Forgotten Wars; Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia

Forgotten Wars; Freedom and Revolution in Southeast Asia by Christopher Bayly & Tim Harper.  Harvard University Press, 2010, paper.

This is a sequel to their Forgotten Armies; Britain’s Asian Empire and the War with Japan. After the Japanese surrendered in August 1945 the British reoccupied the Southeast Asian crescent stretching from the eastern provinces of British India to Singapore. By 1945 it was clear that the ‘jewel of the British crown’ – India – would soon be independent and a replacement anchor was needed. The Malayan Peninsula, with its rubber, tin, timber and other resources could take on that role. But there were problems.

The British and their Empire had made an inglorious exit after Singapore fell to the Japanese in 1941. Posing as a liberator, Tokyo had talked about extending its Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, which it claimed would end the European grip on the crescent’s economies. Part propaganda, part planning mechanism, it was soon set aside and the occupation became a matter of brutality and plunder. The Japanese did, however, create ‘puppet’ national regimes composed of Malaya and Burmese ‘collaborators.’

The Japanese occupation had unleashed forces that could not easily be tucked back into the box of pre-war colonial society. Moreover, as Bayly and Harper note, Britain, in 1945, was in no position to recapture its Southeast Asian empire. With no British army available, the reoccupation depended upon the Indian Army. Officered mostly by Europeans with the ranks drawn from the subcontinent’s ‘martial’ provinces, the Indian army would, however, also not be available after Indian and Pakistani independence.

Initially the Allied Land Forces, South East Asia, commanded by Louis Mountbatten, faced little armed military opposition as they rolled through the Malayan peninsula, but encountered no end of difficulties. The most immediate was the 630,000 Japanese occupation troop, housed in temporary detention camps, awaiting their repatriation to Japan.

Mountbatten had also to deal with the Indian National Army which had fought alongside the Japanese. Indians living in Malaya argued, however, that the Indian National Army had safeguarded them when Britain had skedaddled. Malayan collaborators had to be rounded up, and European colonials, just liberated from internment camps, were demanding revenge. Various resistance groups based on ethnicity had arisen during the Japanese occupation that now claimed the right to self-determination. Finally there was extensive damage done by the war that had to be repaired to get the county up and running.

The Chinese were the largest non-Malayan ethnic group. They dominated the labor force laboring on the rubber plantations and in the mines. To cope with the food shortages during and after the war, many Chinese laborers had hacked out small farms on the British-owned plantations and the forest reserves to provide food for their families. Now they were organizing themselves into bands to protect those holdings.

They were said to be communists. At least that was the judgment of the various British and American intelligence agencies. The continued insurgency in Malaya was one of the ‘dominos’ which President Eisenhower described in a news conference in April 1954. His argument was that if one country in the region came under the influence of the communists, the adjoining countries would subsequently fall in a domino effect. Thus China and India at either end and the smaller states, Korea, Indochina, Thailand, Malaya,  Indonesia, and Burma in between. And there was Winston Churchill saluting Eisenhower’s clarity.

The British have been given credit for defeating the ‘communist insurgency’ in Malaya. Bayly & Harper have a more nuanced version of that ‘triumph.’ It involved moving rebels and their families into detention camps, not unlike the notorious concentration camps of the Boer War in South Africa. That was accompanied by what would now be called a “winning hearts and minds” policy.

Think more recently experiments with this policy in such places as Iraq and Afghanistan.

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