How “Konfrontasi” Reshaped Southeast Asian Regional Policy – The Diplomat
On August 31, Malaysia celebrated its 64th Hari Merdeka (Independence Day), although in a milder form due to ongoing COVID-19 restrictions. There was a small-scale parade in Putrajaya and a few patriotic TV shows were broadcast. In comparison, the celebration of Malaysia Day, which falls on September 16 and marks the formation of the Federation of Malaysia in 1963, is widely regarded by Malaysians as another public holiday. But Malaysia’s formation was precarious, and the young state waged a small, undeclared war to preserve its sovereignty known as the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation or Konfrontasi.
The Konfrontasi was a small-scale military conflict involving Malaysia and Indonesia. The conflict began as soon as Malaysia, made up of Malaysia, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore, was formed on September 16, 1963. Indonesia under President Sukarno opposed the formation of Malaysia, which Sukarno saw it as a British strategy, secretly backed by the US, to contain Indonesia’s geopolitical ambitions in the region. The Philippines was also against the formation of Malaysia because of their claims on parts of Sabah. The Philippines severed diplomatic relations with Malaysia while Sukarno launched a “Ganyang Malaysia ”or“ crush Malaysia ”, using both military and international propaganda operations.
Konfrontasi’s first major combat action, known as the Battle of Long Jawai, began on September 28, 1963. A small force comprising 21 Malaysian scouts, six British Gurkhas and two members of the Royal Malaysian Police Field Force was attacked by a larger force of 200 Indonesian troops at the Long Jawai outpost, about 48 kilometers from the Sarawak-Kalimantan border. The Anglo-Malaysian force was defeated and the Indonesians executed 10 captured Malaysian border guards.
Indonesian military forces continued to carry out numerous cross-border raids into Sarawak and Sabah from Kalimantan, across porous mountainous borders and jungle. This was slowly countered by the Malaysian security forces, aided by a large contingent of British Commonwealth military forces, mainly from the United Kingdom, Australia and New Zealand.
Malaysian and British Commonwealth forces used counterinsurgency tactics and operational concepts developed and used successfully in the Malay Peninsula during the Malay Emergency, due to the similar topographical nature of Borneo and the nature of the raids in small scale of the countryside. It involved hunt-and-ambush tactics, “hearts and minds” operations to win over the tribes living in the rainforests of Borneo, and tireless intelligence-gathering missions.
Some of these operations were kept secret until recently. One of these covert operations was codenamed “Claret” and involved dangerous cross-border intelligence gathering missions and, later, follow-up and ambush operations inside Indonesia’s Kalimantan region. The 22nd British Special Air Service (SAS) Regiment, in addition to an Australian SAS squadron and a New Zealand SAS troop, was known to have successfully conducted numerous clandestine cross-border special operations in support of ” Claret “. These successful special operations are still studied in some staff colleges around the world today.
Meanwhile, Indonesia attempted to open a second front by launching commando raids in Peninsular Malaysia from mid-1964. Indonesian commandos launched amphibious raids on the coastal areas of Johor and Singapore on August 17 of the same year, and later para-commandos were also parachuted into the peninsula on September 2 to carry out subversion attacks and sabotage. All of these Indonesian commando operations were interrupted and destroyed by Malaysian and British security forces.
Malaysia also conducted a flurry of diplomatic visits between 1964 and 1965 to garner support from the newly formed Malaysian Federation. This diplomatic effort was led by then Deputy Prime Minister Tun Abdul Razak and Singapore Chief Minister Lee Kwan Yew. This diplomatic effort and experience helped to found contemporary Malaysia’s grand strategy of using diplomacy to resolve international issues peacefully.
Meanwhile, Sukarno was replaced by Suharto at the end of 1965 after a failed coup and the subsequent elimination of the Indonesian Communist Party. The Konfrontasi lasted until 1966, when Indonesia under Suharto decided to explore options for ending the conflict. Indonesia and Malaysia held peace talks leading to the final conclusion of the Konfrontasi with the signing of a peace treaty in Bangkok on May 28, 1966. During the Konfrontasi, 114 Malaysian and British security forces were killed. .
The end of Konfrontasi led to the formation of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 1967. ASEAN would prove useful in reconciling relations between three of its five pioneer members, namely Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines. ASEAN has since expanded to include all Southeast Asian states except Timor-Leste, and has performed well in addressing regional economic and security issues. Indonesia, the Philippines and Malaysia have renewed their relations and are now close partners in upholding ASEAN’s spirit of collaboration.
In June 2017, Malaysia, Indonesia and the Philippines launched the Trilateral Maritime Patrol (TMP), which enabled them to conduct joint sea and air patrols in the Sulu Sea region to combat kidnappings and sea flights. Trilateral patrols also involve information sharing, coordinated communications and the right of hot pursuit in each other’s sea areas. This came after the tri-state launched the Strait of Malacca Maritime Patrol in 2004, with the goal of securing the Strait of Malacca. It then broadened its scope and evolved into the Straits of Malacca Patrol (MSP), with Thailand officially joining in 2008.
Sir Basil Henry Liddell Hart (1895-1970), the famous military strategist who wrote the famous book “Strategy” (first edition in 1941; second revised edition in 1954), asserted that “the object of war is a better state of peace. “From this perspective, the Konfrontasi was not fought in vain. It served as a catalyst for the peaceful, prosperous and cohesive Southeast Asia that is so easy to take for granted today.