Malayan Emergency

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Malayan emergency was an insurrection and guerilla war of the Malay Races Liberation Army in Malaysia from 1948-1960.

Malay Races Liberation Army (MRLA in this text) was a creation of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) and, by extension, led and dominated by ethnic Chinese communists. It was also a successor of the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) that the British had trained and equipped during World War II. The Communist Party was granted legal recognition by the British after the war as a reward for its wartime effort, but had secretly kept most of the MPAJA's weapons for possible future use.

The MCP disagreed with the British idea of a Malayan Federation because there seemed to be no direct way to communism. The party’s new leader, Chin Peng, decided that an armed conflict would be the only way to bring the communist revolution to Malaya.

MRLA guerillas killed three British rubber planters on June 16, 1948. The British declared a state of emergency to deal with the insurgents. The enemy was nicknamed "Charlie Tango" – communist terrorists, or "terrs" for short. A term that would be used again in Rhodesia to describe ZANU or ZAPU guerillas.

Despite the term “emergency” it was a full-scale guerilla war between the MRLA and the British, Commonwealth, and Malayan governments. The MRLA tortured, gang raped, humiliated and killed dozens of British and Malay civilians (including children), ambushed soldiers, sabotaged installations, attacked slightly-defended rubber plantations and destroyed transportation and infrastructure in a deliberate terror campaign. Four hundred civilians died in the first year.

Support for the MRLA was mainly based among about 500,000 ethnic Chinese (there were 3.12 million Chinese in total); the Malay population for the most part did not support them. The Chinese were denied the equal right to vote in elections, had no land rights to speak of, and were usually very poor. The MRLA's agents within the Chinese community were known as "Min Yuen."

The MRLA had its hideouts in the rather inaccessible jungle. Most of them were ethnic Chinese, though there were some Malays and Indonesians. They were organized into communist political regiments with political sections, commissars, instructors and secret service. They also had lectures about Marxism-Leninism and political newspapers. MRLA included many women and soldiers had to get official permission for romance.

Abroad, the emerging Korean War eclipsed the developing conflict. Part of the British attempt at resolving the situation was the so-called Brigg’s plan that meant resettlement of people – especially 400,000 Chinese - living in jungle areas to the relative safety of new, partially fortified villages. People resented this but some became content with the better living standards in the villages. They were given money and ownership of the land they lived on. Removing a population which might be sympathetic to guerrillas was a counter insurgency technique which the British had used before, notable against the Boer Commandos in the Second Boer War (1899-1902).

The British also brought in soldiers from units like the Worcester regiment and Highlander Marines. One side effect was a re-creation of Special Air Service as a jungle commando unit in 1950. The Permanent Secretary of Defense for Malaya was Sir Robert Thompson who had served as an officer in the Chindits during World War II. This meant he had a lot of experience in jungle warfare and was supportive of the development of jungle commando units.

In 1951 some British army units begun a "hearts and minds campaign" by giving medical and food aid to Malays and indigenous Sakai tribes. At the same time, they put pressure on MRLA by patrolling the jungle. Units like the SAS, Rhodesian Selous Scouts, Royal Marines and Gurkha Brigades drove MRLA guerillas deeper into the jungle and denied them resources. MRLA had to extort food from Sakai and earned their enmity. Many of the captured guerillas changed sides. In turn, MRLA never released any Britons alive.

In the end there was about 35,000 British and 100,000 Malay troops against maybe up to 80,000 communist guerillas.

On October 7, 1951, the MRLA ambushed and killed the British High Commissioner, Sir Henry Gurney. Gurney’s successor Lieutenant General Gerald Templer pushed through measures to give ethnic Chinese residents the right to vote. He also continued the Brigg’s plan, installed Malay executives and speeded up formation of a Malayan army. His most important deal was a promise of independence once the insurrection was over. He also instituted financial rewards for detecting guerillas and expanded intelligence gathering.

Australia was willing to send troops to help a SEATO ally; Australian troops arrived in 1955. Chin Peng failed to come to agreement with the Malayan leaders in Baling in 1955. New Zealand and other Commonwealth members also sent troops to aid the British.

With the independence of Malaya under Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman on August 31, 1957, the insurrection lost its rationale as a war of colonial liberation. The last serious resistance from MRLA guerillas ended with a surrender in the Telok Anson marsh area in 1958. The remaining MRLA forces fled to the Thai border and further east.

On July 31, 1960, the Malayan government declared the Emergency was over; Chin Peng fled to China.

During the conflict security forces killed 6,710 MRLA guerillas and captured 1,287. Of the guerillas, 2,702 surrendered during the conflict and about 500 at the end of the conflict. There were 1346 Malayan troops and 519 British military personnel killed. 2,478 civilians were killed and 810 missing as a result of the conflict.



Though Malaya and Vietnam differed on many points in the details of their wars, it has been asked time again by historians why a British force of 35,000 succeeded where over a half million soldiers of the U.S. and others didn't. One of the main points that differentiated the two was that the MLRA never had a dependable ally close at hand like the Viet Cong did with the North Vietnamese Army.

The MLRA was also, as mentioned above, a political movement almost entirely limited to ethnic Chinese; support among Muslim Malayans and smaller tribes was scattered if existent at all. The British war effort never suffered from anything approaching the criticism that hammered the U.S. in Vietnam, and the USSR and China were too involved in Korea to give serious aid to the MLRA. Also, many Malayans had fought side by side with the British against tbe Japanese occupation in World War II, including Chin Peng. This is in contrast to Indochina (Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia) where French colonial officials often operated as proxies and collaborators to the Japanese. This factor of trust between the locals and the colonials was what gave the British a leg up on the French and later Americans in Vietnam.


In the late 1960s the coverage of the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War prompted the initiation of investigations in the U.K. concerning alleged war crimes perpetrated by British forces during the Emergency. No charges arose, and it has been suggested that the incoming government of Edward Heath acted improperly in terminating the investigations.

In literature

The Emergency provided the subject and setting for the novel ... And the Rain My Drink by Han Suyin published in 1954.

See also


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