The British in Malaysia

The search of a way out of the quagmire known as Iraq is au courant.  Much attention has been direct to the one known case when a colonial power stopped an insurgency: the British in Malaysia.  Here is Rick Lowry in the National Review in praise of the British method:

The British experience is related in John Nagl's cult-classic book Counterinsurgency Lessons From Malaya and Vietnam. It has become must reading for high-level officers in Iraq because its lessons seem so directly applicable to the situation there. Nagl himself, an Army major, has been in Iraq, where we still can duplicate the British experience in Malaysia of stumbling initially, but prevailing through innovation, stick-to-itiveness and shrewd political maneuvering.

Communist guerrillas in Malaysia took up arms in the late 1940s, murdering Europeans, sabotaging industry and using terror to try to strengthen the insurgency's base among the country's Chinese minority. Given their colonial history, the British had plenty of experience with such low-intensity conflicts, but had forgotten it after the conventional warfare in Europe of World War II. The Brits at first considered the insurgency primarily a military problem, and tried to take the guerrillas on in conventional military formations. These tactics not only failed to engage the guerrillas, who easily evaded the large jungle sweeps, but their heavy-handedness alienated the local population.

The British were losing. One observer thought the guerrillas were "probably equal to that of government in the matter of supplies and superior in the matter of intelligence." Guerrilla attacks had been fewer than 100 a month in mid-1949, but spiked to more than 400 a month by mid-1950. This is when, had the Brits operated in our media and political environment, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd would have witheringly declared all lost, and calls from across the political spectrum would have gone up to quit.

With a patience born of fighting many "small wars" in dusty parts of the world, the British simply set about fixing what they had done wrong. Most fundamentally, they realized that counterinsurgency depends on winning a political battle for "hearts and minds" (a famous phrase that originated in the Malaysia fight). Military operations were conducted on a smaller scale. The Chinese population was secured from guerrilla influence. A Malaysian army was built, with Chinese involvement. Elections were organized and independence promised. Slowly, the air went out of the insurgency, which was officially declared over in 1960, 12 years after it began.

So you have read the British side of the story and read about how they won the long war.  Hmmm ... have you ever thought about asking the Malaysian Communists just what happened according to their viewpoint?  You may be really surprised.  Anyway, I am reading the Chinese-language book Reading Colony (閱讀殖民地) by Wong Wei-lun (王慧麟).  In Chapter 5 of Part 2, Wong writes about Chin Peng, the chairman of the Malaysian Communist Party.  There is a whole book that is based upon his statements delivered at a forum at an Australian university some time after the peace accord was signed.  So I am going to translate (loosely) Wong's account:

Chin Peng is a Malaysian of Chinese descent.  He was educated in Malaysia.  When the Japanese invaded China, he joined the Malaysian Communist Party.  That Party was founded in 1929 and was recruiting broadly to organize anti-British activities.  Before the Second World War began, the Malaysian Communist Party was led by an English man named Francis Light.

According to Chin Peng, Francis Light was actually a spy planted by the British Home Office inside the Malaysian Communist Party.  Through deception, Light gained the trust of the Malaysian Communist Party's Central Committee and ascended to become the chairman of the party.  Light continually sold out party members, so that the leaders were arrested by the British colonial government one after another before the Second World War.  When the War came, the British were defeated and the Japanese moved in.  Light surrendered to the Japanese and became their spy, and caused another group of Malaysian Communist Party leaders to be arrested.

After the Second World War was over, Light proposed eight ideas for the Malaysian Communist Party, including cooperating with the British authorities, giving up armed struggle, engaging in lawful struggles and organizing workers.  This caused the Malaysian Communist Party to lose the opportunity to grow.  Besides, Light was providing information to the British and the workers' unions were also penetrated by British spies.  Whenever the unions planned for a strike, it would be squashed by the British colonial authorities before it got started.  After a while, Chin Peng and other leaders began to be suspicious about Light.  In 1947, Light fled the country.  

At the age of 23, Chin Peng was elected the new chairman.  In 1948, the Malaysian Communist Party turned to armed struggle.  The insurgency went on for more than three decades, even though the Communists were confined mainly to the Malaysia-Thailand border areas for most of the time.  In November 1989, the Malaysian Communist Party, the Malaysian and the Thailand governments signed a peace accord.  But effectively, the British had won the war against the insurgency long before then.

What were the secrets to the success of the British?  

First, they penetrated the Malaysian Communist Party structure.  If Light had truly been a British spy as claimed by Chin Peng, then between the time when the Malaysian Communist Party was founded and the moment when Light fled the country, the British knew everything about the Communists in terms of political developments, strategic moves, organizational details and even any contacts with the outside.  According to Chin Peng, the British knew all about his movements, such as when he left Malaysia for Thailand and when he made contact with the Chinese Communists in Hong Kong.  All that information can be found in the public files now available in the United Kingdom.  The Home Office had the Malaysian Communist Party under tight surveillance and their information was astonishingly precise and accurate.

Next, the British army took the initiative in military action . In 1951, the Malaysian Communist Party assassinated Sir Henry Gurney, and his replacement was General Gerald Templer.  He began large-scale military actions against the Malaysian Communist Party.  The strategy was to cut off all supplies to the Malaysian Communist Party.  According to Chin Peng, they had been following the strategies used by the Chinese Communist guerrillas, and that caused them to have to fall back in disarray everywhere.  Malaysia was different from China, because it had better roads and the villages were closer to each other.  When the Malaysian Communists attacked a village, the British army and air force would arrive in less than half a day and counter-attack with full force.  In China, transportation was much more difficult, the Communists were more mobile and therefore guerrilla warfare worked.  Therefore, the Malaysian Communists were totally ineffective when they used the Chinese methods.

Furthermore, the British army also moved entire villages out.  According to Chin Peng, the British army liked to set out early morning, surround a village, force all the villagers to board trucks and then burn the village to the ground.  The Malaysian Communists then ordered the villagers to remain in their homes and refuse to leave in protest.  But the British army would set the houses on fire regardless if anyone was still inside, causing villagers to be injured or burned to death.  The Malaysian Communists had to tell the villagers not to stay behind to avoid unnecessary sacrifices.  The British had cut off all supplies.  Some of the Malaysian Communists surrendered because they would have starved to death.  In this way, the Malaysian Communists were chased to the border with Thailand.

Finally, according to historians, the British succeeded because they gained the support of the people.  This is what the British called HAM (Hearts And Minds), or psychological warfare.  During the latter stages of the struggle with the Malaysian Communists, the British were aware that the supply sources for the Communists were the rural peasants.  Upon research, the British found out that the Communists really did not have as much broad support as claimed.  On the contrary, many peasants were merely intimidated by threats from the Malaysian Communists or else they were politically neutral.  Once the British realized that the rural mainstream opinion is for stability and peace, they began large-scale public spending and infrastructure projects to improves the lives of rural inhabitants and then win over the traditional supporters of the Malaysian Communist Party: the peasants.

Once you read this alternate account, the happy vision of replaying the British army's Malaysian experience in Malaysia is suspect.  After more than two years, the Occupying Forces still can't come up with a coherent account of who the insurgents are (see Willful Ignorance by Jason Vest, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists).  And are the Occupying Forces ready to evacuate entire villages, move entire populations into concentration camps and torch all houses irrespective of whether anyone is still inside?  And they are not fighting an organized army which had followed the Chinese guerrilla methods to disastrous effect.  As for "Hearts and Minds", here is today's Newsweek story:

Zalmay Khalilzad, Washington's new envoy to Iraq, is on his way to a meeting when an unidentified car pulls in front of his convoy. Bad idea. One of the ambassador's armored escorts quickly rams the vehicle off the road, leaving a dazed and bloodied Iraqi driver yelling for help. A barrel-chested security guard riding shotgun in Khalilzad's car turns to explain: an errant vehicle in Iraq, he says, can easily be a suicide bomber. "This is not the place to pull out in front of a convoy."

Anyway, I am just a blogger and it would be preposterous for me to start talking about what the correct military and political strategies for the Occupying Forces are.  I am not qualified to tell you; and if I did, you should discount it heavily.  All I can say here is that the simplistic presentation of the British experience in Malaysia is more problematic than it seems.  Meanwhile, I was more impressed by the concluding part of Wong's chapter.  This is no longer about Iraq, Malaysia or even Kenya, for it concerns Hong Kong.

For the British Empire, the victory over the Malaysian Communists provided invaluable experience in dealing with future colonial uprisings, including the 1967 riots in Hong Kong.  The three most important tools -- penetration and division; scorch earth tactics; and winning the hearts and minds -- were successfully implemented in Hong Kong to cause the leftists to fail.

The most significant factor in the continual success of the British colonial policy was "Hearts And Minds" or psychological warfare.  After the Malaysian Communist episode, the British knew that if they want to rule effectively, they must grasp public opinion and then cut off the mass base of the opposition.  The British knew that the mainstream Hong Kong public opinion was for stability and peace.  Therefore, it did everything that it could in terms of psychological warfare.  It smeared its opponents and it also improved the welfare of the workers, thus cutting off the traditional support base for the leftists and creating bad impressions about them that lasted to this day.

This was an impressive paragraph for me.  Although this was about a historical episode about the dirty tricks that British once used in Hong Kong, it obviously sounds to be what is happening today.  Let me do the temporal shift for you and re-write the above for today's situation:

When 500,000 people went out to demonstrate on July 1, 2003, the Central Government realized that it had a problem.  They knew that the most important battle will be the one for the hearts and minds of the people of Hong Kong.  To rule effectively, they must grasp public opinion and then cut off the mass base of the opposition.  Through research, they knew that the mainstream Hong Kong public opinion is for stability, harmony, peace and prosperity.  Therefore, the Central Government did everything that it could in terms of psychological warfare.  

It smeared its opponents as self-aggrandizing troublemakers who threaten stability, harmony, peace and prosperity at every opportunity, and unfortunately the opponents presented plenty of occasions to confirm those fears.  It offered a massive package of financial stimulus measures to improve the economy and livelihood of the people.  Tourism, retail, real estate and stock market are all doing well now.  In so doing, it cut off the support for the opponents.  On July 1, 2005, only 21,000 people came out to demonstrate for an odd assortment of causes.  The Central Government has won the battle for HAM.

Is this wrong ethically?  Well, if the British can play dirty, then why can't the Chinese?  Besides, the hearts and minds are satisfied.  And that is called democracy, isn't it?  What is to be done?  I don't know.  I do know that showing up on National Day with a black coffin yet again is guaranteed to lose even more hearts and minds.  But I guaranteed that someone will do just that and dig a deeper hole.