Forgotten Wars, by Christopher Bayly & Tim Harper

Rising suns and a falling power
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

The Great Asian War, as defined in the second volume of this superb study of the collapse of Britain's eastern empire, lasted longer and was more bloody than the European civil war of 1939-45. Starting with Japan's invasion of Manchuria in 1931 and continuing with its attack on China in 1937, hostilities spread throughout south-east Asia after Pearl Harbor. But it did not end with the bombing of Hiroshima and the capitulation of Hirohito or even with the repatriation of six million Japanese combatants, an operation the British code-named "Nipoff".

It was perpetuated in myriad ethnic, religious and revolutionary struggles, prompted by the devastating Japanese incursion, which formed an arc of conflict from the North-West Frontier of India via Burma and Malaya to Singapore. Also involved were other colonised countries, such as French Indochina and Dutch Indonesia. If the related famines are taken into account, Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper estimate, the Great Asian War cost the lives of 24 million and was "the most general conflict in Southeast Asia since the Mongol invasions".

Such was the chaos after Japan's surrender, as guerrillas emerged from the jungle and took vicious reprisals on collaborators (especially the police), that Lord Mountbatten's South East Asia Command could barely cope. SEAC - the initials variously rendered as Save England's Asian Colonies and Supreme Example of Allied Confusion - used Japanese troops to restore order. In Java, they joined Indian and Gurkha formations to quell a local insurrection and their commander, Major Kido, was recommended for a DSO.

However, as India was convulsed by communal strife during the final advance to independence, Nehru insisted that Britain should no longer send sepoys to fight abroad, a service they had performed since 1789. The subcontinent ceased to be Lord Salisbury's "English barrack in the oriental seas". Africa, though it provided many troops, was no substitute. As British demobilisation continued, spurred on by RAF mutinies, Attlee's government lost its grip on the eastern empire.

Yet its prime purpose was to re-establish colonial control when Britain was facing what Keynes called a "financial Dunkirk". In particular, the British wanted to exploit the raw materials, such as rubber and tin, which made Malaya their "dollar arsenal". So urgent was this need that they were prepared to breech international agreements. In 1945-6, the British Military Administration (BMA) imported 50 million grains of opium into shattered Malaya as an incentive to labour, justifying the traffic on the grounds of military necessity. It was not for nothing that the BMA was christened the Black Market Administration.

As SEAC waned, the private army of the Burmese leader Aung San (father of Aung San Suu Kyi) waxed. Already embroiled in Palestine and about to be sucked into the Cold War, Attlee agreed to let Burma go. His decision precipitated more violence. In 1947 Aung San was assassinated, possibly with the help of British rogue elements. The Karen minority, old allies of Britain, fought for their own freedom. The Burmese army mounted a coup against the government in 1958 and eventually established a military dictatorship.

Communist guerrillas attempted to destroy colonial rule in Malaya. When they murdered three white planters in 1948, the Governor declared a state of emergency. The aim was, in General Templer's phrase, to win hearts and minds. In practice, British repression was similar to Japanese, including detentions and deportations, the resettlement of hundreds of thousands in fortified villages and savage counter-terror. In 1948 Scots Guards murdered 26 Chinese at Batang Kali, and later Marine Commandos sent home trophy photographs of severed heads.

The insurgency was crushed and Malaya gained independence in 1957. But there was never an investigation into the Batang Kali massacre. This is symptomatic, Bayly and Harper rightly say, of British resistance to having a full post-mortem on the Empire. They have done a marvellous job in recovering the largely forgotten history of its end in Asia. Their work is not only a model of scholarship, but a delight to read.

Piers Brendon's 'The Dark Valley' is published by Pimlico