Malaya—Britain’s forgotten war for rubber
Mark Curtis, Editor, Declassified UK 1
Between 1948 and 1960 the United Kingdom (UK) fought a counter-insurgency campaign in Malaya, conventionally called the Emergency. A guerrilla war waged by the Malayan National Liberation Army (MNLA) sought to win independence from the British Empire and protect the interests of the Chinese community in the territory. The MNLA was largely the creation of the Malayan Communist Party, most of whose members were Chinese, but also included small minorities of Indians and Malays.
Presented in most British analyses as a struggle against communism during the cold war, the MNLA in reality received very little support from Soviet or Chinese communists. The major concern for British governments was protecting their economic interests in Malaya, which were primarily huge investments in the rubber and tin industries.
Most of the files on the guerrilla war that the British declassified were destroyed, perhaps to cover up crimes. Some files remain, however, at the National Archives in Kew, near London, and reveal that Britain resorted to very brutal measures to defeat the insurgency, including widespread aerial bombing and the use of a forerunner to modern cluster bombs.
British officials also established a vast ‘resettlement’ scheme that herded hundreds of thousands of Malayan ethnic Chinese into fortified camps and that provided a model for the United States’ (US) devastating ‘strategic hamlet’ programmes in Vietnam. They also used chemical agents to reduce the forest cover for the insurgents, from which the US may again have drawn lessons in its later use of Agent Orange in the Vietnam war.
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