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Journey to Jakarta: Australia’s Forgotten First Attempt to Recognise Indonesia

17 Jan 2015
By Palmos
The Good Offices Committee (GOC) 
meeting with exiled Indonesian government leaders, 1949. Image Credit: The Sukarno Years.

2015 brings the 70th anniversary of Australia’s first attempt to recognise Indonesia.

Among the least known actions in Australia’s diplomatic history is that Canberra was the first foreign capital to send a mission to Jakarta with the explicit intention of having Australia recognise the fledgling Republic of Indonesia, in October 1945.

Just seven weeks after the Sukarno-Hatta Proclamation of Independence on 17 August, a small Australian mission headed by William McMahon Ball, landed at Kemayoran airport.

Ball’s mission, as designate High Commissioner, included a few fruitful intelligence gathering days but this was cut short when the Commander-in-Chief of the Allied Forces, General Philip Christison, refused to acknowledge Ball’s Canberra credentials and expelled him from Batavia (Djakarta). Australian archives seem to have missed details of this mission, yet at the time the mission (not its failure) was well known to the diplomatic service, and later to academia.

It would have been an extraordinary coup for Australia had Canberra been able to offer recognition and establish diplomatic ties. But Britain (as proxy for their wartime ally, The Netherlands) had another agenda: the reinstatement of a Dutch administration to run the colony as the Netherlands East Indies, mark II.

Indeed, that mission, to reinstate the Dutch, was the direct cause of the Battle for Surabaya, and the failure of the policy to enforce Dutch rule was to place Britain in harms’ way for several years.

General Christison’s version of events is that he ordered his military guards to quickly remove Macmahon Ball by having his officers ‘escort’ him to the Kemayoran airfield and fly him by military plane to Singapore. “I took a dislike to the man instinctively,” Christison wrote of Macmahon Ball in his memoir, Life and Times of General Sir Philip Christison lodged with the Army Museum in Chelsea, London 1993.

Macmahon Ball’s mission almost certainly had its origins with, among others, the Japanese and Asian affairs specialist Dr Peter Russo, a Melbourne colleague of Macmahon Ball and commentator and broadcaster for the ABC. Russo had advised Canberra that the new Republic of Indonesia would ultimately take control of the former Netherlands East Indies and Australia would be wise to recognise the new Republic. Should the Dutch adopt a more conciliatory attitude toward its former colony, Indonesia would become a permanent friend of both the Netherlands and Australia.

Minister for External Affairs HV Evatt appeared to have acted alone, as he often did, in issuing Macmahon Ball the credentials and, it seems, instructions and finance to establish a High Commission in Jakarta.

The mission ended in failure with the team being flown to Singapore. Christison’s version of events did not come to light until recently. What is not disputed is that Macmahon Ball and his team returned empty handed and Christison went on to use British-Indian and Japanese troops to put down the Republican forces in Bandung, Bogor and Cirebon (West Java) and Semarang (Central Java) during late October and early November 1945, in efforts to clear the way for a return of the depleted Dutch armed forces, then reforming in Singapore and Malaya, to re-impose a Dutch post-war administration, Netherlands Indies Civil administration (NICA). General Christison’s policies led first to an almost total massacre of British-Indian troops after a botched attempt to occupy the port of Surabaya (then the largest city in the Indies) and the consequent assault launched two weeks later, now known as the Battle for Surabaya. British officers had predicted this assault would quell the Republican forces “within three or four days”, but so staunch was the resistance that twenty days later the British saw it as a fruitless, costly task, one that cost the lives of hundreds of its troops, who had expected to be released back into civilian life two months earlier.

Australian diplomacy had the final say. General Christison was removed to a minor post in the UK after the Surabaya debacle, and because of Macmahon Ball’s good relationship with the Republic’s first Prime Minister, Sutan Syahrir, Indonesia chose Australia as one of three members of the Good Offices Committee that ultimately led to full sovereignty in 1950. The matter of the “eviction” from Djakarta in 1945 was buried.

Dr Francis Palmos is the winner of the inaugural Australian Indonesian Association National Award (2014) for his lifelong contributions to the betterment of Indonesian-Australian relations. He is a senior Research Fellow at UWA, an historian and translator. This article can be republished with attribution under a Creative Commons Licence.

This article uses research and excerpts from Francis Palmos’ Surabaya 1945: Sacred Territory (2013), the first complete study of the first days of the Indonesian Republic, using more than 200 Indonesian language diaries, documents and videotaped interviews with survivors of the Battle for Surabaya.