Wednesday 27 January 2010

That's the way to do it!

It’s interesting to compare the success of the British in handling the communist insurgency in the old Malay States with the failure of the parallel French struggle in Indochina.

On the face of it the French should have had greater success because they deployed much more in the way of force and firepower in Indochina than the British ever did in Malaya. But what one really has to look at here- the key to the whole issue -is the differing political strategies adopted in each case.

The French intention was to restore, in almost all respects, their pre-war colonial authority, paying little attention to the emerging national movement. It was because of this that the Viet-Minh was able to move beyond its Communist ideological confines, becoming a movement of national liberation in the most complete sense.

Now, in strategic and political terms, the British position in 1945 was no better in Malaya than the French in Indochina. The Japanese had been defeated, yes, but the former subjects of the Empire were imbued with a new sense of national consciousness. There was also a vigorous and well-armed Communist guerrilla movement, organised in the Malayan National Liberation Army. But, almost from the beginning, the British adopted a different strategy from the French. Instead of struggling against the tide of Malayan nationalism they worked with it, effectively separating and isolating the Communist Min Yuen from the rest of the national community.

When the British returned the old federated and unfederated Malay States were reorganised into a new Malayan Union. However, because of opposition from Malayan nationalists this was quickly replaced by the Federation of Malaya, returning power to many traditional rulers. The long-term British intention, moreover, was not, as in Indochina, to re-establish colonial authority on the old basis, but to hand over power to a non-Communist native government as soon as this was practicable. During the course of the Emergency, before full independence in 1957, Malayans became an increasingly important part of the bureaucracy, the army and the police. In effect the whole insurgency, it might be said, was being eaten away, from the inside out.

Ethnic divisions between the Muslim Malays and the Communist Chinese served to isolate the guerrilla campaign still further. In his counter-insurgency operations, General Gerald Templer made use of this 'ethnic fragmentation', resettling large numbers of Chinese squatters away from the forest fringes to New Villages, where they could be protected and kept under watch. Deprived of this essential base of logistical support, the number of guerrilla attacks dropped from 6000 in 1951 to 1000 in 1954, just as the strength of the Min Yuen army declined by half. In that same year, while the French were being defeated at Dien Bien Phu, the Malayan Communists were forced to retreat into Thailand. And that was the way to do it!

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