Australia’s secret war in Borneo

Australia’s secret role in a forgotten border conflict in Borneo was kept hidden for decades. Now veterans and their families want recognition.

These are extracts from the article by Kylie Stevenson published in The Weekend Australian Magazine December 11, 2020

3rd Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment in Sarawak, 1965. Picture: AWM

All they requested was 37.5mm x 26mm of real estate on an envelope. A tiny, sticky-backed, ­philatelic nod to their service. For Brian Selby, SA/NT president of the Australian Malaya and Borneo Veterans’ Association, the application for a stamp commemorating Australia’s involvement in the Malayan conflicts seemed a winnable battle. One that would deliver a tangible acknowledgment of the time he spent in Borneo in the 1960s, one of about 3000 Australian troops who fought in the Confrontation, or Konfrontasi.

But after months of radio silence, last month he received a rejection from Australia Post saying his application failed to “comply with stamp issue policy, which states all commemorative stamp issues must be anniversaries of 50 years or ­multiples of 50 (100, 150, 200 etc)”. Selby was ­baffled – the 50th had passed in 2016 and the next anniversary wouldn’t be until 2066. He’s 75 now. “They could change the 50-year rule overnight,” he says. “It’s a special case. We want that recognition, primarily for the 23 Australians who didn’t come home.”

When he broke the news to his association’s members via email, it ignited a battery of disappointed replies. “There must be someone in government who can override this?” Vicki Tiegs wrote to the group. She is more invested than most. She was just six months old when her father, Barry Algar, was killed while serving in Malaysia. But even she couldn’t honestly say she was surprised, or that the stamps were even the point. This was just the most recent rejection in a long history of being ignored. For ageing veterans, time is running out to resurrect a war that was never called a war; that is not so much forgotten as never known.

Konfrontasi. Such a lyrical word. It slips off the tongue and begs to be repeated. But for more than half a century, it’s hunkered down in long-­forgotten books and journals and classified documents; ­hidden in dusty photo albums and diaries tucked away in the tops of wardrobes. A conflict shrouded in political secrecy so extraordinary, officials were fed fake reports, maps were doctored to hide the truth, and the soldiers were forbidden from speaking even to one another about their missions. And they didn’t. For 30 years.

Claret, the code name of a military operation so secret that more than 50 years later, men still take care not to spill it. Claret was what my Pop had been doing: ordered to hike for days over mountains and ridges, through leech-infested swampland and secondary rain­forest seething with dangerous wildlife; to tiptoe into Indonesia up to 10,000 yards (9100m) and ambush or attack the enemy on their own turf.

The purpose of the cross-border raids was to destabilise Indonesian troops. Instead of waiting for the enemy to slip over the border and attack them, British Commonwealth Forces wanted to take the lead, beat them at their own game, shake them up. Official documents show Australian troops from 3RAR, my Pop’s battalion, participated in 32 Claret Operations in their four months in Borneo. The battalion that followed, 4RAR, whose Confrontation was fought in the midst of peace talks, is shown as having always stayed on the Malaysian side of the border.

However, Brian Avery, 4RAR Rifle Platoon Commander and author of the 2001 book Our Secret War, says he did go over the border on more than one occasion, as did many others. “The reports sent back to Canberra from battalions in Borneo were doctored,” Avery says. “So when you did a 12-day patrol like I did, two reports were written – one showed me just walking around in circles inside Sarawak (Malaysia) for 12 days, and the other one showed the full scope of my patrol, which included 11 days in Indonesia. That was the same for every patrol that went over.”

Avery says that at the time, only prime ­minister Harold Holt and his defence minister knew the truth of what was going on – visiting parliamentary delegations were fed fake maps that showed Australians sticking to the Malaysian side of the border. The secrecy even extended to their fellow troops. “The solders weren’t even allowed to ­discuss what they did with other members of the company,” he says. “So soldiers, when I interviewed them for my book after the Secrets Act had expired, said, ‘Oh, we were the only ­platoon that went over the border’. Thirty years after, they still didn’t know that everyone had gone over. It was amazing to me that, firstly, at the time they didn’t even know what the other ­platoons were doing, and secondly, they kept it to themselves for so long.” The reason for the secrecy, says Avery, was diplomacy. “It was a strange situation where you’re fighting someone when you’ve still got full diplomatic relations with them. That must be very rare.”

Avery believes history plays a part, too. At the time, the conflict was deliberately presented as Malaysia fighting to “preserve its independence against a much larger and more powerful foe, with some assistance from its British Commonwealth allies”. Any reported contacts were attributed to Malaysia or “security forces” rather than Australia, Britain or New Zealand.

Filling the empty trench of Australia’s war ­narrative between Korea and Vietnam is near impossible now, Avery says, since the real history isn’t there – it’s all cover stories and fake documents. How can you revive something that, on paper, doesn’t really exist? That only a handful of people who were actually there even know about?

All Konfrontasi veterans were subject to a 30-year gag under the British Official Secrets Act, but even since that was lifted in 1996 the conflict has rarely received a mention. “Everything – documents, history, memorials – they all skip from Korea straight into Vietnam,” Selby says. “Anzac Parade outside the Australian War ­Memorial has a tribute to every conflict Australia has fought in – it even has memorials for the dogs and horses. I don’t begrudge their recognition, but where is ours?”

While the AWM does feature a small display about the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, Anzac Parade is run by the National Capital Authority, which said in a statement that memorials were generally funded by volunteers or veterans groups and that in the instance of the Confrontation “it seems that there has not been the same impetus to create a memorial”.

Vicki Tiegs is part of a committee fundraising for an official memorial for the Malaysian conflicts. They are just $1000 away from the $60,000 needed to kickstart the project. “For 50 years ­veterans have been waiting for acknowledgment of their service,” Tiegs says. “They’re not getting any younger, and the longer this takes, the less of them will be around to know what they did was appreciated.”

As we reflected on this largely unknown war, it struck me that there were many ways war could injure a person. It’s not just death and physical injury. The burden of secrets and the gaping hole of acknowledgment – even the denial of a stamp – can be equally as painful.

For more information on fundraising for an official memorial, go here

READ the full article in The Weekend Australian Magazine December 11, 2020