal conflict that didn't need UN intervention. However, after the invasion of Republican territory, Australia changed its position.
In late 1946, Indonesia became an independent member of the UN. This gave the Australian foreign minister, H.V. 'Doc' Evatt, cause to argue that the dispute was now between 2 countries and warranted further action. With India's support, Evatt raised the dispute with the Security Council. A ceasefire was proposed, alongside the deployment of military observers who would report breaches to an international committee. This would be the first-ever UN peacekeeping mission.
The Consular Commission
The international committee was called the UN Consular Commission. After the Security Council was successful in getting both the Netherlands and Indonesian Republicans to agree to a ceasefire in August 1947, the UN Consular Commission was established with 6 Security Council members:
- the UK
- the US.
Each member sent a representative consul to form the commission, and Australian diplomat and World War II veteran, Charles 'Moth' Eaton, was made the acting Australian Consul-General.
The UN Consular Commission was sent to Batavia on the first observation and peacekeeping mission on 14 September 1947.
The first 4 Australian observers were:
- Commander Henry Swinfield Chesterman, Royal Australian Navy (RAN) - decorated by the US for his role as liaison officer in the Pacific during World War II
- Brigadier Lewis Glanville Howard Dyke, Australian Army - the officer in charge of the Australian Timor Force that accepted the Japanese surrender in 1945
- Major David Lynn Campbell, Australian Army - worked at the Directorate of Military Intelligence and had served as an intelligence officer at Bougainville in World War II
- Squadron Leader Louis Thomas 'Lou' Spence DFC & Bar, Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF) - a well-liked World War II veteran who was later killed in the Korean War.
On the ground, the Consular Commission began to realise that a larger group of military officers was needed to help with the peacekeeping. It was a delicate situation, with pockets of Indonesian Republicans surrounded by areas controlled by the Dutch military. It required considerable amounts of UN monitoring to maintain the peace.
The Australians soon confirmed suspicions that the Dutch were using the ceasefire as a front to continue their offensive operations. So the Security Council sent a second, newly established body called the UN Good Offices Committee to Indonesia (UNGOC), later re-titled the United Nations Committee of Good Offices.
United Nations Committee of Good Offices (UNGOC)
This observational task force was deployed in October 1947 to:
- supervise the ceasefire
- negotiate a peaceful settlement between the opposing parties
- repatriate Dutch forces to the Netherlands.
To try to make it fair and impartial, UNGOC consisted of:
- a country nominated by the Indonesians - the Indonesian Republicans nominated Australia as a friendly power
- a country nominated by the Netherlands - the Dutch nominated Belgium
- a country nominated by the first 2 countries - Australia and Belgium nominated the US.
Negotiations between Indonesia and the Netherlands progressed with the signing of the Renville Agreement. Named after the USS Renville, where negotiations were held, the agreement aimed to resolve previous disputes and establish a ceasefire along the dividing ‘Status Quo' line.
Surveying and reporting on the alleged violations of the Renville Agreement was the task of the UNGOC military observers. The Consular Commission asked UNGOC for a detailed set of proposals for achieving a workable ceasefire. The complexity of the situation only increased as allegations of violations came pouring in, and the force of observers became overwhelmed.
By March 1948, having made their recommendations, the observers had been given the authority to intervene directly, allowing them to stop potential conflict before it erupted. However, it soon became clear the Dutch had no intentions of conceding. The stalemate between the 2 parties dragged out. Tensions escalated into conflict again.
United Nations Commission for Indonesia (UNCI)
Early 1949 marked a turning point in the ‘Indonesian Question'. A global conference in New Delhi saw 9 countries meet to discuss the failure of the UN to deal with the situation between the Dutch and Indonesians. As a key part of these negotiations, Australia was invited to join the committee to draft the conference resolutions.
By January 1949, the Security Council had passed new resolutions calling for an end to hostilities on both sides, a release of political prisoners, and the return of Republican leadership. The US sided with Indonesia, and global pressure mounted against the Netherlands. Clearly, the Netherlands would need to abandon its ambitions of destroying the Republican movement.
The UNGOC became the United Nations Commission for Indonesia (UNCI), with greater powers to effect change. Following this, Australia's commitment increased to 15 military observers. Some of the veterans of UNCI were:
- Lieutenant Colonel Edward Fawcett Aiken
- Major Andrew Clifford Smith
- Major Francis Edward Resuggan, Australian Army Headquarters
- Major Charles Patrick Dolan.
The UNCI personnel monitored the safe withdrawal of Dutch government troops from the region, and by 1950, the Australian observer force began to reduce in size. The last Australian observer, Lieutenant Colonel Aitken, was withdrawn in June 1951.
Making peacekeeping history
The Australians involved with these early observational missions were part of the world's first UN peacekeeping force. After World War II, Australia had not anticipated the need to supply forces to meet a UN commitment so soon.
Before the Australian Government announced its post-war Defence policy on 3 June 1947, it raised an Interim Army. The purpose was to provide legal cover for personnel of the post-war army during the transition before the policy was announced.
The Defence policy would include an expanded Australian Regular Army (ARA) and Australian Instructional Corps (AIC). It would also continue the Royal Australian Navy (RAN) and the Royal Australian Air Force (RAAF), which was to include both a permanent force and units of the Citizen Air Force (CAF).
Between 1947 and 1948, there was a shortfall in available officers to send to Indonesia. So, alongside those permanent and citizen forces, many were also recruited from the:
- Interim Army
- Interim Air Force
- Australian Army Reserves.
The strategic military experience of these recruits during World War II played a significant part in their success.
The officers were required to remain impartial representatives of the UN as they navigated the delicate political landscape. Their roles demanded thorough discussion of political, civil and economic matters that were not normally part of their military roles. Their experiences in the field defined the role of observer, and have become the hallmarks of peacekeeping ever since.
Today, peacekeepers traditionally serve in countries destroyed by war. This 'warlike service' often requires them to put themselves in danger, negotiating with opposing forces of hostile armies. Over the decades since 1947, peacekeepers have also been responsible for:
- treating casualties
- delivering humanitarian aid
- reporting on ceasefire violations
- overseeing elections
- teaching locals how to clear landmines
- providing medical, communications and movement-control teams.
Seven Australians have commanded international peacekeeping operations. Australia's ongoing cooperation with international partners is also vital to the success of peacekeeping and enforcement of international law.
Experiences of Australians
Veteran Redmond Green DSO CBE recalled his experiences as part of the UNGOC force in Indonesia while he was there in 1948. Building a relationship with the locals was vital to their work.
I volunteered for service in Indonesia in 1948 because I felt that unless we were friends with Indonesia we would be right out on a limb … and then the whole thing fell to pieces …
[The Republican Indonesians were] entitled to run their own affairs … [they] were in a great mess … [Our role as observers were] to carry out the transport and to police the no-fly zone. I had to find out what was going on, call in on the villagers to tell them what we were for, so they were fully aware of what's going on. And the Brigadier and I told them all what to do to make friends with them. I like going into these places and doing the right thing, you know?
[Our forces] were free to move around. It was quite free … [We were observing] any attacks, or a build-up of arms or anything ... That's why we would have to get onto the local people and if they're going to do a sneak break through there … around the coast … We carried our arms for personal defence, but no quick-firing stuff or anything like that. That's up to the army to do …
The observers were all stationed on the ceasefire lines … If we observed people breaking the ceasefire ... we would have to report it to both sides. We'd report it to the Dutch and the Indonesians parallel. It's in the interest of both the forces not to get stuck into the other one.
[Australian War Memorial, Oral Histories AWMS01743]
National Peacekeepers' Day
On 14 September each year, we observe National Peacekeepers' Day. It's the anniversary of the day Australia became the world's first peacekeepers to deploy into the field, in the Netherlands East Indies (now Indonesia) in 1947. It's a day to recognise the important work of those who have served, and continue to serve, in the name of global peace.
Learn more about Australia's peacekeeping missions since 1947.
International Day of UN Peacekeepers
29 May is a day of commemoration and acknowledgement of all military, police and civilian personnel who have served as peacekeepers with the UN. Since UN peacekeeping began, more than 4,000 peacekeepers from many countries have lost their lives while performing their duties under the UN flag.
Londey, Peter; Crawley, Rhys; Horner, David. The Long Search for Peace: Volume 1, The Official History of Australian Peacekeeping, Humanitarian and Post-Cold War Operations. Cambridge University Press. Kindle Edition.
Netherlands/Dutch East Indies (1927-1949) | University of Central Arkansas, Political Science, https://uca.edu/politicalscience/dadm-project/asiapacific-region/netherlandsdutch-east-indies-1927-1949/
Australian War Memorial, United Nations Consular Commission - 1947, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/CN500209
Australian War Memorial, United Nations Commission for Indonesia (UNCI) 1949 - 1950, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/CN500116
Australian War Memorial, United Nations Good Offices Committee Indonesia (UNGOC) 1947 - 1951, https://www.awm.gov.au/collection/CN500115