The upsurge of armed struggle in Malaysia represents one of the lesser noticed repercussions of the 1968 developments in Vietnam and China.
The impact of revolutionary developments in Vietnam and China on the May events of 1968 in France and other Western countries has long been acknowledged. Less notice has been paid outside Asia to their repercussions on other Southeast Asian countries, which also experienced a revolutionary high tide in 1968. The upsurge of armed struggle in Malaysia in 1968 is rarely mentioned in general studies on the period, and is not often talked about even in Malaysia.
This article’s author is Gregor Benton emeritus professor of Chinese history at Cardiff University and research associate in diaspora studies, NTU, Singapore.
In 1968, the Malaysian Communists under their ethnic-Chinese leader Chin Peng declared war on the Malaysian government. They kept their insurgency going until 1989, although to increasingly diminishing effect. This armed struggle is generally known as the Second Emergency, following the original “Malayan Emergency ” of 1948-1960. At the time, Chin Peng was feared almost as much as Osama bin Laden in later times, and had earlier gained a reputation as “Britain’s enemy number one in Southeast Asia.”
The strategic context of Malaysia’s two Emergencies starting in 1948 and 1968 was the Cold War, which in Southeast Asia took the form of Soviet and Chinese competition with the US-led Western bloc. In the 1960s, the main arena of this competition was Vietnam, where Moscow and Beijing supported the north under Ho Chi Minh against the US-backed south. In Indonesia too Communists staged a rebellion in the 1960s that was crushed by local anti-Communist forces.
In 1968, Communist forces in South Vietnam staged their Tet Offensive, which resulted in a military defeat but represented a political victory of stunning proportions. The Tet Offensive was a main factor in the CPM’s decision to return to arms and wage a Chinese-style People’s War against the governments of Singapore and Malaysia, which they saw as neo-colonies of the British, and to campaign for a Malayan People’s Republic. Their revolution was designed to chime not just with Vietnam’s War of National Liberation but also with China’s Cultural Revolution, which peaked in 1968.
In the first five years after 1968, the CPM groups set up a secret network of supporters across Malaysia, and in 1974 it began a campaign of bombings and assassinations in both Malaysia and Singapore. Its victims included Tan Sri Abdul Rahman bin Hashim, Inspector-General of the Malaysian Police. Communist guerrillas created a series of strongholds across the border from Malaysia in Southern Thailand. The absence of a concerted Thai-Malaysian response to their activities played into the hands of the CPM, which profited from the two governments’ failure to cooperate effectively.
In Malaysia, the CPM failed as a result less of the military prowess of the government’s security forces than of its own failure to win over key sections of the population outside its jungle strongholds in Southern Thailand.
The CPM suffered greatly as a result of the deepening of the Sino-Soviet split. As China’s relations with the Soviet Union worsened, Beijing began a process of rapprochement with its non-communist neighbours to the south, as a counterweight to its troubles in the north. As part of this process, the Chinese leader Zhou Enlai announced in 1974 that Beijing would henceforth consider the CPM to be an internal problem for Malaysia, thus signaling the start of Beijing’s withdrawal of support.
In his memoirs, Chin Peng claimed that the CPM had won “peace with dignity” — a “reasonable conclusion” to the struggle. However, he also acknowledged that the MCP’s terror campaign had been a mistake, for it had “antagonized the masses.” He went on to outline the domestic and international conditions that had prevented the spread of revolution in the Malay Peninsula and Borneo: “A revolution based on violence has no application in modern Malaysia or Singapore.