Malaya and the Far East

WINSTON CHURCHILL DESCRIBED THE surrender of Singapore to the Japanese army on 15 February 1942 as “the worst disaster and largest capitulation in British history”.1 A supposedly impregnable fortress had surrendered to an attacking force that was inferior in numbers. This was more than a defeat: it was a humiliation. Churchill’s doctor, Lord Moran, recorded the tremendous impact the surrender had on him:

How came 100,000 men (half of them of our race) to hold up their hands to inferior numbers of Japanese? Though his mind had been gradually prepared for its fall, the surrender of the fortress stunned him. He felt it was a disgrace. It left a scar on his mind. One evening, months later, when he was sitting in his bathroom enveloped in a towel, he stopped drying himself and gloomily surveyed the floor: “I cannot get over Singapore,” he said sadly.

For Churchill, the surrender was more than a “reverse”: it was, he feared, “a portent” of the loss of the empire.2 Certainly it dealt a shattering blow to the mystique of racial superiority with which the British had surrounded their rule in the Far East.

The Japanese military offensive of 1942 overran Malaya and Singapore, Burma, the Dutch East Indies (today’s Indonesia), the American-controlled Philippines, and consolidated their grip on French Indo-China. The catastrophe was such that the European empires never really recovered. Indeed, the reoccupation of their colonies by the British, the French and the Dutch in 1945-46 was only accomplished on the back of American military might, which was absolutely decisive in the defeat of Japan. Britain had fared best of the European colonial powers, partly because the country had escaped occupation by the Nazis and still had powerful armed forces under its own control. It was also because, as we have seen with regard to India and Burma, the British were prepared to retreat and withdraw when confronted with the threat of large-scale rebellion. With the surrender of Japan on 2 September 1945, however, British forces under the command of Lord Mountbatten found themselves responsible for restoring colonial rule, not just in Britain’s own colony of Malaya, but also in the southern half of French Indo-China and the Dutch East Indies. Let us look first at how Attlee’s Labour government performed its two little known acts of colonial generosity towards the French and the Dutch.

The First Vietnam War

The Japanese surrender created a vacuum in Indo-China that the Communist-led Viet Minh resistance, led by Ho Chi Minh, with American encouragement, moved to fill. The United States was initially unsympathetic to the restoration of French rule, and the American OSS (the forerunner of the CIA) had encouraged the Viet Minh to establish a provisional revolutionary government as early as April 1945. With the Japanese collapse, Viet Minh forces took control of much of the north of the country, and on 2 September Ho Chi Minh proclaimed the Democratic Republic of Vietnam in Hanoi. He read out a Vietnamese Declaration of Independence, borrowing from the American Declaration of 1776, to over 100,000 people. OSS officers were photographed, alongside the Viet Minh military commander Vo Nguyen Giap, saluting the flag of the new republic. The American expectation was that the French would have to come to terms with what they hoped would be a Communist-dominated client government.3

Further south, however, the Viet Minh hold was much weaker, and on 6 September British troops, commanded by General Douglas Gracey, began arriving in Saigon, with every intention of restoring the French. From the very beginning Gracey refused to even acknowledge the existence of the Viet Minh, introducing what amounted to martial law, disarming the nationalists and arming released French prisoners of war. On 23 September, with his full support, the French seized power in Saigon, taking over its city hall and arresting large numbers of Vietnamese. As one senior French officer told Mountbatten, “Your General Gracey has saved French Indochina”.4

The Viet Minh responded to the French takeover by calling a general strike, and fighting broke out. According to George Rosie, in his standard account of the British intervention:

The days immediately after the coup saw much sporadic fighting in which the British-Indian troops fought off desperate nationalist attacks all over the city. In the early stages the Vietnamese casualties were fairly heavy. In one clash with 80 Indian Infantry Brigade on 26 September in the south of the city, 60 Vietnamese were killed. Mortars, 25 pounders and heavy machine-guns were freely used by the British in the street fighting, and non-combatant Vietnamese must certainly have suffered in the process.5

The British found themselves under considerable pressure and Gracey was forced to open negotiations with the Viet Minh on 2 October. This was just a ploy while reinforcements were poured in, bringing his strength to over 22,000 men. On 9 October, he gave the Viet Minh an ultimatum: surrender the city or face destruction.

The Viet Minh launched an attack against British positions throughout the city, but were beaten back. On 12 October they attempted to seize the key airfield at Tan Son Nhut. They reached “the doors of the radio station and were within 300 yards of the control tower when they were stopped; the fight for the airfield turned into a grim struggle as its loss would have cut Saigon off from the rest of the world”.6 The Viet Minh attacks were driven off by the reinforced British. After this failure the Viet Minh resorted to guerrilla tactics and the “bitter street battles…gave way to the brutal business of ambushes, small-scale guerrilla attacks, terrorism and repressive counter-measures, all carried out in the midst of a sullen and resentful population. No matter how many nationalists the British killed or captured, more appeared the next day”.7

Edmund Taylor, as OSS officer, arrived in Saigon towards the end of October to find “a war of extermination marked by appalling atrocities on both sides” under way. He described how:

In retaliation for the murderous Annamese [the majority ethnic group in Vietnam] guerrilla tactics, the British had deliberately burned down great sections of the native quarter in Saigon. This further inflamed the anti-British sentiments of the Annamese whose fanatical if clumsy attacks became such a menace to the inadequate British occupation forces that for a long time they had to cease disarming the Japanese and to use their late enemies as auxiliaries in fighting their newer ones.

According to Taylor, the atmosphere in Saigon “was that of a town newly occupied by Franco’s forces in the Spanish Civil War”.8

By the end of December 1945 the British began their withdrawal, handing Saigon and the South over to the French. Most had left by March 1946 with only some specialist soldiers remaining behind. The last British troops to die in Vietnam were six soldiers killed in an ambush in June 1946. They had fought a short but bloody campaign, the tenor of which is captured by the operation instructions issued to officers: “Always use the maximum force available to ensure wiping out any hostiles we may meet. If one uses too much no harm is done”.9 The disproportion between casualties suffered and inflicted shows that this advice was taken literally. By the middle of January 1946 the British had suffered 40 men killed while they claimed to have killed some 600 Viet Minh. The actual numbers were considerably higher. This British success was to prepare the way for both the French and the American Vietnam Wars.

A forgotten intervention: Indonesia 1945-46

In the Dutch East Indies nationalists, led by Sukarno, had proclaimed the Republic of Indonesia as early as 17 August 1945. With the Japanese collapse, the nationalists proceeded to take control of much of the main island of Java. A republican government was established, supported by a large, if poorly armed and trained, militia. It was determined to resist any attempt to re-establish Dutch rule. When the first British troops began to arrive, conflict was inevitable.

The British intention was to occupy the coastal cities of Jakarta, Semarang and Surabaya, and the hill towns behind them—Bandung, Ambarawa, Magelang and Malang. The nationalist forces would be disarmed and dispersed and the Dutch would be put back in control. To this end, Jakarta was occupied and Dutch prisoners of war were armed. Within days sporadic clashes had broken out as the Dutch “turned on the insurgent Indonesians like savages, ruthlessly machine-gunning the Kampongs, or native compounds, and inviting atrocity for atrocity by all their acts”.10 To one British officer it seemed as if “the Dutch wanted to provoke war and thereby force us to fight on their behalf ”.11 The first British fatalities occurred on 11 October when two British officers were killed. The British response provoked heavy fighting that was ended only with the arrival of reinforcements and the rearming of the Japanese. Jakarta was successfully brought under control, although sniping and sporadic attacks continued.

Elsewhere the British placed even more reliance on the Japanese. In Bandung the Japanese arrested nationalist leaders and disarmed nationalist forces before handing the city over to the British. In Semarang, however, they met with fierce resistance. Only after six days of heavy fighting and the use of both tanks and artillery was the city taken, with some 2,000 Indonesians killed. When the British arrived on 20 October, they found a silent, deserted and devastated city. The British were full of praise for the Japanese troops’ “incredible gallantry” and their commander, Major Kido, was actually recommended for the Distinguished Service Order (DSO). This was a step too far, as the Labour government was coming under attack in parliament for using Japanese troops. Both Attlee and Bevin defended their use, although they lied about the extent of the practice.12 Then on 25 October British troops began disembarking in Surabaya.

In Surabaya the British were confronted by a large well-armed nationalist militia that possessed tanks, artillery and anti-aircraft guns seized from the Japanese. The British commander, Brigadier Mallaby, assured the nationalists that he had no intention of disarming them or restoring the Dutch. This agreement was promptly repudiated by Mallaby’s superiors, who had no idea of the situation he faced. On 28 October Mallaby’s 4,000 troops came under attack from over 20,000 Indonesians with a hostile population solidly behind them. A number of British positions were overrun with heavy losses and Sukarno was flown into the city to negotiate a ceasefire. This broke down almost immediately. British troops were besieged in a bank in Internatio Square and Mallaby himself went to investigate. As he arrived, the troops opened fire and in the confusion Mallaby was killed, almost certainly shot by an Indonesian youth.13 The ceasefire was successfully reinstated, but only after the British agreed to withdraw their forces back into the port area of the city. After a week of fighting, Mallaby’s brigade had lost over 200 men killed, including its commander.

The British proceeded to pour reinforcements into Surabaya. On 9 November, General E C Mansergh demanded the immediate surrender of the city and at 6am the next morning ordered an all-out attack. Against ferocious opposition, British and Indian troops fought their way into the city. They were assisted by a tremendous artillery and naval bombardment that devastated large areas and killed many civilians. Two cruisers and three destroyers shelled the city. Mosquito and Thunderbolt warplanes bombed and strafed targets. One RAF history enthusiastically describes an air raid on a nationalist strongpoint on the first day of the attack: 18 1,500 lb bombs were dropped and only eight missed the target!14 This was a densely populated city. The Indonesians defended themselves as best they could against the onslaught. According to David Wehl, fighting was particularly severe in the centre of the city where “streets had to be occupied one by one, doorway by doorway. Bodies of men, horses, cats and dogs, lay in the gutter, broken glass, furniture, tangled telephone lines, cluttered the roads, and the noise of battle echoed among the empty office buildings”.15

After three days of continuous bombardment and intense street fighting, most of the city was in British hands. For another three weeks, however, the Indonesians fought on before finally admitting defeat and withdrawing their forces from the city. Even after this, sporadic fighting continued. When the 2nd Battalion of the Buffs arrived in the city early in January 1946, they found it “encircled by a large force of uniformed and reasonably well-organised and well-equipped Indonesians”. Surabaya was to all intents and purposes “invested”, effectively under siege, and clashes with the Indonesians were a daily occurrence.16 The battle for Surabaya had cost the nationalists at least 10,000 casualties and the British in the region of 600. So stubborn had been Indonesian resistance that the British refused to believe they had organised it themselves and saw instead the hand of renegade Japanese and even of German advisers.17 Unknown in Britain, the battle became for the Indonesians “a symbol and rallying-cry for revolution”.18 It unleashed a nationalist uprising that spread throughout Java and threatened to engulf the British. The battle of Surabaya is still celebrated in Indonesia every year on “Heroes Day”.

After heavy fighting, British forces were driven out of Magelang on 21 November and, the following month, out of Ambarawa, effectively abandoning central Java to the nationalists. Meanwhile serious fighting had broken out in Bandung where the British forcibly evicted some 100,000 people from the northern half of the city. When, on 24 March 1946, the British demanded the evacuation of the rest of the city, the nationalists withdrew, setting fire to whole districts as they went. According to John Smail, “Bandung [was] a sea of flames…and the picture is fixed in the memories of those who were in the city on 24 March ”.19 Between a third and half of the city was razed rather than surrender it to the British. The fighting spread to the island of Sumatra where there were serious clashes in Medan early in December. Although the conflict never reached the same level of intensity as in Java, the British still lost 55 soldiers killed and 243 wounded. One particular incident deserves notice, however. On 13 December, Japanese troops sacked the Sumatran town of Tebing Tinggi and massacred over 2,000 people. This was while it was under British command.20 The scale and intensity of the fighting brought home most forcibly to the British that restoring Dutch rule was not practicable. At the end of December 1945 Mountbatten informed the Chiefs of Staff in London that to achieve a military solution in Indonesia would require another three divisions in a “full-scale war”, which would be followed by a guerrilla war “situation analogous to Ireland after the last war, but on a much larger scale”.21 Instead the British held on to their coastal bridgeheads, but abandoned the rest of the country to the nationalists. As late as September 1946 there were still 45,000 British troops in the country, but withdrawal was already under way as the Dutch built up their forces. The last British troops were evacuated by the end of November 1946. By and large, the Dutch forces were armed and equipped by the British, by a Labour government, without whose assistance their offensives of the summer of 1947 and the winter of 1948-49 would not have been possible.

Britain’s Indonesian intervention had proven extremely costly. Over a 14-month period some 620 British and Indian troops had been killed and 1,447 wounded. Another 327 were missing, most of them dead, but some Indian troops had defected to the nationalists. The 23rd Indian Division suffered heavier casualties in these months than in four years fighting the Japanese in Burma. Over 1,000 Japanese troops were also killed, fighting alongside the British, more than had been killed capturing Indonesia from the Dutch in the first place. Indonesian casualties have been estimated at some 20,000 killed.22 One would, naively perhaps, have expected this episode to have left the Attlee government’s reputation in imperial affairs in tatters, but far from it. The whole episode is simply written out of the historical record. The battle of Surabaya, so important in Indonesia, is almost completely unknown in Britain.23

Reoccupying Malaya

In Malaya the British had cooperated with the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and with the Communist-led resistance movement during the Japanese occupation. By the time the Japanese surrendered, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army had some 4,000 armed members, but a considerably larger support network, the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Union.24 Rather than oppose the return of the British, the Malayan Communists, unlike the Vietnamese Communists and the Indonesian nationalists, decided to cooperate with the colonial power in the hope of securing a legitimate place in the post-war order. The election of a Labour government in London undoubtedly created serious illusions with regard to future developments in the colonies. Instead of fighting the British, a Communist guerrilla unit actually took part in the victory parade in London, and Chin Peng, soon to be the most wanted man in Malaya, was actually awarded the Order of the British Empire (OBE). The Communists proceeded to disband their guerrilla army and instead concentrated their efforts on building up a strong, militant trade union movement and on establishing a left wing nationalist movement, uniting Chinese, Malays, and Indians.

In retrospect, the decision to cooperate with the British seems a serious mistake. The Communists could certainly have launched an insurrection in 1945 and the British would have found themselves seriously over-stretched in trying to deal with it. The fighting in Indo-China and Indonesia was a great drain on resources. A number of factors militated against it, however. First, Communist support was largely confined to the Chinese minority of the population (about 38 percent), and, indeed, there were serious clashes between the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army and Malays in 1945-46. Second, the British would certainly have made use of Japanese troops to bolster their position. And third, although unknown at the time, the general secretary of the MCP, Lai Tek, was a police agent who had worked for both the British and the Japanese. He argued most forcefully for a peaceful road. Nevertheless, the prospects for success in 1945 were considerably greater than they were to be in 1948 when the guerrilla insurgency was actually launched.

Communist efforts at building a militant trade union movement were particularly successful. The appalling economic and social situation after the war saw thousands of workers turn to the MCP. These efforts were met with determined hostility by the British authorities. Despite this, the Communists established the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU), a considerable achievement. Alongside its trade union work, the MCP set about constructing a progressive alliance of Malay, Chinese and Indian organisations committed to democracy, social reform and independence. The British responded in July 1946 by putting forward proposals for a federation of Malaya that safeguarded the position of the Malay sultans, most of whom had collaborated with the Japanese, and severely restricted the citizenship rights of non-Malays. The MCP was instrumental in establishing a broad-based opposition to this, organising protest meetings and demonstrations, culminating in a one-day general strike on 20 October 1947. The British ignored these protests and on 1 February 1948 inaugurated the Federation of Malaya. The road to peaceful change, as far as the MCP and its supporters were concerned, had been closed and the Labour government had decided on a return to pre-war colonialism.25

The federation scheme seriously weakened the position of those in the MCP advocating the peaceful road. This was compounded in March 1947, when Lai Tek disappeared with the party’s funds, just before his exposure as a police agent. He was replaced as general secretary by Chin Peng.26The new leadership found itself confronted by a British offensive against the trade union movement. With the full support of the authorities, the employers launched a concerted attack on trade union organisation, cutting wages, victimising activists and carrying out mass sackings and evictions. Police and troops were deployed as strikebreakers, beating and on occasion opening fire on striking workers. The employers, according to one account, “demanded ‘death, banishment and particularly flogging’”.27 By the beginning of 1948 the employers “had recovered to a considerable extent the position they had lost in the immediate post-war years”.28

With the road of constitutional advance closed and with the trade unions under attack, the MCP leadership took the decision to prepare for armed struggle. No actual timetable was laid down but steps were put under way to reactivate elements of the MPAJA and establish jungle camps and an underground network. Events outstripped the MCP’s preparations, however. Some of its activists responded to the increasingly violent attempt to batter the trade unions into submission with terrorist attacks, shooting strikebreakers, and estate and mine managers. On 12 June 1948 the British banned the PMFTU and then, on 19 June, declared a state of emergency. The MCP was taken completely by surprise.

One important question that has to be considered is why it was that the Labour government set out to smash the left in Malaya. It is clear that there was no place for any kind of left in Malaya, Communist or otherwise, according to the government’s thinking. The simple reason for this was that the Labour government was determined to increase its exploitation of Malaya, and the left and the trade unions were an obstacle to this. Malaya was too important for any alternative to be seriously contemplated. In 1947, for example, Malayan rubber was the British Empire’s biggest dollar earner, bringing in $200 million, compared with the $180 million earned by British manufacturing industry. By 1950 Malayan tin and rubber were earning $350 million out of the sterling area’s total dollar earnings of $2,385 million. It was under Attlee’s government that British colonies were to be most ruthlessly and successfully exploited. Between 1946 and 1951 the colonial sterling balances held in London increased from £760 million to £920 million, a massive transfer of funds that gives the lie to the pious rhetoric of the time regarding colonial development.29While the Labour government might well have withdrawn from India and Burma, in the words of one historian, this was “only to reveal an expanded appetite for African and South East Asian exploitation”.30

The emergency

The British launched a wave of repression against the left. By the end of August 1948 well over 4,000 men and women had been detained, a substantial proportion of them Malays. The British were absolutely determined to eradicate the Malay left, while all the time warning of the danger of a Chinese takeover, deliberately exacerbating and exploiting ethnic divisions. The blows also fell particularly heavily on the trade unions, with hundreds of militants arrested. In May 1949 the general secretary of the banned PMFTU, S A Ganapathy, was hanged for possessing a revolver. There was some concern in Malaya as to whether a Labour government would allow the execution of a trade union leader, especially in the light of a pleas for clemency from the Indian prime minister, Nehru, but as one British official observed, “there was no comeback from Attlee”.31 Union membership plummeted from 154,000 in April to 75,000 in September.

As we have seen, the MCP was taken by surprise by the declaration of the emergency. Although it was in the process of embarking on a strategy of guerrilla warfare, preparations were still at an early stage. The MCP faced the problem of organising its forces for revolutionary war with the full weight of the colonial state bearing down on it. Not until 26 June was it able to stage the first guerrilla attacks in response to the wave of repression. For their part, the British expected to be able to crush the MCP in a matter of months. Instead the Communists managed to find sanctuary in the jungle where they set about organising their guerrilla forces, the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA), and re-establishing their underground support network, the Min Yuen. The MNLA rallied some 5,000 men and women, most of them unaccustomed to the jungle, poorly trained and armed with only light weapons. This force was too weak to establish liberated zones as was originally planned, but it did begin a campaign of assassinations, ambushes and attacks. By the end of 1948 the MNLA had killed 149 troops and police, and wounded another 211. They had also killed over 300 civilians, mostly Chinese collaborators. Their own losses were 374 killed and another 319 surrendered or captured. By the end of 1949 incidents were averaging 400 a month and the insurgency was beginning to have an impact.

With the declaration of the emergency, the government imposed a police regime on Malaya. Between 1948 and 1957, when Malaya became independent, nearly 34,000 people were interned without trial. Thousands more Chinese suspected of rebel sympathies were deported from the colony (over 10,000 in 1949). And the government introduced a battery of legal measures, including the death penalty for a wide range of offences, including possession of firearms. In the course of the emergency 226 Communists were hanged, a figure only exceeded in the post-1945 period by the judicial slaughter carried out in Kenya.32 All of this was introduced “with the full consent of the Labour government”.33

By the end of 1949, however, the MNLA had managed to seize the initiative. The guerrillas carried out hit and run attacks, striking and disappearing into the jungle. The British responded with large-scale cordons and search operations, combing the jungle with hundreds of troops and police, hunting an elusive enemy that had already slipped away. Unable to find the guerrillas, the British became increasingly brutal towards the Chinese civilian population. Suspects were routinely beaten and on occasions killed (the worst known incident was the massacre of 24 Chinese civilians at Batang Kali in December 1949), and their homes, sometimes whole villages, were destroyed.34 Far from intimidating the Chinese population, their methods only increased support for the MNLA. British methods attracted little criticism back home. When on 28 April 1952, the British Communist Party’s Daily Worker carried the photograph of a smiling Royal Marine holding up the severed head of a dead guerrilla, the government expected an outcry. No other British newspaper made use of the photograph or took up the story.35

What broke the cycle of repression and resistance was the strategy developed by the new director of operations, General Harold Briggs, when he took over the conduct of the war in April 1950. The so-called “Briggs Plan” conceptualised the war against the Communists as a “competition in government”, a competition for control of the population. Instead of trying to hunt down the guerrillas, the British determined to establish effective control over the Chinese rural population, the squatters, miners and plantation workers, in order to isolate them.36 To this end, in June 1950 a massive resettlement programme was launched. It was carried out with considerable determination and ruthlessness. By the beginning of 1952 over 400,000 Chinese had been resettled in “new villages”, surrounded by barbed wire, heavily policed and effectively deprived of all civil rights. Parallel with this, mine workers and plantation workers were compulsorily regrouped in defended compounds, once again behind barbed wire.

Resettlement and regroupment broke the back of the Communist insurgency. By successfully isolating the guerrillas from the Chinese rural population, these measures made their defeat inevitable. This did not seem the case at the time, however. In 1950 the MNLA killed 393 soldiers and police and in 1951 the figure was 504. They achieved their most spectacular success on 6 October 1951 when the high commissioner, Henry Gurney, was killed in an ambush. The situation seemed desperate, but the tide had already turned. When General Gerald Templer took over as high commissioner and director of operations in February 1952, he inherited a situation where the initiative had already passed into the hands of the British. With the guerrillas increasingly on the defensive, Templer was to develop the tactics and methods for hunting them down.37 Templer admitted to the use of “killer squads”, though as he told the colonial secretary, Oliver Lyttelton, “I won’t call them that, with a view to the questions you might have to answer”.38

Later, as the MNLA retreated deeper into the jungle, the British sprayed suspected guerrilla gardens from the air with trichlorophenoxyacetic acid (24ST), preparing the way “for future American involvement in herbicidal warfare in South East Asia”.39

As early as September 1952 Templer was cautiously informing London that, “in a small way, we have to some extent got the initiative at last…the situation is improving a bit”.40 The following year was to be the “breakthrough year” with the MNLA forced on the defensive, engaged in a struggle to survive rather than contending for victory. This military success was underpinned by movement towards political independence. The British sponsored the development of the Alliance Party, bringing together a moderate Malay and Chinese leadership committed to private enterprise and Western interests. In the first federal elections in July 1955 the Alliance won over 80 percent of the vote and secured 51 out of 52 seats. The Alliance leader, Tunku Abdul Rahman, began pressuring the British for an early declaration of independence. When independence was finally granted on 31 August 1957, Malaya remained firmly within the British sphere of influence and the campaign against the weakening Communists continued.

The extent to which the MNLA had been forced on the defensive is shown by the fact that in 1956 and 1957 they only killed 58 police and soldiers while having nearly 600 of their own number killed and another 300-odd surrendered. The following year the guerrillas killed ten police and soldiers but had over 150 killed themselves, but, more important, over 500 surrendered. The MNLA had ceased to be an effective fighting force and the MCP took the decision to “fold up the banner and silence the drums”.41 The emergency finally ended on 31 July 1960.

This British victory has subsequently been celebrated as proof that the British, unlike the French or the Americans, had discovered the way to defeat Communist insurgency. Indeed, it was offered up as an experience that the United States could learn from, with Robert Thompson leading a British advisory mission to South Vietnam from 1961 to 1965 and hundreds of South Vietnamese police and soldiers being trained at the Jungle Warfare School in Malaya.42 In fact, a good case can be made that there were few strategic lessons to be learned because the reasons for British success were so specific. The MCP failed to win any real support among the Malay population that was successfully enlisted on the British side. The British were able to bring overwhelming force to bear against the MNLA, force that was applied with increasing sophistication. And the MCP received no aid from outside Malaya. There was no Ho Chi Minh trail bringing the modern weapons and trained reinforcements. In retrospect, the MNLA was doomed to defeat. What was remarkable was the protracted nature of the resistance they put up against overwhelming odds in the most difficult circumstances.43


The British hoped to build up their new client regime in Malaya as a counterweight to Sukarno’s neutralist Indonesia. Sukarno not only refused to subordinate Indonesia to the United States in the Cold War, but also took a strong anti-imperialist stance in international affairs and tolerated, indeed collaborated with, a mass Communist Party that the Americans and the British wanted suppressed. He was inevitably the victim of systematic denigration and ridicule in the British media, much of it government inspired. The British proposed the establishment of a Federation of Malaysia, bringing together Malaya, Singapore, Britain’s two colonies on the island of Borneo, Sarawak and North Borneo, and the British protectorate on the island, the Sultanate of Brunei. As David Easter makes clear in his account of these events, “Malaysia was largely conceived in response to Britain’s defence needs” and was seen as a way for Britain to “maintain herself as a global power”.44 As far as the Indonesians were concerned this was a very real threat to their national interests. Their expectation was that the Borneo colonies would revert to Indonesia and, moreover, they had good reason for regarding both Britain and the United States as enemies. Both governments gave covert support to separatist movements in Indonesia, and in 1958 the CIA had given considerable assistance, including air support, to separatist rebels on the islands of Sumatra and Kalimantan. The British had cooperated in this attempt to break up the country and overthrow Sukarno.45 Although the rebellion had been crushed, the Indonesians saw the establishment of Malaysia as compounding the threat with separatist movements being encouraged to break away and join the federation. This was very much the policy of the Malaysian government that looked forward to the break-up of Indonesia and the acquisition of Sumatra.

Sukarno launched what was known as “the Confrontation” with Malaysia in April 1963, initiating a conflict that was to continue until August 1966 when the Indonesians finally admitted defeat. This small-scale frontier war, fought largely in Borneo, cost the British some 80 soldiers killed, while Indonesian fatalities were officially put at 590, but were almost certainly substantially higher. It was according to Denis Healey, the Labour minister of defence, “one of the most efficient uses of military force in the history of the world”.46 Inevitably, the British contrasted their success with American failure in Vietnam. In reality, however, the Confrontation was only a “small war”, a war of border skirmishes, although it did, on occasion, threaten to become something more serious. Even so, it still put a serious strain on British resources. At the height of the conflict Britain had 59,000 military personnel stationed in Malaysia. The naval presence was built up to some 80 vessels, including submarines and aircraft carriers, and for a time V-bombers visited Singapore, “an event which raised the prospect of the ultimate deterrent against any Indonesian escalation of the conflict”.47

While British military prowess in Borneo, particularly the role of the SAS, has been widely celebrated in recent years, much less attention has been given to the covert war that Britain waged, once again providing support for separatist elements.48 This covert activity was to be transformed into support for the military takeover in Indonesia that took place in October 1965. While Sukarno was left in place as a figurehead president, the army under General Suharto effectively took power and launched a general massacre of the left. Even while the Confrontation was still under way, the British collaborated with the generals in a massacre that cost the lives of over 500,000 men, women and children, many of them slaughtered with the utmost brutality. As the British ambassador in Jakarta, Andrew Gilchrist, told Michael Stewart, the Labour government foreign secretary, “I have never concealed from you my belief that a little shooting in Indonesia would be an essential preliminary to effective change”.49 The British, cooperating once again with the United States, played their part in inciting and encouraging the killing. To be blunt, Harold Wilson’s Labour government was complicit in what has been described as “one of the worst mass killings of the 20th century”. The destruction of Indonesian Communism was one of the great Western triumphs of the Cold War, and in London policymakers enthusiastically “celebrated the destruction of the PKI [Indonesian Communist Party]”.50 For some reason neither Harold Wilson nor Denis Healey celebrate this triumph in their memoirs.

With the army installed in power, Indonesia moved into the American sphere of influence with Suharto becoming the West’s favourite dictator. The Confrontation was speedily ended and cordial relations were established between London and Jakarta—so cordial, in fact, that when the New Labour government published its annual report on human rights in 1998, it featured a photo of foreign secretary Robin Cook shaking hands with the mass murderer Suharto.51

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