1968 in Asia: Malaysia’s “Second Emergency” (1968–89) and the Malayan Communist Party


Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Verso — The impact of revolutionary developments in Vietnam and China on the May events of 1968 in France and other Western countries has long been acknowledged. Less notice has been paid outside Asia to their repercussions on other Southeast Asian countries, which also experienced a revolutionary high tide in 1968. The upsurge of armed struggle in Malaysia in 1968 is rarely mentioned in general studies on the period, and is not often talked about even in Malaysia.

In 1968, the Malaysian Communists under their ethnic-Chinese leader Chin Peng declared war on the Malaysian government. They kept their insurgency going until 1989, although to increasingly diminishing effect. This armed struggle is generally known as the Second Emergency, following the original “Malayan Emergency ” of 1948-1960. (Malaya united with North Borneo, Sarawak, and Singapore in 1963 to become Malaysia; in 1965, Singapore was expelled from the federation.) At the time, Chin Peng was feared almost as much as Osama bin Laden in later times, and had earlier gained a reputation as “Britain’s enemy number one in Southeast Asia.”

The strategic context of Malaysia’s two Emergencies starting in 1948 and 1968 was the Cold War, which in Southeast Asia took the form of Soviet and Chinese competition with the US-led Western bloc. In the 1960s, the main arena of this competition was Vietnam, where Moscow and Beijing supported the north under Ho Chi Minh against the US-backed south. In Indonesia too Communists staged a rebellion in the 1960s that was crushed by local anti-Communist forces.

The Malaysian insurgency of 1968 had its roots in the 1948 insurrection, which in turn took its inspiration from the interwar anticolonial movement spawned in Asia by the Russian Revolution. The Malaysian population under the colonial regime comprised three main ethnic groups — the indigenous Malays and Chinese and Indian immigrants and their descendants. The Communists drew their support almost exclusively from the Chinese population, which partly explains their failure. The Nanyang Communist Party, reorganized in 1930 (with the help of Ho Chi Minh) as the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), recruited strongly among Chinese students in the colony and established a firm base among the workers, through its industrial arm, the Malayan General Workers’ Union. In 1937, it briefly established a Soviet government of workers among the colony’s miners, sparking a major crisis for the colonial authorities.

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