The War That Gave Birth to ASEAN

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The War That Gave Birth to ASEAN

50 years ago, two of ASEAN’s founding members fought an undeclared war in the Konfrontasi.

The War That Gave Birth to ASEAN

An Australian soldier on active duty in Borneo during the Indonesia-Malaysia Konfrontasi.

Credit: Flickr/ Steve Swayne

The recent successful conduct of the 28th and 29th ASEAN Summits at Vientiane, Laos from September 6-8, 2016 bears testament to the legacy of the peaceful settlement and reconciliation of a little known war between two of ASEAN’s founding members. Fifty years ago, the Konfrontasi officially ended when both Indonesia and Malaysia signed a peace agreement on August 11, 1966.

The Konfrontasi was an “undeclared war” fought between Malaysia and Indonesia. The conflict started when Malaysia, consisting of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak, and Singapore, was formed on September 16, 1963.  Indonesia under President Sukarno was vehemently against the formation of Malaysia, which Sukarno saw as a British strategy to contain Indonesia’s geopolitical ambitions in the region (the Philippines was also against the formation of Malaysia but apart from breaking off diplomatic relations did not resort to the use of military means). Sukarno launched a “Ganyang Malaysia” or “crush Malaysia” campaign, initially using political, economic, and propaganda means. When these actions failed, he decided to launch military attacks against Malaysia.

Indonesian military forces then conducted cross border raids in Sarawak and Sabah from Kalimantan (Indonesian Borneo) through the porous mountainous and jungle borders. This was slowly but effectively countered by Malaysian security forces, aided by a strong contingent of British Commonwealth military forces – mostly from the United Kingdom, Australia, and New Zealand. The slow results gained from the Indonesian cross border raids in Sabah and Sarawak frustrated Sukarno and prompted him in the middle of 1964 to open a second front in Peninsular Malaysia to divert the attention of the British Commonwealth and Malaysian security forces, and to boost the morale of Indonesian military forces embroiled in the fringes of Sabah and Sarawak. Indonesian commandos launched amphibious raids on the coastal areas of Johor and Singapore, and later para-commandos were also parachuted into Peninsular Malaysia to conduct subversion and sabotage attacks. All of these Indonesian commando operations were foiled and the Indonesians were mostly killed or captured by Malaysian and British Commonwealth security forces. Meanwhile, the Indonesian military forces continued to attempt cross-border attacks in Sabah and Sarawak but were continuously disrupted by track-and-ambush operations conducted by Malaysian and British Commonwealth security forces.

Indonesia had also used international propaganda to degrade Malaysia. Jakarta initially gained the trust of the Afro-Asian states, at that point an important group of mostly ex-colonial newly independent states which form a large group of members in the United Nations and Non-Aligned Movement (NAM). Malaysia countered Indonesia’s claims by conducting a whirlwind of diplomatic visits between 1964 and 1965, led by the Deputy Prime Minister of Malaysia Tun Abdul Razak and Singapore’s Chief Minister Lee Kwan Yew. The visits explained Malaysia’s formation and eventually managed to turn the tables on Indonesia and obtain recognition for the new country from almost all of these Afro-Asian states.

The Konfrontasi lasted until 1966, when Indonesia under its new leader Suharto (who had replaced Sukarno at the end of 1965 in the midst of a failed coup), and suffering serious military setbacks and without much international support for its cause, decided to explore diplomatic options in ending the conflict. Both Indonesia and Malaysia held peace talks leading to the final conclusion of the undeclared war with the signing of a peace treaty. During the Konfrontasi, Malaysian and British Commonwealth security forces lost 114 men and the Indonesian military forces lost close to 600 men.

The end of the Konfrontasi led to the formation of ASEAN in 1967. It was initially formed as a regional organization to reconcile relations among three of its five pioneer members namely Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines, and serve as an important confidence building measure. ASEAN has since expanded and included all of the Southeast Asian states. ASEAN has served remarkably well to quell regional competition and suspicions among its members, even though most of its members are still entangled in border and territorial disputes with each other. ASEAN has also done well in managing to integrate its regional economy and cooperate in natural disaster response and management. Contemporary security risks from Chinese assertive actions in the South China Sea and overlapping claims among some of the ASEAN members, however, will continue to test ASEAN’s strategic coherence and response in the future.

As for Indonesia and Malaysia, both of these states have rebuilt their relationship and today are close partners in continuing ASEAN’s collaborative spirit, ensuring that the Konfrontasi was not fought in vain 50 years ago.

Dr Adam Leong Kok Wey is a senior lecturer in strategic studies at the National Defence University of Malaysia, and a post-doctoral visiting research fellow at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford.