Indonesia is one of Malaysia’s closest neighbours today, with mutually beneficial relationships forged between the two countries. However, this was not always the case. At one point in our history, we were at each other’s throats.
From Jan 20, 1963 to Aug 11, 1966, Malaysia and Indonesia were embroiled in an undeclared war, better known as the Confrontation, which mostly took place in the frontier regions of Sabah and Sarawak.
The fighting was on a small scale but the death toll was still high, with about 700 killed.
But why the bloodshed? What led to this series of unfortunate events between the two countries?
When Malaysia was first formed in 1963, opposition emerged from the Philippines and Indonesia.
Indonesia, which was led by President Sukarno at the time, was something of a powerhouse in Southeast Asia, having thrown off the yoke of Dutch colonialism during the Indonesian War of Independence. It demanded that the Dutch also cede control of Western New Guinea, now known as Papua.
The Dutch, under international pressure, agreed to this in 1962.
However, the Indonesian government was suspicious that the formation of Malaysia was a neo-colonial ploy to maintain British power in Southeast Asia.
Some people have suggested that the existence of Malaysia was a spanner in the works for Sukarno, who had ambitions of uniting Malaya and Borneo under Indonesian rule.
Hence, on Jan 20, 1963, the Indonesian government published a declaration of Confrontation which denounced the formation of Malaysia.
Thankfully, unlike bloodier proxy wars such as the Korean War and the Vietnam War, the Confrontation did not feature invasions by full-scale armies.
Instead, small-scale conflicts were largely triggered by squads of Indonesian special forces slipping past the borders from Kalimantan into Sabah and Sarawak.
There were also occasions when Indonesian troops crossed the Straits of Melaka to conduct operations in West Malaysia.
The first recorded infiltration and attack took place on April 12, 1963, when a police station in the Malaysian border town of Tebedu was attacked and captured by Indonesian soldiers. Then, infiltrators made their way to other parts of Borneo.
For the average civilian, these incidents were sudden and stressful affairs.
Cecelia Polo, 66, was only eight when the conflict took place in Kalabakan, Tawau.
“It was Dec 29, 1963. That night, we were celebrating my father’s birthday when suddenly, the lights went off, a siren blared and sandflies were all over us,” she told FMT.
“But they were not sandflies, they were bullets! So, we laid down on the floor to take cover. The next morning, we went out and we saw dead men in front of our house. And we saw armies, Gurkha battalions, marching everywhere.”
According to Polo, the soldiers told her family to dig a hole under the house, stock up on food and hide inside the hole if there were any more fights.
Her sister, Erlinda, 70, meanwhile, thought the loud explosions were early new year celebrations.
“Friends that were present peeped through the window and saw that the rapid “fireworks” were actually machine guns!”
She also shared her opinion as to why Kalabakan was the point of attack.
“They wanted to capture the resident general manager of the Bombay Burma Trading Company, which was run by the British at the time. They wanted him and his wife for ransom and as a bargaining factor.
“Fortunately, they were not in their residence as they were out at the monthly show at the club.”
Come morning, the manager did his rounds and told people to stay home as there would be curfews to avoid more casualties. He, too, advised them to dig a hole underneath their houses to hide.
And they did. Erlinda said they had to spend long hours in the holes, even chasing away frogs that decided to share their hideouts, especially when it rained.
“There were many casualties of the Malaysian army. Food was rationed and it was pitch dark during the nights. My father, being a driver, had to drive the army into the jungles to search for insurgents – dead or alive,” said Erlinda.
Another civilian, James Escobia, 60 who grew up in Kalabakan, Tawau, was only five years old when the Confrontation happened.
“A few days before the Confrontation, my father told us that there was an intelligence report saying Indonesian soldiers had infiltrated Kalabakan,” said Escobia, who added that his father was employed with North Borneo Timber (NBT) at the time.
On the night of the attack, his father had returned to his office around 6pm to send his latest report to NBT and inform them that everything was peaceful in Kalabakan Camp.
He was very wrong. Within an hour after he reached home, the attack started at the police station.
“The attack was timed exactly during the Muslim prayer time when the policemen were praying. My dad believed that even when he was communicating with NBT, the infiltrators had been nearby,” said Escobia.
Gunfire erupted throughout the night, not directed at local civilians, but at the police station and the British army camp.
“The next day, nobody was allowed to leave their houses. We heard that a few policemen were killed.
“In the days that followed, all encounters with the infiltrators happened outside the camp, and the army even requested Filipino truck drivers to drive and guide them in the jungles.”
Indonesian employees, on the other hand, were advised to stay at home – perhaps because the infiltrators were Indonesians.
While Malaysia was a fledgling nation back then, it was still a member of the Commonwealth, which proved to be a boon to its security.
Troops from the British, New Zealand and Australian armies, as well as Gurkha troops, were sent to defend the country, and these soldiers would fight alongside newly-founded Malaysian regiments.
In addition to small-scale attacks, the Indonesian authorities hoped to stir up ethnic tension in Malaysia, by sowing division and distrust among the many ethnic groups living in Borneo.
The attacks did not go only one way, however. When a concentration of Indonesian troops was detected near Kuching, the British decided to launch Operation Claret to harass them.
They laid ambushes near the border and pursued any Indonesian forces across the border, forcing the Indonesians to go on the defensive there.
But how did it all finally end?
The fall of Sukarno proved to be instrumental in ending the pointless fighting, with the man being replaced by Suharto in 1966.
Suharto was not interested in continuing his predecessor’s policies, and peace negotiations began in May 1966 and finally ended with a ratified agreement on Aug 11, 1966, three years after the formation of Malaysia.
Since then, relations between Malaysia and Indonesia have normalised and it is common for many people in east Malaysia as well as the peninsula to have relatives from both sides of the border.
Peace, after all, is something that citizens of both nations would benefit from.