This potted history demonstrates the complexity of records attempting to define historical events as they occur. Throughout its history, Indonesia's relations with Australia have demonstrated a number of overlapping themes, the nature of which complicates any simple chronological rendition in one short guide. When individual elements and time periods frequently overlap, it is easier to deal with each theme separately.
A timeline of significant events in Australian-Indonesian relations can be found in Appendix 4.
Image 1: Map of Indonesia, 1953.
NAA: A1838, 3004/7
Sukarno and Hatta unilaterally declared Indonesian independence on 17 August 1945 just two days after the formal surrender of Japan ended World War II.1 Although Indonesian independence had been the intent of the defeated Japanese, it came as a surprise not only to the former colonial masters of the Netherlands East Indies, but also to the Australian Government, whose recognition of Indonesian aspirations was some time in coming. It was, moreover, a surprise to many 'Indonesians' who did not think in terms of reclaiming their country from the former colonial masters. For them the very concept of an independent homeland was as novel as the word 'Indonesia'.2
At the time of the declaration, Australian troops were scattered throughout Indonesian territory. Some were in formed units, while others were in small groups or in prisoner-of-war camps. The finding and repatriation of these troops was a pressing task which was complicated by the fact that the territory of the newly proclaimed Republik Indonesia Serikat (United Indonesian Republic) was not effectively controlled by any one group at that time.
Following the Japanese surrender, the Allies moved quickly to reclaim lost territory. The British wanted Malaya, Singapore and Borneo back, and the Dutch had no intention of surrendering their former colony of the Netherlands East Indies to any upstart nationalist rebels. Along with the British and the Australians, the Dutch began to send troops in to detain the surrendering Japanese, to restore law and order, and to reclaim their former colonies in South-East Asia.
In Indonesia the simultaneous unfolding of these three major events, the Japanese surrender, the return of Dutch colonial power and the call for independence, created much confusion. To complicate the situation further, some Indonesians on the outer islands opposed the declaration of independence. They saw it as an attempt by the Javanese-dominated central government to impose its will on non-Javanese peoples. Before too much longer, Indonesian nationalists were fighting to win more territory, with varying degrees of resistance, from other Indonesians. All these elements combined to create a period of great instability. The end of World War II proved to be anything but peaceful for Indonesia and many observers doubted that the new nation would survive.
Although Australia strongly supported the aspirations of Indonesian nationalists, and encouraged the Dutch to accept the possibility of Indonesian independence, it did not recognise the de facto authority of the Republic until 9 July 1947. Even then, this recognition applied only to territory the Republic physically controlled (principally Sumatra, Java and Madura). The rest of the region remained under Dutch colonial rule.
Nevertheless, Australia had thrown a lifebelt to one of the first new nations to emerge from the flotsam and jetsam of the colonial empires that sank in World War II. Soon after this, the Dutch, claiming violations of the Linggadjati Agreement (brokered in 1946 by the British between the Netherlands and the Indonesians), launched the first of their so-called 'police actions' to recapture Indonesian-held territory. Australia responded by referring the matter to the United Nations Security Council, making history by presenting the first case to be referred for resolution. Coincidentally, the Indonesians found a friend in court, for the leader of the Australian delegation to the United Nations Assembly was Herbert Vere Evatt. A former Attorney-General and Minister for External Affairs in the 1941 Labor Government, Evatt was a strong supporter of the rights of small nations.
United Nations-sponsored peace negotiations led to the formation of the Committee of Good Offices comprising Australia (chosen by Indonesia), Belgium (chosen by the Netherlands) and the United States (chosen by both sides). Protracted negotiations ensued leading to the eventual signing of the Renville Agreement early in 1948, supposedly transferring sovereignty of Sumatra, Java and Madura to the Indonesians.3
Despite this, the Dutch economic blockade of the Indonesian Archipelago continued in direct violation of the agreement. In 1948 the Dutch launched their second 'police action' in an attempt to capture all territory held by the Indonesian nationalists. Further negotiations followed and on 27 December 1949 the Dutch, realising they had lost international support, agreed to the transfer of all their former colony (except Netherlands New Guinea) to the independent United States of Indonesia. The future of Netherlands New Guinea was to be negotiated at a later date. The fate of Portuguese-ruled East Timor would not be determined until 1975.
On 14 August 1950, the Indonesian Legislature adopted a provisional constitution that defined the nation's political system as a parliamentary democracy. This led to the establishment of a unicameral House of Representatives, whose membership was elected directly by the people.
Once the question of sovereignty was settled, relations between Australia and Indonesia blossomed, with the appointment of ambassadors and a range of cultural and exchange visits. Australia wanted its largest and nearest Asian neighbour to think well of it and its people. However, Australia's views were those of a conservative and relatively wealthy Western nation, and they did not sit easily with a vibrant young country newly emerged from a turbulent revolution. In ideological, cultural and geographical terms the two countries were almost opposites and this was to create misunderstanding on both sides.
Image 2: Prime Minister Menzies inspecting his guard of honour at Kemajoran Airport, 1959.
NAA: AA1972/341, 322
Dissatisfied with the division of power in 1957 and Sukarno's open flirtation with the communists, the outer islands of the Indonesian Archipelago decided to act. In 1958 the Sumatrans under Colonel Simbolon declared their formal opposition to Sukarno's policies by forming the Pemerintah Revolusionir Republik Indonesia (Revolutionary Government of the Republic of Indonesia, PRRI). The Sumatran action was quickly followed by revolt in the Celebes (modern-day Sulawesi), and suddenly the government on Java was feeling vulnerable, for without Sumatra and Sulawesi there would be no Indonesian Republic.
At first it seemed that Sukarno was incapable of acting, for the rebel challenge remained unanswered. Eventually, in mid-1958, after much posturing by both sides, the central government despatched military forces to deal with the threat. Despite Western observers' contempt for the military ability of these forces, the rebels on Sumatra and Sulawesi posed no real threat and they collapsed without any serious battles being fought. By 1960 the central government had restored its authority, albeit in a limited sense, across Indonesia.
Australia was faced with a dilemma. It was unhappy with Sukarno's policies, the erosion of constitutional democracy and the rise of the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI). However, recognition of, or even support for, the Revolutionary Government was fraught with danger for it could well have played into the hands of the communists and encouraged Sukarno's anti-Western rhetoric. Australia trod warily, careful to nurture the constitutional validity of the central government, but at the same time cautious of Sukarno's wayward mood and the ability of the PKI to use the situation to its own advantage.
Moreover the PRRI rebellion and its consequences soured Indonesia's relations with the United States (US). Believing that the United States had supplied the rebels with arms, Sukarno then rejected a US proposal that marines be landed in Sumatra to protect American lives and property. Consequently Sukarno began to cultivate closer relations with the United Soviet Socialist Republic and the People's Republic of China.
The winners in the defeat of the PRRI were Sukarno, the PKI and the Army. The losers were parliamentary democracy, the people of the outer islands and the political parties that had procrastinated over how to deal with the rebels. Ever the opportunist, Sukarno capitalised on his new position. His problem now was playing his arch rivals, the communists and the Army, off against each other to maintain his pre-eminent position.
In 1954 the Australian Department of External Affairs assessed the Indonesian Parliament as being incapable of dealing authoritatively 'with the grave political and economic problems arising from eight years of military occupation, war and revolution'.4 The same assessment went on to describe Sukarno's pivotal role in Indonesian politics:
President Sukarno occupies a key position. As the father of the revolution, his prestige is firmly established and with the frustration and disillusionment which have resulted from the wranglings and manoeuvres of coalition governments, his importance as controller of the balance of power has increased as the reputations of others have declined. He has a remarkable understanding of the public relations technique required of a national figure and he has successfully kept Vice-President Hatta in the background.5
By 1957 Sukarno had become increasingly annoyed with the restrictions placed on his power by the Parliament, an annoyance compounded by interminable parliamentary debates and lack of any progress on important national issues. Early that year he announced the idea of 'guided democracy', which would cut through the irrelevant Western liberal democratic debate and reach proper decisions under the guidance of an enlightened leader, namely Sukarno. His concept was modelled on that of the Indonesian village: after prolonged deliberation by village elders, the villagers would reach consensus. Although practical at the village level, it did not translate easily into running a nation deeply divided by ethnic, regional, class and religious differences.
Sukarno created a national council which, apart from members of the political parties, comprised representatives from functional groups such as religious and workers' organisations and the military. Under Sukarno's personal guidance, this national council would come to national consensus on various matters. This innovation allowed Sukarno to bypass the political parties and, more importantly, it promoted the interests of the functional groups, particularly the military, who were soon deeply involved in managing the nationalised Dutch estates.
The creation of the national council ushered in a series of crises, including the resignation of the government, the formation of a revolutionary government in Sumatra and the seizing of Dutch assets as part of the campaign to recover 'Irian Barat'(the PKI term for Netherlands New Guinea). Despite these setbacks Sukarno pressed on with his concept of guided democracy. After he was thwarted by the Constituent Assembly, which was elected in 1955 to draft the permanent constitution, he simply brought down the policy of guided democracy by presidential decree on 5 July 1959.6
Vindicated in his quest for national power, Sukarno ruled as a President should, with grand imperious gestures that appealed to the Indonesian public and to nationalist ideals but with scant regard for the public purse. The nationalisation of Dutch assets fed his profligacy and Indonesia was soon on the steep and slippery slope to financial ruin.
Image 3: Dr Sukarno receives Prime Minister Menzies at the Istana Negara, 1959.
NAA: AA1972/341, 322
The election of Robert Menzies as Prime Minister of Australia in 1949 saw a sharp change in the way Australia dealt with Indonesia.7 The newly elected conservative government held pro-Dutch views and was strongly opposed to Indonesia's claim to Netherlands New Guinea. The Government also had real concerns that Indonesia might one day become communist, and Sukarno's continued dalliance with the Partai Komunis Indonesia (PKI) did nothing to allay these concerns.
As Sukarno turned to bizarre forms of mass appeal, and as he lost the confidence of conservative voters, he turned to the PKI to balance the influence of the military and the Muslims. Initially the military tolerated this situation, but as the PKI grew in strength and numbers, it began to feel threatened and started planning to combat this new menace. By balancing one force against another, Sukarno managed to keep himself at the epicentre of power, with each group depending on his patronage for its place on the podium of public affairs.
From an Indonesian perspective it could be said that Sukarno's drift to the Left was merely redressing the balance for the PKI by allowing it the full privileges enjoyed by other political parties. From a Western perspective, derived essentially from an American view of communism, this leftward drift was a major concern and for some a fixation.
The PKI was formed in 1924 and had been closely involved with the revolutionary spirit of the Republic.8 Since its early days its members had remained in close touch with Sukarno and the other leaders. But they were not trusted, and with good reason. Although it had often shared the stage of power in Indonesia, the PKI was never quite ready to play the lead role. Its strategic timing for going on the offensive was inept. For example, during the Madiun uprising in 1948, the PKI chose to rebel against the Sukarno Government. A final settlement with the Dutch had not yet been reached and the actions of the PKI were seen as both traitorous and an attempt to seize power while the central government was under great pressure. In short, it was seen as almost anti-Indonesian. The communist revolt was quickly quashed, but the PKI would not remain quiescent, for its power base was widespread and growing as the Indonesian economy declined. Unwittingly Sukarno's profligate ways were aiding the growth of his most dangerous enemy.
Madiun did not kill the PKI off and by the time of the PRRI rebellion in the late 1950s it was back in Sukarno's court and exercising great influence in most areas of government. With Sukarno as powerbroker, the PKI, along with the Indonesian Army, helped to form a triumvirate of power.
Although the Army won kudos with the defeat of the PRRI forces, the PKI continued to grow in strength and stature. By the early 1960s it was pushing Sukarno hard for its policies to be accepted. In 1960 Sukarno coined a new phrase Nasakom, an acronym for nasionalisme, agama, komunisme (nationalism, religion, communism), thus sanctioning the PKI's role in government policy-making. 'Nasakomisation' of government enterprises was strongly promoted by the PKI.
Australia and other Western nations were greatly concerned by the widespread influence of the PKI. So powerful was that influence that one commentator noted that 'it was difficult to tell whether Sukarno or the communist leadership was setting the pace of the Indonesian Revolution'.9
Far more political than military, Sukarno's victory over Netherlands New Guinea augured well for the PKI, which had been strident in its support for the venture while the Army's response had been lukewarm. The PKI became the centre of attention, and was soon to be given a golden opportunity to shine even more brightly during the Konfrontasi(Confrontation).
Contrary to Western wishes, Sukarno attempted to bolster the Indonesian economy with nationalised property, seized first from the Dutch and then from the British. Attempts were later made to seize American and other international property. However, the seizing of foreign-owned assets failed to prop up Indonesia's failing economy, and as the economic climate worsened the political fortunes of the PKI grew. So too did Sukarno's irrational behaviour.
By the early 1960s inflation in Indonesia was rampant. The cost-of-living index had increased from 100 in 1958 to 18 000 by 1965, and was to rise to an astronomical 600 000 by 1967.10 Despite this, Sukarno seemed oblivious to the economic plight of his country.
Needing an external trigger to distract his compatriots from the reality of Indonesia's economic debacle, he found a purpose-built one in Netherlands New Guinea, whose fate had been left to a future mandate in the post-World War II agreement with the Dutch. Indonesia had never renounced its irredentist claims to the territory, and for Sukarno the time was now ripe to press them home. With presidential backing the PKI and other leftist elements began a virulent propaganda campaign to seize Irian Barat.
Indonesian aspirations for Irian Barat struck a chord of fear within Australia, because it suggested to the Australians that Indonesia wanted the remainder of the island, ie Papua and New Guinea. Suddenly Australia had to focus on sharing a common land border with Indonesia. So concerned was the Joint Parliamentary Committee on Foreign Affairs about this prospect that it prepared a special report on West New Guinea. The committee found it was important that Indonesia did not gain possession of West Irian for the following reasons:
During the 1950s Australia lobbied hard for the Dutch to retain Netherlands New Guinea. Australian newspapers reported that the common land border with Indonesia was a new threat to Australia's security. Moreover, Australians were becoming worried about Sukarno and his bombastic threats, and were concerned at how easily the protective 'moat' to the north had been circumvented. For some Australians, Asia was coming too close to home.
By 1962 Australia had accepted that Indonesia would claim only territory previously part of the former Dutch East Indies, and earlier fears of aggrandisement by the Indonesians evaporated.12 Furthermore, the United States and Britain now opposed the continuation of Dutch colonial rule in South-East Asia,13 and Australia followed their lead.
The former Dutch colony was placed under United Nations administration in 1962 and transferred to Indonesian control a year later with the proviso that a UN-sponsored plebiscite be held to determine the colony's future. The plebiscite was conducted in 1969 and Irian Barat (later Irian Jaya) became Indonesia's seventeenth province. The Indonesian song Dari Sabang ke Merauke became a victory anthem.14
Sukarno's view of the world was growing increasingly simplistic: he saw it as comprising two disparate forces, the newly emerging nations (nefos), of which Indonesia was the champion, and the older established Western nations (oldefos), which bore his unrelenting hostility. He believed passionately in Indonesia's place in the world and was prepared to promote it at any cost, even if that involved sacrificing its economic security.15 Attempting to invigorate his people's nationalism, he sought simple themes and symbols. Irian Barat had provided one, and now he was to be given another on a plate: Malaysia.
Britain, for economic reasons, wanted to withdraw its forces from South-East Asia. To this end, it sought to end its rule of Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak without compromising the political stability of these colonies. Their union with the already independent Malaya seemed to meet this requirement, even though it was in some ways a marriage of convenience.
Sukarno, strongly supported by the PKI, saw the union of the colonies and Malaya as 'an imperialist plot of encirclement', and he vowed to 'crush' Malaysia. This was the beginning of Konfrontasi, first announced on 20 January 1963. Konfrontasi involved a long campaign of low-level armed raids across the border, at first by so-called paramilitary 'volunteers' and later by regular Indonesian troops.
British plans for the new federation were not thwarted by Sukarno's threat and on 16 September 1963 the Federation of Malaysia was formed. Konfrontasi posed a dilemma for Australian policy-makers because although supporting the creation of Malaysia, Australia did not want to antagonise Indonesia.16
Australian military units had been stationed in Malaya during the 1950s to assist the British in suppressing a communist insurrection (the 'Emergency'). After the creation of Malaysia, the British, who had controlled all operations during the Emergency, immediately pressured Australia to provide more troops to deal with the Indonesian threat. British forces in the region were thinly spread and the threat from Indonesia meant that additional troops were needed. This was one element in Australia's decision to reintroduce National Service in 1965.
In January 1965, two years after Konfrontasi was launched, Indonesia formally withdrew from the United Nations in protest after Malaysia was elected to the Security Council. By now Sukarno had declared himself the oracle and champion of the emerging nefos which were battling the neo-colonialists of the West, the oldefos which had created Malaysia.
Konfrontasi continued until accords to end the conflict were formally signed on 11 August 1966.17 It had been the most serious threat to Australian–Indonesian relations since Indonesia's independence. At its height Australian forces in Sarawak were deployed across the border into Indonesian territory to ambush Indonesian patrols moving towards the border. Operation CLARET successfully destroyed a number of Indonesian patrols and prevented others from crossing the border into Malaysia.18 While Australians fought Indonesian forces along the border, diplomacy continued in Jakarta.
By 1965 Indonesia was rife with social, religious and political antagonisms. Rapid growth of the PKI had angered military and Islamic groups, and led ultimately to an event that continues to shape the direction and nature of politics in modern Indonesia.
Although the circumstances surrounding its beginnings are still disputed, the attempted coup d'état on the evening of 30 September 1965 is second in importance only to Indonesia's declaration of independence.
It is generally accepted that pro-communist military officers (calling themselves the Gerakan September Tiga Puluh, the 30 September Movement, or Gestapu) kidnapped six Army generals and murdered them. After capturing the Indonesian State Radio the following morning, the officers declared the creation of a revolutionary council. They claimed that the murdered generals had been in the pay of the United States Central Intelligence Agency and had been planning an uprising against President Sukarno.
Although Indonesia was under intense scrutiny by observers from many countries, including Australia, it seems that the actual timing and conduct of the coup came as a complete surprise to all but the perpetrators. For months rumours had been circulating that the Army would mount a pre-emptive strike to wound the PKI fatally, while other rumours suggested that the PKI would strike first. Both groups saw the need for action. Sukarno was evidently ill and some thought that he would soon die. With Sukarno gone, a messy transition period would follow, and both sides preferred to be in an unbeatable position before he left the stage.
In the immediate aftermath of the coup, relations between Australia and Indonesia remained strained, for it was not clear whether there would be any changes in Sukarno's policy of Konfrontasi. This situation dragged on for some months with delicate manoeuvring between the Army (now increasingly under the firm leadership of Major General Suharto) and Sukarno and his supporters. Sukarno, although implicated in the abortive coup, was never formally charged; his role and extensive web of personal support remained intact. By nature Sukarno was a survivor and his opponents were reluctant to move against him at this stage.
The PKI and its supporters were not so fortunate. Immediate and harsh reprisals including summary execution, torture and detention were the order of the day. Many thousands were murdered and many more detained. In the bloodshed that followed, the military were determined to stamp out the menace of communism, and many other groups jumped on the bandwagon to settle old scores. Estimates of people killed, both ethnic Chinese and others, vary between 78 000 and 2 million, but the slaughter has never been properly documented, and so widespread were the killings that it probably never will be.
Leading PKI figures and military officers involved in the coup were brought to trial before a special military tribunal, with many of the accused receiving death sentences. Others were sentenced to lengthy terms in special prison camps on remote islands, purposely located well away from any chance contact with their families or former colleagues.
Sukarno was in decline and his days as President were numbered. He was suffering from serious kidney disease and other ailments. Demands for the end to 'Sukarnoism' saw him delegate wide-ranging powers to Suharto19 on 11 March 1966, who was at first installed as Acting President and then made President in March 1968. Sukarno's era ended in disgrace and he remained under house arrest until his death on 21 June 1970. The New Order Government did not want to know of him nor did it want him to be known. It proscribed the cult of Sukarnoism until the late 1970s, for it was seen as leftist and a threat to the New Order, an order that was rabidly anti-communist.
The conservative Australian Government, still very much under Menzies' influence, felt much more at home with the views of the New Order. A sea change had occurred that ushered in a new era of closer cooperation with Indonesia. A modern Western nation now extended a hand to a newly conservative Asian nation, but the underlying differences, still much the same as in 1945, remained.
1 The Japanese message accepting the terms of surrender was dated 14 August 1945. (See NAA: A1066, P45/10/1/3 part 2, 'Draft Act of Surrender, 10 August 1945, 2 September 1945'.) However, Emperor Hirohito did not broadcast his decision to his people until the following day. (See Paul Hasluck, The Government and the People 1942–1945, Griffin Press, Adelaide, 1970, p. 595.)
2 R Woldendorp, A H Johns and Y Johns, Indonesia, Nelson, Australia, 1972, p. 14. The word was popularised by the Swiss philologist Brandstetter late in the nineteenth century, and was coined from the Greek Indos (Indian) and nesos (island).
4 NAA: A4968, 25/9/1TS, 'Indonesia'
5 NAA: A4968, 25/9/1TS.
7 See J A C Mackie's 'Australia and Indonesia 1945–1960' in Greenwood, Gordon, and Harper, Norman (eds), Australia in World Affairs 1956–1960, published for the Australian Institute of International Affairs, F W Cheshire, Melbourne, 1963, p. 273.
9 See James Angel's essay, 'Australia and Indonesia 1961–1970', in Greenwood, Gordon, and Harper, Norman (eds), Australia in World Affairs 1966–1970, published for the Australian Institute of International Affairs, Cheshire Publishing Pty Ltd, Melbourne, 1974, p. 355.
11 NAA: A1209, 1958/6066, 'Foreign Affairs Committee Report on West New Guinea'
12 Record of conversation between Sir Garfield Barwick, Minister for External Affairs, and President Sukarno. NAA: A1209, 1962/705
13 Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey, Emergency and Confrontation, Australian Military Operations in Malaya and Borneo 1950–1966, Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, Sydney, 1996, p. 173.
15 Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey, Emergency and Confrontation, Australian Military Operations in Malaya and Borneo 1950–1966, Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, Sydney, 1996 pp. 356–58 for a description of Sukarno's view of the world.
16 Peter Edwards with Gregory Pemberton, Crises and Commitments, The Politics and Diplomacy of Australia's Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1965, Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, Sydney, 1992, p. 279.
17 Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey, Emergency and Confrontation, Australian Military Operations in Malaya and Borneo 1950–1966, Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, Sydney, 1996, p. 318.
18 Full details of Operation CLARET and the operations of Australian forces during Konfrontasi are contained in Part II of Peter Dennis and Jeffrey Grey, Emergency and Confrontation, Australian Military Operations in Malaya and Borneo 1950–1966, Allen & Unwin in association with the Australian War Memorial, Sydney, 1996.