Australian involvement in South-East Asian Conflicts:
The Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) and the Indonesian Confrontation (1963-1966)
represent significant turning points in both Australian military history and the history of Australia’s international relations. An understanding of these conflicts also helps explain why Australia became involved in the Vietnam War (1962-1972).
The Malayan Emergency and Indonesian Confrontation were disputes over the fate of former British colonial possessions in South-East Asia. They were end-of-empire conflicts, and they were the last occasions
in which Australians fought alongside other Commonwealth forces in what was basically a British cause. At the same time, however, the Emergency and the Confrontation represented increasing Australian involvement in developments in South-East Asia, and therefore
suggested the emergence of a foreign policy that would be ideologically pro-Western, but no longer oriented towards Europe.
The Malayan Emergency
The Malayan Emergency was a conflict between communist guerrillas and British Commonwealth forces including Australians.
The guerrillas, most of whom were Malayan Chinese, were seeking to overthrow the British colonial administration in Malaya. The term ‘Emergency’ is used to describe the conflict because on 18 June 1948 the British declared a State of Emergency
in Malaya after guerrillas assassinated three European plantation managers in the northern state of Perak.
The Malayan Emergency arose from political and ideological uncertainty in Asia following the Second World War, and from a long-standing antipathy between the British and the Malayan Chinese. Moreover, when the British resumed control after
the war, the new administration failed to act firmly or consistently to solve social and economic problems in Malaya. The administration’s initial response to escalating violence on the part of the communists was also indecisive. more…
Confrontation or Konfrontasi was a conflict between Indonesia and Malaysia that took place mainly on the island of Borneo. British and Commonwealth forces, including Australians, supported
Malaysia. At stake was the future of the former British possessions, Sabah and Sarawak, which bordered Indonesia’s provinces on Borneo.
Malaya gained official independence from the British in 1957. The Malayan Prime Minister Tunkul Abdul Rahman and the British wanted North Borneo to join Malaya in a New Federation of Malaysia, which was to come
into being in 1963. Indonesian President Sukarno, however, not only opposed the idea of a greater Malaysia, but also aimed to incorporate North Borneo into Indonesia – as had recently occurred in the case of the former Dutch colonies in western New Guinea.
The Confrontation was set in motion in December 1962 by an attempted coup d’état
in the tiny pro-British sultanate of Brunei in north Borneo. more…