Amid the attention given to the installation of a new government in Canberra, the Australian media didn’t, as far as I’m aware, notice the death in September of Chin Peng. That name probably means little or nothing to most Australians today but in the 1950s, as the leader of the communist insurgents during the Malayan Emergency of 1948-60, he was regarded as ‘Public Enemy Number One’ by British countries, which in those days very much included Australia. His story is important for Australians, and not just because Australians fought and died during the Emergency. And there are reasons why his death was noted in the major American media, even though the United States wasn’t engaged in the Emergency.
Chin Peng was the alias of Ong Boon Hua who was born in 1924, joined the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) as a teenager and was soon on its Politburo. For his wartime collaboration with the British underground group known as Force 136, the British government awarded him an OBE—Officer of the Order of the British Empire—the very empire he was determined to evict from Malaya. In 1947, aged 22, he became the MCP’s Secretary-General. He had led the investigation which revealed that the party’s leader since the 1930s, a Vietnamese known as Lai Tek (and many other aliases, including the improbable Mr Wright), had been planted by British intelligence and had for years been betraying them to both the British and, during the wartime occupation, the Japanese.
Communist-inspired rebellions broke out in 1948 across South and Southeast Asia. Britain, which was trying to restore its pre-war colonial position in Malaya, and the MCP stumbled into a campaign for which neither side was well prepared. At first the guerrillas had the upper hand, but the tide turned in the early 1950s, aided by improved counter-insurgency techniques, close co-ordination of civil, military, intelligence and police agencies, the establishment of ‘New Villages’ to give security to isolated rural communities, and the British promise to grant independence. In 1950 Australia committed transport aircraft and bombers to support the British campaign, but stopped short of putting ‘boots on the ground’. By the time that Australian troops were committed to the campaign in 1955, it was clear that the communists would be defeated, albeit only after a long and demanding series of ‘mopping-up’ operations. Malaya duly became independent in 1957 and the new Prime Minister, Tunku Abdul Rahman, invited the British and Commonwealth forces to remain and complete the task. The Emergency was officially declared over in 1960, and the remaining communist forces withdrew to the jungle on the Thai border. There they remained, creating some difficulties for the Malayan (from 1963, Malaysian) authorities, only formally conceding defeat in 1989.
Comparisons were frequently drawn between the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam War. At the time and ever since, some Americans have argued that they could have succeeded in Vietnam, or comparable counter-insurgency campaigns, if they emulated the techniques applied so successfully by the British and Commonwealth forces in the Malayan Emergency. The most recent example is Learning to Eat Soup with a Knife: Counter-Insurgency Lessons from Malaya and Vietnam by John A. Nagl, an Iraq veteran who visited Australia last year and who was closely associated with David Petraeus in the revision of American counter-insurgency doctrine. In the view of both Peter Dennis and me, in the operational and diplomatic volumes of the Official History of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948-1975, the differences between Malaya and Vietnam made it extremely difficult to apply Malayan-style techniques in Vietnam. (Nagl seems to concede this in the preface to his second edition.) Nevertheless, as I argue in my forthcoming book on Australia and the Vietnam War, the Malayan experience had a considerable effect on Australian political and military thinking at the time of the Vietnam commitment.
After the early 1960s Chin Peng lived most of the rest of his life in China. In the late 1990s he decided to write his autobiography, which appeared in 2003 as My Side of History, based not only on his own records and memories but also on research in British and Australian archives. In 1999 he took part in a two-day workshop at the ANU with a number of scholars from several countries. It was an extraordinary experience to conduct a dialogue with a man who in his 20s was ‘Public Enemy Number One’ but in his 70s looked like a mild-mannered businessman and sometimes spoke like a PhD student.
He was asked about the ‘Calcutta conference theory’, the contention that the insurrections across South and Southeast Asia in 1948 were started on instructions from Stalin, conveyed at a conference of Asian communist parties in Calcutta (today Kolkata). It was perfectly plausible that Moscow would encourage uprisings in Asia, to distract the western powers from the developments that were countering Soviet moves in Europe. The Malayan insurgency began soon after the Australian Communist leader, Lance Sharkey, visited Singapore on his way home from Calcutta. Was Sharkey, as some contended, the messenger who brought Moscow’s instructions to take up ‘armed struggle’?
No, according to Chin Peng, who said that the decision was based on local factors, not instructions from Moscow. But, he added, Sharkey had given the MCP advice on a vital issue. The Malayan communists asked how they should deal with strikebreakers. In his ‘thick, slow Australian drawl’, Sharkey said that the Australian communists ‘eliminated’ strikebreakers in rural areas. It was almost certainly braggadocio. Sharkey was a ruthless, hard-line Stalinist, but he’s seldom thought to have endorsed the murder of ‘scabs’. But, according to Chin Peng, the Australian inspired the young and inexperienced leaders of the Malayan Communist Party to adopt militant tactics that resulted in the loss of many more Malayan Chinese than British lives.
The Malayan Emergency ended more than 50 years ago, but its significance, and the life of the communist leader who died in September aged 88, are still relevant to current and future strategic challenges.
Peter Edwards is an Adjunct Professor at the Alfred Deakin Research Institute of Deakin University. He is the Official Historian and general editor of the nine-volume Official History of Australia’s Involvement in Southeast Asian Conflicts 1948–1975. Image via Wikimedia.