Members of B Company 2 RAR about to go on a patrol in Perak in 1956. A Daimler Ferret armoured car has accompanied the patrol to its setting-off point in a rubber plantation. The patrol is responding to reports of communist guerrillas in the nearby jungle. Patrolling in search of guerrillas was the main task of the Australian Army during the Malayan Emergency. [AWM HOB/56/0751/MC]
In June 1948 a state of emergency was proclaimed in Malaya in response to Communist guerrilla activity. Problems had been developing for a considerable time. The British had imported Chinese and Indian labour to work in the tin mines and rubber plantations. They became a majority of the population – a fact deeply resented by Malays. The Chinese had suffered high unemployment in the 1930s, and had then been victimised by the Japanese after their conquest of Malaya. The Malayan Communist Party was in fact overwhelmingly (95 per cent) Chinese. They were determined to fight a restoration of British imperial power. The Communists’ main support was in the countryside. Barely scraping a living on the fringes of the jungle were perhaps 600,000 Chinese squatters. Their poverty and insecurity made them an ideal recruiting ground for guerrillas. Their strategy was simple – and potentially war-winning. They would paralyse the economy, by attacking rubber plantations and tin mines. The British would eventually cut their losses and leave.
But the fact that the guerrillas were Chinese shaped Britain’s response. Within China the Communists were in the ascendant, with the Guomindang regime collapsing. How great were their ambitions in Asia? Also, Communist inspired guerrillas were challenging colonial rule throughout the region. From London this all appeared part of a clearly orchestrated Communist strategy, intended to conquer all of Asia.
Guerrilla warfare in the jungle was a real challenge to British forces. They soon realised that air power had little value. Relying on bombs, napalm and defoliants was an exercise in futility. They could only harass the guerrillas. But ground operations would demand huge numbers of troops. Besides, every civilian killed by a stray shot would merely add to their enemies. Firepower, it was quickly recognised, was no solution. The guerrillas would have to be defeated politically.
The British developed a counter-insurgency strategy that eventually proved remarkably effective. Indeed Malaya was the only guerrilla war of its kind where the guerrillas were clearly defeated. Firstly a process of political reform, answering the demands of nationalists was introduced. This led, in 1957, to Malayan independence under a pro-western government. Also the British recognised that it was vital for them to be upholding the law. Emergency laws were drawn up which were drastic enough for the security forces to act effectively. But they were also clear enough so that the security forces were seen to act within the law themselves. Police work was seen as crucial. Good intelligence was more important than actually killing guerrillas. Generous surrender terms were offered. Cash rewards were available to those who surrendered weapons or offered information. Guerrillas could also surrender and request deportation to China without facing any questioning.
The most vital element in Britain’s counter-insurgency strategy, however, was their drive to win over the civil population. Winning ‘hearts and minds’, and depriving the guerrillas of popular support was a fundamental requirement of British strategy. The section of the population the British most urgently needed to win over were the 600,000 squatters who provided the guerrillas with most of their support. The strategy the British adopted to achieve this was both novel and ambitious. They decided to resettle the entire squatter population.
Separating the guerrillas from their supporters was an obvious step to make. It would deny the guerrillas supplies, recruits and intelligence. But the British did not consider any form of internment for the squatters. To win the squatters’ support they would have to provide very real material improvements in the squatters’ lives, far beyond anything the guerrillas could promise. The British provided rehousing, in new villages. Once there the squatters gained a degree of security of land tenure they had never before known. Citizenship rights were extended. In material terms they had luxuries such as electricity and safe water. Teachers and nurses were provided if they were available. Welfare officers, often Australian and New Zealander volunteers, protected their interests. The new villagers were given a degree of self-government, and, crucially, the protection of the security forces that allowed them to exercise it without fear of guerrilla reprisal. Eventually they could be given responsibility for their own protection.
By such tactics the areas in which the guerrillas could operate became ever more constricted. A band of guerrilla-free territory was driven across Malaya, leaving those in the south totally isolated. By the mid-1950s the guerrillas were clearly losing. They were never entirely destroyed. A safe haven in Thailand sustained guerrilla activity in the north. But they were no longer a serious threat. By July 1960 the emergency was declared over.
The British success was due to a number of factors. That the guerrillas were ethnically Chinese and had virtually no Malay support was one. More importantly was the very early recognition that firepower could not succeed alone. The British fought a political battle that was extremely expensive and required enormous patience to gain results. It also required the creation of a representative Malayan state that was responsive to popular needs. Success against Communist guerrillas was possible: but not a quick victory, and certainly not a purely military victory.