We’re Getting the Malaysia Counterinsurgency All Wrong
Stop using the Malayan Emergency as a model for current wars
Contemporary Malaysia is in many ways remarkable for a postcolonial Southeast Asian country. In a region characterized by military coups, dictatorships and juntas, ethnic violence, mass poverty and the breakdown of state authority, Malaysia largely has been spared.
This came at no easy cost. As the ruling British prepared to relinquish postwar Malaya and North Borneo after nearly two centuries of colonial rule, they were forced to fight two very different kinds of wars. From 1948 to 1960, a Maoist rebellion broke out in Malaya led by the Malayan Communist Party.
Utilizing strategies of assassinations, sabotage and subversion, British-led forces eventually stamped out the rebels in a protracted counterinsurgency campaign known as the Malayan Emergency.
From 1963 to 1966, in what was called the Indonesian Confrontation, the British fought an undeclared limited war with Indonesian forces in the border regions of Indonesia and North Borneo, successfully preventing Jakarta from seizing the latter.
Both conflicts have been hailed as model counterinsurgencies.
The Emergency was incorporated into current U.S. and British counterinsurgency doctrine by figures such as David Petraeus and Rupert Smith. British Defense Secretary Denis Healey referred to the Confrontation as “the most efficient uses of military force in the history of the world.” Both Borneo and Malaya fed into the mythos of the supposed British talent for fighting COIN, based on centuries of Imperial policing and small wars.
To categorize Malaya and Borneo as textbook COIN conflicts however, is to assume some consistent commonality or attributes in both conflicts. Put differently, categorizing conflicts cognitively allows us to simplify the complex interactions between adversaries in war.
In fact, wars follow their own logic, as academic Lukas Milevski at Leiden University noted.
The Malayan Emergency erupted three years after the end of World War II. The Malayan Communist Party, established in 1930, had proved to be the only effective resistance movement to the occupying Japanese, and had been supplied and trained by the British to fight a guerrilla war.
With the surrender of Japan in August 1945, the British reestablished control of their colony, coaxing the communists to surrender their arms and disband – although many arms were secretly stored away. The British had promised to grant Malaya independence, and in 1946 had proposed to create a “Malay Union.”
The majority of Malays boycotted the union, however, since it would have enfranchised the Chinese, the mercantile minority community largely present in urban areas. The MCP in particular would throughout its history remain a predominantly Chinese outfit. It gained the most support and supplies during the Emergency from the Chinese squatter communities, who had fled Japanese oppression during the Occupation to settle in the jungle fringes and eking out a living through farming.
Backtracking, the British later proposed the “Federation of Malaya” in 1948, which again disenfranchised the Chinese and further inflamed communists within the community. Between March to May 1948, communists began to increase violence and assassinations under the new leadership of the MCP Secretary General Chin Peng, specifically targeting European planters on the 3,000 rubber plantations doted around the peninsula.
The British responded by declaring a state of emergency in June 1948.
The Malayan Emergency can be broken down into three distinct phases. 1948 and ’49 were a period of largely ineffectual conventional approaches to fighting the Malayan National Liberation Army, the armed wing of the MCP. The focus was on wide sweeps through the jungle which proved ineffective against small guerrilla units.
Troops were often untrained in jungle warfare — and brutal in their methods.
At top — a wounded insurgent being held and questioned after his capture during the Malayan Emergency in 1952. Above — Australian Avro Lincoln bomber dropping bombs on communist rebels in the Malayan jungle in 1950. Photos via Wikipedia
The second phase from 1949 to 1951 saw the implementation of more decisive measures under the new director of operations, Sir Harold Briggs. Large-scale sweeps ended. Small-unit patrols dominated. Briggs set up war executive committees from the federal to district level, which combined elements of the military, police and civilian bureaucracy.
These facilitated the sharing of intelligence between the agencies and allowed for more localized strategies to be implemented. The major decision under Briggs, however, was a policy of population resettlement. To cut the MNLA from their support from the Chinese squatters, more than 600,000 of the latter were forcibly resettled in so-called “New Villages.”
These were guarded settlements built with basic amenities inside including farmland, fresh water, hospitals and schools. Movement in and out of these villages were highly restricted. The MNLA thus lost a major source of its food and supplies.
The third phase began in February 1952 with the appointment of Sir Gerald Templer as High Commissioner. Known for his fiery personality, Templer built upon the strategic successes gained under Briggs.
He expanded the information gathering and intelligence systems, as well as psychological operations and propaganda compelling guerillas to surrender. It was under Templer that the much-vaunted strategy of “hearts and minds” arose, particularly in the political sphere. Templer was able to persuade the Malays and Chinese to collaborate together for an independent Malaya, with the multiracial Alliance Party formed in 1957.
Hunted deeper into the jungle and with more members either being killed or surrendering, the MNLA lost both its political purpose and initiative. The Emergency petered on until the newly independent Malayan government declared victory in July 1960.
The Confrontation, on the other hand, stemmed from Indonesian president Sukarno’s opposition to the proposed Federation of Malaysia, which would tie together the colonies of Malaya, Singapore, Sabah and Sarawak – the latter comprising North Borneo.
Largely a British project, London hoped to maintain their postcolonial political and military influence in Southeast Asia through the Federation. Sukarno wanted to acquire North Borneo for a combination of reasons, including opposition to Western influence in the region, Indonesian irredentism and to distract domestic attention away from economic woes.
In 1963, Sabah and Sarawak joined with Malaya and Singapore to form Malaysia. That same year, Sukarno declared his intention to “confront” the new country. Known as “Konfrontasi,” the military dimensions of this policy involved low-level military attacks and internal subversion.
The war technically began in December 1962, with an armed uprising by the Indonesian-backed The North Kalimantan National Army against the British-backed Sultan in Brunei. Hoping to unite northern Borneo into an Indonesian province, the British quickly stamped out the TNKU rebellion.
Other internal Indonesian-backed threats, including the Communist Clandestine Organization in Sarawak, were also quickly disarmed by the British.
The external nature of the conflict started in 1963 when Indonesian raiders attacked a border police station in Tebedu, Sarawak. What followed were continuous raids by both Indonesian backed guerillas and regular units from the Indonesian National Army into Sabah and Sarawak. Jakarta’s goal through these raids was to establish bases in Northern Borneo to support the CCO.
The British responded with a policy of mobile defense across all 970 miles of the Indonesian border. Bases were established across the border, from which patrols would fan out to intercept Indonesian incursions in intelligence-driven operations. Helicopters inserted troops in depth within the jungle to cut off enemy raiding parties.
Successful in containing the fighting to the border region, the British then permitted the hot pursuit of Indonesian forces across the border in April 1964. In July 1964, following botched sea and airborne landings in West Malaysia by Indonesian troops, these expanded to offensive operations.
British raiding forces targeted Indonesian bases in Kalimantan in pre-emptive strikes. The raids were successful in putting the Indonesians on the defensive and pushing back their bases to almost 10,000 yards in some cases. By September 1965, Sukarno was overthrown in a military coup, and the new Suharto regime negotiated a peace treaty with Kuala Lumpur in August 1966.
Milevski noted that by categorizing conflicts, we often obscure important tactical and strategic details because they don’t favor the theorized category. This often extends to how we retrospectively analyze wars. According to popular opinion, the conflict in Malaya only started to be decisively won by British forces in 1952, with the appointment of Templer and his strategy of hearts and minds.
The Briggs Plan, some claim, only created a stalemate. However, as scholar Karl Hack argued, it was the policy of population and spatial control implemented by the Briggs Plan which helped to break the back of the insurgency by 1951.
Malaysian police on patrol. Photo via Wikipedia
This was a conclusion separately reached by Chin Peng himself, who argued the “high point” of the MNLA came between 1949 and 1950. The forcible transfer of the squatters into the New Villages, and the strict control of the movement of food in and out significantly affected the ability of the guerrillas to feed themselves.
In the so-called “October Resolutions” of 1951, the MCP were forced to earmark precious manpower to growing supplies in the jungle, as well as emphasize more discriminate attacks.
Insurgent strength fell accordingly from 7,292 in 1951 to 5,765 in 1952. Whatever success Templer had in hearts and minds was ultimately exploitation of an already optimal situation for the British.
As Milevski explained, to categorize conflicts based on tactics is to ignore the political variation of the players involved. Simply put, the performance of any army throughout history is influenced by its peculiar strategic culture and the larger ethical and political environment it operates in.
To attempt to borrow lessons from the Emergency is to ignore the fact that many of the strategies practiced by the British would be considered abhorrent by Western liberal sensibilities today, including the forcible resettlement of populations.
As Thomas McDermott pointed out in The Strategy Bridge, the main instruments of insurgency warfare throughout history was characterized by brutality and coercion rather than “hearts and minds,” contrary to our liberal fantasies.
The Emergency was an almost hermetically-sealed conflict in the Peninsula, with the MNLA receiving little to no external support. In Borneo, Commonwealth forces faced proxy militants directed from Jakarta, which brought with it the added danger of escalating the conflict into all-out war with Indonesia.
The British were forced to balance denying Indonesian forces a foothold into North Borneo while at the same time constraining the fighting enough to maintain friendly relations with Jakarta, who as a Non-Aligned Member was seen as a valuable ally against communism.
Considerations of proportionality thus weighed heavily in British strategic planning. Claret’s raids were subject to a stringent set of regulations referred to as the “Golden Rules.” All raids had to be approved by the director of operations. Only trained and tested troops were eligible to participate. Each raid had to be meticulously planned. Air support was minimal. Taking prisoners was forbidden.
The depth of raids gradually extended from 5,000 to 10,000 yards, and cross-border raiding ebbed if enemy casualties grew too high. The goal was to maintain deniability and contain escalation levels.
The basic presupposition of COIN is that it is being waged against a materially-weaker and less-trained enemy who utilizes hit-and-run tactics. While applicable to Malaya, the same cannot be said about Borneo.
What started as a fight with indigenous guerillas in Brunei and Sarawak ended with the British engaging trained Indonesian regular troops along the border, including paratroopers and marines. Indonesian P-51s and B-25s buzzed towns in Sarawak, while the botched airborne landing in West Malaysia in September 1964 featured C-130 transport aircraft.
At sea, Australian, British, Malaysian and New Zealand seapower deployed as a deterrence to the Indonesians. On the ground, the professionalism of the Indonesians forced the British to switch operations from platoon- to company-level.
In Malaya, while it is acknowledged that the policies of Briggs were instrumental in breaking the back of the insurgency, it must still be recalled that the insurgency dragged on for another nine more years. In Borneo, there is little evidence that the British strategy of attrition warfare against the Indonesians was decisive in ending the conflict.
In a mid-1965 meeting between Defense Secretary Denis Healey and the chiefs of staff, officials conceded that the current war-termination strategy was not working, as Indonesian reinforcements in Kalimantan continued to grow.
Constrained by both resources and political expediency, the British strategy of attrition was simply the least bad option. It was internal Indonesian politics, namely the fall of Sukarno, which ultimately ended the conflict in the favor of the Commonwealth forces.