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Readings: Malaysia’s homesick revolutionary June 22, 2007

Posted 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?

Neo-colonial creation
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.

Selective clemency
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.


1. monsterball - June 23, 2007

Besides May 13th 1969 real story….Chin Peng’s contributions to free Malaya from Japanese rule have never been told sincerely and truthfully.
Accepting that…now 83 years old…due to UMNO politics…nothing else is the main reason he cannot come home to die at his home….Malaysia.
I think someone is waiting to tell the whole truths…nothing but the truths…after Chin Peng is dead….but well just leave it as it is…if the judge do let him come home after hearing his lawyers tell the case right now. Lets hope so.

2. jerry - June 24, 2007

Communism is all but dead around the world, what is the fear of this 83 year old man? Will he attack people with his walking stick?

Perhaps if the law can prevent him from going home for a few more years, his advanced age will finally work to silence him once and for all.

But somehow the truth will always live on and people who have something to hide and who fear the truth will always be looking over their shoulders.

Hopefully, some day more Malaysians will be ready to give a damn about justice and truth, not just the almighty ringgit. There can be room for compassion no matter what the guy may have done in the past. It is a simple request, to visit family and friends and to pay his respects at the graves of his ancestors. So what if the man wants to die in his homeland?

3. wits0 - June 24, 2007

Umno has grown too attached to that indispenable bogeyman hate icon – no reasoning works or facts of history and the collapse of communism matters anymore.

4. r1037 - June 25, 2007

Let him rot! The MCP were a terror organisation during and before the Japanese occupation. They were murderers killing not only Japanese and British but also local people malays, chinese and indian who do not follow or share their ideology and Chin Peng was the man behind all this. He was the leader of the MCP and he should be responsible for the crimes against humanity that his organisation had done. Chin Peng have gave away his rite to die in Malaysia when he start to kill innocent malaysian. LET HIM ROT!!!!

5. r1037 - June 25, 2007

Let hi rot! Homesick? Do he consider Malaysia home after directly or indirectly killing the innocents in this country. Do not forget the MCP was and organisation the used violence and murder to get people to work for them. Chinese, Malay, Indian and British do not matter as long it serve their purpose. Chin Peng is the same as Pol Pot or Stalin.
He is and always be a murderer. Let him ROT!!!!1

6. wits0 - June 25, 2007

Yeah, hate like an Ayrab, r1037 ; you’ll make it to heaven!

7. monsterball - June 26, 2007

r1037…..How old are you? Perhaps you are born because Chin Peng saved your parents being slaughtered by the Japanese.
The way you talk….you know next to nothing about Chin Peng…..or maybe know so much….yet closed two eyes to the real truths.
Without Chin Peng fighting the Japanese…thousands of Malaysians would have dead…tortured and girls raped…do you know that?

8. monsterball - June 26, 2007

r1037…..You are a sick man to talk about MCP like that.
Tell me what purpose does it help MCP fighting the Japanese? Why not let Japanese do their dirty work….like you said.
You are an idiot!!!
Check out why Tun Razak humbled himself to visit China.

9. wits0 - June 26, 2007

Monsterball, r1037, the robot underwrites why Umno needs a demonized hate object to further its bogeyman kneejerks as its unifying sentiment.

10. r1037 - June 27, 2007

Monsterball to answer your question my family fought against the japanese and the Communist lead by Chin Peng so we dont owe him anything but a round to his head would serve to pay a debt he owe us. We as a family have made the ultimate sacrifice for what you have in malaysia and we would do it again. How about you? You are basicly an ungrateful person. If you think you can do better else where then do it rather then giving out ill and hatred remarks.
If you are a malaysian I really pity you fool.

11. dzulman - July 5, 2007

To Jerry I reiterate that Communism is not dead. It is an ideology that is being resuscitated in certain parts of Europe particularly Italy and France and still thriving in the Peoples Republic of China and Vietnam.

CPM cannot and should be not considered as a nationalist movement because it was established in furtherance of a foriegn ideology and in consonant with the policies of a foreign government.

The CPM pursued with its armed militant activities well after independence and inflicted damages to properties and lost of lives of the security forces and innocent civilians from 1968 to 1989. They tried to resuscitate the armed struggle with the call of “surrounding the cities from the rural areas” and to “gain political control from the barrel of the gun.”

Chin Peng refused to disband the CPM which is an illegal and outlawed organization. He wanted to retain the leadership of the party as there are financial interests which are invested in Thailand and probably in Hong Kong to look after.

His demand to return is with an ulterior motive – to test his acceptability by Malaysians at large.

By the way the CPM never reperesented the Chinese community but exploited the political situation particulalry after May 13th. Before the formation of the BMA after the 2nd WW, the CPM executed quite a large number of Chinese whom they suspected to be either pro Koumintang or pro Jap. Members of the Chinese community in the rural areas were hoodwinked and out of fear gave support to the CPM militant groups that were terrorising the country sides.

There’s not an iota of proof that the CPM is nationalist organization. The fact that the leadership of the CPM has not disbanded or dissolved the party indicate that they still hold strongly to the party’s objective that one day they will gain power in the country either on their own or in concert with like minded Malaysians.

The scars of the 1st and 2nd emergencies are still there and the late Tan Sri C.C. Too used to remark that a smiling communist must never be trusted. Our experiences are still very bitter, let him enjoy the hospitality of the Thai authorities!

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