Readings: Malaysia’s homesick revolutionary June 22, 2007Posted by elizabethwong in History, Malaysia, Note2Self, Politics, Race Relations, Readings, Southeast Asia.
Malaysia’s homesick revolutionary
By Andrew Symon, AsiaTimes.com
SINGAPORE – Malaysia is gearing up to celebrate half a century of independence, but the multi-ethnic country is arguably still not at peace with the often turbulent history that led to the end of British colonial rule.
Resurrecting those controversies is the latest bid by Chin Peng, the onetime leader of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP), to return to Malaysia. The ethnic-Chinese former rebel, who now lives in exile in Thailand, finally gets his day in court on Friday.
Once described as the most wanted man in the British Empire, and now at 83 years of age the last of the great post-World War II revolutionary leaders in Southeast Asia, Chin Peng led a full-scale guerrilla war against British and Commonwealth forces in the late 1940s and 1950s and thereafter a decades-long ideological struggle against Malaysia’s new indigenous rulers in Kuala Lumpur.
On Friday, his lawyers will make his latest challenge to the Malaysian High Court in Kuala Lumpur and argue that the government’s enduring refusal to allow him to return represents a breach of the peace accord the two sides signed in 1989, which ended nearly 40 years of an on-and-off armed struggle between the MCP and the central government.
Since 2005, Chin Peng’s efforts to challenge the government in court and the 2003 publication of his acclaimed memoirs, My Side of History, have galvanized a reassessment of the past hostilities and the status of the minority Chinese in Malaysian society that are unsettling present-day politics.
In 1959, the new state of Malaya (Malaysia came into being in 1963 with the addition of the British crown colonies of Sarawak and Sabah on Borneo island and Singapore, in what was a short-lived membership until 1965) was cast in the context of the war with Chin Peng’s communist movement.
The British called it the “Emergency” for political and economic reasons – calling it a war would have meant increased insurance claims. At the conflict’s height in the early 1950s, it drew in 100,000 British, Commonwealth and local soldiers, airmen and police who hunted and engaged several thousand guerrillas in the jungles of peninsular Malaysia.
Controversies from the conflict still linger. How should the Malayan communists be viewed in historical context? Were they simply ethnic-Chinese terrorists following Moscow’s and then Beijing’s revolutionary line? Or were they in fact nationalists and patriots who enjoyed more broad support across racial lines than portrayed by state-sanctioned history?
How important to the country’s political development was a secular Malay left-wing movement – a sensitive question given the strength of Islam in society and politics in Malaysia? And did the MCP’s fight push the British to grant independence earlier than otherwise to a conservative United Malays National Organization-led (UMNO) coalition, which has dominated Malaysian politics ever since?
Britain’s transferring power to a non-communist coalition removed the risk of increasing local support for the MCP, while also ensuring that its colonial commercial and military interests would be guaranteed by the new state.
“No one can be allowed to depict the Malayan War as a spontaneous nationalist uprising,” Malcolm McDonald, the commissioner general of the United Kingdom in Southeast Asia, advised London in 1954. He said Britain should “affirm that the Malayan insurgents are primarily alien forces acting under alien instructions”.
Ooi Kee Beng, a Malaysia specialist at Singapore’s Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, told Asia Times Online that accepting Chin Peng back to Malaysia would mean “allowing for a much broader perspective though which to understand Merdeka [independence] and the world in the waning years of colonialism”.
“Chin Peng’s person challenges the neat history propagated by the government since 1957. A view that the British were willing to work with the alliance and not with the MCP carries the germ of the concept that the alliance government was to an extent a neo-colonial creation.”
Ooi, author of a new biography on post-independence Malaysian politician Ismail Rahman, The Reluctant Politician: Tun Dr Ismail and His Time, says admitting that Merdeka was a more complicated process than the official version portrays has been slow in coming. And revisionist history can be complicated by race issues as they are in other aspects of Malaysian life and politics.
“The government does not want to run the risk that the MCP – which was largely Chinese – will be described as anti-colonial and nationalistic,” said Ooi. “At the same time, it will mean that one has to consider Chinese-Malaysians in the 1950s to be fighting for independence alongside the Malaysia as represented by UMNO.
“The fear lies in the fact that the Merdeka compact, where it was strongly assumed that the Chinese were not too concerned about independence and were made citizens anyway in return for accepting the special position of the Malays, would have to be revised,” Ooi said.
For his part, Chin Peng wrote in his memoirs that he was attracted to communism by the writings of Mao Zedong as a teenager in the late 1930s. While initially he wanted to go to China to fight with Mao against the Japanese, he said he later fought as a Malayan patriot against colonialism. “To this day I maintain it was the British colonials who used terror tactics to retain their hold on Malaya.”
Yet he and other members of the MCP also fought for the British against the Japanese during the occupation of Malaya and Singapore. One British officer characterized Chin Peng as courageous, reliable and likable.
At war’s end he and others were awarded campaign medals by the British Southeast Asia commander, Lord Louis Mountbatten. In 1947, Chin Peng, now the MCP’s secretary general, was scheduled to receive an Order of the British Empire. This never took place as by mid-1948 the MCP had abandoned legal approaches to gaining power for guerrilla war.
By 1959, the MCP had been reduced to a few small bands of fighters hiding mostly in the jungles in southern Thailand just north of the Malaysian border. Chin Peng left for Beijing in 1960 and spent the next 30 years of his life there. In the mid-1970s, the MCP insurgency was renewed, stimulated by communist successes in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos and bolstered by small numbers of new young recruits, both ethnic-Chinese and Malay.
A mutually acceptable peace was finally brokered in 1989, similar to the more recent Aceh accords between Jakarta and separatists in Indonesia’s northern Sumatra province. Chin Peng returned and an accord was signed in the southern Thai city of Hat Yai on December 2 of that year. A crucial element in bringing the conflict to closure was the support from then Malaysian prime minister Mahathir Mohamad.
The MCP disbanded its armed units – which included two old Japanese Imperial Army soldiers who had cast their lot in with the MCP in 1945 – and its underground network, destroyed its arms, ammunition, explosives and booby traps, renounced armed struggle, pledged loyalty to the king of Malaysia, and vowed to obey all Malaysian laws.
A key element of the accord was Article 3, which states that “members of the Communist Party of Malaysia and members of its disbanded armed units, who are of Malaysian origin and who wish to settle down in Malaysia, shall be allowed to do so in accordance with the laws of Malaysia”.
Chin Peng, now living in exile in Thailand along with some of the other former MCP members who live in settlements under the patronage of Thailand’s royal family, says he wants to exercise his accord rights to spend his last years in the country of his birth, to visit his childhood home in Sitiawan on the west coast in Perak, and in particular to pay respects to the graves of his grandparents, parents and siblings.
In 1990 Chin Peng had applied to return under the accord – and there are press reports of this at the time. But unlike the petitions made by MCP members, including other former central committee members, Chin Peng’s application failed to advance.
In a June 2004 letter to Malaysian Prime Minister Abdullah Badawi, Chin Peng wrote that he had been told by the Malaysian Special Branch to wait in Hat Yai for a call to be interviewed. “This call never materialized. Subsequently I received a letter stating my application had been rejected on grounds that I had failed to present myself to an interview.”
Chin Peng seems to have then let the matter rest until the writing of his memoirs, assisted by former London Daily Telegraph Southeast Asia correspondent Ian Ward. Coinciding with the publication of My Side of History in August 2003, Chin Peng again requested that he be able to return to Malaysia. Malaysian lawyers then took up his case in late 2004. After further requests, they decided in March 2005 to challenge the government in the courts.
Two years on, Chin Peng has yet to have his day in court. High Court hearings for Chin Peng’s applications to determine whether the case can proceed have been delayed and postponed repeatedly.
On Friday, the High Court is again set to hear several applications, including a complaint that the government broke the terms of the 1989 Hat Yai accord. The government’s application, on the other hand, calls for Chin Peng to show evidence that he made an application to return to Malaysia in 1989 or 1990.
The government’s only official response to Chin Peng’s application since 1990 came in a very brief letter to his lawyers from the chief secretary of the Ministry of Home Affairs in October 2004, which said simply that the decision had been made that he would not be allowed to return and reside in Malaysia.
While not being able to enter Malaysia, Chin Peng has been allowed to enter other countries, traveling on a special Thailand-issued alien certificate of identity. In 1998, he visited the United Kingdom, where he undertook research into the Emergency period in the public record office in London, and also Australia as a guest of the Australian National University in Canberra for an academic seminar.
In the wake of the success of his My Side of History, which was published in Chinese as well as English, he was able to visit Singapore in October 2004 for another academic seminar as a guest of the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies. He returned briefly to Singapore last December to visit relatives.
Where Chin Peng is headed next will be clearer on Friday. Already, though, his re-emergence is affecting how many Malaysians think about their history and current political situation. My Side of History and news of his efforts to return to Malaysia are catalyzing a rediscovery, if not discovery, of this earlier period and questions about its implications for the present.
Indeed, other histories and memoirs exploring these times are starting to appear. A documentary film, Lelakii Kommunis Terakhir, or “The Last Communist”, made last year in Malaysia by writer Amir Muhammad, featured interviews with various old MCP veterans, though notably not Chin Peng.
Underlining Kuala Lumpur’s enduring sensitivity over unsanctioned histories of the Emergency period, the film was later banned. According to the Star newspaper, the government said it did not believe “Malaysians have reached a level where they are ready for it”.
That would seem to augur ill for Chin Peng’s latest legal petition to return to his homeland.
Andrew Symon is a Singapore-based freelance journalist.
(Copyright 2007 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved.