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Indonesia–Malaysia confrontation

The Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation was an intermittent battle over the future of the island of Borneo, between British-backed Malaysia and Indonesia in 1962–1966. It is called Konfrontasi in Indonesian and Malay. Singapore was part of Malaysia for most of this time.


In 1961, the island of Borneo was divided into four separate states: Kalimantan, an Indonesian province, was located in the south of the island. In the north were the kingdom of Brunei and two British coloniesSarawak and British North Borneo (which was later renamed Sabah). As a part of its withdrawal from its Southeast Asian colonies, the UK moved to combine its colonies on Borneo with the Federation of Malaya to form Malaysia.

This move was opposed by the government of Indonesia; President Sukarno argued that Malaysia was a puppet of the British, and that the consolidation of Malaysia would increase British control over the region, threatening Indonesia's independence. Similarly, the Philippines made a claim for Sabah, arguing that it had historic links with the Philippines through the Sulu archipelago.

In Brunei, the Indonesian-backed North Kalimantan National Army (TNKU) revolted on December 8 1962. They tried to capture the Sultan of Brunei, seize the oil fields and take European hostages. The Sultan escaped and asked for British help. He received British and Gurkha troops from Singapore. On December 16, British Far Eastern Command claimed that all major rebel centres had been occupied, and on April 17 1963, the rebel commander was captured and the rebellion ended.

In order to solve the dispute, the would-be member states of Malaysia met representatives of Indonesia and the Philippines in Manila for several days, starting on July 31 1963. At the meeting, the Philippines and Indonesia formally agreed to accept the formation of Malaysia if a majority in the disputed region voted for it in a referendum organized by the United Nations. While the fact-finding mission by the UN was expected to begin on August 22 in the same, delaying tactics by Indonesia forced the mission to start only on August 26. Nevertheless, the UN expected the referendum report to be published by September 14 1963.

However, North Borneo and Sarawak, anticipating a pro-Malaysia result, declared independence on the sixth anniversary of Merdeka Day, August 31 1963, before the results of the vote were reported. On September 14, the result enabled the creation of Malaysia which had been agreed upon by all member states on September 16 1963. The Indonesian government saw this as a broken promise and as evidence of British imperialism.

Contrary to popular belief, no firm evidence has ever been unearthed to support claims that Sukarno had territorial ambitions over North Kalimantan (he always held firmly to the 1945 decision which delineated Indonesia's boundaries to territories inherited from the former Dutch-Indies, and this might explain why he eagerly pursued Papua's—but not East Timor's—annexation).(However, the borders of Indonesia initially were not defined, therefore the British felt that there is a chance that he did want to create a world power in South East Asia) More likely was that Sukarno invested hopes for the establishment of a North Kalimantan state aligned to Jakarta's anti-colonial and anti-imperialist geopolitics, in which he found suitable allies. Sukarno had made it repeatedly clear in at least four public speeches throughout 1963–64 that Indonesia had no territorial ambitions over North Kalimantan, and that Indonesia's territorial pursuit was completed with the "return" of West Irian in January 1963.

Local opposition and sentiments against the Malaysian Federation plan has often been under-represented in historical writings on the Brunei Revolt and the subsequent Indonesian-Malaysian Confrontation. In fact, political forces in Sarawak had long anticipated their own national independence as promised (but later aborted) by the last White Rajah of Sarawak, Charles Vyner Brooke, back in 1941.

The predominantly Malay anti-cession movement, which rejected the British takeover of Sarawak in 1946 and had assassinated Duncan Stewart, the first British High-Commissioner of Sarawak, may have been the forerunner of the subsequent anti-Malaysia movement in Sarawak, headed by Ahmad Zaidi.

Left-wing and communist cell groups, which grew rapidly among Sarawak's urban Chinese communities since the 1950s—which later became the nucleus of the anti-Malaysia North Kalimantan People's Army (PARAKU) and Sarawak People's Guerilla Forces (PGRS)—supported and propagated the unification of all British Borneo territories to form an independent leftist North Kalimantan state, an idea originally proposed by Dr. Azhari, leader of the Parti Rakyat Brunei, who had forged links with Sukarno's nationalist movement, together with Ahmad Zaidi, in Java since the 1940s. The North Kalimantan (or Kalimantan Utara) proposal was seen as a post-decolonization alternative by local opposition against the Malaysian Federation plan. Local opposition throughout the Borneo territories was primarily based on economic, political, historical and cultural differences between the Borneo states and Malaya, and the refusal to be subjected under peninsular political domination.

Both Dr. Azhari and Ahmad Zaidi went into exile in Indonesia during the Confrontation. While the latter returned to Sarawak and managed to have his political status rehabilitated, Dr. Azhari remained in Indonesia until his death in 2001.

The War

On January 20 1963, Indonesian Foreign Minister Subandrio announced that Indonesia would pursue a policy of Konfrontasi with Malaysia. On April 12, Indonesian volunteers—allegedly Indonesian Army personnel—began to infiltrate Sarawak and Sabah, to engage in raids and sabotage, and spread propaganda. On July 27, Sukarno declared that he was going to "crush Malaysia" (Ganyang Malaysia). On August 16, troops of the Brigade of Gurkhas clashed with fifty Indonesian guerillas.

While the Philippines did not engage in warfare, they did break off diplomatic relations with Malaysia.

The Federation of Malaysia was formally established on September 16 1963. Brunei decided against joining, and Singapore was expelled by the Federation in 1965 to become an independent republic.

Tensions rose on both sides of the Straits of Malacca. Two days later, rioters burned the British embassy in Jakarta. Several hundred rioters ransacked the Singapore embassy in Jakarta and the homes of Singaporean diplomats. In Malaysia, Indonesian agents were captured and crowds attacked the Indonesian embassy in Kuala Lumpur.

Along the remote jungle border in Borneo, there was an ongoing border war; Indonesian troops and irregulars tried to occupy Sarawak and Sabah, with little success. On 28 September 1963, a small, successful (though strategically irrelevant) raid was conducted by the Indonesians on the village of Long Jawe, almost wiping out the entire Gurkha Rifles garrison. In early 1964, Indonesian attacks managed to render the strategic Tebedu-Serian-Kuching road unsafe for months, and additional small scale air raids were launched in the Kelabit Highlands on civilian settlements. One Indonesian raiding party en route to the small town of Song was captured by locals and handed over to the Malaysian authorities in April 1964.

In 1964, Indonesian troops began to raid areas in Peninsular Malaysia. In August, 16 armed Indonesian agents were captured in Johore. Activity by regular Indonesian Army troops over the border also increased. On March 14, 1964 Trooper James Condon became the first member of the SAS to be killed in Borneo.Over the period covering the battle in Kalimantan, the Indonesian Kopassus suffered over 500 casualties and over 200 casualties of Australian, New Zealand and British SAS regiment.

The British Royal Navy deployed a number of warships, including aircraft carriers, to the area to defend Malaysia and the Royal Air Force also deployed many squadrons of aircraft. The British "commando carriers" HMS Albion and Bulwark operated their squadrons of helicopters to transport Royal Marines and supplies through the jungles, the ships themselves being floating bases.

Commonwealth ground forces— 18 battalions, including elements of the Brigade of Gurkhas — and three Malaysian battalions, as well as Malaysian police forces, were also committed to the conflict. The Commonwealth troops were thinly deployed and had to rely on border posts and reconnaissance by light infantry and/or the two SBS commando units of the Royal Marines. Their main mission was to prevent further Indonesian incursions into Malaysia.

On August 17, Indonesian paratroopers landed on the southwest coast of Johore and attempted to establish guerilla groups. On September 2, more paratroopers landed in Labis, Johore. On October 29, 52 soldiers landed in Pontian on the Johore-Malacca border and were captured by New Zealand Army and Royal Malay Regiment personnel. Balance of paratroopers were captured by Royal Federations Malay States Police Field Force personnel in Batu 20 Muar, Johore.

When the United Nations (UN) accepted Malaysia as a nonpermanent member at the Security Council, Sukarno withdrew Indonesia from the UN and attempted to form the Conference of New Emerging Forces (Conefo) as an alternative.

In January 1965, after many Malaysian requests, Australia agreed to send troops to Borneo. The Australian Army contingent included the 3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment and the Australian Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment. There were 14,000 British and Commonwealth forces in Borneo by this time. According to official policy, Commonwealth troops could not follow attackers over the Indonesian border. However, units like the British SAS, Australian and New Zealand SAS did so in secret (see Operation Claret). (The Australian government officially admitted these incursions in 1996.) In April 1964, the British government gave permission for troops to cross the border into Kalimantan up to 3,000 yards. In January 1965, this authorisation was extended to attacks up to 10,000 yards. There is also evidence that the British and Malaysians secretly gave aid to rebel groups in Indonesia, in the outer islands of Sumatra and Sulawesi, as way to weaken Sukarno's Confrontation campaign.

On March 10 1965, Indonesian saboteurs carried out the MacDonald House bombing in Singapore, killing three people and injuring 33.

In mid-1965, the Indonesian government began to openly use Indonesian army forces. On June 28, they crossed the border into eastern Sebatik Island near Tawau, Sabah, and clashed with defenders.

Another factor in the defeat of Confrontation was use of intelligence. Britain had broken the Indonesian military and diplomatic ciphers and was able to intercept and decrypt communications from a Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ) listening station in Singapore. This intelligence was used to plan individual Claret cross-border operations.

British psyops

The role of the United Kingdom's Foreign Office and Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) has also come to light, in a series of exposés by Paul Lashmar and Oliver James in The Independent newspaper beginning in 1997. These revelations have also come to light in journals on military and intelligence history.

The revelations included an anonymous Foreign Office source stating that the decision to unseat President Sukarno was made by Prime Minister Harold Macmillan and then executed under Prime Minister Harold Wilson. According to the exposés, the UK had already become alarmed with the announcement of the "Konfrontasi" policy. It has been claimed that a Central Intelligence Agency memorandum of 1962 indicated that Macmillan and U.S. President John F. Kennedy were increasingly alarmed by the possibility of the Confrontation with Malaysia spreading, and agreed to "liquidate President Sukarno, depending on the situation and available opportunities". However, the documentary evidence cited does not support this claim.

To weaken the regime, the British Foreign Office's Information Research Department (IRD) coordinated psychological operations (psyops) in concert with the British military, to spread black propaganda casting the Communist Party of Indonesia (PKI), Chinese Indonesians, and Sukarno in a bad light. These efforts were to duplicate the successes of the British psyop campaign in the Malayan Emergency.

Of note, these efforts were coordinated from the British High Commission in Singapore where the BBC, Associated Press (AP), and The New York Times filed their reports on the Crisis in Indonesia. According to Roland Challis, the BBC correspondent who was in Singapore at the time, journalists were open to manipulation by IRD due to Sukarno's stubborn refusal to allow them into the country: "In a curious way, by keeping correspondents out of the country Sukarno made them the victims of official channels, because almost the only information you could get was from the British ambassador in Jakarta."

These manipulations included the BBC reporting that communists were planning to slaughter the citizens of Jakarta. The accusation was based solely on a forgery planted by Norman Reddaway, a propaganda expert with the IRD. He later bragged in a letter to the British ambassador in Jakarta, Sir Andrew Gilchrist that it "went all over the world and back again", and was "put almost instantly back into Indonesia via the BBC". Gilchrist himself informed the Foreign Office on October 5, 1965 : "I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change."

In the April 16, 2000 Independent, Denis Healey, Secretary of State for Defence at the time of the war, confirmed that the IRD was active during this time. He officially denied any role by MI6, and denied "personal knowledge" of the British arming the right-wing faction of the Army, though he did comment that if there were such a plan, he "would certainly have supported it".

Although the British MI6 is strongly implicated in this scheme by the use of the Information Research Department (seen as an MI6 office), any role by MI6 itself is officially denied by the UK government, and papers relating to it have yet to be declassified by the Cabinet Office. (The Independent, December 6, 2000.)

The end of confrontation

In the late-1960s, General Suharto came to power in Indonesia and Indonesian interest in pursuing the war with Malaysia declined, and combat eased. On May 28, 1966, at a conference in Bangkok, the Malaysian and Indonesian governments declared the conflict was over. Violence ended in June, and a peace treaty was signed on August 11 and ratified two days later.




  • van der Bijl, Nick. Confrontation, The War with Indonesia 1962—1966, (London, 2007) ISBN 9781844155958
  • Easter, D. 2004. Britain and the Confrontation with Indonesia, 1960–1966. London, I.B.Tauris. ISBN 1-85043-623-1.
  • Jones, M. 2002. Conflict and Confrontation in South East Asia, 1961–1965: Britain, the United States and the Creation of Malaysia. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0-521-80111-7.
  • Mackie, J.A.C. 1974. Konfrontasi: The Indonesia-Malaysia Dispute 1963–1966. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press (for the Australian Institute of International Affairs). ISBN 0-19-638247-5.
  • Porritt, V.L. 2004. The Rise and Fall of Communism in Sarawak 1940–1990. Victoria: Monash Asia Institute. ISBN 1-876924-27-6.
  • Poulgrain, G. 1998. The Genesis of Konfrontasi: Malaysia, Brunei, Indonesia 1945–1965. London: C. Hurst & Co. ISBN 1-85065-510-3.
  • Subritzky, J. 2000. Confronting Sukarno: British, American, Australian and New Zealand Diplomacy in the Malaysian-Indonesian Confrontation, 1961–1965. London, Palgrave. ISBN 0-312-22784-1.
  • Doohan, J.T. 2004. Mud Sweat & Tears: An account of 24 Construction Squadron Royal Australian Engineer's Borneo tour of duty 1965 ISBN 0-646-43718-6
  • Reece, R.H.W. 1993. The Name of Brooke: The End of White Rajah Rule in Sarawak. Kuala Lumpur: Oxford University Press. ISBN 0-19-580474-0Academic journal articles
  • Easter, D. "'Keep the Indonesian pot boiling': western covert intervention in Indonesia, October 1965–March 1966", Cold War History, Vol 5, No 1, February 2005.
  • Tuck, C. "Borneo 1963–66: Counter-insurgency Operations and War Termination", Small Wars and Insurgencies, Vol 15, No 3, Winter 2004. Other sources
  • Anonymous. 1964. Gelora Konfrontasi Mengganjang Malaysia. Djakarta: Departemen Penerangan. (Contains Joint Statements of the Manila Agreements, Indonesian presidential decrees and all transcripts of Sukarno's public speeches from July 1963 to May 1964 pertaining the Konfrontasi)


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