The Malayan Communist Party
Origins of the MCP
The guerrillas who fought against the Commonwealth forces during the Malayan Emergency were mostly members of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP).
The MCP was closely related to the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) of the Second World War; the commander of the MPAJA, Lai Tek, was also the Secretary-General of the MCP. Lai Tek's hopes of seizing power in Malaya after the war were thwarted by the sudden surrender of the Japanese and the arrival of British and Indian troops. Although the MPAJA was officially disbanded by the British, many of its members went underground. The members retained their uniforms and weapons, and were ready to emerge as the military wing of the MCP. In the meantime, the MCP began to take control of Malaya's trade unions in order to foment strikes and disturbances that would prepare the way for an overthrow of the British. The MCP was, however, shaken in 1947 when Lai Tek absconded with the party funds.
In 1948 the new Secretary-General Chin Peng oversaw a change of direction in the MCP's anti-British activities. Chin wanted to turn what had been a largely political struggle into a guerrilla war. He therefore reorganised the former members of the MPAJA into a 12,000-strong rural guerrilla force called the Malayan Races Liberation Army (MRLA).
Chin's strategy was to drive representatives of the administration and other Europeans from plantations, mines, and the countryside in order to create 'liberated areas' that would expand and join together. Larger villages and towns would then be taken by force. Finally, a 'general offensive' against the British would lead to the capture of the main cities and the setting up of a communist republic.
The strategy was not successful. Extensive guerrilla operations not only failed to lead to the establishment of any 'liberated areas,' but also resulted in the MRLA being forced onto the defensive. In 1951 Chin released an 'October Manifesto' from his Jungle headquarters in Pahang. The manifesto acknowledged that the guerrilla campaign was not working, and urged that the struggle should go back to being an essentially political one. But it was too late. For the remainder of the 1950s the MRLA's main concern was with survival, as it was driven into ever more remote areas by the Commonwealth forces.
The October Manifesto also acknowledged that the Malayan proletariat had not been won over. In fact, guerrilla intimidation and violence had alienated the populace. This inability to win over the majority of the Malay people was the underlying reason for the failure of the communist cause in the Malayan Emergency. The ethnic and cultural make-up of Malaya meant that most people were unlikely to support the guerrillas, and that Chin Peng could not credibly present himself as a nationalist leader in the manner of Mao Ze-Dong and Ho Chi Minh. Yet he had attempted to do so. And he had embarked on a guerrilla war that he had little chance of winning.