When Japan withdrew from Malaya after the end of the Second World War, Britain resumed imperial control of its former colony...
Malaya – now Malaysia – was the great material prize in South-East Asia, possessing precious minerals and resources – above all, rubber and tin, but also coal, bauxite, tungsten, gold, iron ore and manganese. Its tin and rubber industries were important to imperial Britain’s recovery after the Second World War, being the biggest dollar earners in the British Commonwealth. Seventy per cent of Malayan rubber estates were owned by European, primarily British, companies.
Gurkhas on patrol during the Malayan war.
After the war Malaya had high unemployment, low wages and high levels of food inflation. A large number of strikes by increasingly powerful trade unions broke out between 1946 and 1948. The social unrest was met with arrests, deportations and curfews. The colonial authorities’ desire to uphold the old ways of ruling meant people had no option but resistance, which the Malayan Communist Party organised.
The origins of the conflict lay in the failure of the British colonial authorities to advance the cause of the Chinese in Malaya, who made up nearly 45 per cent of the population. Britain, in line with its usual imperial tactic of divide and rule, traditionally promoted the rights of the Malay community over those of the Chinese.
In 1948 Britain promoted a new federal constitution that would confirm Malay privileges, consign about 90 per cent of Chinese to non-citizenship and see the colonial High Commissioner preside over an undemocratic centralised state where the members of the Executive Council and Legislative Council were all chosen by him.
Three European plantation managers were killed in June 1948. Britain declared an Emergency, not just to defeat the armed rebellion but also to crack down on workers’ rights. The colonial authorities banned some trade unions, imprisoned their members, outlawed the Malayan Communist Party and gave police powers to imprison without trial.
Retreating to rural areas, the newly formed Malayan National Liberation Army led a guerrilla campaign to disrupt the tin mines and rubber plantations. The British military despatched 40,000 troops to fight 8,000 guerrillas to ensure British business could exploit Malayan economic resources.
The MNLA was partly a re-formation of the MCP-led Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, a guerrilla force which had been the principal resistance against the Japanese occupation and that had received training and arms from Britain. The Malayan Chinese had offered the only active resistance to the Japanese invaders.
In December 1945, guerrillas were encouraged to disband and hand in their weapons to the British Military Administration in exchange for economic inducements; around 4,000 refused.
The guerrillas were drawn almost entirely from disaffected Chinese in the tin mines and rubber estates and received considerable support from over half a million Chinese “squatters”. The MNLA attacked rubber plantations, sabotaged installations, destroyed transportation and infrastructure. The Malay population supported the MNLA in smaller numbers.
Initially, British military strategy was to guard important economic targets, but soon it aimed to cut off the guerrillas from their supporters among the population and restrict the MNLA’s food supply. Declassified files reveal how British forces embarked on a series of brutal measures.
Beginning in 1950, 500,000 rural Malayans including 400,000 Chinese from squatter communities were forcibly relocated into guarded camps called “New Villages”, which were surrounded by barbed wire, police posts and floodlit areas in order to keep inhabitants in and guerrillas out. Before the “new villagers” were let out in the mornings to go to work, they were searched for rice, clothes, weapons or messages.
It was described by the Colonial Office as a “great piece of social development”, but the Empire had used this tactic before in the Boer War. Where people were deemed to be aiding the guerrillas, “collective punishments” of house curfews and rice ration reductions were inflicted on villages, as at Tanjong Malim (March 1952) and at Sengei Pelek (April 1952).
In the first five years of the Malayan war, Britain conducted 4,500 air strikes and trialled a 500 pound fragmentation bomb. Chemical agents were also used. From June to October 1952, 1,250 acres of roadside vegetation at possible ambush points were sprayed with defoliant. There were also cases of bodies of dead guerrillas being exhibited in public.
At the Batang Kali massacre in December 1948 the British army killed twenty-four Chinese, before burning the village. The British government initially claimed that the villagers were guerrillas, and then that they were trying to escape, neither of which was true. A Scotland Yard inquiry into the massacre was called off by the Heath government in 1970.
Dyak headhunters from Borneo worked alongside the British forces and decapitation of guerrillas occurred. A photograph of a marine commando holding two guerrillas’ heads caused an outcry in April 1952 and the Colonial Office privately noted: “there is no doubt that under international law a similar case in wartime would be a war crime”.
Repressive British detention laws resulted in 34,000 people being held for varying periods without trial in the first eight years of the war; around 15,000 people were deported to China.
British capitalism achieved its main aims in Malaya: the guerrilla army was defeated and British business interests were essentially preserved; the extent of foreign control over the economy hardly changed, even after independence in 1957. By 1971, 80 per cent of mining, 62 per cent of manufacturing and 58 per cent of construction were still foreign-owned, mainly by British companies. A resort to war had protected the economic order. ■