Returning to Malaya: The Strategy and Significance of the Communist Party of Malaya’s Southward Advance

Kee Chye Ho. Inter-Asia Cultural Studies. Volume 16, Issue 1. 2015.


The Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) was founded in 1930. Being the first cross-ethnic, left-wing political party, it generated great concerns on the part of the British colonial authority. Hence, CPM in its early days concentrated its activities mostly among workers, peasants and student groups, and sought to expand its revolutionary spirit and influence through “secret (or ‘underground’) operations” such as the mobilization of the masses or peripheral, underground organizations. For all their rigorous clampdown on the CPM, the British colonial authorities accepted during the Japanese invasion of Malaya the CPM’s offer and provided the CPM with short-term military training and weaponry for the purpose of guerrilla warfare against the Japanese. Although the mutual cooperation made it possible for the CPM to be recognized by the British administration as a lawful political party, it did not disguise the fact that it was only an expedient strategy, for the British remained wary of the CPM’s military strength. Two years later in 1948, the British authorities outlawed the CPM with the promulgation of the Emergency Ordinance.

The Emergency ran from 1948 to 1960, during which time the British successfully defeated the CPM’s armed struggle within Malayan borders, forcing the communists to retreat from its strongholds in Malaya and to rebuild its bases along the Malaya-Thai border in the north. Given the formidable encirclement campaigns by the British army, the CPM in the border areas had to withdraw and cease all military activities temporarily. The number of CPM armed personnel started to dwindle fast and the troops in the border areas diminished gradually. After 1961, the CPM re-oriented its strategic directions as it persisted in the path of armed struggle. In June 1968, the CPM declared formally a southward advance and started moving its troops towards the south on 29 March 1969, thereby marking a new milestone in its armed struggle.

The Background: The CPM’s Northward and Southward Movements

The CPM was founded on 30 April 1930, and mainly worked among workers, peasants and students in its early days. Since it did not enjoy legal status before the Second World War, its activities were carried out “illegally.” Hence, the CPM was confronted with great hurdles in developing party activities, organizing campaigns and promoting revolutionary ideas. Other than organizing the workers and study groups, the CPM also mobilized the workers on many occasions. Between 1936 and 1939, for instance, it took part in and organized three miners’ strikes in Batu Arang in Selangor. The CPM’s anti-capitalist and anti-imperialist ideology drew the attention of the British colonial government to its emergence and activities, which led to the suppression of the party itself.

On 8 December 1941, Japan began its invasion of Malaya. The Second World War not only prompted a change in CPM’s earlier covert modus operandi, it also altered the attitude of the British towards the CPM. At the outset of the Second World War, the CPM unveiled a slogan “Rise Up and Be Armed against the Japanese to Protect Malaya,” and offered to form an alliance with the British in fighting against Japan. On learning that the British defence in northern Malaya was crumbling, Shenton Thomas, the British Governor for the Strait Settlements, reached a deal on cooperation with the CPM on 18 December 1941 in order to stop the Japanese from advancing southward. Under the agreement, CPM would send its members for short-term guerrilla warfare training at a special school in Singapore, before dispatching them to carry out rear-area operations in Malayan jungles thereafter. This batch of CPM members hence became the “embryonic team” of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) (Chen 2004, 36-38).

As its performance and cooperation with the Allied Forces during the Second World War won its legal status from the British in the immediate post-war years, the CPM in this period made use of such a status to carry out activities legally and to expand its influence. Its united front and public struggle enabled the CPM to establish broad-based support among the people. According to Fang Shan (2010, 258), the CPM’s expansion from the post-war years right up to Malayan independence can be divided into two stages: “the post-war peacetime” (1945-1948) and the “period of anti-British national liberation war” (1948-1957).

After their post-war return to Malaya, the British first established the British Military Administration. Given that the Malayan economy was yet to recover in the post-war years, the British introduced officially the Malayan Union on 1 April 1946 in order to curb administrative expenditure and to ensure an effective control of economic resources. The Malayan Union was a centralized administrative structure comprising the Federated Malay States (Perak, Selangor, Negeri Sembilan and Pahang), the Unfederated Malay States (Perlis, Kedah, Kelantan, Terengganu and Johor), together with two Straits Settlements (Malacca and Penang). However, the move was met with open resistance from the Malays whose anti-colonial consciousness had been weak. This was not only because the Sultans had allegedly been made to sign the Malayan Union agreement under coercion, but also because of the following.

  1. The sultans would lose their prestige and power as they would be beholden to the British Governor, and this was perceived as disrespectful to Malay royalties;
  2. Citizenship would no longer be race-based, and anyone who had lived in Malaya or Singapore for over 10 to 15 years would qualify as a citizen. The Malays were therefore concerned that this would put them at a disadvantage.

The vehement opposition to the Malayan Union gave birth to the United Malays National Organisation (UMNO), the emergence of which would from then on bring about far-reaching repercussions on Malay(si)an political development. Since the Malayan Union was not to the liking of the Malay community, the British colonial authorities thus proposed the Federation of Malaya on 1 February 1948 in its place. That the British bowed to the will of the Malays not only provided the Malay rulers with executive powers, it only imposed more requirements for citizenship, thereby entrenching the privileges and position of the Malays as bumiputras.

During the transition from the Malayan Union to the Federation of Malaya, the British colonial authorities set up a committee to solicit public opinion. Although the CPM was not directly involved, it nonetheless mobilized its peripheral organizations including the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Ex-Comrades Association, the Pan-Malayan Federation of Trade Unions and the Alliance of New Democratic Youths to join the All Malayan Council of Joint Action (AMCJA), a non-Malay group founded on 22 December 1946 (Yang 2008). Meanwhile, Malay left-wing organizations formed the People’s Power Centre (Pusat Tenaga Rakyat, PUTERA) on 22 February 1947. Not only were both AMCJA and PUTERA opposed to the Federation of Malaya plan, they even drafted the People’s Constitutional Proposals for Malaya (hereinafter the People’s Constitution), the main proposals of which are, inter alia, as follows:

  • All citizens of Malaya would be called Melayu regardless of race;
  • Malaya and Singapore would remain as one entity;
  • All lawmakers would be elected;
  • Political equality for all;
  • Constitutional monarchy;
  • Islamic affairs and Malay customs would be regulated by the Malays;
  • Special provisions for the Malays. (Cheah 2007)

The contents of the People’s Constitution prioritized the interest of the people and promoted non-racial and equity-centred values and concepts. Still, the British colonial authorities rejected the People’s Constitution, which led PUTERA and AMCJA to launch the All Malaya Hartal (a political boycott of the entire colonial economy) as a protest against the Blue Paper on a New Constitution presented by the British. Although the one-day strike took place on a massive scale, it failed to have an impact on the British colonial administration, which went ahead with the original plan and promulgated the creation of the Federation of Malaya on 1 February 1948.

The joint action of PUTERA and AMCJA alerted the British colonial government to the rise and threat of Malay left-wing forces and prompted its heavy-handed clampdown, with leftists arrested or left-wing groups being banned. In fact, the progressive rise of the post-war left-wing forces had become a sword of Damocles that hung over the head of the British colonial authorities, who had launched a crackdown on the radical groups as early as before 1948. For instance, Angkatan Pemuda Insaf (API, Awakened Youth Organisation), which was formed out of the Malayan Malay Nationalist Party (Parti Kebangsaan Melayu Malaya), was declared an illegal organization by the British in 1947. Although the CPM was not directly involved in this issue, it remained a grave concern for the British nonetheless due to its excessive influence.

The radicalization of PUTERA and AMCJA also prompted the British colonial authorities to turn to work with UMNO. Barely six months after the formation of the Federation of Malaya, the British authority declared the Emergency Ordinance following the murders of estate workers. On 16 June 1948, two CPM armed groups shot to death three European managers and employees in two estates in Sungai Siput, and the incidents led to the emergency decree being imposed by the British, which was later extended to Perak and Johor. On 18 June 1948, the British colonial government declared a state of emergency across Malaya that lasted for 12 years (Ho 2010, 23).

In fact, the CPM had already assessed and prepared for the suppression of the British colonial authorities in a meeting in March 1948. According to Chin Peng’s memoirs, it was unanimously decided in that particular meeting that the CPM would increase the levels of violence and prepare for armed struggle. However, Chin Peng and others at the time estimated that the British could only take action in September at the earliest, believing therefore the CPM would still have time to discuss and prepare for guerrilla warfare. What they did not expect was the British colonial government to strike earlier than expected (Chin 2003, 208).

In May 1948, the CPM also estimated in a meeting in northern Johor the outcome of the CPM guerrilla’s large-scale offensives against the British in September, and planned for armed struggles in every state, following which the CPM would carry out full guerrilla warfare in the jungles with which it was familiar. Just as the CPM was working out the details, the British pre-empted the CPM by declaring the Emergency in mid-June, hence disrupting the CPM’s plans.

After the Emergency was declared, the British colonial government began to encircle the CPM with its formidable troops and clamp down on other emerging left-wing, radical groups of all races. In any case, many of the CPM members who had successfully escaped the arrest retreated into their bases in the jungles, one after another, where they began to form their own guerrilla groups. However, the carrot-and-stick approach of the British colonial authorities dealt a heavy blow to the CPM’s armed struggle, as a result of the huge difference in strengths between the British army and the CPM, as well as the encirclement strategies adopted by the British, such as the implementation of the Briggs Plan under which fenced and heavily guarded New Villages were set up to cut off the CPM’s food, medical and intelligence supplies; the psychological warfare through which pamphlets were distributed in the jungles to urge for surrender on the part of CPM members, whereas letters from family members and relatives as well as monetary rewards were also provided. Given the various unfavourable conditions, the CPM had no option but to withdraw to the areas along the Malaya-Thai border in the north, where they set up their new bases. The CPM started its preparations for the new bases in the border areas in early 1953, and the transfers were only fully completed in 1960.

The Proposal of the CPM’s Southward Advance and Its Development

On 28 and 29 December 1955, the two-day Baling Talks were held in Baling, Kedah, between the CPM delegation headed by Chin Peng and the Malayan delegation headed by Tunku Abdul Rahman, the breakdown of which only strengthened the CPM’s resolve to set up bases in the areas along the Malaya-Thai border. Although having bases in border areas would gradually alienate the CPM from the people and their movements, it remained a better option given the circumstances at the time. Before the talk, the CPM had already begun to dither over its own armed struggle, and therefore proposed certain rightish measures such as “suspending all military activities” and a “retreat policy.” Such passive measures were officially proposed by the CPM in a programmatic document entitled “A Struggle for Realizing Malaya’s Independence, Democracy and Peace” in December 1955. The declaration’s salient points included gradually phasing out armed struggle and a change in the method of struggle. In 1957, the CPM began to implement the retreat programmes, such as suspending military activities, working strenuously and reducing the number of troops, leading to a drastic diminution in the CPM’s military strength.

In any case, the CPM corrected the passive line in an extended meeting of its 11th Central Committee in September 1961, proposing in its place a New Directive to “reorganize the army and fight with all our strength.” The new directive reaffirmed the need to persist proactively and to carry on progressively in the pursuit of the armed struggle to the end. Its main contents were:

  1. Turn from “suspending military activities and working strenuously” to “reorganize the army and fight with all our strength”;
  2. Abolish “the retreat policy” and adopt in its place an active recruitment of new members for the party and its armed wing;
  3. Turn from not initiating mass organization to actively organize the mass;
  4. Adopt the line of Proactive Defence;
  5. Promote the brave spirit of struggle and a quality of being adept at it, as well as a policy to guard strictly against infiltration by the enemy. (Fang 2005a, 118-119)

In July 1960, the Malayan authorities announced the end of a 12-year state of emergency. Prior to that, under the Emergency Ordinance, the authorities and military police had been given many powers, including, inter alia, the following:

  1. The police had the right to prohibit any person from taking a train, public bus, vehicle or boat;
  2. The police had the right to disperse any meeting or gathering of five persons or above;
  3. Any act of publishing or distributing slogans, notices or documents that might encourage violence or potentially threaten public security would be deemed criminal in nature;
  4. The police had the right to detain any person for up to a year;
  5. The police had the right to search any premises, stop any car and arrest any person, regardless of whether done in a public place, or to suspect if any individual or vehicle was committing a crime. (Cheah 2011)

Soon after, the Malayan government passed on August 1 the Internal Security Act to replace the 1948 Emergency Ordinance. Hence, the promulgation of the New Directive was a response to the new realities with a view to correct the CPM’s passive thought of gradually ceasing armed struggle (Fang 2005a, 76). Furthermore, the New Directive was also a response to the possibility of forming the Federation of Malaysia, made up of Malaya, Singapore, Brunei, Sarawak and Sabah, as proposed by Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman in May 1961. The Malaysia Project was meant obviously to respond to the challenge posed by the increasingly formidable left-wing forces (T’ien 2007, 154). On the other hand, the CPM’s change of policy and attitude from suspending military activities to reorganizing the army, in addition to aiming to boost the morale within the party, was in fact related to the changing circumstances on the domestic and international fronts. These domestic and international circumstances (during the Cold War) included the proposal and implementation of the Malaysia Project, the increasing prosperity of the bloc led by the Soviet Union, the flourishing democratic movements in the Asian, Latin American and African nations (such as the Cuban Revolution and the Vietnam War), so on and so forth.

Subsequent to the promulgation of the New Directive, the CPM came up with three strategies in order to readjust and to reinvigorate its armed forces, that is: (1) consolidating the party itself by opening a party school to educate the members and to raise their political understanding; (2) mobilizing the masses. Once the internal consolidation was completed, the party could begin to organize affiliating organizations so as to form a united front. This would not only expand the CPM’s influence to other territories, but also allow it to absorb large numbers of new armed recruits and thereby strengthen the bases in the border areas; (3) exploiting controversies in Thailand by helping Thai authorities to crack down on separatist military movements in southern Thailand, while maintaining good cordial relations with the Thai government and refraining from interfering in Thailand’s domestic politics and military, so as to win the trust of the Thai authorities. As such, it would not be an easy task for the Malay(si)an authorities to secure the cooperation of their Thai counterparts in dealing with the CPM.

The Federation of Malaysia was officially formed on 16 September 1963. Following this, the CPM’s Central Committee issued the “Statement Relating to the Malaysia Question,” which reiterated that “Malaysia” was a conspiracy under Britain’s “neo-colonialism,” and that the CPM vowed to pursue long-term and tough armed and unarmed struggles along with the peoples of Singapore and North Kalimantan (ID CPCCC 1971, 34-38). In this statement, the CPM clearly defined the target of its struggle as being the “neo-colonialists,” with the Malaysian government being their agent. Hence, the CPM was duty-bound to “destroy neo-colonialism.” Now that the CPM had revitalized itself and revived its armed forces, with neo-colonialism being its new target of struggle, it can be said that the party had emerged out of the dilemma in the years following Malay’s independence in 1957, when it was “lost” in terms of the aim of its struggle.

However, just when the CPM was preparing its southward advance, a serious “Struggle against Counter-revolution” happened within the party. This incident led to conflicts and fights among CPM troops, and triggered a military crisis. The No. 2 District in the Malaya-Thai border areas and the 8th Regiment split from the leadership of the CPM and its North Malayan Bureau, resulting in three factions within the party: the Central, the Marxist-Leninist and the Revolutionary. The CPM’s first Struggle against Counter-revolution ended in 1967. On 1 June 1968, the CPM issued another important declaration related to the armed struggle—“Raise High the Great Red Flag and March on with Courage,” and sounded the trumpet over the official Southward Advance (IDCPCCC 1971, 73-78). The declaration was also meant to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the June 20 Anti-British National Liberation War. Its contents included mainly:

  1. One must persist in the path of “encircling cities from villages and seize political power with armed forces” under all circumstances;
  2. Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun, and the people would be deprived of everything without a people’s army. The reactionary state must be annihilated thoroughly;
  3. Armed struggle is the key form of struggle, and the army is a major form of organization. All other mass organizations and mass struggles must cooperate with the armed struggle directly or indirectly;
  4. A united front is a prerequisite for the armed struggle, away from which there would be no anti-imperialist front in any real sense. (Fang 2005b, 17-18)

After this declaration was made, the 7th Division of the 12th Regiment of the Malayan People’s Liberation Army (MPLA) under the CPM fired the first shot of its southward advance on June 12 in Kroh, by ambushing the patrol cars of Malaysia’s field forces. From the New Directive to “Raise High the Great Red Flag and March on with Courage,” it took the CPM seven years (1961-1968) to adjust and prepare itself, and finally in 1969 its assault teams formally began to advance southward, marking a new milestone in the development of CPM’s struggle.

An Introduction to the Seven CPM Assault Teams and Their Characteristics

After declaring it was ready enough to move southward, the CPM began to plan and organize related works. After a year of preparation, the CPM’s assault teams formally began to move southward in 1969. In total, the CPM formed seven assault teams and a united team in its southward advance. These teams were named in the same way as the MPAJA and the MPLA, that is, in numbers according to the areas where the troops were active. This aside, calling them “assault teams” would demonstrate that the troops were in an assault position, and also that their organization and personnel could be arranged flexibly in accordance with local circumstances. (See Table 1 for a list of the assault teams.)

Table 1. A list of CPM’s southward advance assault teams
No. Assault team Commander Area of activities
1 5th Assault Team Zhang Zuo/Nan Yi Perak
2 6th Assault Team Zhang Zuo Pahang
3 8th Assault Team Huang Luo Penang, Kedah, Perlis
4 12th Assault Team A Yuan Perak, south of Malaysia-Thai border
5 14th Assault Team Abu Samad Kelantan (west, south)
6 15th Assault Team Rashid Maidin Border area between Narathiwat Province and Kelantan
7 16th Assault Team Lao Sheng Border area between Kelantan, Perak and Pahang

The first to advance southward was the 12th Assault Team, whose activities were concentrated in the Malaysia-Thai border area in Perak. The team started to move southward on 29 March 1969 and eventually reached the upstream of the Perak River. During the process, the May 13 Tragedy happened and the 12th Assault Team was ordered to return to the border area in August. During the journey, the troop members buried food supplies as aid to the southward troops that came later. In April and May 1970, a part of the 12th Assault Team, already back in the border area, formed the 8th Assault Team and was dispatched southward to work in Penang, Kedah and Perlis, while the remaining 12th Assault Team stayed behind to provide logistical support. In February and March 1971, the 5th Assault Team led by Zhang Zuo was officially formed. The 5th Assault Team expanded rapidly and its southward activities soon covered the all of Perak (the Perak-Kelantan border area, Lenggong, Sungai Siput, Cameron Highlands, Chemor, Gopeng and so on). In 1973, Zhang Zuo and Nan Yi exchanged leadership, with Nan Yi taking charge of the 5th Assault Team, while Zhang Zuo led another team and continued southward to western Pahang. On 1 October 1973, the 6th Assault Team was officially formed. Other than this, the 14th Assault Team led by Abu Samad was active in western and southern Kelantan. The 15th Assault Team was headed by Rashid Maidin and was mostly based in the border area between Narathiwat Province and Kelantan, without making any movement southward. The 16th Assault Team was under the command of Lao Sheng, and was mostly active in the border areas between Kelantan, Perak and Pahang. Other than the seven Assault Teams that advanced southward, there was yet another united team, the predecessor of which was the 26th Armed Working Unit of the 5th Assault Team. Later on, some of the cadres and personnel of the 5th Assault Team, the 7th Armed Working Unit and the 8th Assault Team joined in to form a united armed working unit, which was unofficially named as the “7th Assault Team.” The united team was active in the border area between Kelantan and Perak and was in charge of works in the indigenous Orang Asal community.

Among the seven Assault Teams, the 6th Assault Team topped the southward advance achievement and mass mobilization, making it the most important one of all teams. After its official formation, the 6th Assault Team first advanced into western Pahang and turned it into a base for mass organization, as well as coordination and training of underground members. Later on, the 6th Assault Team used western Pahang as its centre and expanded its activities gradually to the southern part of Pahang State, eastern Selangor and northern Negeri Sembilan. It became the only group of CPM troops that remained active in the central areas of the Malay Peninsula in the 1970s.

Zhang Zuo was the commander of the 6th Assault Team. He was initially the leader of the 5th Assault Team and begun his work in Perak. He later exchanged leadership with Nan Yi, with the latter taking charge of the 5th Assault Team while Zhang Zuo led another team southward to western Pahang to set up the 6th Assault Team. Zhang Zuo and others later took some cadres from the 5th Assault Team to form the central committee of the 6th Assault Team, and the 20-odd members continued southward. They marched deep into the jungle for 20 or so days, before they reached the Cameron Highland area, climbing over the central mountain ranges from Tanah Hitam in Perak. Afterwards, they marched on to Kampung Bertam in Pahang and set up temporary camps, where a gathering announcing the formation of the 6th Assault Team was launched on 1 October 1973.

According to Zhang Zuo’s recollection, three days after the gathering there were about 40 to 50 combatants who marched on to Kampung Cheroh in the central mountain ranges as planned. However, following intelligence, which informed them that the military police had already entered the said areas, the team had to be divided into three groups. The first group would remain at Jerkoh to carry on activities, the second group would go to the areas around Sungai Ruan to hoard grains and initiate mass organization, while the third group—led by the 6th Assault Team’s key figure Zhuang Zuo—would continue towards Cheroh. After nearly 18 days of journey, the group led by Zhuang Zuo finally reached Cheroh, only to discover that the places where the grains were stored had been destroyed. They could thus only turn immediately towards Tras with the remaining and meagre supply of rice they carried with them. While on the journey, the first battle between the 6th Assault Team and the enemy troop took place in Pahang. Afterwards, the Team’s whereabouts were clearly known to the enemy troops. As they fought and marched on, team members were either injured or started to die from hunger. Given the dire situation in which food was completely running out and no rescue team was available, Zhang Zuo and others divided the remaining 20 or so members into two groups to march on. On the journey this time, not only did some comrades die from hunger, but others also experienced food poisoning. As a result, of the 14 members that made up Zhang Zuo’s group, only three eventually made it back to Sungai Hitam successfully (Zhang 2005, 399-441).

Following this event, the 6th Assault Team continued its work of mass organization in Pahang, including coordinating and training members of underground organizations such as the New Democratic Youth League and the Malayan National Liberation Front (MNLF), as well as personnel deployment. The 6th Assault Team was active in Pahang for 15 years, and its military strength grew from 30-odd in 1973 to 130 in 1982, a rather outstanding achievement that was also supported by people in this area (Zhang 2005, 440). In 1988, Zhang Zuo was betrayed by a close aide and arrested while carrying on activities in Kuala Lumpur, leading to the dissolution of the 6th Assault Team. In 1989, the year after Zhang Zuo’s arrest, the tripartite peace accord was signed between CPM, Thailand and Malaysia.

Of the seven CPM Assault Teams, only five managed to maintain their basic organization until the signing of the peace accord in 1989. While some of them had suffered losses in battle, they all managed to return to the Malaysia—Thailand border area as a team. Only the 5th and the 6th Assault Teams were dissolved by the authorities as a result of the frequent ambushes or betrayals they suffered. Throughout the southward advance, about 600 CPM armed personnel had taken part in the assault teams, with about 400 of them sacrificed, being arrested, going underground or becoming traitors. Only about 200 of them managed to make their way back to the border area.

The Significance and Impact of the CPM’s Return to Malaya

As the first political party in Malaya, the CPM has been deprived of a “regular” political stage in Malay(si)a. Despite the fact that the legal status as a political party was granted by the British colonial government after the Second World War, this only lasted for two years, and was nothing more than an expedient strategy of the British to ensure internal stability and resist external challenges. However, the post-war political changes in Southeast Asian countries, including the rise of Malay nationalism in Malaya, the economic destruction caused by the war and the social reconstruction, caused the British authorities to be wary of the CPM’s military strength. The declaration of the state of emergency therefore became a tactic for the colonial authorities to resolve the CPM threat once and for all. What the British had failed to anticipated, however, was the 12-year successful resistance on the part of the CPM, which had gained considerable experience from jungle warfare during the Second World War (this would mean the period during the Emergency and is not inclusive of the Southward Advance after 1969).

On 1 June 1968, the CPM issued the “Raise High the Great Red Flag and March on with Courage” declaration after the first Struggle against Counter-revolution in 1967 and sounded the trumpet over the official southward advance. Following the promulgation of the New Directive, the CPM issued on 20 September1963 the “Statement Relating to the ‘Malaysia’ Question,” pointing out that “Malaysia” was a conspiracy led by the “neo-colonialists,” and that the CPM’s task was to “crush neo-colonialism” and to fight for a true liberation of Malaya. From the “New Directive” to “Raise High the Great Red Flag and March on with Courage,” it took the CPM seven years in total to get ready for the southward advance, during which time it had been confronted with internal conflicts and struggles, but was able to eventually launch the official journey on 29 March 1969 and begin a new chapter in the CPM’s history.

To sum up, the southward advance strategy promulgated by the CPM in the 1960s was a path of struggle in response to various incidents on both domestic and international fronts. Declaring such a path served not only as the CPM’s response to the major challenge presented by the circumstances of that era, but also a strategy to correct the passive development within the CPM since it retreated to the north in the 1950s—that is, the suspension of military activities and the reduction in troop strength. After retreating to the north, the CPM gradually left the major battlefield in Malaya. Coupled with the colonial authority’s relentless encirclement, the CPM could only carry out its activities in northern Malaya and southern Thailand in the early 1950s, making it hard to extend its influence into the Malayan heartland (the administrative centre). In December 1955, the breakdown of the Baling peace talks further hastened the disintegration of the CPM’s military strength and the proposal of the retreat policy. Seen in this light, the CPM’s southward advance strategy becomes all the more important. This article argues that the southward advance’s significance for CPM’s struggle and its impact on Malaysia are mainly as follows.

  1. It extended the history of the CPM’s armed struggle. Without the southward advance strategy, the CPM would likely have been confronted with dissolution or experience a halt to its armed struggle in the 1960s. While history cannot be based on mere conjectures, considering the CPM’s policies and conditions in the Malaya-Thai border area in the 1950s, without the southward advance, it would likely have lost the prerequisites to continue with the armed struggle.
  2. It provided CPM’s armed struggle with momentum. The southward advance strategy enabled the CPM’s southward assault teams to forge close ties with the underground organizations that remained within the Malaysian borders, thereby establishing a united front and making it possible for the CPM to receive assistance in terms of personnel, food, weaponry and intelligence that would spur the CPM to persist in its armed struggle. The southward assault teams also provided members of the underground organizations with ideological and military training, while deploying some of them to border areas to join the team.
  3. It reinforced the authoritarian regime in Malaysia. The Malaysian authorities resorted to the White Terror by playing up the fear over the CPM for its own political gains. Following the CPM’s southward advance, the authorities made use of the CPM by accusing it of disrupting public security, so as to whitewash the dilemma or crisis they were confronted with and to clamp down on other political dissidents while consolidating their authoritarian rule. Since the 1970s, the CPM (or the “CPM factor”) became an important political tool for the powers-that-be, for instance:
    1. After the May 13 Incident, the then Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman accused CPM rioters of attempting to subvert the government through fomenting violence. The authorities made use of this excuse to suppress the opposition parties that had won a favourable position at the third elections, to reorganise the provisional political order, and to reconstruct the authoritarian regime;
    2. With the rise of student activism in the 1970s, the Malay-majority students participated in a series of protests against the authorities, such as the protest against the eviction of squatters in the Tasik Utara area, and the Anti-Hunger Demonstrations in Baling in 1974. But these activities were said to have been instigated by the CPM for subversive ends. In the same year, the Chinese Language Society of the University of Malaya organized a national tour to present the play “Spring Thunder,” which was meant to speak out for the underprivileged, but it was eventually banned under the command of Special Branch. Thereafter, the police arrested several student leaders associated with the student movement, including members of the Chinese Language Society. The society was proscribed on the pretext of involvement in the subversive activities of the communist party.