August 1945, the Malayan revolution cancelled

The unexpected and at the time unexplained power vacuum that followed the announcement of the Japanese surrender should have handed the Malayan communists a unique historical opportunity. This surely was the dawn of the Malayan republic? What we now know is that the MCP’s treacherous Secretary General Lai Tek had very different ideas. In his memoir, published in 2003, Chin Peng revealed what happened. In August, a mood of ‘fevered expectancy and high morale’ swept through the camps of the MPAJA. On 16 August, Chin Peng chaired a routine meeting of the MCP’s Perak state committee in Ayer Kuning near Kampar. Soon after midday, his secretary burst into the meeting room with the astonishing news of the Emperor’s speech, which he had picked up on the All-Indian broadcasting network. Chin Peng recalled: ‘I promptly switched our meeting’s agenda to a review of how best to implement Lai Te’s [sic, alternate spelling] previous October directives.’ The message of these directives, it will be recalled, that in the aftermath of a Japanese defeat, the MPAJA would launch a new struggle against the British. The MPAJA commanders had been busy transforming the MPAJA into a ‘national liberation movement’: now with the stunning news of the Japanese surrender, it was a matter of ‘tidying up loose ends’. The next day, a courier arrived with a message from Lai Tek ordering Chin Peng to travel immediately to Kuala Lumpur for a meeting. He took the next available train, and reached the new party headquarters in Selangor on 19 August. The MCP had abandoned the Sungei Buloh leper colony and moved to a British estate manager’s bungalow nearby. Chin Peng now discovered that Lai Tek had already returned to Singapore – so was briefed instead by the Selangor state secretary Yeung Kuo. This ‘bright, energetic and committed’ young man was in a state of shock. He told Chin Peng that the previous day, Lai Tek had made a speech at Sungei Buloh to a small hastily convened group of communists. His message was simple, direct and completely unexpected: ‘Support Russia, China, Britain and America in a new organisation for world security…’  As Chin Peng put it: ‘I realised the programme amounted to nothing more than a vapid move to appease the incoming British.’ It was nothing less than a ‘180 degree turn’. Instead of armed revolution, the MCP must now focus on the organisation of labour and infiltration of unions. It is no wonder that Lai tek had decided not to confront his protégé face to face – though it is likely that his hasty return to Singapore was also to do with his resurrected relationship with the Special Branch. Chin Peng was also troubled by another decision that Lai Tek had communicated to the comrades at Sungei Buloh. He had set up a new ‘Central Military Committee’ to coordinate the Three Star Army under his command. He appointed Chin Peng to serve as his number 2. This was his reward for compliance. Lai Tek left instructions for Chin Peng to arrange a meeting with John Davis as soon as possible. As Chin Peng reveals, Davis was thoroughly confused by his friend’s new role: he had always assumed he was a liaison officer with the MCP Central Committee, rather than the military commander he really was. In any event, when the new No 2 in the MCP Military Command met Davis in Serendah, the SOE officer proposed that Chin Peng come with him to Kuala Lumpur to assist with the handover of power from the Japanese to the British. This was clearly a stratagem to keep the MPAJA ‘on side’ and Chin Peng refused. He had important business in Perak. This was an understatement. He now had to sell the new party line to impatient military commanders who wanted to take the fight to the colonials. When he got back to Perak, Chin Peng discovered that his deputy Ai Tek had already begun negotiations with the Japanese commander in Taiping who made his position very clear: ‘If you choose to fight on, you can rely on our support.’ Now Chin Peng had the unenviable task of telling Ai Ker that the Malayan revolution had been cancelled. In fact, a few hundred Japanese soldiers preferred to join the MPAJA rather than surrender. The communists had been divided about how they should deal with the Japanese: the ideal of ‘Pan Asian unity’ retained a powerful allure to many on both sides.  We have to understand that in August 1945, the MPAJA was poised to wage war on the ‘white colonial intruders’ with backing from at least some Japanese. Lai Tek’s new directive slammed shut the gaping door of insurrection. Why then did Chin Peng accept the new strategy of appeasement with barely a murmur of dissent? The reason demonstrates the fundamental weakness of all political movements that defer to charismatic leaderships and top down policy making. Lai Tek, the Asian Lenin, was the voice of the Comintern (abolished in 1943): his authority was not open to discussion or debate. What makes this conjunction in Malayan history even more remarkable is that on 21 August, a two hundred and eighty strong Giya Gun unit encountered MPAJA forces. Chin Peng tells us: ‘The Malays made their position quite clear. If we were willing to go ahead and continue the fight against the British there were willing to join us.’ Now it was the communists who had to tell the Malays that an alliance against the British was off the agenda. Thus an anti colonial coalition of Chinese, Malay and Japanese forces came to naught. If the surviving leaders of the Indian National Army had caught wind of such a pact it is hardly likely that they would not also have joined the anti colonial pact. 

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