The case of CPM (1948-1960) – a Special Branch perspective

Written by Leon Comber, CPI

The origins of the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) have been debated over the years in both the academic world and in the intelligence community.

This paper incorporates the contemporaneous views of the Malayan Special Branch that have not been recorded previously. It also examines the role of Lawrence (Lance) Sharkey, the acting Secretary-General of the Australian Communist Party, who was in Singapore en route back to Australia after attending the February 1948 Conferences in Singapore, in allegedly passing instructions to the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) to revolt against the British colonial government in Malaya.

The essay1 will conclude that there is little evidence of any direct Soviet intervention in the decision made by the CPM to revolt, and it will argue that the decision to resort to armed conflict was made after its failure to establish a Communist People’s Democratic Republic by “open front” activities.

The background  

The academic world and the intelligence community have long debated the origins of the 1948-1960 communist uprising in Malaya. Was the decision to raise the standard of revolt in June 1948 part of a global revolutionary movement orchestrated by the Soviet Union as part of the Cold War in Asia, or was it instead arrived at by the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) based on the local situation in Malaya?2 Or was it rather a mix of both?

Many thousands of words have been written on these questions in the intervening years, but a definitive answer will likely have to await the release of the Soviet Union documents. 3

Meanwhile, this paper presents the viewpoint of a Special Branch officer who served as a Malayan Police Special Branch officer during the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960) and who participated in the discussions (referenced later) that took place at Federal Special Branch headquarters in Kuala Lumpur during the early 1949. These discussions concerned the origins of the uprising of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) against the government.

Firstly, we summarise the background. The first question postulated above takes its starting point from Andrei Zhdanov’s well-known speech at the inaugural meeting of the Cominform on 27 September 1947. Zhdanov argued that the world had been polarised into two opposing camps, that is, the communist bloc led by the Soviet Union and the Western capitalist countries led by the United States.4

His speech encouraged a militant approach by worldwide communist parties to propagating revolution in the Third World. The same line was repeated by E.M. Zhukov, who had attended the inaugural meeting of the Cominform with Zhdanov, in his article in the December 1947 issue of the Bol’shevik that referred to the “sharpening crisis of the colonial system” (author’s emphasis) being “perhaps one of the most significant efforts to apply Zhdanov’s doctrine to Asia”.5

On this basis, a Soviet Conspiracy Theory has been developed that postulates that the Soviets had in some way transmitted “instructions” to the representatives of Southeast Asian communist parties attending the Communist Youth Conference, held from 19-24 Feb 1948 in Calcutta, to take advantage of the unstable conditions prevailing in Southeast Asia at the end of the Second World War to rise up against their colonial rulers.6

British forces responded by airlifting supplies to the city, and the blockade was eventually lifted in May 1949.  

There were two Communist conferences held in Calcutta in February and March 1948. The first was the Communist Youth Conference, held from 19 February 1948 to 24 February 1948, which was sponsored by the World Federation of Democratic Youth (WFDY) and the Conference of Youth and Students of South-East Asia fighting for Freedom and Independence.7

The other was the 2nd Congress of the Communist Party of India (CPI) held from 28 February 1948 to 6 March 1948. The conferences were well attended by a wide range of communist delegates from Vietnam, Indonesia, Ceylon, Burma, India, Pakistan, Nepal, the Philippines and Malaya, with observers from Australia, Korea, Mongolia, Soviet Central Asia, Yugoslavia, France, Hungary, Canada, Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union.

According to what Chin Peng, Secretary-General of the CPM, told the author in Canberra in February 1999, the CPM did not receive an invitation to attend either of the Calcutta conferences,8 although Lee Soong, General Secretary of the Malayan WFDY, received an invitation to attend the Youth Conference.9 The CPM’s Central Executive Committee approved Lee’s attendance at the Conference.10

Lee was a Singapore-Chinese of CPM State Committee rank who, like many Singapore-Chinese, was fluent in English, the language used at the conference.

Returning to the Soviet Conspiracy theory, the best known exponents of the theory are probably the US scholars Walt W. Rustow, A. Doak Barnett, and Frank N. Trager, who argued that instructions to start armed uprisings had been passed on from the Soviet “centre” to representatives of the Southeast Asian communist parties attending the Calcutta conferences.11

The leading proponent of the opposite school of thought was Ruth T. McVey, who called into question whether the Soviet Union had issued any such instructions. Over the years many, other historians followed this critical path, with Anthony Stockwell’s paper “Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya” (2006) as a recent example.12

In her 1958 study, McVey had summed up the situation by saying that in the unsettled conditions that prevailed in Southeast Asia after the Japanese surrender at the end of the war, “it does not seem likely that the two-camp message [sic] lit the revolutionary spark in Southeast Asia though it may well have added the extra tinder which caused it to burst into flames”.13

In his classic study of the Emergency, The Communist Insurrection in Malaya, Anthony Short was rather more circumspect, and while he did not specifically support the Soviet Conspiracy Theory, he reasoned that while the “(Calcutta) conference did not openly declare for insurrection its mood was one of extreme belligerence towards colonial rule”.14

This is undoubtedly correct as it reflects the standard communist line, and in fact during the post-war period, even the US, the leader of the Western capitalist countries, expressed reservations about the continuation of British, French and Dutch colonial rule in Southeast Asia.15

Professor Mary Turnbull’s essay in The Cambridge History of Southeast Asia (1992) came out clearly against the “Soviet Conspiracy Theory” in the following words: “In fact the period was one of confused ambitions for the communists. Their various revolts and wars in Indonesia, Malaya, Vietnam and Burma, were not part (author’s emphasis) of a grand pre-planned Soviet strategy, such as Lenin’s dream of communist revolution in Asia or the Comintern’s ambitious design to use China in the 1920s as the means of realising this dream. While the Soviet Union had shown little interest in Southeast Asia, apart from the 1920s Comintern interlude, the Chinese Communist Party posed a more immediate threat.” 16

As of 2007 however, it was clear that the controversy was still attracting scholarly attention, as the subject was discussed again in Philip Deery’s paper “Malaya, 1948: Britain”s Asian Cold War’17, which was the focus of an interesting H-Diplo review article by Karl Hack.

In his review article, Karl Hack argued that the “Soviet role needs to be given at least some weight within nuanced, multi-causal models of the outbreak of the “Asian Cold War”, and that the MCP did have a programme intended to end in armed revolt within months, even though the British precipitated this’.18

Nevertheless, the debate appears to have largely overlooked the fact that The Times (London) had long ago (June 1948) taken the view there was little evidence of direct Soviet intervention in the rise of revolutionary movements then taking place in Malaya and other parts of Southeast Asia, though The Times conceded that several of the revolutionary leaders, such as Aliman of Indonesia and Ho Chi-Minh of Indo-China, had spent several years in Russia or in communist service abroad.19

The Times considered instead that communist parties were taking advantage of the unsettled conditions prevailing throughout the area at the end of the war, identifying themselves with nationalist anti-West feelings and opposing landlords and factory managers as well as the colonial governments in power.20