Monday, 29 October 2012


The first two post war British High Commissioners of the Federation of Malaya had fatal bad luck. Sir Edward Gent was flying back to London - to be sacked - when his aircraft collided with a Swedish passenger plane near RAF Northolt. His successor Sir Henry Gurney was assassinated approaching Fraser's Hill in Malaya. This is a draft of my account of this incident - comments, additions etc very welcome.

In early October, 1951 High Commissioner Gurney reflected on the ‘Chinese problem’. He lamented that the new settlements and trade union organisations were under communist attack: the rural Chinese, the peasants, who are the real targets must first be protected… If [the communists] are allowed to [continue penetrating] unopposed by any Chinese initiate whatever, the whole of the Chinese rural population will soon come under communist domination. These people are looking for leaders to help them resist…’ Gurney then listed all the many ways that the Chinese obstructed government efforts. ‘They can spend $4 million on celebrations in Singapore but can spare nothing for the MCA anti-communist efforts.’ Many Chinese, he complained, lived in luxury, and expended a great deal of energy criticising the police and security forces. They did nothing to help. Gurney’s letter was saturated in bitterness. Two days after penning this exasperated invective Gurney bolted from Kuala Lumpur with his wife to spend the weekend at Fraser’s Hill, Malaya’s elite hill resort sixty five miles to the north. The High Commissioner’s black painted Rolls Royce car glided haughtily out of King’s House tailed by an escort commander in a police radio van and a private car driven by the Attorney General. A scout car brought up the rear. An hour or so after departure, the radio car suffered a series of mechanical mishaps – and the escort commander was forced to transfer to the scout car. He now had to drive at break neck speed to catch up with the Rolls. Between Kuala Lumpur and the Gap at the threshold of Fraser’s Hill, the journey was tense. The big wallowing Rolls made a wonderful target and it was not unknown for MNLA units to launch surprise attacks even on the main highways. The Gurneys were relieved as the Rolls turned onto the narrow, one way road that led up through thick jungle to the highland retreat. By then, the escort had been left far behind – and only a Land rover crammed with five unarmed Malay policemen protected the most powerful individual in the Federation of Malaya. It was about one o’clock.
Gap Road was the perfect ambush site. There was a steep descent on one side and dense jungle and bamboo thickets on the other. The High Commissioner’s Rolls slowed frequently as it negotiated the long series of hair pin bends. Security was astonishingly lax – no doubt because the British regarded Fraser’s Hill and its approach road as a kind of home from home. It was unimaginable that the MNLA could penetrate this green and pleasant retreat.  And yet that that day they had done just that. For two days, MNLA platoon leader Siew Ma, which means 'Little Horse', had been perched above the Gap Road with a platoon thirty six guerrillas. They were not waiting for the Gurneys – but hoped to ambush an army convoy and seize weapons and ammunition. Siew Ma was a short, fit man who had been trained by the British at the 101 STS in Singapore. He had set up a so called ‘killing box’ on the Gap Road just before the 57th Milestone (the distance from Kuala Lumpur) where a tight bend forced traffic to slow to a crawl. The platoon had dug into three firing positions, well armed with Bren guns and rifles. Behind them waited ‘charging squads’ whose task would be to plunder the convoy. For nearly two days, there was frustratingly little traffic. Food was running out: there was no local Min Yuen contact. There was no point risking lives for the odd Land Rover or holiday party. By midday on the Saturday, Siew Ma was running out of patience. He decided to wait for another two hours. 
An hour later, at 1.15 p.m. Siew Ma was suddenly alert. He could hear the grinding clunk and whine of strained gears as a big vehicle slowed to negotiate the tight bend at the 57th Mile. Soon a Land Rover came in sight – packed with armed police. As it slowly entered the killing box, a gleaming black limousine lumbered into view. For a few moments, Siew Mah struggled to make up his mind. Then he gave the order to fire. A hail of bullets tore into the open back of the Land Rover wounding all but one of the Malay policemen and hitting the driver of the Rolls behind. The policemen who could still move hurled themselves the bamboo thicket by the road and began returning fire with their carbines. The Rolls had lurched to left and come to a halt at the edge of the road. It was riddled with bullet holes. Inside, Lady Gurney and the High Commissioner’s private secretary H.D. Staples crouched on the floor of the car, terrified. The volley of firing was reaching a crescendo. Then something unexpected happened. As Siew Mah watched, a tall gentleman in a light tropical suit pushed open the right hand door of the Rolls and stepped into the road. He began walking into the hail of bullets. None of the MNLA shooters had any idea who this man was. Bullets shattered his face and chest. Then the tall man fell into the deep drainage ditch at the side of the road. The High Commissioner Sir Henry Gurney was dead.  The Chief Secretary reported that:
‘…Lady Gurney and the Private Secretary remained in the car until the firing eased when they crawled out and found Gurney's body in the ditch on the right side of the road. Officer in charge of the Scout car returned about twenty minutes later on foot with reinforcements from the Gap Police station, bandits having felled a tree across the road above the site of the ambush. Armoured vehicles from Kuala Kubu arrived on the scene about 2.15pm and engage in follow up operations. The Attorney General Hogan and wife were following the High Commissioner's party in their own car and were about half a mile behind at the time of the ambush. They stopped when they heard firing in front. After a few minutes the telecommunication van (which had been passed by the High Commissioner’s party ) appeared from the opposite direction and it was possible to tap the overhead telephone wires and communicate with Kuala Kubu. Ambush position was some half mile long and clearly carefully prepared…’
We know from Chin Peng's 'My Side of History' that Siew Ma withdrew from the scene 'very discouraged'. He had failed to identify the tall man who had walked away from the Rolls. From the British point of view, it was natural to conclude that the MNLA had deliberately targeted the High Commissioner. Special Branch suspected that a Chinese cook at the High Commissioner’s villa had revealed details of the visit when he went to buy supplies in Raub; or that there was a spy at the local telephone exchange. The evidence was flimsy. Siew Ma had been lucky; the British had been careless. 

Wednesday, 10 October 2012

Did the atom bombs end the war with Japan?

Many historians assert that the two atomic bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki in early August 1945 forced Emperor Hirohito to surrender - thus saving tens of thousands lives that would have been lost had the war continued for longer. This argument, that has been reiterated time and again, provides a moral justification or rationale for the use of these new weapons to murder civilians.

In the ruined German city  of Potsdam, six thousand miles from occupied Southeast Asia, American President Truman had something important to tell his Soviet counterpart: ‘On July 24 I casually mentioned to Stalin that we had a new weapon of unusual destructive force. The Russian Premier showed no special interest. All he said was that he was glad to hear it and hoped we would make 'good use of it against the Japanese.'’ His apparent indifference to the new American weapon was, of course, a sham.  Stalin had already made plans to abandon the ‘Neutrality Pact’ signed in 1941 and join the war against Japan. He had in fact promised to ‘come in’ two years earlier at the Tehran Conference.  At the same time, Soviet diplomats continued to hold out the possibility that they would help mediate in negotiations to end the war and save Japanese face. This was the principal reason why the Emperor was so reluctant to consider unconditional surrender terms. Soviet strategy was pure Machiavelli. Behind the smoke and mirrors of Potsdam, the United States and the Soviet Union maneuvered to control events in the Far East for their own ends. The chronology is revealing. On 6 August, the first atomic bomb ‘Little Boy’ exploded above the city of Hiroshima. On 8 August, the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov informed his Japanese counterpart that the Soviet Union declared war on Japan. The following day, ‘Fat Man’, a more powerful implosion bomb fell on Nagasaki and Soviet troops commanded by Marshal Aleksandr Vasilevsky marched into Japanese occupied Manchuria (Manchukuo) on three fronts. In the United States, plans were made to assemble and deliver more ‘Fat Man’ weapons to attack Japan.
Historian TsuyoshiHasegawa has convincingly argued that it was the Soviet intervention that played the greater role inducing Emperor Hirohito to surrender. Stalin was an active, indeed aggressive, participant not a secondary player in the drama of the Japanese surrender. Three months after the defeat of Nazi Germany, the world’s two superpowers were jockeying for position on a global scale. It was the interlaced shockwaves of the atomic bombs and the Soviet attack persuaded Emperor Hirohito on 14 August to decide, despite the threat of a coup d’etat by a ‘war party’, that Japan had run out of options and must capitulate. He insisted on one condition - that the declaration would acknowledge ‘the prerogatives of His Majesty as a Sovereign ruler.’ According to Japan’s Meiji Constitution of 1889, the Emperor was ‘sacred and inviolable’: this principle of ‘Kokutai’ would have to be respected. Hirohito confided to his uncle Prince Asaka that if the Allies refused to accept this condition, Japan would have no choice but to fight on. 
The Emperor’s notorious broadcast made on 15 August was a slippery and devious acceptance of defeat. The ‘Imperial Rescript’ as it was called admitted that the war situation had ‘not developed necessarily to Nippon’s advantage.’ The Emperor defended the war as the expression of a ‘sincere desire to ensure Nippon’s self-preservation and the stabilisation of East Asia’. As it turned out, the Americans appreciated the political value of upholding the Emperor’s sovereign status. In Tokyo, the ‘war party’ had been preparing for a ‘kamikaze’ last ditch defence of the homeland. The Americans would exploit the Emperor’s semi divine status to enforce compliance.  After 1945, Hirohito would assume the same kind of role under American occupation that the Japanese had allotted to the last Chinese emperor Pu Yi when he was appointed ‘ruler’ of the puppet state of Manchukuo in 1932. 

Wednesday, 3 October 2012

August 1945, the Malayan revolution cancelled

The unexpected and at the time unexplained power vacuum that followed the announcement of the Japanese surrender should have handed the Malayan communists a unique historical opportunity. This surely was the dawn of the Malayan republic? What we now know is that the MCP’s treacherous Secretary General Lai Tek had very different ideas. In his memoir, published in 2003, Chin Peng revealed what happened. In August, a mood of ‘fevered expectancy and high morale’ swept through the camps of the MPAJA. On 16 August, Chin Peng chaired a routine meeting of the MCP’s Perak state committee in Ayer Kuning near Kampar. Soon after midday, his secretary burst into the meeting room with the astonishing news of the Emperor’s speech, which he had picked up on the All-Indian broadcasting network. Chin Peng recalled: ‘I promptly switched our meeting’s agenda to a review of how best to implement Lai Te’s [sic, alternate spelling] previous October directives.’ The message of these directives, it will be recalled, that in the aftermath of a Japanese defeat, the MPAJA would launch a new struggle against the British. The MPAJA commanders had been busy transforming the MPAJA into a ‘national liberation movement’: now with the stunning news of the Japanese surrender, it was a matter of ‘tidying up loose ends’. The next day, a courier arrived with a message from Lai Tek ordering Chin Peng to travel immediately to Kuala Lumpur for a meeting. He took the next available train, and reached the new party headquarters in Selangor on 19 August. The MCP had abandoned the Sungei Buloh leper colony and moved to a British estate manager’s bungalow nearby. Chin Peng now discovered that Lai Tek had already returned to Singapore – so was briefed instead by the Selangor state secretary Yeung Kuo. This ‘bright, energetic and committed’ young man was in a state of shock. He told Chin Peng that the previous day, Lai Tek had made a speech at Sungei Buloh to a small hastily convened group of communists. His message was simple, direct and completely unexpected: ‘Support Russia, China, Britain and America in a new organisation for world security…’  As Chin Peng put it: ‘I realised the programme amounted to nothing more than a vapid move to appease the incoming British.’ It was nothing less than a ‘180 degree turn’. Instead of armed revolution, the MCP must now focus on the organisation of labour and infiltration of unions. It is no wonder that Lai tek had decided not to confront his protégé face to face – though it is likely that his hasty return to Singapore was also to do with his resurrected relationship with the Special Branch. Chin Peng was also troubled by another decision that Lai Tek had communicated to the comrades at Sungei Buloh. He had set up a new ‘Central Military Committee’ to coordinate the Three Star Army under his command. He appointed Chin Peng to serve as his number 2. This was his reward for compliance. Lai Tek left instructions for Chin Peng to arrange a meeting with John Davis as soon as possible. As Chin Peng reveals, Davis was thoroughly confused by his friend’s new role: he had always assumed he was a liaison officer with the MCP Central Committee, rather than the military commander he really was. In any event, when the new No 2 in the MCP Military Command met Davis in Serendah, the SOE officer proposed that Chin Peng come with him to Kuala Lumpur to assist with the handover of power from the Japanese to the British. This was clearly a stratagem to keep the MPAJA ‘on side’ and Chin Peng refused. He had important business in Perak. This was an understatement. He now had to sell the new party line to impatient military commanders who wanted to take the fight to the colonials. When he got back to Perak, Chin Peng discovered that his deputy Ai Tek had already begun negotiations with the Japanese commander in Taiping who made his position very clear: ‘If you choose to fight on, you can rely on our support.’ Now Chin Peng had the unenviable task of telling Ai Ker that the Malayan revolution had been cancelled. In fact, a few hundred Japanese soldiers preferred to join the MPAJA rather than surrender. The communists had been divided about how they should deal with the Japanese: the ideal of ‘Pan Asian unity’ retained a powerful allure to many on both sides.  We have to understand that in August 1945, the MPAJA was poised to wage war on the ‘white colonial intruders’ with backing from at least some Japanese. Lai Tek’s new directive slammed shut the gaping door of insurrection. Why then did Chin Peng accept the new strategy of appeasement with barely a murmur of dissent? The reason demonstrates the fundamental weakness of all political movements that defer to charismatic leaderships and top down policy making. Lai Tek, the Asian Lenin, was the voice of the Comintern (abolished in 1943): his authority was not open to discussion or debate. What makes this conjunction in Malayan history even more remarkable is that on 21 August, a two hundred and eighty strong Giya Gun unit encountered MPAJA forces. Chin Peng tells us: ‘The Malays made their position quite clear. If we were willing to go ahead and continue the fight against the British there were willing to join us.’ Now it was the communists who had to tell the Malays that an alliance against the British was off the agenda. Thus an anti colonial coalition of Chinese, Malay and Japanese forces came to naught. If the surviving leaders of the Indian National Army had caught wind of such a pact it is hardly likely that they would not also have joined the anti colonial pact. 

Monday, 1 October 2012

In memorian Eric Hobsbawm

All good historians and decent people will mourn the passing of Eric Hobsbawm - a very great historian. I remember reading 'Age of Empire' at school - it was revelatory. The importance of Hobsbawm's work is acknowledged even by right wing historian Niall Ferguson. This is simply because, whatever his political views, Ferguson fully understands the values of Hobsbawm's remarkbale body of work.

No doubt the parsimonious shallow minded inhabitants of Dailymailworld will excoriate his life long commitment to Marxism and membership of the Communist Party.

The people who make this kind of judgement are pygmies. Hobsbawm who was Jewish grew up in Vienna and Berlin: he experienced at first had the rise of the Nazi Party - his commitment to communism was a value system that rejected the destructive forces of fascism. The Daily Mail of course was a 'fellow travelling' paper that advertised the delights of Hitler's Germany to its readers. That's a pretty skewed morality isn't it?

Hobsbawm did not deny the horrors of Stalin's Soviet Union - for him the moral values of Communism remained incorruptible. He denounced Soviet attacks on freedom and democracy - and rejoiced in the Prague Spring. Much  narrow mind anti Hobsbawmism is simple ignorance.

The ambition and depth of Hobsbawm's historical work was informed by these values, but not subservient to them. He did not write propaganda. To grasp the emergence of aggressive modern capitalism and imperialism over the last few hundred years demands that we read Hobsbawm - now more than ever.