British administrators put down the 1948–60 communist uprising using a successful and surprising mix of counterinsurgency tactics
In June 1948 communist insurgents in the Federation of Malaya murdered three British plantation owners. The next dozen years saw a guerrilla war in which every measure taken by the British to re-establish stability in their tin- and rubber-rich mandate seemed countered by the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA). The movement’s leader, Chin Peng, and his ablest lieutenants had learned their trade, ironically, with Britain’s covert Force 136, fighting the Japanese in World War II.
The MNLA ambush killing of Malayan High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney on Oct. 6, 1951, sent shock waves throughout the federation. British fortunes had reached a nadir, as communist attacks had killed 1,275 British and Malayan troops. The insurgents had also killed 1,828 civilians and abducted nearly 500 others.
The Malayan Emergency had its turning point in 1952 when British Prime Minister Winston Churchill appointed Sir Gerald Templer Malayan high commissioner. Templer launched an all-out counterinsurgency, including the resettlement of civilians, an intense propaganda campaign to “win the hearts and minds” of the people, and monetary rewards to any communists who surrendered, turned in their weapons or turned on their comrades. Pivotal to Templer’s plan were his use of the Malayan Police Special Branch to gather intelligence; the decision to extend Malayan citizenship to Indian, Chinese and other ethnic groups in September 1952; and ultimately the independence of Malaya itself on Aug. 31, 1957. Its very “liberation” status rendered moot, the MNLA—never numbering more than 8,000 fighters at its peak—dissolved, and Chin Peng went into self-exile in southern Thailand and later Beijing.
Malaya declared a formal end to the emergency on July 31, 1960. The British Commonwealth’s relative success there has since been repeatedly compared to and contrasted with the U.S. failure in Vietnam.