The Cold War skirmish on the Malay Peninsula just after WWII has been said to have been a “post-colonial, nationalist struggle,” but there is evidence that it was somewhat more, and less, than that. It was one of the first long-term modestly successful counterinsurgencies by Britain since the Act of Union in 1804, and used successful techniques known as “hearts and minds” to win popular support away from the insurgents. However, there were several motives behind the conflict in the first place that went beyond the many post-1945 Third World struggles of at nation building: it was an extension of the generations-long Chinese civil conflict that ended a most important phase in 1949. The Chinese communist-led Malay uprising pitted the Maoists and other crypto-Marxists against all those who would get in their way.
All insurgencies start from some grievance somewhere, so it is instructive to look at the situation in Malaya before the “emergency” was declared. Before 1941 the ground was ripe for rebellion, and some stirrings of rebellion. European contact with the peninsula began with the first Portuguese contact in 1511. By the end of the 18th Century the British East India Company gained control as a counterweight against the growing Dutch presence in the East Indies, and to prevent revolutionary France from exploiting the feuding sultanates that controlled the strategically vital Straits of Malacca. The British found their new sources of latex and tin ores to be lucrative, and settled in for a stay by 1867.
The Malays apparently had little control over their own destiny. While the colonial administration and the plantation and mine workers enjoyed a very high standard of living, most of the native workers were edging poverty. By 1895 the last sultan of a major Malay state was no more than a figurehead, and the largest and most populous states accepted confederation status with Britain. And just in time, because the British situation in the area was becoming desperate. The lavish and powerful naval base at Singapore, built as an anchor against the growing German presence in the East Indies before WWI, was immune to seaward invasion but vulnerable to landward attack. Worse, the British Army garrison troops were forbidden to train in the jungle-covered peninsula because it was so disease and hazard-infested for European troops.
By the end of the 1914-18 war European influence was restricted to Britain and the Netherlands, but China was beginning to affect events in the region. Seeking external sources of support, both KMT and communist agents had infiltrated the large Chinese refugee population working in Malaya and Singapore. The Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was founded in 1920 by Maoists of the Nan Yang, also known as the South Seas Communist Party, a fairly obscure study-group-style movement with little power, and little heard of until the 1930s. Both the KMT government and the Chinese communists encouraged various anti-colonial movements in the East Indies and Indochina, even while they were at each other’s throats.
When war with Germany began in 1939 the flow of German arms to China (the KMT government was Germany’s biggest overseas customer) came to an end, and with it the trickle of support to the Malay nationalist movements. The two Chinese factions joined forces when Japan invaded China, but their influence was beginning to wane as Japanese agents fomented the ideals of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere in 1940, and soon the Chinese were again at odds with each other in Malaya.
The Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941 triggered open civil war between the factions, but the communists were getting help. The MCP formed a front group called the Anti-Enemy Backing-Up Society (AEBUS) that received arms and training from the British Special Operations Executive (SOE) and the American Office of Strategic Services (OSS). In 1942 the MCP also formed the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Union and Forces (MPAJUF) that, with the AEBUS, fought the Japanese at the far end of a very long logistical tether. With practically no supplies coming in the disparate groups did considerable damage to Japanese efforts, but Japan had no trouble recruiting sizable security forces from among the Malays.
In August 1942 the MCP leadership was arrested by Japanese authorities and large numbers executed, but Leninist party Secretary Lai Peck and his Stalinist assistant Chen Ping survived. While the nationalist insurgency continued in a dispersed fashion, the communist effort was centrally and tightly controlled, not risking cadres in combat but exposing them occasionally to safer raids. The MCP guerrillas also spent a great deal of resources in killing informers and reeducating recalcitrants who deviated from the party line. When Japan surrendered and the SOE supplies ended, the MCP had some 7,000 highly trained and disciplined cadres. Soon after the British returned to Malaya Lai Peck disappeared with the MCP treasury, and Chen Ping was left in the vacuum.
Taking advantage of the administrative confusion after the war, the MCP organized labor strikes and guerrilla raids to coordinate with the 100th anniversary of the 1848 revolutions that so inspired Marx and Engels. They also introduced an organization called Min Yuen; a peacetime version of the Anti-Japanese Union, as a political front to coordinate a shadow government. The British reaction to the violence began with a conventional military response of large units in sweeps through unfamiliar territory that had practically no effect other than to embolden the guerrillas. After ineffectively bungling up through 1950, the Korean conflict brought new prosperity to Malaya, and new attention to the insurgency as a communist Chinese effort to destabilize Asia. While Chen Ping apparently wanted to liberate Malaya, there’s no evidence that Mao had a mind for a presence in the Straits of Malacca.
But no matter, because a distinct change in strategy was yielding results by late 1951. While population control measures such as food rationing and strict curfews were imposed on the villages that supplied the guerrillas, the army turned to more auxiliaries, intelligence-gathering, police and small-unit operations that began to yield results by the end of 1951. By 1953 MCP recruiting was less than half what it had been in 1950, and guerrilla casualties to starvation began to outnumber those to combat. Local elections were held in 1955, when the combat phase of the British operation was at an end; a national government was in place by 1957; the consolidation of government control was complete by 1960.
Chen Ping, however, wasn’t done. He and a few hundred of his followers retreated to the Malay-Thai border and operated an insurgency from there at least until the mid 1970s, concentrating his efforts on the 40% of Malaya’s ethnic Chinese population. He was never captured, and the MCP still raids into Johore, mostly attacking the economic infrastructure of Malaysia.
While ultimately successful in keeping a communist-dominated group from controlling the Straits of Malacca, the British counterinsurgency was a mechanistic one that failed to address the root of the problem: discord among the ethnic Chinese and the refugees from the Chinese mainland that was about 40% of Malaya’s population, and that still boils over today. While the MCP is a legal organization in modern Malaysia, its renegade counterpart is pirate band in the Straights, responsible for billions in shipping losses and a twenty-fold increase in insurance rates in forty years. It boasts of control of large parts of the most rugged country close to Thailand, but exercises it only occasionally. While the decentralized counterinsurgency approach the British used to stabilize the country were effective, the problem of the large ethnic Chinese population remains.. Modern Malaysia may have to deal with a wider problem again soon.
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Kensington, Roger LTC (Ret) Special Air Service, British Army (Maintenance supervisor, MinePro Services Malaysia (a division of P&H Mining Equipment), personal interview with the author, July 2010.
Marston, Daniel, and Carter Malcasian (eds), Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008.
Pye, Lucian W., Guerrilla Communism and Malaya–Its Social and Political Meaning. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1956.