The Malayan Communist Party’s surprising strategy
Following Japan's announcement of unconditional surrender to the Allied Powers, several crucial weeks elapsed before British forces landed in Malaya. The interregnum saw a dramatic collapse of the Japanese order and the eruption of local political and social forces in a potentially deadly struggle for power, with conflicts breaking out mainly along communal lines. Bloody racial clashes during this period between Malays and Chinese had serious repercussions on Malaya’s post-war society and politics. The anarchic conditions gave the guerrilla force of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) – the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) – a real opportunity to attempt to seize power, but to the surprise of many it did nothing to oppose the return of the British, unlike its Vietnamese counterpart under Ho Chi Minh. The MPAJA did seize government offices in isolated locations, but it made no move to take over key administrative centres such as Kuala Lumpur and Singapore.
Japanese forces in Malaya were intact when Japan surrendered, and were charged with maintaining order pending the arrival of the British. They had fought the MCP throughout the occupation and harboured an intense dislike of communism. Moreover, the MCP was only one of a number of resistance organizations, and would have had to compete for power with the Malay nationalist Kesatuan Melayu Muda, Chinese residents associated with the Kuomintang, and Chinese secret societies.
Apart from the Japanese army, MCP leaders had to consider the prospect of opposition from British military forces, which had supplied them with funds, arms and supplies. MPAJA units were also under the nominal control of Britain’s Force 136, part of the Special Operations Executive. No doubt some of these restraints could have been shrugged off whenever expedient, but the MCP never lost sight of the fact that the British would return and exact retribution if those promises were not honoured. Finally, there were rumours that KMT military forces might accompany British troops when they returned to Malaya. Militarily the MPAJA was ill-prepared for seizing power, or defending itself thereafter. Communication between MPAJA headquarters and its various units relied on jungle couriers and was painfully slow. Moreover, it would have been difficult to conceal plans for such an action from British officers in their camps. Under the circumstances, there is small wonder that MCP leaders failed to take decisive action.
Political considerations also played a part. The MCP’s Secretary General, Lai Tek (a man later shown to have variously worked for the British Special Branch, the Comintern and the Japanese) opted to have the party cooperate with the British and work within a constitutional framework if the British granted self-government to Malaya. In doing so, he invoked the Comintern's United Front policy, basically a war-time expedient, to support the moderate post-war line of constitutional struggle. The MCP later claimed that Lai Tek took the ‘rightwing opportunist line’ of ‘peaceful struggle’ because he was a ‘lackey of British imperialism’, but other observers have suggested that he simply recognized the party’s weakness and sought to protect it during an uncertain period of transition. It is doubtful that the truth of this will ever be known, but a mood of disillusionment set in among the MPAJA guerrillas over the MCP's failure to act. It seems likely that, had the MCP’s leadership actually gone ahead with a coup, the rank-and-tile would have obeyed the orders to stage an uprising, given that when the MCP finally did call for insurrection in 1948, the bulk of the rank-and-file obeyed the call to arms, even though they were ill-prepared and uncertain about the outcome of their actions. (See also When the Reds go marching in!)