How did the Ibans near Kalimantan border cope with Konfrontasi

People have been living along the border of Sabah and Sarawak, Malaysia with Kalimantan, Indonesia for centuries.

When there was a conflict such as the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation which broke out between the two countries, it was unfortunate that they found themselves caught in between.

So how did the Sarawakians near Kalimantan border cope with Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation or Konfrontasi?

On Sarawak’s side of the border, Commonwealth forces were flown in to help protect the border.

Besides this, they employed Iban and other border-dwelling Dayaks as scouts. They were a local auxiliary force, widely known as ‘Border Scouts’.

On the other side of the border, Indonesian army also employed Kalimantan Iban scouts to aid in patrolling their side of border.

Before the confrontation, the Iban communities from both side of the border had been living peacefully with each other.

Most of them had relatives across the border as intermarriages were common between different Iban longhouses, regardless of nationalities.

After they were employed by their respective countries, how did they do their work while still keeping their own relatives safe?

First of all, not all of the Ibans became scouts willingly.

According to Michael Eilenberg in the book At the Edges of States, most Kalimantan Iban had no particular interest in Indonesia-Malaysia confrontation.

However, a group of Iban from the Lanjak area were recruited by force as scouts.

These unwilling scouts did their uttermost to prevent clashes between the different border patrols Indonesian and Malaysian.

Eilenberg wrote, “Former Iban scouts in Lanjak recount how they purposely led the Indonesian military patrols in circles around the Malaysian patrols in order to prevent clashes. In doing so, they avoided being forced to fight Iban kin employed as scouts by the ‘enemy’.

One very common strategy employed by Iban trackers was to use different kinds of signals to warn the oncoming Iban trackers employed by the enemy.

For example, they imitated animal cries or simply wore their caps backward as a signal that regular soldiers were following close behind.

Life at Kalimantan border while coping with Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation

Those who lived near the Kalimantan border during the confrontation remembered it as a period of restriction.

With military forces guarding both sides of the border, contact with relatives over the border was made difficult.

Even though the border was officially closed, some of the locals had reportedly continued their cross-border interaction such as trading and visiting relatives.

But of course, these were done at considerable risk of being caught in the line of fire.

Furthermore, several Kalimantan Iban families took more drastic moves.

They permanently immigrated to Sarawak to live with their Sarawakian families.

In the paper Straddling the Border: A Marginal History of Guerrilla Warfare and Counter Insurgency in the Indonesian Borderlands, 1960s-1970s which was also written by Eilenberg, the researcher came across many Kalimantan Ibans who had immigrated to Sarawak either during the Confrontation or during the later communist insurgency.

He wrote, “A senior Iban, originally from the Lanjak area but now a Malaysian citizen, conveyed during a visit to Kalimantan how, after immigrating to Sarawak, he was employed by British soldiers to fight the Indonesian army and later awarded an honorary military insignia by the Malaysian state for his courage in the fighting. Ironically before immigrating, the same person had been employed as a scout by the Indonesian forces.”

Malaysian Border Scouts comprising indigenous peoples of Borneo
Some 1,500 men from the indigenous tribes of Sabah and Sarawak were recruited by the Malaysian government as Border Scouts under the command of Richard Noone and other officers from the Senoi Praaq to counter the Indonesian infiltrations. Credit: Public Domain in Malaysia and US.

Getting close with the Sarawakians near Kalimantan border as a military strategy

Speaking of the British soldiers, blending in with the locals is part of the Commonwealth forces’ military strategy.

The Director of Operations in Borneo during the confrontation was General Sir Walter Walker.

General Walker once stated, “We set out to speak their language and respect their customs and religion. We sent small highly work among them, to protect them and share their danger, to get to know them and gain their confidence. These troops were as friendly, understanding and patient to the villagers as they were tough and ruthless in the jungle. We sought to give the villagers a feeling of security by day and night, through the presence of phantom patrols and through constant visits by the civil administration, the police and the army. We helped their agriculture, improved their communications and trading facilities, improved their water supply, provided medical clinics and a flying doctor service, established schools, provided transistor wireless sets and attractive programmes, and so on.”

Additionally, Walker saw winning popular support as ‘absolutely vital to the success of operations because by winning over the people to your side, you can succeed in isolating your enemy from supplies, shelter and intelligence.’

In the meantime, Captain David L. Watkins wrote in his paper Confrontation: the Struggle of Northern Borneo that unless villages along the border could be secure day and night from Indonesian intruders, they could be intimidated into providing the enemy aid.

“Although an armed patrol could not be posted in every village, frequent visits could be made, not only by soldiers, but by police and civil administrators as well. These visits had several purposes, two of which were to ‘encourage the loyal to give information and to discourage the few disloyal from doing anything that would disturb the uneasy peace’.”

The safety of the locals came first

At the same time, Walker emphasised that the security and safety of the local Sarawakians would always come first.

He once wrote his command, “went to any length to keep our hands clean. One civilian killed by us would do more harm than ten killed by the enemy.”

He added, “If the price a village had to pay for its liberation from the enemy was to be its own destruction, then the campaign for hearts and minds would never have been won.”

As much as the Commonwealth forces as well as the government wanted to protect its people, deaths are inevitable during war (although this war was never officially declared).

In the end of the Indonesia-Malaysia Confrontation, the total number of civilian casualties are 36 killed and 53 wounded.

Patricia Hului is a Kayan who wants to live in a world where you can eat whatever you want and not gain weight.

She grew up in Bintulu, Sarawak and graduated from the University Malaysia Sabah with a degree in Marine Science.

She is currently obsessed with silent vlogs during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Due to her obsession, she started her Youtube channel of slient vlogs.

Follow her on Instagram at @patriciahului, Facebook at Patricia Hului at or Twitter at @patriciahului.

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