1940-1949 | Concentration camps | Deportation | Detention without trial | Malaysia

British in Malaya start to detain and deport entire communities

An interpreter notes the names of Malay villagers
© IWM SE 6122

10 January 1949

On 10 January 1949, Emergency regulation 17D authorised the British High Commissioner for Malaya to use mass detentions and deportations, including even entire villages, towns or rural districts, where elements among the population were suspected of supporting the communist insurgents, who were fighting to end British rule.1  It was immediately acknowledged even in the British press, that the measure was actually to be used primarily against poor Chinese labourers. In the majority of cases their only crime was to have no title to their land. A Reuters report on 11 January observing that ‘it was believed here today that the decree was designed to cover Chinese squatters, many of whom may be rounded up and sent back to China.’2

Another emergency regulation, 17C, allowed the High Commissioner to deport any Chinese or other immigrant detained. On 22 January it was amended to make mandatory the deportation of all such detainees’ dependents.  By January 1952, a total of 26,741 detention orders had been issued. Those arrested were sent to virtual concentration camps , described by Labour MP Tom Driberg, who was able to visit one such centre otherwise off limits to journalists, as ‘a disgrace to the British Commonwealth, to the Federation of Malaya and to the Labour government.’3

As bad as the detention camps were, an even worse fate awaited many of the detainees on deportation to the coastal area of China still held by the bitterly anti-communist Kuomintang.  Men faced the possibility of imprisonment, execution or saving themselves by agreeing to immediately join the nationalist Chinese army on the front line in a bloody civil war against the Chinese communists.  The women and children however were left to fend for themselves, many dying of starvation in the war-torn country.


  1. Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire, Allen Lane 2007, p. 482, See also ‘Can Arrest Town,’ The Western Morning News, 11 January 1949 p. 1 and Kumar Ramikrishna, Emergency Propaganda: The Winning of Malayan Hearts and Minds 1948-1958, Curzon Press, Richmond 2002 p. 65.
  2. ‘Wider Powers for Malaya Chief: Can Arrest Whole Districts,’ The Belfast Newsletter, 11 January 1949, p. 3.
  3. Tom Driberg ‘In Detention,’ Reynolds News, 12 November 1950 cited in Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper, Forgotten Wars: The End of Britain’s Asian Empire, Allen Lane, London, p. 483.

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