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Civilian Casualties from British Military: The Malayan Emergency

This section provides a detailed account of recorded civilian casualties that resulted from the British military’s involvement in the Malayan Emergency.

When did this conflict occur?

17th June, 1948^ – 31st July, 1960*

^ – Though the Federation of Malaya officially declared a state of emergency on the 17th of June, 1948, the first shots of the Malayan Emergency were fired 24 hours earlier, when three Chinese gunmen assassinated three European plantation managers near Sungai Siput. [1]

* – The Federation of Malaya ended the state of emergency on the 31st of July, 1960, but a secondary insurgency by the Malayan Communist Party lasted until 1989. [2] 

What is the background to this conflict?

The aftermath of the Second World War saw the creation of the Malayan Union in 1946, a unification of the nine former states of British Malaya in addition to the Straits Settlements of Penang and Malacca, aimed at simplifying the task of colonial governance. British plans, however, quickly came under intense criticism from ethnic Malays who felt that the provisions regarding citizenship, which would have facilitated the ability for large numbers of Chinese and Indian Malays to acquire citizenship and equal rights, were excessively lenient. [3] Colonial authorities subsequently introduced a new proposal for the Federation of Malaya, the direct predecessor of present-day Malaysia, which retained stringent criteria for citizenship. When combined with continued economic inequalities, with European planters possessing privileged access to the federation’s natural resources, Chinese workers responded with widespread outrage and organised strikes, abandoned projects, and began a campaign of limited sabotage. [4] As a result of the growing power of labour unions, the Malayan Communist Party gained further traction and continued to organise strikes throughout 1947 and 1948. Seeking to contain the unrest, British leaders resorted to outlawing the largest union, the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions, on June 12th, 1948. [5] Violence by the Malayan Communist Party’s armed wing, the Malayan National Liberation Army, erupted just six days later when three Chinese workers shot and killed three European plantation managers during the Sungai Siput incident. A state of emergency was declared, and British military and police forces found themselves locked in a relentless counterinsurgency campaign which lasted until the 31st of July, 1960.

What role did British military forces play?

The Malayan Emergency marked one of the first counterinsurgency efforts undertaken by British military and law enforcement personnel immediately following the Second World War. In keeping with the adage that militaries find themselves best prepared to fight the last war, British planners initially adopted an approach centred on lessons learned from operations in the European and Pacific theatres. Preparatory fires from land-based artillery and aircraft sought to weaken enemy positions while large formations, drawn from the 13 infantry brigades stationed in Malaya, conducted ‘sweeps’ seeking to locate, close with, and destroy pockets of MLNA fighters. [6] Such efforts proved frustratingly fruitless as MLNA forces continued to operate unimpeded in large swathes of the Federation of Malaya. The arrival of General Sir Harold Briggs as Direct of Operations in Malaya, however, signalled a shift in British doctrine: small patrols, drawn from both an expanded infantry presence in Malaya and the reintroduction of units such as the Special Air Service, focused on human intelligence collection and limited ambushes against isolated MLNA columns while the forced relocation of Chinese Malayans into ‘New Village’ internment camps deprived insurgents of the popular support needed to sustain the armed struggle. [7] The MNLA’s strength gradually declined as its members were killed or forced into hiding in neighbouring Thailand, and, on the 31st of July, 1960, the Malayan government declared the end of the national state of emergency.   

Can a figure of civilian deaths due to British military action be determined?

Yes. Over the course of the Malayan Emergency, there were 38 confirmed killings of civilians by British military forces. In contrast to these 38 civilian deaths, 1442 British military personnel died in the conflict. [8] 

Are there any trends or incidents of note?

The military strategy in the Malayan Emergency can be broken into three primary phases: a “Counter-Terror” where British doctrine centred on the use of coercion against the civilian population, a shift under General Sir Harold Briggs towards forced resettlement of the Chinese Malays, and a final phase emphasising psychological operations and civil affairs programs to  ensure popular support. [9] It was this initial “Counter-Terror”, marked by loose rules governing the use of deadly force, that saw the majority of non-combatants killed by British security forces conducting large-scale sweeps through civilian areas. [10]

In addition to the 38 confirmed civilian deaths, however, an additional 56 fatal shootings by British security forces have been flagged as suspicious. The most common justification offered for these killings is that individuals were shot while attempting to flee or failing to stop when ordered to do so. While British incident reports and weekly situational updates outline similar instances where individuals fleeing were killed and weapons recovered, these 56 additional instances offer no mention of military equipment and frequently employ terms such as “Chinese”, “Indian”, “squatter”, or “suspect” as opposed to “bandit”. The use of this language and the absence of evidence indicating that the deceased were legitimate military targets raises key questions regarding the justification of these killings. One instance cited part of the 46 confirmed civilian deaths highlights the importance of these discrepancies in terminology:

  • 11th December, 1948: 7th Platoon from G Company, 2nd Battalion, the Scots Guards conducted a raid on a rubber plantation near the town of Batang Kali and captured 26 Malayan men. Acting on information gathered from one detainee regarding a lorry carrying food, 7th Platoon conducted a successful ambush and attempted to withdraw with their 26 prisoners for interrogation. British situation reports conclude by explaining: “bandits attempted mass escape and 25 of them were killed and one recaptured”. [11]
    • Subsequent revelations, however, challenged the platoon’s narrative; survivors of Batang Kali asserted that the Scots Guards had murdered the men while the British owner of a nearby rubber plantation emphasised that the deceased were employees with good records of conduct. Calls for a formal inquiry culminated in a 2012 ruling by a London High Court that the events of December 11th, 1948 constituted a “deliberate execution” of civilians in direct violation of the laws of armed conflict. [12, 13]

Endnotes:

[1] Yao, Souchou. The Malayan Emergency: A Small, Distant War (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2016): 40-41.

[2] Benton, Gregor, “Malaysia’s ‘Second Emergency’ (1968–89)”, Verso, 2018, https://www.versobooks.com/blogs/3855-malaysia-s-second-emergency-1968-89

[3] Lau, Albert, “Malayan Union Citizenship: Constitutional Change and Controversy in Malaya, 1942–48”, Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 20, no. 2 (2011): 216-243. doi:10.1017/S0022463400018105

[4] Ucko, David H. Elite Bargains and Political Deals Project: Malaya Case Study (London: Stabilisation Unit, 2018): 7. https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/766035/Malaya_case_study.pdf

[5] Shurcliff, Alice W, “Growth of Democratic Trade-Unions in the Federation of Malaya”, Monthly Labor Review 73, no. 3 (1951): 275. https://www.jstor.org/stable/41832452

[6] Stubbs, Richard, “From Search and Destroy to Hearts and Minds: The Evolution of British Strategy in Malaya 1948-60” in Counterinsurgency in Modern Warfare, edited by Daniel Marston and Carter Malkasian, 115. Oxford: Osprey Publishing, 2008.

[7] Hack, Karl. The Malayan Emergency: Revolution and Counterinsurgency at the End of Empire (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2021): 191-246.

[8] UK armed forces Deaths: Operational deaths post World War II, Ministry of Defence, 2021, https://assets.publishing.service.gov.uk/government/uploads/system/uploads/attachment_data/file/972075/20210325_UK_armed_forces_Operational_deaths_post_World_War_II-O.pdf

[9] Bennett, Huw, “‘A very salutary effect’: The Counter-Terror Strategy in the Early Malayan Emergency, June 1948 to December 1949”,  Journal of Strategic Studies 32, no. 3 (2009): 417. https://doi.org/10.1080/01402390902928248

[10] Huw, “A very salutary effect”, 420.

[11] See primary source

[12] Siver, Christi. MILITARY INTERVENTIONS, WAR CRIMES, AND PROTECTING CIVILIANS (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2018): 57-83. 

[13] Shirbon, Estelle, “Britain held responsible for 1948 mass killing in Malaya”, Reuters, 2012, https://www.reuters.com/article/us-britain-malaysia-killings-idUSBRE8830VG20120904