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A Nasty and Brutal Business by John Newsinger

A Nasty and Brutal Business

Christopher Hale, Massacre in Malaya: Exposing Britain’s My Lai

The History Press, 432pp, £24.00, ISBN 9780752487014

reviewed by John Newsinger

For many years the British Army had a reputation as experts in counterinsurgency. Whereas both the French and the Americans had suffered humiliating defeats in Indo-China, Algeria and Vietnam, the British had not only successfully crushed insurgencies in Malaya, Kenya and elsewhere, but also managed the task without resorting to the brutality, torture and overkill that discredited other counterinsurgency campaigns. In the 1990s, this reputation was reinforced by the British performance in Northern Ireland, where a successful peace process had been put in place. These successes allowed the British to claim that they were the best at this type of conflict. They congratulated themselves on practicing a kinder, gentler counterinsurgency that actually worked: minimum force, maximum hearts and minds. In recent years, however, the poor performance of the British Army in Iraq and Afghanistan has led to a reassessment of Britain’s post-1945 wars. It turns out that the triumphs weren’t quite as glorious, or the conduct quite as restrained, as had been reported.

In Massacre in Malaya: Exposing Britain’s My Lai, Christopher Hale offers an important contribution to the reassessment of British counterinsurgency. Hale gives a very useful account of the Batang Kali massacre, its subsequent cover-up and the circumstances under which the atrocity re-emerged. But Massacre in Malaya does much more than its title suggests. For Hale, the importance of Batang Kali is that it provides a lens whereby ‘the entire history of British rule in Malaya, both direct and indirect, is thrown into sharp relief as a long and troubling chronicle of slaughter and deception’. He quotes one Imperial apologist who described Malaya in the 1930s as ‘a Tory Eden in which each man is contented with his station and does not wish to change’. The reality was somewhat different, with native labourers treated little better than slaves and ‘the plantation gulag … a realm of violence’. The infant Malayan Communist Party (MCP) was actively involved in organising resistance. And here lay one of the great historic triumphs of the British secret police: the secretary general of the MCP, Lai Tek, was a British agent.

When the Japanese conquered Malaya in 1942, Lai Tek effortlessly switched allegiance. He spent the occupation betraying his comrades, condemning them to torture and death at the hands of the Kempetai, the Japanese secret police. His miraculous escapes while others were captured, far from leading to suspicion, merely enhanced his reputation. He built a cult of personality that made him immune to criticism. Flexibility was key to his success. When the Japanese surrendered before the return of the British, many rank and file Communists expected the party to seize control and oppose any attempt to re-impose British rule. Lai Tek determined otherwise, ordering that the MCP should collaborate with the returning British. Hale puts the failure to take advantage of a ‘unique historic opportunity’ to establish a Malayan republic down to Lai Tek’s treachery. In fact, collaboration was still Soviet policy and a good case can be made that this, rather than treachery, was what lay behind Lai Tek’s stance.

The Cold War account of what followed maintained that this policy of collaboration ended when Soviet policy changed. Hale, however, shows it was the British Labour government’s determination to crush the Malayan Left that was decisive. The British were intent on increasing their exploitation of Malayan labour and resources, one of the policies of the 1945-51 Labour government that has been conveniently forgotten. Malayan tin and rubber were regarded as vital to British economic recovery. Increased exploitation resulted in greater social and political unrest, with the Communists leading the protests. The decision was taken to destroy them. Indeed, the British declared a State of Emergency long before the Communists were ready to launch any sort of insurrection, and the fight was thrust upon them. By now Lai Tek’s treachery had been exposed, but not before he had fled, taking the MCP’s treasury with him. His successor, Chin Peng, led the party throughout the war with the British.

The Malayan war was, as Hale insists, ‘a nasty and brutal business’. Torture, the shooting of prisoners out of hand, burning villages, internment, death squads: all were deployed in the conflict. Nevertheless, the comparison in the book’s title of the Batang Kali massacre with the My Lai massacre during the Vietnam War is misleading, as Hale himself acknowledges. The fact is that at Batang Kali, 24 male prisoners were summarily executed whereas at My Lai there was a positive orgy of rape, mutilation and killing that left over 300 dead, mainly women and children. And My Lai was just one of a number of such massacres in Vietnam. From this point of view, the British record was better than the American record.

But this has nothing to do with national character, military tradition or superior doctrine. The wars in Malaya and Vietnam were very different. The British were fighting a weak enemy that had no outside assistance in a country where support for the insurgents was largely confined to the Chinese minority. If they had been involved in a conflict on the scale of Vietnam, there is every reason to believe that they would have committed atrocities comparable to America’s many My Lais. Moreover, as Hale points out, the British government ‘resolutely continues to defy any and every effort made to investigate and hold open enquiries into acts of alleged criminal violence by British servicemen or police’. We still don’t have the full truth.

The real surprise is that, confronting such a weak opponent, it took the British 12 years to bring the Emergency to a successful close. And while the use of violence never escalated to the levels of American overkill, the British nevertheless conducted themselves with considerable brutality and ruthlessness. The cornerstone of the British counterinsurgency strategy was the forced resettlement of the Chinese squatters and regroupment of Chinese plantation workers and miners in order to bring them under government control. This used to be portrayed almost as a welfare policy introduced for the benefit of the victims but, as Hale shows, it was ‘a human disaster’. The squatters, plantation workers and miners were rounded up, had their homes destroyed and were herded ‘into the realms of government concentration camps’. Hale, an expert on the crimes of the Nazi regime and author of the excellent Hitler’s Foreign Executioners (The History Press, 2011), chooses his words very deliberately. The British, after all, had invented the term during the Boer war. Over a million people were resettled and regrouped behind barbed wire under police supervision, spied on and subject to every sort of hardship and abuse. It was this that broke the back of the insurgency, separating the insurgents from their imprisoned supporters. The Communist guerrillas, once isolated, were much easier to hunt down, and the British succeeded in creating a new and independent country, one ‘equipped with a steely authoritarian armour’. Hale’s account of the events that led up to this new Malaya is essential reading for anyone interested in the reality of Britain’s imperial retreat. It inevitably raises the question of what atrocities have been committed and, at least so far, successfully covered up in Afghanistan.John Newsinger is a Senior Lecturer in history at Bath Spa University, and the author of The Blood Never Dried: A People’s History of the British Empire.

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