Collective punishment and colonial terror: The lessons of Britain’s war in Malaya

Trigger warning: graphic violence, colonial atrocities, sexual assault.

Cartoonist Jimmy Gabriel mocking Gerald Templer's counterinsurgency strategies (Daily Worker, 1952)

Britain’s military policies during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) not only inflicted untold suffering upon the civilian population, but also taught the world that collective punishment and terror are the keys to victory against pro-independence uprisings.


What was the Malayan Emergency?


During WWII, the British funded and trained the communist rebels of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) to fight against the Japanese occupation of Malaya, arming them with explosives, machine guns, and radio equipment.[1] After WWII, these guerrillas were awarded a place in London’s V-Day parades, their leader Chin Peng was awarded an OBE given to him by Lord Mountbatten, and their former commanders became leaders of Malaya’s trade unions.[2] However, the recolonisation and super-exploitation of Malaya’s resources by the British Empire, which was used to pay Britain’s war debts to America and finance Britain’s post-WWII social programs, led to widespread industrial action across the Malayan peninsula.[3] This intense looting of Malaya’s resources by European plantation owners and the consequential plummet in the wages of tin miners and rubber plantation workers fuelled a wave of militant trade union activity, which was met with state murders and legal sanctions by the British occupiers.[4] With most trade unions outlawed, peaceful activists assassinated and no free democratic elections to enter, the former anti-fascist rebels of the Malayan Communist Party regrouped in 1948 and waged a war of independence against the British occupation. This uprising, which later become known as the “Malayan Emergency”, would attract the eagle-eyes of military leaders and politicians across the globe looking for methods to crush revolutions in their own countries.


Lord Mountbatten (left) awarding an OBE to Chin Peng (right) shortly before the Emergency.

Britain's Emergency military strategies


To crush this communist uprising, commonwealth forces orchestrated campaigns of collective punishment against the civilian population, including forcing over 400,000 people into concentration camps called “New Villages” as part of a military strategy known as the Briggs’ Plan intended to segregate the population from guerrillas near the jungles.[5] Herbicidal warfare was used to destroy farmland and starve guerrillas out of the jungles,[6] and mass executions of innocent civilians (most infamously the Batang Kali Massacre) were used against villages suspected of supporting the communists. [7] [8] Other episodes of British violence in Malaya include the second largest mass hanging in British military history, and the “misery, disease and death” caused by Britain forcefully evicting aboriginal people from their ancestral lands. [9]


Royal Marine poses with the heads of MNLA fighters

These collective punishments against civilians worked in tandem with a terror campaign intended to scare the population into submission. The faces of communists executed for minor non-violent crimes such as owning shotgun ammunition were pasted onto leaflets which the RAF dropped onto Malayan towns,[10] and specialist Iban headhunters from Borneo were deployed to decapitate pro-independence Malayans whose heads were turned into trophies.[11] The bodies of suspected guerrillas were displayed in public squares, police stations and sometimes tied to trucks with loudspeakers for identification purposes, by looking for signs of distress among the observing crowds to identify potential family members. This method of identification was often done in front of children, whose emotions could not be masked and would cry at the sight of their parent’s corpses being displayed to them by their killers.[12]


America’s generals take note


Despite these atrocities, the British government and its military officials painted a very different picture of events and attempted to convince the world that their successful counterinsurgency campaign was thanks to the concepts of “hearts and minds” and “minimum force”. General Gerald Templer who had enforced the aforementioned strategies, appeared on the front cover of Time magazine,[13] and his strategies were adopted by fellow British military officials to crush the Mau Mau Uprising in Kenya (see: Oxford and Colonial Atrocities: the Mau Mau Rebellion). Although modern historians consider Britain’s supposed mastery of counterinsurgency operations as more rhetoric than any real counterinsurgency method, the British victory against communists in a jungle environment attracted the attention of the United States who sought to replicate British counterinsurgency success in Vietnam. Supported by the British Advisory Mission (BRIAM) led by British military officer Robert Thompson who had fought in the Emergency, the Americans adopted many facets of British military strategy used in Malaya and attempted to apply the same methods to Vietnam, often with disastrous consequences.


America’s attempt to segregate rural Vietnamese villagers from communist guerrillas by replicating Britain’s New Villages led to the creation of the Strategic Hamlet strategy, which failed because the Americans neglected the differences in cultural and racial demographics between Malaya and Vietnam. Herbicidal warfare in Malaya inspired America’s deployment of Agent Orange in Vietnam, which was used in far greater concentrations, leading to birth defects and stillbirths in hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese civilians and a wave of cancer diagnosis in American troops. Britain’s Ferret Force became the predecessor to America’s Search and Destroy strategy, which was used as justification for the extermination of entire villages such as the infamous My Lai Massacre. These strategies deployed by Britain in Malaya were already designed to enable violence against civilian populations. However, America’s attempts to replicate these methods in Vietnam not only significantly increased said suffering, but also proved to be powerless in halting the rise of Vietnamese communism. [14]


British counterinsurgency in the 21st century


The myth of Britain’s special counter-insurgency recipe persisted for decades after America’s failed implementation of British strategies, with many writers still believing that Britain’s post-WWII counterinsurgencies were far less reliant upon extreme violence when compared to France and America. This belief however has been shattered, largely due to a number of recent developments in the historiography of Britain’s colonial wars, and British military failures in Iraq. British military shortcomings in Iraq caused support for the belief in Britain’s superior counterinsurgency abilities to fracture, and new scholarship into Britain’s actions during the Mau Mau Uprising by historians such as David Anderson and Caroline Elkins helped to further expose the truth behind the British military’s “hearts and minds” mythology.[15] Furthermore, the families of the victims of rape, torture and murder at the hands of British troops in Kenya[16] and Malaya[17] launched a volley of legal attacks against the British government to demand justice for their relatives. These legal battles led to the discovery that the Foreign Office had illegally hidden evidence of atrocities committed by the British occupations in vaults dubbed “migrated archives”.[18]


The consequence of Britain attempts to promote and spread their counterinsurgency methods, coupled with American failed replication of British strategies in Vietnam, resulted in not only failure for America’s invasion forces but countless civilian deaths. The myth of Britain’s special counterinsurgency methods, designed largely to obfuscate the Empire’s reliance on terror and collective punishment, has now all but been discarded by historians of Britain’s 20th-century wars. Although later in the emergency there were attempts to use softer propaganda methods to entice communist guerrillas into surrendering, these were always done in tandem with the extreme violence of the aforementioned counterinsurgency strategies such as the New Villages, headhunting, herbicidal warfare and others. Many of the myths and half-truths intended to obfuscate Britain’s colonial crimes stem from the now largely discredited theory of “hearts and minds”, popularised by the British occupational forces of Malaya and further practiced in Kenya.


Written by Daniel Poole.


References


[1] John Newsinger, British Counterinsurgency, 2nd edition (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015), 34-35.


[2] Dan van der Vat, “Chin Peng Obituary,” The Guardian, September 22, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/sep/22/chin-peng (accessed 28th December 2020).


[3] Robert Clough, Labour: a Party of Imperialism, 2nd edition (London: Larkin Publications, 2014), 91-92.


[4] John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dries: A People’s History of the British Empire, 2nd edition (London: Bookmarks Publications, 2013), 216.


[5] John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dries: A People’s History of the British Empire, 2nd edition (London: Bookmarks Publications, 2013), 219.


[6] John Newsinger, The Blood Never Dries: A People’s History of the British Empire, 2nd edition (London: Bookmarks Publications, 2013), 220.


[7] Mark Townsend, “Revealed: how Britain tried to legitimise Batang Kali Massacre,” The Guardian, May 6, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/may/06/britain-batang-kali-massacre-malaysia (accessed 20th December 2020).


[8] For a full study of the Batang Kali Massacre, see Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor’s 2008 book “Slaughter and Deception at Batang Kali.”


[9] John D. Leary, Violence & The Dream People: The Orang Asli in the Malayan Emergency, 1948-1960, (Athens: Ohio University, 1995), 42.


[10] A digital upload of one of these propaganda leaflets can be found here: https://www.psywar.org/psywar/thumbnails/MY010301.jpg (accessed 20th December 2020).


[11] Ian Ward, Norma Miraflor, Chin Peng, Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History (Singapore: Media Masters, 2003), 304-305.


[12] This practice was featured prominently in the Channel 4 documentary Children of Empire (2007), when celebrity actress and writer of Skins, Jenny Éclair, discovered photographs of this practice among her father’s possessions. The episode can be viewed here: https://vimeo.com/108340919 (accessed 20th December 2020).


[13] http://content.time.com/time/covers/0,16641,19521215,00.html (accessed 20th December 2020).


[14] America’s failed attempts to replicate British counterinsurgency strategies in South Vietnam in the early 1960s is widely discussed in Robert O. Tilman’s article “The non-Lessons of the Malayan Emergency.” https://www.jstor.org/stable/2642468?seq=1


[15] Huw Bennett, Michael Finch, Andrei Mamolea and David Morgan-Owen, “Debate: Military History Studying Mars and Clio: Or How Not to Write About The Ethics of Military Conduct and Military History,” History Workshop Journal 85 (Autumn:2019): 4, doi:10.1093/hwj/dbz034.


[16] Ian Cobain, “Mau Mau torture case: Kenyans win ruling against UK,” The Guardian, October 5, 2012, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2012/oct/05/mau-mau-veterans-win-torture-case (accessed 20th December 2020).


[17] Owen Bowcott, “Relatives lose fight for inquiry into 1948 Batang Kali ‘massacre’,” The Guardian, November 25, 2015, https://www.theguardian.com/law/2015/nov/25/relatives-lose-fight-for-inquiry-into-1948-batang-kali-massacre (accessed 20th December 2020).


[18] Ian Cobain, “Foreign Office hoarding 1m historic files in secret archive,” The Guardian, October 18, 2013, https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2013/oct/18/foreign-office-historic-files-secret-archive. (accessed 20th December 2020).

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