I came across this eye-witness account of the scene around KL during then US president Lyndon Johnson’s visit to Malaysia on 30 October 1966. His visit to Malaysia took place a year after the United States deployed regular combat troops to Vietnam, following its stepped up involvement after the Gulf of Tonkin incident in 1964. Apart from Malaysia, his tour of South-East Asia took him to Vietnam, Thailand, and the Philippines. In next-door Indonesia, in the transition to US-backed Suharto’s New Order regime, a massive anti-communist purge that killed over 500000 people had subsided by March 1966.
The following account was written by a former diplomat:
As Malaysia awaits the second ever visit by an American President, I am reminded of the first such visit. I had been in the country barely two months on my first diplomatic posting overseas when President Lyndon Johnson visited Kuala Lumpur at the end of October 1966.
As it was a Sunday morning with little traffic, I decided to drive around town in my new MGB for a look at the preparations and also attend the wreath-laying by the US President at the National Monument just off Jalan Parliament. I had heard that anti-American demonstrations were planned against the Vietnam war and wondered what the atmosphere in town would be like.
The town was very quiet. My route took me to Market Square where I turned right at the Bangkok Bank to pass in front of the USIS Lincoln Centre. As I turned I looked to my left and saw a huge crowd coming in my direction, apparently also heading for the Lincoln Centre. The front ranks of the crowd were carrying a large banner bearing the words “USA keluar Vietnam” (“USA, get out of Vietnam”). The crowd was chanting slogans and banging metal dustbin lids, making a very loud and frightening noise.
Now, driving only a hundred yards ahead of the demonstrators, I passed in front of the Lincoln Centre, which was guarded by a half dozen policemen dressed as they still were in those days in khaki shorts and armed with jungle carbines, the cut-down Lee Enfield .303 army rifle, hardly appropriate for non-lethal crowd control. As I reached the traffic lights at the corner of the Padang (now Dataran Merdeka), a police officer waved me quickly off to the right along Jalan Raja in front of the old State Secretariat.
Advancing towards me from that direction, however, was a phalanx of Police Field Force (PFF) in full riot gear. When I stopped to take photographs, I heard several shots from around the corner behind me and assumed the policemen at the Lincoln Centre had opened fire. Another police officer urged me to drive away and the PFF parted ranks to let me through.
I stopped again at the corner of the Padang near St Mary’s Church and continued to take photographs. Now the demonstrators were streaming in panic onto the Padang in front of the Selangor Club where they were caught between the PFF company I had driven through and another company of PFF I had not seen at the other end of the Padang. It was a complete melee with tear gas and riot batons felling the demonstrators.
I decided to leave and retrace my route through town via the former Jalan Mountbatten and Market Square to see what had happened at the Lincoln Centre. There among the litter and belongings dropped hurriedly by the fleeing demonstrators was a body lying in the middle of the road just past the Lincoln Centre.
Chastened by this, my first experience of demonstrators encountering police violence, I drove to the Lake Gardens, parked and proceeded on foot to the National Monument to witness President Johnson lay his wreath.
At an official dinner that evening, my story of the morning’s events attracted the eager attention of fellow diplomats and visiting foreign journalists. I had had my baptism of fire as a diplomat.
Thanks to blog reader looes74 for the video link.