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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation.

When did this conflict occur?

12th April, 1963^ – 11th August, 1966*

^ – Though the opening act of armed hostilities in the Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation is often considered to be the Indonesian attack on a Malaysian police outpost in the border town of Tebedu, British forces had been actively involved in the region since the Brunei Revolt in December of 1962. [1]

* – The official ending of the Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation was marked by the signature of an August 1966 treaty normalising diplomatic relations between Malaysia and Indonesia; however, Indonesian military infiltration operations had largely halted following the resignation of President Sukarno in March of 1966. [2]

What is the background to this conflict?

Following the failure of the North Kalimantan National Army (TNKU) attempted revolt in Brunei in December of 1962, Indonesian President Sukarno elected an increasingly aggressive  military effort to prevent the creation of the Federation of Malaysia. Organising groups of ‘volunteers’ led, equipped, and trained by Indonesian servicemembers, these irregular formations began crossing into Sarawak, Sabah, and Tawal in the North Borneo border region. [3] There, they launched limited raids against villages and isolated police outposts, targeting both British and Malaysian personnel in addition to local civilians who remained loyal to the national government.  Larger Indonesian columns followed, establishing forward bases in the jungle to facilitate subsequent operations and sustain infiltration forces actively engaged with British and Malaysian security forces. Though British servicemembers initially struggled to defend a porous border zone made up of more than one-thousand miles of jungle, evolutions in British counterinsurgency doctrine in addition to the arrival of Major-General Walter Walker from Malaya allowed government troops to gradually turn the tide. [4] When combined with an expansive civil affairs program, in which British patrols lived within local communities and conducted medical as well as agricultural projects, Indonesian infiltrators were deprived of the local support needed to sustain the insurgency. Simultaneously, political developments in Indonesia undermined President Sukarno’s efforts: on the 1st of October, 1965, members of Thirtieth of September Movement or G30S, a self-proclaimed organisation of Indonesian military personnel, launched a coup attempt in which six members of the Army General Staff were murdered. [5] Though the origins of the failed coup have never been uncovered, subsequent Indonesian inquiries assigned responsibility to the Communist Party of Indonesia, the PKI. President Sukarno, alleged to have had deep ties to the PKI, was discredited and relinquished power to General Suharto. This change in political leadership signalled the end of the Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation, a shift further reinforced by the signature of a peace agreement between both states in August of 1966.

What role did British military forces play?

The British military force in the Federation of Malaysia initially centred around five infantry battalions, with previous experience operating in neighbouring Brunei during the Indonesian-backed North Kalimantan National Army’s failed uprising in December of 1962. Under the command of Major-General Walter Walker, a veteran of the Second World War and Malayan Emergency with extensive operational experience in Southeast Asia, British forces established a rigorous jungle warfare training program for all servicemembers arriving in Malaysia. [6] The use of small patrols in conjunction with the extensive use of medical and agricultural development projects in support of the local populace, was stressed as British forces worked to win the hearts and minds of the Malaysian populace. Simultaneously, however, British forces also embarked upon special reconnaissance and direct action operations targeting vulnerable Indonesian rear areas; in July of 1964, the British government gave approval for Operation Claret, permitting cross-border incursions to a depth of 10000 yards in the Indonesian province of Kalimantan. [7] These operations, only revealed to the British public in 1974, were aimed solely at thwarting offensive action by the Indonesian military remained the exclusive purview of experienced Australian, New Zealand, and British troops drawn from the infantry and special operations forces. By 1965, the British military effort in the Federation of Malaysia had expanded to 13 infantry battalions, attached combat support arms, and a rotating squadron from the 22nd Special Air Service. [8] The combined force succeeded in largely stemming the flow of Indonesian infiltrations into North Borneo, setting the conditions for a political resolution through the August 1966 peace agreement between Indonesia and Malaysia. 

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

No, a total number of civilian deaths due to British military action cannot be determined. In contrast, a confirmed total of 179 British military personnel died in the conflict. [9]

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

Noncombatant fatalities during the Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation remained incredibly limited: over the span of three years, 36 civilians, most of them local Malaysians, were killed with an additional 53 wounded. [10] The overwhelming majority of these deaths stemmed from operations conducted by the Clandestine Communist Organisation, an underground militant group composed of 2000 core members and an additional fringe element of 4000 operating in the Malaysian state of Sarawak. [11] The reduced number of civilian fatalities stemming from British military action were the result of both Malaysian geography as well as government counterinsurgency doctrine. 

Much of the fighting in the Malaysia-Indonesia Confrontation occurred between small patrols on isolated jungle tracks and rivers, far from populated villages. This trend is visible in the fact that security forces comprised a disproportionate number of ‘contacts’, clashes between insurgents and security forces or civilians in which small arms are discharged or overt acts of coercion take place, with Indonesian infiltrators and local sympathisers. [12] Civilian engagements with insurgent forces peaked in 1963, where 39% of all contacts occurred between noncombatants and guerrilla troops, but steadily decreased throughout the remaining three years and reached 0% by the end of 1966. [13] In other words, by the end of the Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation, security forces had succeeded in effectively isolating insurgent elements from the local civilians.

Additionally, British counterinsurgency doctrine in the Malaysia-Indonesia confrontation centred on the preservation of legitimacy, with Major-General Walter Walker explaining, “it was indelibly inscribed on our minds that one civilian killed by us would do more harm than ten killed by the enemy”. [14] The use of aerial or land-based bombardments was heavily restricted and village protection systems, which included alarm systems and civilian defence plans, were put in place. Offensive cross-border raids under Operation Claret were subject to similar regulations, and the Direct of Borneo Operations issued guidance preventing patrols from targeting longhouses and populated kampongs, even when occupied by Indonesian troops. [15]

Endnotes:

[1] Pocock, Tom Fighting General – The Public and Private Campaigns of General Sir Walter Walker (London: Collins, 1973): 152.

[2] Konfrontasi (Confrontation Ends), National Library Board, 2022, https://eresources.nlb.gov.sg/history/events/f950e04d-44d7-47ad-a10c-16dfb0cc9ce3

[3] Indonesian Confrontation, National Army Museum, 2017, https://www.nam.ac.uk/explore/indonesian-confrontation

[4] Walker, Walter, “How Borneo was won”, The Round Table 59, no. 233 (1969): 79. doi: 10.1080/00358536908452781

[5] Van Der Kroef, J. M., “Origins of the 1965 Coup in Indonesia: Probabilities and Alternatives,” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 3, no. 2 (1972): 277–98. http://www.jstor.org/stable/20069990.

[6] Van der Bijl, Nick. Confrontation : The War With Indonesia, 1962-1966 (Barnsley: Pen & Sword, 2014): 124.

[7] Tuck, Christopher, “‘Winning While Losing’: Borneo Headquarters and the End of Confrontation, June–November 1966,” War in History 24, no. 1 (2017): 87–109. https://www.jstor.org/stable/26059806.

[8] Van der Bijl, Confrontation, 502.

[9] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972075/20210325_UK_armed_forces_Operational_deaths_post_World_War_II-O.pdf

[10] Paret, Peter. Makers of Modern Strategy from Machiavelli to the Nuclear Age (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1986): 806.

[11] Kroef, Justus M. van der. “Communism in Sarawak Today.” Asian Survey 6, no. 10 (1966): 568–79. https://doi.org/10.2307/2642112.

[12] Hall, Bob and Andrew Ross, “The political and military effectiveness of Commonwealth forces in Confrontation 1963–66,” Small Wars & Insurgencies 19, no. 2 (2008): 239. doi: 10.1080/09592310802061380

[13] Hall and Ross, “The political and military effectiveness of Commonwealth forces in Confrontation 1963–66,” 247.

[14] Walker, How Borneo was won, 81. 

[15] Smith, E. D., “The Borneo Rebellion & Indonesian Military Confrontation Against Malaysia,” RAF Historical Society no. 13 (1994): 23.