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Why were the Malayan Emergency and Vietnam War so different?

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War in the tropics || Credit: Pixabay

The decades after WWII saw the countries of the world coalesce into one of three camps:

  • The First World Capitalist Western Bloc. This included the US, UK and their allies
  • The Second World Communist Eastern Bloc. Led by the USSR the other Warsaw Pact countries
  • The Third World Non-aligned nations. Led by India, Egypt and Yugoslavia

Each camp sought to extend their influence whilst attempting to contain the spread of the others — often through conducting proxy wars.

One theatre in which these events played out was South East Asia — with the two major conflicts in the region being the Malayan Emergency and the Vietnam war.

This makes one wonder — are these conflicts that similar? If not, why not? What is the legacy of each?

A quick comparison

The conflicts — by the numbers

The Malayan venture resulted in a victory for Western Bloc with comparatively few causalities, whereas the other yielded a victory for the Eastern Bloc — but with orders of magnitude more combatant deaths.

Why the difference?

The war in Vietnam was not a simple insurgency to be quelled with brute force. It took place in a very different geographical context and had far more support from the “native” population.

State backers

An insurgency usually involves a rebellion of non-state actors against the state. In Vietnam, while the Viet Cong were portrayed by some as the primary belligerent, there was also significant support from North Vietnam (then a state), as well as China, and the USSR.

With so much money, manpower and supply provision behind them — the “insurgents” in Vietnam were able to wage a far more intense war for a much longer duration. This, in turn, resulted in a much greater number of causalities.

In contrast, the Malayan communists were almost entirely on their own — with only very little support from China.


South Vietnam was directly connected via land to a key insurgency backer — North Vietnam, who was in turn contagiously linked to China. This enabled the unrestricted flow of people and supplies to bolster the insurgency’s efforts. Further, when the path through North Vietnam was no longer a viable supply chain due to the war, an alternative path (known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail) was established through Laos and Cambodia.

Malaya had no contagious link to China and thus was not able to easily resupply either weapons or men.

Native support

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese fought actively in the war, and yet still more supported them. The general belief was that if there was a democratic vote — South Vietnam would vote to unify with the north. This resulted in more collaborators with the insurgents across the country.

In contrast, the native populace in Malaysia largely did not support the insurgencies, with some only 10% (or 500,000 denizens, primarily of Chinese ancestry) supporting the cause.


Malaysia moved on, and the experience is a half-forgotten part of the national psyche.

Vietnam however, bled profusely. There were significant civilian causalities beyond just military ones. The war resulted in subsequent wars with China and Cambodia. The latter in particular resulted in a large exodus of refugees. The televised nature of the war, the quantum of damage to the country and the living memory of the diaspora mean that the Vietnam experience is still relatively fresh, and likely to be for years to come.

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Thanks !

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