Scholars’ views on nationalists and their struggle for Merdeka

By Centre for Policy Initiatives

In an earlier commentary titled Media lynching and academic collaborators, I asked the question: “So what is the verdict of professional historians on the communist insurgency and its contribution to the movement for independence from which a real debate and the historical truth can have its starting point?”

In this and subsequent posts, the Centre for Policy Initiatives reproduces various key articles written by authoritative scholars and academicians on the events and some of the main protagonists engaged in the struggle for the country’s independence.

I am grateful to the editorial board of the journal, Kajian Malaysia, and Penerbit Universiti Sains Malaysia as well as to the authors of the various pieces – C.C. Chin, Richard Mason, Leon Comber and Abdul Rahman Ismail for their permission to have their work featured in this CPI series.

Other articles will be included in the series once permission has been obtained from their authors and publishers.

I hope that the scholarly work provided here and from other sources can serve as the basis for more informed and historically truthful interpretations of the period leading to and immediately following the independence of Malaya in 1957 and the role of the major actors and political forces.


Revisiting 1948 insurgencies and the cold war in Southeast Asia  

By Richard Mason

In 1948 left-winged insurgencies broke out in Malaya, Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines. These insurgencies continued to leave their imprint on the region today.

The papers in this volume discuss the significance of these insurgencies in the course of Southeast Asian history, with particular reference to the Cold War in the region. These papers are part of a larger collection that were presented at a Roundtable on the Sixtieth Anniversary of 1948: Reassessing the Origins of the Cold War in Southeast Asia, organised by the Asia Research Institute (ARI), National University of Singapore (NUS), 10-11 July 2008.

The central concern of the Roundtable was to discuss the significance of 1948 in Southeast Asian history and to determine “in what way 1948 was – or perhaps was not – ‘the beginning of the Cold War’ in Southeast Asia.”

Were the seemingly simultaneous left-winged insurgencies that broke out in the region in 1948 Soviet-directed as part of the Cold war in Asia or did the insurgencies emerged from local circumstances affecting the strategies of the struggles of these left-wings movements in the respective counties concerned? How important were the insurgencies in affecting the course of Southeast Asian history? Did 1948 constitute a watershed in Southeast Asian history? The papers in this volume address these issues among many others.

Were the left-winged insurgencies which broke out in Malaya, Burma, Indonesia and the Philippines in 1948 directed by the Soviet Union as part of the Cold War in Asia? Known as the “Soviet Conspiracy Theory”, the starting point for this postulation is Andrei Zhdanov’s speech at the inaugural of the Cominform in September 1947 which argued that the world had been divided into two opposing camps: the Western capitalist countries led by the United States on the one hand, and the communist bloc led by the Soviet Union on the other.

Zhdanov advocated that foreign communist parties should be in vanguard of spreading communism throughout the world. This line was repeated by E.M. Zhukov in an article published in the December issue of Bol’shevik, which advocated propagation of revolutions to the colonial areas.

According to proponents of this Soviet Conspiracy Theory, it was at the Communist Youth Conference at Calcutta, convened 19-24 February 1948 that the Soviets passed on the “instructions” to representatives of Southeast Asian communist parties to seize the opportunity of the unstable conditions prevailing in Southeast Asia to rise against their colonial rulers. In March, left-winged insurgency broke out in Burma, followed by British Malaya in June, and Indonesia in September.

Consistent with the thesis of monolithic communism, the conventional orthodox interpretation of these uprisings has it that they were Soviet-directed as part of the Cold War in Asia.

Soviet interest in Southeast Asia had been notably absent before the Pacific War but by 1947 there were discernable evidence of Soviet’s growing interest in the region. In 1947, the Soviet Union opened an embassy in Bangkok and this was shortly followed by the Communist Youth Conference at Calcutta in February 1948, and the subsequent the outbreak of the Southeast Asian insurgencies later that year.

According to this school of thought, that these left-winged Southeast Asian insurgencies broke out almost simultaneously indeed suggest actions in response to instruction from Moscow. Predictably, both the United States and Great Britain immediately assumed that these insurgencies were Soviet-directed and formulated their responses accordingly.1