I was looking at materials that are now available online through the National Archives of the UK. Records from the Colonial Office have not been digitized, but “cabinet papers” have, and they contain interesting information about Southeast Asia.

Nat Arc

I came across this report from I think 1951, for instance, that talked about the “chemical defoliation of roadside jungle” in Malaya.

The report began by noting that “It is agreed on all hands that the risks of ambush by bandits can be greatly reduced by defoliation of roadside jungle. A certain amount of this is already being done by hand, but the process is slow and costly and the vegetation quickly grows again. Chemical defoliation would, it is believed, be much more effective.”

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The report then goes on to talk about experiments that had been undertaken. In one case, the vegetation died in 10 days, and upon checking the same place three months later, “no significant regeneration had taken place.”

That was a “positive” result, but the report indicated that there was not an effective means to spray the roadside jungle on a large scale. Here the report notes that some attempts were made to use a TIFA fogging machine, but this hadn’t worked because the “solution [had] emulsified.”

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I had no idea what a TIFA fogging machine was, so I looked it up (here, and found the above picture of Princess Anne [?] inspecting a fog machine on the TIFA web site – who are the two Asian guys in the background?), and it turns out that it is a technology that was created to combat the certain diseases by killing vectors for the spread of disease, like mosquitoes.

While this sounds like a benevolent technological invention, it was developed just as World War II was beginning, in other words, just when there was an acute need to keep people healthy so that they could go off to fight and die.

And as this report from Malaya indicates, when that war ended, yet another “peaceful” use for this technology was attempted in the midst of another war. . .

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The report then ends with a summary that indicates that “a suitable combination of chemicals has been found and supplies are available from sterling sources,” and that the use of chemical defoliants is also cost effective.

The only drawback was that “Mechanical methods for large-scale application have not yet been determined. This is now the main problem.”

Indeed, that was the main problem.

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