Dutch communists introduced the ideas of Karl Marx into Borneo in the early 1900s and European communists likely played a similar role in Malaya on a small scale, but the main inspiration for communism in Malaya was the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which, after 1920, became a major political force in Chinese politics. In 1922 the CCP clandestinely opened an office in Singapore to serve South East Asia. This became known as the South Seas Communist Party (or, Nanyang Communist Party). Its main activities were in the Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia) and French Indo-China (now Vietnam). Its activities amongst the people of Singapore consisted mainly of trades union organisation. After communists in Java, who were of the same race and spoke the same language as the Malays, failed in their 1925 attempt to wrest their island from Dutch rule, many took refuge in Singapore, and engaged in political work there under the auspices of the U.S.S.R.-oriented Third Communist International (Comintern). Many of these Javanese communists were eventually caught by the police and deported.
When the Nationalist Party of China (Guomindang) expelled and massacred its communist members in 1927, repercussions were felt in Malaya, where communists, who had until then often worked as parts of the Malayan Branch of the Guomindang, had to sever this connection and operate with even greater caution and secrecy than before.
In April 1930 the Nanyang Communist party was dissolved and in its place was established the Malayan Communist Party (MCP). In addition to its primary responsibility for Malaya and Singapore, it was active in Thailand and the Dutch East Indies, which did not have their own Communist parties yet. The MCP was affiliated with the Third International, most directly with the International's Far Eastern Bureau which was located in Shanghai.
The MCP was dealt a serious setback in June 1931 when a messenger coming from the Third International was caught by the police. Papers in his possession, and possibly also a confession which he is reputed to have made, contained details of the MCP organisation and that of the Far Eastern Bureau of the International which, according to the historian O'Ballance, "enabled the police to arrest all prominent members of the MCP in Malaya and Singapore as well as many Communists in Hong Kong and Shanghai. This disaster severed communication between the MCP and the International and local damage to the MCP was such that it could not operate effectively for 12 months. The Far Eastern bureau of the International was not reestablished until 1933. According to information gained from the arrested messenger, the MCP had at this time about 1500 full members, and about an additional 10,000 active sympathisers in local organisations and trade unions.
By 1935 the MCP had become important leaders in the trade union movement and were able to organise several strikes, including a large strike that year at the Batu Arang coal mine in Selangor. They also attempted to set up workers committees to assume control of production at some workplaces. These committees, and the strikes, were crushed uncompromisingly by "the prompt dispatch of troops and police.
After the Batu Arang strike, many strikers of Chinese descent -- who were generally not classified by the British colonial authorities as local citizens -- were placed under banishment orders and shipped back to China. This punishment was even more drastic than might be supposed because in China they were received by the Guomindang and generally executed as communists. Thus deportation was in fact a probable death sentence.
The Japanese invasion of China in 1937 brought about some rapprochement between the Guomindang and Communists in China, in the interest of repelling their common enemy. Relations between Malayan Guomindang and Communists improved likewise, and the MCP, although still illegal, was able to operate under the wing of the Guomindang and be afforded some toleration by the police. The aroused anti-Japanese sentiment among Malaya's Chinese presented both the Guomindang and the MCP with a grerat opportunity to recruit members and raise funds under banners such as the 'National Salvation Association', and the 'Save China' campaign, with the stated purpose of subsidising the war effort in China.
At around this time, Lai Teck, an Annamite, born around 1900, who had served the French as a spy in Indo-China but been uncovered, was recruited by the British security services and brought to Singapore to infiltrate the MCP. At this he was highly successful, and by using the British police to pick off his rivals within the Party he rose through the hierarchy and attained the Party leadership (Secretary General) in April 1939. Not surprisingly, he steered the Party on a course of non-confrontation with the British and wholly embraced the Communist International's new line of cooperation with the United States and the Western European powers against Nazi Germany and Japan. Nevertheless. Lai Teck's true loyalties and motivations are difficult to asses. Despite the ghastly security breach that he at least potentially represented, the Party continued to operate fairly effectively while he was leader. By mid-1939 it claimed to have 40,000 members; this may have been an exaggeration but there were also a large number of active sympathisers. About half the members were in Singapore and the other half were spread throughout Malaya.
The MCP was headed by a Central Executive Committee whose size varied between about twelve and fifteen members. Out of this, a Political Bureau (Politburo) of about six members was selected which ran the Party when the C.E.C was not in session. In each State was a State Central Executive Committee. Each State was subdivided into several Districts. The smallest unit of organisation was the Party cell, which typically consisted of the members from one workplace or village. Large Party Congresses were held on an occasional basis. The Congresses were made up of delegates sent by the local organisations.
On December 8 1941, Japan invaded Malaya, landing troops at Kota Bahru onn the North East Coast and bombing Singapore. The MCP had been offering to cooperate militarily with the British for aboutn the twelve months previous to that, anticipating that they might play a valuable role as guerilla fighters behind enemy lines if large portions of the peninsula were overrun by the Japanese. This offer, hitherto rejected, was now accepted. On 15 December, all left-wing political prisoners were released by the government. The British undertook to train some MCP members in guerilla warfare techniques, and on 20 December 1941 the first group of fifteen entered the hastily established 101st Special Training School (101st STS) in Singapore for a ten day course. About 165 MCP membeers were trained in this manner before the British defences collapsed two months later. These fighters, scantily armed and equipped by the hard-pressed British hurriedly dispersed theoughout the country and attempted to harass the occupying army.
In February 1942 the Central Executive Committee resolved to go underground and carry on armed resistance, and just before Singapore fell on the 15th, they snuck out into the State of Johore, where they started to organise a resistance army. Soon four armed groups, which became known as 'Regiments' were formed, with the 101st STS graduates serving as a nucleus. One regiment formed around the first class of fifteen from the 101st STS, which had gone to Selangor State. There they recruited locally and their strength rose to about 50; this became known as the 1st Regiment. Graduates of the school who had gone to Negri Simbilan established the 2nd Regiment; they had the good fortune to obtain some additional weapons from the British and also to incorporate into their ranks some stranded British and Indian soldiers. The 3rd Regiment was formed around 101st STS graduates in North Johore, and the 4th in South Johore. Together these bands became known in March 1942 as the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) They immediately began to perform sabotage and ambushes against the Japanese forces but these first attacks were amateurishly carried out and their main effect was to alert the Japanese to the presence of the MPAJA, who they proceeded to hunt ruthlessly, including by means of reprisals against the ethnic Chinese civilian population. The maltreatment of the Chinese civilians, and also their increasing economic discomfiture, which included hunger, caused large numbers of them to flee the 'civilised' areas and become squatters at the forest margins, where they could grow food and avoid the Japanese. They became the main source of recruits, food, and other support for the MPAJA and the MPAJA in turn cultivated their friendship by attempting to protect them from the Japanese.
The MPAJA continued to recruit. O'Ballance estimates that in mid-1942 the regimental strengths were about 100 in the first Regiment, 160 in the 2nd, 360 in the 3rd, and 250 in the 4th. Also in mid-1942, a 5th, 6th, and 7th Regiment were formed. The 6th Regiment was mainly a training organisattion. It included a People's Academy which was run on the lines of Mao Zedong's military and political school in Yenan. The Academy's commander was reputed to have studied at Mao's school.
Organisationally, the MPAJA was headed by a Central Military Committee. It communicated wit the regiments, and with the State Executive Committees of the MCP, which worked closely with whichever regiments were in their State. Communication was at first difficult because the Japanese controlled the roads, but eventually the MPAJA developed a system of forest trails, on which their messengers could travel throughout the country. Each regiment was divided into between two and five companies. The highest-ranking officer in a regiment was the Senior Political Officer; next in rank was the military commander. Together with a quartermaster and an officer in charge of political teaching they comprised the headquarter staff.
The regiments lived in clearings hidden beneath the tall forest canopy. Sentries were posted around the perimeter; at a signal from any of them the regiment would vanish into the jungle according to a well-practised routine. The MPAJA included women in its membership. Life was ordered according to a typical military regimen of drill, physical training, chores, and instruction in fighting techniques. The MPAJA differed from a typical Western army in that it was regarded not only as a fighting force but also as a vehicle for the dissemination of political ideas. This was in keeping with the Maoist idea of the soldier as an ambassador for the revolution. Accordingly there were regular lectures, discussions, production of newspapers, and literacy training for those soldiers who could not read and write.
Although many of the MCP's top personnel had managed to flee Singapore before it fell to the Japanese, the Secretary General, Lai Teck, had not and had been picked up in a Japanese sweep there shortly after the city's surrender. Although most communists were executed by the Japanese, Lai Teck walked free a few days later; based on later evidence, including documents in Japanese archives, it now appears most likely that Lai Teck saved his life by promising to subvert the MCP on behalf of the Japanese, thus adding another layer of deception and mystery to his already complicated activities.
On 1 September 1942, more than 100 senior MCP and MPAJA members gathered at the Batu Caves just North of Kuala Lumpur for a secret conference. The Japanese, however, had been tipped off and staged a surprise raid at dawn. In the ensuing lopsided skirmish most of the MCP and MPAJA high command were destroyed. Lai Teck, who should have been at the meeting, wasn't. Subsequently he claimed that he had been unable to attend because of mechanical problems with his car.
After the Batu Caves incident the MPAJA had to abandon its political commissar system because of lack of staff, so the military commanders became the heads of the regiments. During this period the MPAJA avoided engagements against the Japanese army and concentrated instead on its own consolidation. By the spring of 1943 it had about 4,500 soldiers. This number was determined mainly by the limited number of weapons available; the MPAJA had not only been recruiting new members, but also demobilising its weaker members because it could not obtain weapons for everyone.
Beginning in May 1943, small groups of Allied personnel belonging to an organisation called Force 136 were secretly landed on the Malayan coast to reconnoitre and to attempt to contact any existing guerilla groups. The MPAJA's attitude toward these emissaries was ambivalent, but toward the end of 1943 they finally agreed to send representatives of the Central Military Committee to talk to them. Early in 1944 an agreement was reached whereby the MPAJA would accept some direction from the Allied South East Asia Command (SEAC) and the Allies would give the MPAJA weapons and other much-needed supplies. It was not until he spring of 1945, however, that significant amounts of material began to arrive (by air drop); between then and the end of the war about 2,000 small arms, various other supplies, and about 200 personnel, were delivered. Included in the supplies were jungle green uniforms: until then the MPAJA had not had uniforms.
For their part, the MPAJA received the Force 136 advisers somewhat cooly and only gave them partial cooperation. Part of the problem was that although some of the Force 136 personnel were Chinese, all of these were from the Guomindang and the MPAJA could hardly bear to welcome rivals such as those into its midst. It was also becoming clear by then that the Allies would win the war, so the British and the MPAJA were jockeying for position in the post-war Malaya.
The dropping of the atomic bombs on Japan by the United States brought World War Two to an abrupt end; Imperial Japan's surrender on 16 August 1945 caught all of the belligerent parties in Malaya by surprise. The British had been working on plans for an amphibious invasion of Malaya called Operation Zipper but had no plan for an immediate reoccupation under peacetime condiditions; consequently their first contingent of reoccupation troops did not arrive in Malaya until September 3rd; Singapore was completely reoccupied only on the 8th. The Japanese garrison in Malaya received the news of their country's surrender with anguished disbelief and denial, for they were still in complete control in Malaya. Nevertheless they had to accept what had happened; they withdrew from the countryside and concentrated their troops in the main cities where they maintained civil order while awaiting the arrival of the British to whom they would surrender themselves. The MPAJA were also caught unawares by the surrender; however they reacted to it more expeditiously than did the British. Realising that almost the whole country was theirs for the taking, they emerged from the forests and began exercising civil authority in most places except the main cities where the Japanese were. In many places, especially Chinese areas, they were greeted as heroes and paraded down village streets under hastily built triumphal arches erected in their honour. The population had had little access to world news, and a not very clear understanding of the real causes of Japan's defeat; what they did know was that in their country this was the army that had fought the Japanese and the Japanese were now defeated.
As a first step toward establishing an administration, the Communists set up People's Committees, composed of prominent local citizens. These were not very formally constituted and had no definite authority, but served as a place where political ideas could be worked out and proposals formulated. The communist influence in them was large but they were not exclusively communist bodies. They introduced an element of local self-rule into the situation.
The British had to recognise the MPAJA takeover, at least for the time being, as an accomplished fact. They tried to co-opt it somewhat by announcing that each MPAJA soldier would be paid thirty dollars a month, clothed and fed, and the MPAJA would be employed on guard duties. The MPAJA, meanwhile, had been able to acquire a large quantity of arms from the Japanese, and were now able to recruit with ease. Their armed strength quickly rose to over 6,000, and an 8th Regiment was formed, based in Kedah.
The MPAJA began to engage in activities which have been described as 'reprisals' but can also be viewed as an attempt to consolidate their power. The Japanese had been cruel masters during the war but the MPAJA now left them almost entirely unmolested: they were at one and the same time both a hard target, and a spent force who would soon be exiting the country. The brunt of the MPAJA's attention fell upon the Malay police force, which had collaborated entirely with the Japanese during the war and placed itself under Japanese direction. It was at this time demoralised and disorganised, but also a rival local power group which might continue to exist for a long time. The severity of the MPAJA's attacks on the police varied from place to place. In some places the police had to hide in the jungle, in some others they had to barricade themselves into their police stations for defence.
The MPAJA also took action against some members of the civilian population; these were as likely to be anti-Communist Chinese as Malays or Indians. This went as far as summary execution or assassination in some cases. The MPAJA also demanded money from various individuals; whether such fund raising should be called extortion or an irregular form of taxation hinges on whether the MCP can be considered to have constituted a government in that period.
During this time there was debate in the MCP and MPAJA as to the best strategic course. The rank and file were generally more radical than the top leadership and many advocated an immediate attempt to seize all power from the British. There were as yet only a handful of British troops in Malaya and British prestige was still very low because of the way their forces had been manhandled by the Japanese at the beginning of the war and their nationals interned in humiliating conditions throughout the remainder. It was felt that now -- before the British had a chance to reestablish themselves -- was the time to act. Among the leadership, Lau Yew, head of the Central Military Committee, is believed also to have advocated this line. Against this point of view were Lai Teck and a majority of the C.E.C. and C.M.C., who considered a blatant confrontation with the British to be too risky. In the end it was the line of caution that was adopted. With hindsight, several historians believe that the MCP let slip its one real chance to take power in Malaya by not acting at this time. There were also later within the MCP many recriminations against Lai Teck for having let this golden opportunity pass by.
The British hurried to set up a military administration in Malaya to take control of the country until a civilian government to their liking could be established. The first elements of this administration, called the British Military Administration (BMA) were installed on 12 September 1945 at Kuala Lumpur. The MCP now began to pursue a 'National Front' or 'United Front' policy, such as has been advocated at various times for communists in colonised parts of the world. The idea was to cooperate with local bourgeoise groups seeking national independence and work within legal, constitutional, organisations such as the trade unions and parliamentary parties with the objective of obtaining reforms and , eventually, independence from the colonial power. Independence, even under a local bourgeoise regime, it was believed, would weaken the hold of global imperialism on the world's resources and also bring about a local situation more propitious to the transition to a socialist state.
Economic conditions in Malaya were bad in the first year after tha war. There were food shortages and real wages were below the pre-war level. As a consequence, the BMA was faced almost immediately with strikes and demonstrations. Several were put down by armed force and the banishment weapon was used against the leaders. The MCP sought to benefit from this unrest and took a very active role in the trade union movement and in organising demonstrations. It was instrumental in getting small trade unions to band together into groups called General Labour Unions (GLUs). (For legal reasons these changed their names in 1946 and 1947 to Federations of trade unions; the two largest were the Singapore Federation of Trade Unions (SFTU) and the Pan Malayan Federation of Trade Unions (PMFTU)). The Administration soon became concerned about these union federations because of their size -- the PMFTU had as members 200 out of the 277 registered unions in Malaya by early 1947 -- and because they raised the spectre of a general strike and might be able to effectively demand not only economic but political changes. Beginning in 1946 the government took progressively more strenuous measures to bring the trade union movement to heel and eventually outlawed the Federations altogether (on 12 June 1948).
The MCP also sought to exert influence through parliamentary politics. At first the MCP had hoped that the BMA would recognise the People's Committees and incorporate them into the colony's new government or at least consult with them in the initial stages. However the BMA refused to recognise the People's Committees and would not work with them. Later, MCP members joined political parties such as the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU) and the Malay Nationalist Party (MNU) and sought to bring the various parties of the left together in coalitions such as the All Malayan Council for Joint Action (AMCJA). However the MCP was much less successful in this sphere than in the trade union movement, and in the particularly important matter of the planning in 1947 of the constitution for the upcoming Federation of Malaya, not only the MCP but all of the left-of-centre parties were virtually ignored by the government and given no representation at the constitutional talks.
The MCP was also active in the publication of newspapers. These sometimes adopted a highly anti-colonialist tone, and on several occasions were charged with sedition, shut down, and their editors prosecuted.
An important issue in the months immediately following the war was the disbandment of the MPAJA. The BMA did not immeditaely demand the disbandment of the MPAJA for fear of provoking it into rebellion. However by late 1945 the BMA had moved enough troops into place that it felt secure in making this demand, and the MPAJA leaders reluctantly agreed to break up their army and have its soldiers hand their weapons in to the British.
The British turned the meetings where the weapons were handed in into ceremonies where they praised the MPAJA for its wartime role. According to O'Ballance, "When he had handed in his weapons each man (and woman) was given a bounty of $350 Malayan (about £45), promised a sack of rice and given an understanding that the government would do its best to find him a job. Although the disbandment order caused bitter disappointment within the MPAJA, these parades were generally orderly and well conducted.
Nevertheless the MPAJA pertly circumvented the disbandment order. Most of the weapons that it had obtained from the British were returned, but many of the weapons it had captured from the Japanese, as well as a few of British or other allied origin, it was able to hide and not turn in. Also, the MPAJA had insulated some of its companies from contact with Force 136 during the war, so the British did not have a count of all of its soldiers.
According to O'Ballance's figures, the MPAJA had 10,000 soldiers just prior to disbandment (many had joined between the Japanese surrender and disbandment). Six thousand eight-hundred were officially disbanded. Of these all but 500 handed in a weapon of some kind. A further 700 rifles, mostly Japanese, and 1,000 shotguns were handed in. He says no pistols or revolvers were returned "and these afterwards became the prestige symbol of a Communist underground officer." Of the weapons distributed by Force 136 -- for which the MPAJA had had to give receipts -- almost all were returned; however about 20 per cent of the air-dropped weapons had fallen 'off target' and O'Ballance believes that the MPAJA probably succeeded in retrieving most of these without having had to admit it to Force 136.
After the disbandment the MCP formed a ‘Malayan Peoples' Anti-Japanese Army Ex-Service Comrades Association’ (MPAJAESCA) as a support and social organisation for its former soldiers. This also enabled the MCP to keep track of its former soldiers in case of a future call-up. A newspaper, the Charn Yew Pao (‘Combattant's Friend’) was published for the ex-service comrades. It was printed at the presses of a major communist newspaper, Min Sheng Pao.
Regarding the legal status of the MCP, although it was never explicitly declared legal after the war, it was acknowledged and in practice allowed to operate as a legal entity. This was done partly in recognition or appreciation of its role as an ally during the war and partly because after the war the political climate had changed so that the colonial administration felt that it had to be more careful than before not to appear repressive or un-democratic.
In 1946, faint rumors which had been circulating within the party about disloyalty on the part of Lai Teck began to receive more substantiation. Also the rift within the party continued, with the rank and file, especially the younger members, favouring more radical action and also criticising Lai Teck for his timidity in the post-surrender interregnum. He was removed from some sensitive posts and an investigation was begun into his activities. A full meeting of the Central Executive Committee was scheduled for 6 March 1947 at which the complaints against Lai Teck were to be aired in his presence. Somehow aware that his time was up, Lai Teck did not attend the meeting; instead he absconded with the bulk of the Party's funds, hiding first in Singapore, then going to Hong Kong and later Thailand.
The realisation of what had happened shocked the Central Executive Committee utterly. They kept Lai Teck's defection secret for a full year while they tried to determine how much damage had been done and how they were to recover from it. Their investigation eventually concluded (in O'Ballance's words): "that Lai Teck had systematically betrayed the MCP leaders and other Communist personnel during the Japanese occupation, that he was responsible for the Batu Caves incident (of 1942), that he also had secret contacts with the British authorities afterwards and that he had consistently misused his position in the Party for personal gain and power. In March 1948 the news was cautiously broken to the State Central Executive Committees. In May 1948 a document which became known as the 'Lai Teck Exposure Document' was released which was allowed to be communicated to all members of the Party. The Lai Teck affair is sometimes also known as the 'Wright case' after one of Lai Teck's (many) pseudonyms.
The Party elected Chin Peng, a 26 year old native of Perak State who had joined the MCP in the 1930s to be its new Secretary General. He had been a senior officer in the MPAJA 5th Regiment in Perak, and had been one of the Party's principal liaisons with Force 136. In 1945 and 1946 he had visited Mao's forces in China several times. Later he edited the MCP newspaper, The Democrat. He was considered a Party moderate.
With Lai Teck's departure the Party began to adopt a more resolutely anti-British stance. By early 1948 somewhat vague and diffuse plans had been laid for an insurrection, intended to commence around October of that year or later. Besides the departure of their conservative and likely British-employed leader, several things were causing the MCP to move in the direction of open rebellion. The Party, via its participation in AMCJA and other organisations, had hoped to have a voice in the formation of the new Federation of Malaya; this had been denied: the Federation had come into being on 1 February 1948 with no communist input. Also, by 1948 the MCP had seen its trades union program ever more strictly curtailed, by increasingly restrictive labour legislation and suppression of strikes by the army and police. This meant that its moderate United Front policy had essentially come to nought. The MCP would have to try another line.
Also the international communist movement had recently begun to advocate more militancy from communists in the colonised nations. Zhdanov's speech to the Cominform (Communist Information Bureau -- successor to the Comintern) set this tone, and it was maintained at the Communist Asian Youth Conference in Calcutta, February 1948, at which an MCP delegate was in attendance. Although the MCP was not under external direction, these calls from afar may have encouraged it in taking a course it was already considering for local reasons.
Meanwhile the government was also taking a harder line against the MCP. On 12 June 1948 it outlawed the labour union Federations. At that time it was also preparing an Emergency Regulations bill and a Printing Presses bill. A state of emergency was declared on 16 June after three European planters were murdered in Perak state. Under the state of emergency the police were given sweeping powers of arrest, and punishments up to and including the death penalty could be administered without an ordinary criminal trial. This was the beginning of the period that the British would call the Malayan Emergency, and the MCP would call the Anti-British National Liberation War.
In the two weeks following the declaration of the emergency hundreds of MCP members were arrested. The Party was declared illegal on 23 July. The declaration of the emergency caught the MCP militants in a partial state of mobilisation; those who had not yet taken up positions in jungle hide outs now attempted to do so. They called themselves the Malayan Peoples' Anti-British Army (MPABA); many of course were ex-MPAJA personnel. Thet were commanded by Lau Yew who had been Chairman of the MPAJA Central Military Committee. Lau Yew, however, was an early casualty, killed along with 11 others in a clash with colonial forces in Selangor State on 16 July 1948. For the first three or four weeks the MPABA were relatively inactive. After that they became able to stage raids on isolated police posts and European plantations and mines. Their medium-term goal was to expel the British from a few remote parts of the country which would become 'Liberated Areas'. These would provide a stable home base, and the communists would control the economic resources of the Liberated areas and thus be able to sustain themselves. The MPABA's first raids were made by companies of about 200. Some raids were successful but most were not because the MPABA was not yet well enough organised and trained to carry out such large raids. O'Ballance also believes that combat units of 200 were simply too large for the terrain and type of warfare being engaged in.
During this period the MCP also engaged in intimidation, which occasionally went as far as assassination, against local civilians. This was done to coerce people into giving material aid to the gurrillas, into providing them with information, or into not giving information to the government security forces. The MCP's use of intimidation has been much criticised on ethical as well as practical grounds. As a policy it was shortsighted because it alienated the communist's natural supporters and also provided the government with a propaganda theme. It contradicted Mao's teachings on the importance of winning the allegiance of the common people (eg., the 'Eight Reminders'). The Party eventually came to regard intimidation as an error and repudiated it at the September 1951 meeting of the C.E.C.
As of early 1949 the war had not gone particularly well for the MPABA. It had suffered a large number of casualties and had not established any liberated areas.
In early 1949 the MCP promoted amongst the masses a plan for a Peoples' Democratic Republic of Malaya, in which Singapore was to be included.
On 1 February 1949 the MPABA changed its name to 'Malayan Peoples' Liberation Army' (MPLA). This name, originally written in Chinese, has also been translated as 'Malayan Races Liberation Army' (MRLA) and 'Malayan National Liberation Army' (MNLA). The term translated as 'Peoples', 'Races', or 'National' was intended to signify that the army represented all three of Malaya's principal ethnic groups, Malays, Chinese, and Indians.
The MPLA had a General Headquarters (GHQ) with sections for command, administration, and logistics. The GHQ was controlled by a Central Military Committee which consisted of the MCP politburo plus some of the MPLA's regimental commanders and political officers. The most influential members of the politburo were Chin Peng, Yeung Kwo and Lau Lee. At this point the army had about 4000 soldiers, about ten per cent of whom were women. It was divided into ten Regiments, nine of which were predominantly Chinese and one of which was composed mostly of Malays and Indians. The latter was, however, relentlessly pursued by the government security forces with the result that by the end of 1950 it had been almost eliminated; subsequently it was replenished with mainly Chinese troops. About 1000 of the MPLA's soldiers were MCP members.
Supporting the MPLA was an organisation called the Min Yuen. The Min Yuen's members lived among the ordinary population in the cities and the countryside. Their job was to collect supplies and information to send to the MPLA. O'Ballance estimates that in the early part of the Anti-British War the Min Yuen had 30,000 to 40,000 members. He believes that other peoples' estimates of up to 400,000 members are too high. Most of the Min Yuen's members worked for the organisation only part time. The organisation's leaders worked full time and were usually MCP members. The name Min Yuen is a contraction of Min Chung Yuen Thong, which can be translated as 'Popular Mass Movement' or 'People's Revolutionary Movement'.
The MPLA lived in jungle or forest camps similar to those which the MPAJA had used. In some cases, in fact, the MPLA simply re-occupied an old MPAJA camp. Much stress was laid on orderliness and cleanliness. O'Ballance has described a typical camp daily routine. His account is likely based on information obtained by government security forces from captured or surrendered MPLA personnel. MPLA soldiers arose in time for roll call which was at about 5:30 a.m. After that came drill and weapons training, then breakfast at around 9:00. From 10:00 to noon was occupied by political instruction and lectures. Afternoon was time for camp chores and practice in elementary guerrilla warfare tactics. The evening meal was taken at about 5:30. After that came about two more hours of political work.
The MPLA instructed its soldiers to act according to ‘Ten Points’ of conduct, which were derived from Mao Zedong's ‘Eight Reminders’:
By mid 1950 a significant portion of the MPLA had begun to have uniforms. These were obtained for them by the Min Yuen, and were of either khaki or jungle green British pattern. "They wore rubber boots, trousers, short puttees and a cap. The MPAJA and MPLA usually wore three stars on their caps -- signifying the three races of Malaya. (The Guomindang wore one star.)
One of the guerrillas' favourite kinds of attack was the road ambush. During the second half of 1949, for example, major 'incidents' averaged one per week; the majority of them were road ambushes, usually on police, army or planters. Short says that "casualties varied from one or two to more than twenty and were inevitable as long as security forces travelled in 'soft' vehicles." Road or rail ambushes averaged about 17 per month from September 1949 to February 1950, and 56 per month from then until September 1950, peaking at 100 in the latter month.
For the first two years of the war there was an abundance of people willing to join the MPLA. For a while there was even a waiting list of people wanting to get in. The MPLA's numerical strength in that period was consistently in the 4000 - 5000 range. While the communists likely had enough weapons to equip more people than this, they were plagued throughout the war by a shortage of ammunition and this may have placed an upper limit on the number of people they could sensibly arm. While th MPLA were well-trained in most respects, they were generally poor marksmen and markswomen because they could not afford to expend their bullets on target practice. O'Ballance also thinks that considerations of "terrain, space and economic factors" caused the MPLA leaders to decide not to increase the size of their army.
By 1950 the government was offering rewards to encourage MPLA members to surrender. There were few defections however. O'Ballance says that "Those who did defect invariably did so for reasons characteristically Chinese -- usually wounded pride or pique, the result of demotion, ridicule or failure to gain expected promotion." (sic).
In 1950 the High Commissioner of Malaya instituted a form of conscription into the security forces. However, O'Ballance says that in consequence of this, "several thousand Chinese youths left the country to avoid being called up, and the scheme had to be abandoned.
After the Communists under Mao Zedong took over all of China in December 1949, the British stopped deporting captured MPLA personnel to that country, and imprisoned or executed them in Malaya.
As early as 1949 the British had begun to forcibly relocate some of the rural peasantry, especially squatters, into guarded camps so that they could not give aid to the guerrillas. Relocation became a major component of British strategy under the Plan instituted by General Briggs in 1950 and was pursued vigorously by General Templer who headed both the military and civil branches of the administration from 1952-1954. By the mid-1950s about 500,000 people (roughly ten percent of Malaya's population) had been moved into compounds, termed by the British 'New Villages', which were surrounded by high barbed wire fences and guarded by police. Internees were allowed out to work in the surrounding fields and plantations between 7 a.m. and 4 p.m., but were searched before leaving to ensure that they carried no supplies, especially food, that could be given to the guerrillas. The MCP recognised the New Villages program as a serious threat to their ability to maintain their guerrilla army and tried to convince the peasantry not to submit to relocation. This had little effect however because if the British suspected that a peasant village would resist relocation they would surround it before dawn and then take it by surprise so that no one could slip away.
To add to this, in June 1951 a more general food-control program called 'Operation Starvation' was instituted. In 'food restricted areas', eating was only permitted at home: cafes and restaurants were closed and people were not permitted to take food with them to work. Shop keepers had to keep strict account of all food sold and canned goods had to be punctured at time of sale to necessitate their being used promptly.
Besides relocation, another form of movement control called 'regroupment' was used. Regroupment consisted in concentrating the dwellings of workers who lived at their place of employment, usually a mine or estate, in one part of the property, surrounding it with barbed wire and guarding it with special constables. It was similar to relocation except that the distance moved was generally less and the heads of the househlods kept their existing employment. About 650,000 people were regrouped in this manner.
In addition to these legal measures, it was fairly common, especially in the early years of the war, for the police or military simply to burn down villages that they believed were supporting the guerrillas. This was done, for instance to Kachau, Selangor, on 2 November 1948; the workers' residences at the Sungei Remok estate, Batu Kali, Selangor, on 12 December 1948; and to 144 of the houses of Hilam Kiang, Johore, on 19 January 1949. Government correspondence from the period reproduced in Short indicates that the practice was widespread; but also the cause of some internal disagreement: the army tending to favour burning, some civil officials councelling restraint.
As a military strategy, the restrictive measures described above -- taken to divorce the MCP from their sources of supply in the general population -- were highly successful. By 1953 the MPLA was often short of food. Recruitment began to be a problem. The MPLA's numerical strength, steady at 4,000 to 5,000 members since early in the war, began to fall: according to O'Ballance, at the end of 1953 it was just under 4,000; in June 1955 it was 3,000; at the end of 1956, 2,000; mid-1958, 1000; July 1961, 500. (More recent research tends to give higher numbers for the MPLA. Anthony Short writes that 5,000 guerrillas were on the Special Branch wanted lists at the end of 1953, and that the actual number of armed guerrillas at that time was probably about 6,000. Army figures reproduced in Coates, Suppressing Insurgency, suggest a guerrilla strength of about 3,500 in 1957.)
During the first four years of the war (June 1948 - June 1952) the MPLA had lost 3,149 killed, 915 captured, 752 surrendered, and 1,643 wounded (government figures; the wounded is an estimate): It had lost about 6,500 soldiers but been able to replenish itself through recruitment. The figures for the full twelve years of the war (June 1948 - July 1960) are 6,710 killed, 1,287 captured, 2,702 surrendered, 2,810 wounded. The rate of government predation was actually less after 1952; but the MPLA's numbers nevertheless dwindled.
By about 1952, faced with supply problems and less than the hoped for military success -- Malaya's mine and plantation economy had not been crippled and no liberated areas had been established -- the MCP began reducing its guerrilla attacks and focusing more on retrenchment and survival. It renewed its efforts at working through the trade unions and political parties. The MPLA began planting large gardens in the jungle to feed itself; the British responded with aerial herbicide spraying.
The MPLA began to increasingly rely on Malaya's aboriginal population for support. O'Ballance states that Malaya had about 50,000 aborigines and about half of them initially supported the MPLA. (Others have set the number of aborigines at 100,000.) The MCP had established good relations with the aborigines. Even before World War Two some MCP cadres had traded with them; during the War they grew closer, allied at times in struggle versus the Japanese. The Party took the aborigines seriously, establishing Asal clubs as meeting places and for raising the aborigines' material level. This was in contrast to the colonial authorities who, before the aborigines became problematic by aiding the MPLA, barely noticed them and in fact had no definite idea of their numbers; their estimate of fifty- or a hundred- thousand was arrived at in a hurry early in the 'Emergency' years. It was symptomatic of the difference in attitude between the MCP and the colonialists toward the aborigines that the MCP called them Asal -- 'Origin' -- while the government called them by a conventional term, sakai, which means 'slave' and was, understandably, a cause of resentment. The government's approach early in the Emergency to the aborigines was to intern them in New Village-like camps, but the shock of this treatment was so great that hundreds died; also it left the deep forest entirely to the MPLA and eliminated the possibility for the government of using some of the aborigines as informants: for these reasons the aborigine internment program was discontinued and the government adopted instead a strategy of cultivating the aborigines' allegiance by offering them material incentives and of building forts to establish a government presence -- whether protective or intimidating can be debated -- in aborigine territory. If an aborigine garden plot was believed to be supplying food to the guerrillas, the Royal Air Force (RAF) would be called in with bombs and defoliants. By the mid-1950s a significant number of aborigines did begin to actively assist the government. The aborigines were extremely valuable allies for either side because of their jungle skills.
In mid 1955 a letter was received at the offices of the United Planters' Association of Malaya, purporting to be from the 'Supreme Command Headquarters of the Malayan Liberation Army', and calling for peace talks, which it suggested include Malaya's political parties and various other associations. The government did not think that a negotiated peace would be to its advantage, however, and rejected the proposal.
In July 1955 Malaya's first general elections took place. As a result Prince (Tunku) Abdul Rahman became Malaya's parliamentary leader ('Chief Minister'). One of his first acts was to declare a partial amnesty "enabling insurgents to surrender and receive free pardons, the only exception being those who had committed criminal acts. The amnesty remained in place until 8 February 1956 but resulted in only 73 surrenders.
On 24 September 1955 Chin Peng sent a letter from Klian Intan, Perak, near the Thailand border, to Tunku Abdul Rahman and other members of the government, saying that the MCP was willing to send an envoy to negotiate peace. This was accepted and on 17 October two government representatives, Too Joon Hing, an Assistant Minister of Education, and I.S. Wylie, the Deputy Commissioner of the Federation police, met Chin Peng and another member of the MCP Central Executive Committee at Klian Intan. According to O'Ballance, "Despite the almost complete picture pieced together by the Special Branch of the Federation Police of the MCP, the MRLA and the Min Yuen, their personnel and suspected locations, this was the first time that the exact whereabouts of Chen Ping (sic) had been pinpointed with any degree of certainty. He was a skillful, elusive and experienced guerilla leader. The meeting was not overly successful, its only positive result being that further meetings were arranged. These took place on November 17th and 29th, at Klian Intan. They in turn paved the way for meetings between Chin Peng and Tunku Abdul Rahman that would take place in late December in the village of Baling, about 20 miles from the Thailand border. On 22 December the Security Forces were ordered to cease fire for ten days in a 400 square mile (1000 km²) area in Northern Perak and Kedah where the meeting was to be held.
On 24 December the MCP advocated in letters to Malayan newspapers a new 'Eight Point Program' which called for an end to the Emergency Regulations, a cessation of hostilities, reform of Malaya's political system, democratic rights, support for world peace, and attention to other matters including education, health, welfare, and industrial production.
The Baling meeting was held on 28 and 29 December 1955. Representing the Government were Tunku Abdul Rahman, David Marshall, Chief Minister of Singapore, and Sir Chen Lock Tan, leader of the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). For the MCP were Chin Peng and two other C.E.C. members, Chen Tian and Abdul Rashid bin Maidin. Chin Peng wanted legal recognition of the MCP and essentially a return to the status quo ante bellum. The Government demanded the dissolution of the MCP and the talks broke down over that point.
The MCP went back to the jungle and hostilities recommenced. However, the slow decline of the guerrilla army continued.
In March or April 1956 Chin Peng sent a letter to Tunku Abdul Rahman offering to resume negotiations. This was rejected by Rahman in a broadcast on 2 April. Chin Peng's offer was repeated over the air from Radio Peking but no negotiations resulted.
In April 1957 Hor Lung, a Politburo member who had been in charge of the Southern region of the MPLA since 1953, surrendered to the security forces as the result of a bribe. The amount was not disclosed but was thought to be $496,000 Malayan (£ 55,000). By this time the government was offering very large rewards to communists who turned informant.
For simply giving vital information to the police a person could earn in a few minutes as much as he could ever hope to make in a lifetime of rubber-tapping -- or far more, if as a result [a high ranking Communist was arrested].
By July 1957, about 30,000 square miles (approximately 78,000 km²) out of Malaya's total area of 50,850 square miles (approximately 130,000 km²) had been declared by the government as 'White Areas' -- areas where the MPLA had essentially been eliminated and the Emergency Regulations withdrawn. In August 1957, Kuala Lumpur and district were declared 'White'. By mid 1958 the MPLA existed mainly in Perak and the Southern part of Johore.
On 31 August 1957 Malaya became nominally independent from Britain. Tunku Abdul Rahman became Prime Minister of the new country. The post of Director of Operations against the insurrection remained in place and continued to be filled by a British General. Lieutennant-General Archibald Cassels was appointed to that post.
On 4 October 1957 Chin Peng sent a pamphlet to newspapers and news agencies in Singapore, proposing an end to the war and pledging MCP support for the government if the MCP was given the status of a legal political party. On 12 October and 19 December, 1957, Chin Peng wrote to Tunku Abdul Rahman requesting peace talks. The Tunku's response to both of these letters was that he would not meet Chin Peng unless the MCP first agreed to surrender. In such a case the only possible purpose of the meeting would be to discuss surrender terms. Since the MCP was not willing to surrender -- it had been proposing a mutual agreemant to stop fighting -- there was no meeting.
By early 1959 the MPLA had lost its positions in Southern Malaya and was active only around the Thailand border.
On 31 July 1960 the government formally declared that the 'Emergency' was over. However, Emergency restrictions remained in place in the area near the Thailand border. A Border Security Council was formed to administer Emergency Regulations in parts of the four border States, Perlis, Kedah, Perak, and Kelantan.
The MCP and MPLA, at a strength of about 500, continued to subsist on either side of the Thailand border. In 1969 and the early 1970s, the MCP experienced a resurgence and once again became militarily active in parts of Malaya other than the Thailand border. [Wikipedia lacks information on this part of the MCP's history. Feel free to contribute.] After that resurgence they were pushed once again to the border area.
The MCP laid down its arms in 1989. On December 2nd of that year, at the town of Haad Yi in Southern Thailand, Chin Peng, Rashid Maidin, and Abdullah C. D. met with representatives of the Malaysian and Thailand governments. Separate peace agreements were signed between the MCP and both governments.
In the mid 1960s the U.S. State Department estimated the party membership to be approximately 2000.
Kernial Singh Sandhu, "The Saga of the 'Squatter' in Malaya", Journal of South East Asian History, 1964.
Anthony Short, The Communist Insurrection in Malaya. London, 1975, Frederick Muller.
Cheah Boon Kheng, Red Star Over Malaya.