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Japan’s Co-Prosperity Sphere was short-lived, and failed because it redirected resources to warfare that might perhaps have been the basis for real cooperation. As it expanded it had made a propagandistic appeal to Asian self-government. On the eve of defeat the Japanese again raised the issue of national independence, most pointedly in Indonesia and Korea. It was a kind of ‘scorched earth’ policy – for the invading Allies taking over territories with a real expectation of independence was a further challenge to their authority (on top of the humiliation that the Japanese had visited on them in 1942). Late grants of independence on the part of the Japanese made a logistical headache for the Allies, who, as they were advancing on Japan, would also have to cope with claims to selfgovernment in their rear. Allied efforts would be split between pacification of the conquered territory and pushing on to Japan.
For the people of the region, the experience of Japanese occupation was confusingly mixed. On the one hand domination by the Kempetai, hunger and being forced into labour battalions was misery equal to any that Germany visited on Europe. For the Chinese in particular, but also the Koreans, Japan was a vicious and brutal master. There were though many national elites who enjoyed their first experience of self-government under Japan, and the Japanese occupation in the end dislocated Empires, rather than founding a new one.
Burmese leader Ba Maw summed up the paradox:
The case of Japan is indeed tragic. Looking at it historicaly, no nation has done so much to liberate Asia from white domination … Had her Asian instincts been true, had she only been faithful to the concept of Asia for the Asians that she herself had proclaimed from the very beginning of the war, Japan’s fate would have been very different. No military defeat could then have robbed her of the trust and gratitude of half of Asia or even more… Even now, as things actually are, nothing can ever obliterate the role Japan has played in bringing liberation to countless colonial peoples. The phenomenal Japanese victories in the Pacific and Southeast Asia which really marked the beginning of the end of all imperialism and colonialism, the national armies Japan helped to create during the war which in their turn created a new spirit and will in a large part of Asia, the independent states she set up in several Southeast Asian countries as well as her recognition of the provisional governemt of Free India at a time when not a single other belligerent power permitted even the talk of independence within its own dominations, and finally a demonstration by the entire Japanese people of the invincibility of the Asia spirit when they rose out of the ashes to a new greatness, these will outlive all the passing wartime strains and passions and betrayals in the final summing up of history.2 In 1944, though, the Japanese yoke weighed heavily on the peoples of East Asia, who were summoning the strength to throw it off.
In October 1944 the leaders of the Communist Party of Malaya met near Serendah, north of Kuala Lumpur to work out their plans for when the Allied forces came. They were told that there forces would be organised as two – one an open army that ‘would work with the British, and, in effect, function as a British force’. The other would be a secret army held in readiness to fight the British. The Anti-Japanese Army would become a National Liberation Army, the Anti-Japanese League a National Liberation League. Commander Chin Peng remembered what ‘amounted to a rousing call to revolution’, and that ‘our spirits soared’.3 The challenge of how to cope with the British came sooner rather than later, because of the collapse of the Japanese forces after Emperor Hirohito’s radio broadcast surrender on 19 August 1945. Straight away the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army was contacted by Japanese commanders wanting to help them fight the restoration of British colonialism: ‘if you choose to fight on, you can rely on our support’. Whole battalions and many weapons were offered, and in the event some 400 men did shift over from the Japanese to the AntiJapanese Army, but this late flowering of Pan-Asian solidarity was de-railed by the Communist Party of Malaya’s leadership.4 Instead of taking on the British, party chairman Lai Te (sometimes Lai Teck) announced an eight point plan that began ‘support Russia, China, Britain and America in a new organisation for world security’. The plan called for an end to the ‘fascist Japanese political structure’ a ‘democratic government’ and ‘freedom of speech’ as well as various social progammes. But as Chin Peng understood, it made no reference to national selfdetermination and ‘amounted to nothing more than a vapid move to appease the British’.
Perhaps it was because Lai Te, despite posing as a representative of the Comintern was in truth a British spy, only uncovered in 1947, that he managed to trick the Malayan partisans into backing Britain. On the other hand, Lai Te’s eight-point plan was pretty much in keeping with Soviet policy of collaborating with the Allies at the time. In any event, the clash between Britain and the Malayan freedom fighters was put on hold.5 ‘The first troops of reoccupation came ashore at a Penang Island beachhead on 3 September’, and Chin Peng despaired that ‘we are letting them back unimpeded to reclaim a territory they have plundered for so long’. From the outset, the British authorities were hostile, blaming the communists for outbreaks of ethnic hostility between Chinese and Malays. South East Asia Command told the British Liaison Officer Davis that when the Allied troops land the Malayan Peoples Anti-Japanese Army ‘should avoid all towns and other districts where the Japanese are present’ so as ‘to avoid clashes and unnecessary bloodshed’. Davis objected on 19 August 1945 that orders for the MPAJA ‘to remain in the hills while the Allies leisurely take over the administration from the Japs will not be reasonable’. Davis’ telegram was passed on to Sir Edward Gent (who would later be appointed High Commissioner in Malaya) by the Special Operations Executive Colonel Sheridan with the comment ‘our experience is that in cases of this kind the L. O. in course of time becomes rather imbued with the views of the resistance movement to which they are attached’. In other words, Davis had ‘gone native’.6 As the British troops came ashore on 5 September 1945 a British Military Administration was set up. To appease the populace an advisory council was appointed and three members of the Communist Party of Malaya were invited – among 61 other notables. The pre-war Societies and Banishment Ordinances had not been repealed, so the communists were officially still illegal, despite having been the core of the liberation army. New military liaison officers were brought in, ‘many of them old Malaya hands’ – policemen, planters and game wardens.7 Quite soon the British Military Administration made itself felt. A decision to declare the Japanese occupation currency valueless wrecked the economy. Workers lost their savings at a stroke, food supplies dwindled and prices rocketed. The Administration stopped food movements, making things worse. Following Lai Te’s orders, the MPAJA agreed to disband by December 1, and military parades were held up and down the country where arms were handed in. At the same time, Singapore workers were protesting at the austerity measures.
Seven thousand Dockworkers struck on 21 October, calling both for higher wages, but also for an end to the shipment of arms to Dutch troops fighting the Indonesian nationalists. The Military Administration used British troops and demobilised Japanese soldiers to break the strike. Two days later the Singapore Bus company employees struck, and on 25 October 20,000 members of the Singapore General Labour Union crammed into the Happy World amusement park to protest against strike-breaking, and also in favour of the Indonesian and Vietnamese freedom fighters.8 On mainland Malaya there were a number of hunger marches. On 21 October 1945 troops were called out to put down large demonstrations in Perak State, at Sungei Siput, Ipoh and Batu Gajah. Ten demonstrators were shot dead in Sungei Siput and three more at Ipoh. The Military Administration banned left wing newspapers and arrested leading communists. Though the MPAJA were officially disbanded there were hand grenade attacks on British troops.9 Even while these conflicts were taking place the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army was being hailed as a part of the Allied victory celebrations. In January 1946 three commanders of the MPAJA were awarded the Burma Star by Lord Mountbatten in person in Singapore. Six months later the MPAJA marched as a contingent on the 8 June victory parade in London, and then later, Chin Peng was awarded the Order of the British Empire. In between the same men organised a general strike demanding the release of the communist Soon Kwong, which they won.10 The cat-and-mouse game with the militants of the MPAJA was motivated by Britain’s need to raise dollars to meet its post-war debts. Malaya’s rubber was one resource that could be guaranteed to raise funds as they sweated the colonies. Britain’s Secretary of State for War – who had been reckoned the country’s leading Marxist economist before the war – John Strachey explained in a Cabinet report: ‘We emphasise and rightly, the most indispensable character of Malaya to us as a dollar earner.’ – so much so that by 1952 export earnings per capita were amongst the highest in the world.11 The British campaign against the Malaysian partisans exposed in the Daily Worker Where other colonies might be written off, they would fight to keep Malaya. As the colony encouraged rubber planters to sweat their plantations native resentment grew.
Attacks on the planters were met with vicious retribution. ‘Joint Malayan Interests’, a business pressure group, warned the Colonial Office against ‘soft-hearted doctrinaires with the emphasis on self-government’, and that ‘until the fight against banditry has been won there can be no question of any further moves towards self-government’.12 The underground army of the MPAJA was sparked back into life, leading to the most protracted insurgency in the Empire, where British troops were encouraged to show their kills by collecting the heads of their victims.