Thursday 5 June 2014

"The War of The Running Dogs", and China's role in it.

Lately I've been reading Noel Barber's excellent (if definitely of its time) The War of The Running Dogs*, a book which tells the story of the Malayan Emergency in an engagingly Boys-own-like style. The book's succeeds by largely eschewing the dust-dry blow-by-blow account of technical and political happenings that so many histories of other counter-insurgency conflicts engage in, and instead dishes up gripping accounts of events demonstrative of the situation as a whole.

The conflict, which began 66 years ago next week, following the murder of three planters by communists in attacks marking the beginning of a wave of terrorist attacks aimed at destablising Malaya (as it was then known) in the run-up to its independence, and creating 'liberated zones' into which the British would not dare to go, was marked by many contradictions. The communist rebels were nominally fighting for an independence which was already promised, albeit without a fixed date, and had learned their jungle-warfare skills whilst fighting alongside the British against the Japanese during the Second World War. The British were fighting to keep control of a country which they were going to lose control of anyway, against rebels using British weapons which had mostly been air-dropped into Malaya during WW2. The communist leader, Chin Peng (陈平), who died only last year, had even been awarded the OBE for his role in fighting the Japanese.

For anyone interested in China, it is interesting to look at the ways in which the influence of China was felt throughout the conflict. In a war in which one side was largely ethnic-Chinese, and in many cases combatants on both sides were first-generation immigrants from mainland China, China was always likely to be a significant impact, but the coincidence of the struggle in Malaya with the titanic conflict inside China and along its borders between communists and non-communists during this time made China a major factor.

Whilst the idea (which Barber briefly examines) that the start of the conflict in Malaya was part of a co-ordinated effort by communists across Asia, is something we can safely set to one side as having no basis in fact, the conflict was definitely modeled on Mao's insurgency in China, with its emphasis on dominating the countryside and encircling the cities. Chin Peng certainly seems to have seen himself as a Mao-like figure, although he deviated from Mao's doctrine by not making political warfare at the same time and with the same intensity as he made guerrilla warfare, although this is largely the result of him having already tried the political route to power in the years between the war and the start of the guerrilla campaign with indifferent results.

With the end of the civil war in China in late 1949, officers from China's People's Liberation Army arrived at Chin Peng's headquarters. Barber points out that it was likely their influence that led Chin Peng to back off from his attacks on civilian targets that had served to antagonise the Malayan population in a change of policy that was announced in October 1951. This seems likely given the way it meshes with Mao's philosophy of trying to get ordinary people in the countryside onto the side of communists.

Another change prompted by the end of the Chinese civil war was the extension of British diplomatic recognition to the People's Republic of China in 1950 - a move that was seen in Malaya as a total betrayal at a time when the colonial administration there was fighting PRC-backed communists. We may reflect that, whilst the recognition was only a common-sense move given the communist victory, Britain does not seem to have derived any noticeable advantages from recognising the PRC decades before any other Western European state beyond better facilitating the administration of Hong Kong, least of all in Malaya. Perhaps this should be remembered the next time the advantages of "opening up" relations with an oppressive state are touted.

Finally, China was the last refuge for Chin Peng following his defeat in Malaya and the retreat of the Malayan communists across the border into Thailand, where they kept alive a vicious totalitarian-state-in-miniature which Chin controlled from Beijing. Chin Peng launched his second, much less successful campaign (not covered in Barber's book) from Thailand with a promise of financial support from the PRC personally delivered by Deng Xiaoping. Chin Peng's communists were riven by the Cultural Revolution in a fashion from which they never fully recovered, and eventually surrendered amid the global retreat of communism in 1989.

The net result of Chin's war against the British and their "running dogs" was an independent Malaysia that enjoyed a limited form of democracy hampered and defended by equal part by a security apparatus, that, as I found out when I visited there in 2009, remains in place despite its raison d'etre having largely disappeared.

*Barber claims that this was how Malayan communists themselves unofficially referred to the conflict (officially they called it "反英民族解放战争" - the Anti-British War of National Liberation), however searching around for various combinations of the terms "走狗" and "战争" I haven't found any Chinese language sources using this name. 

[Picture: A leaflet promising Malayan communists who surrender with a machine gun "a new life", and 1000 dollars. Via Wiki]

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