Sunday, September 22, 2013

Chin Peng: A divisive figure even in death

Few people knew where exactly Chin Peng lived. But friends and followers turned up in Bangkok anyway, bearing what pleasures the frail octogenarian could still enjoy: Chinese meals, ice cream, and short trips to nearby provinces like Chanthaburi.
By the time he breathed his last in Thailand's Bumrungrad International Hospital last Monday, cancer had robbed him of most speech. Yet his face remained serene - the way followers remembered it was some 60 years ago, as he led a guerilla war from the jungles of Malaya.
The quiet death of former communist leader Chin Peng, whose real name is Ong Boon Hua, has however stoked a war of words over his role in Malaysian history.
Was the Perak-born secretary-general of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) a freedom fighter, or a mere terrorist who once had a 250,000 Malayan-dollar price tag on his head?
Malaysia's leaders are adamant it is the latter, and never acceded to his recent efforts to return home, on the grounds that it was part of a Thailand-brokered peace deal signed in 1989 between the communist forces and the Malaysian government.
Chin Peng's death did not change the Malaysian government's position. Malaysia's Inspector-General of Police Khalid Abu Bakar went to the extent of tweeting that the police would monitor all of the country's entry points to keep his remains out.
For former Malaysian soldier Juhata Mohd Yusof, who saw several fellow soldiers lose their legs to booby traps set up by the communists in the mid-1980s while serving in jungles near the Thai border, the emotional scars run too deep for any talk of forgiveness.
"I spent months in the jungle looking for the communists," said the 53-year-old who now drives a cab in Kuala Lumpur. "His death closed a chapter that cannot be forgotten."
Others, however, don't see why an old man, or his ashes, should be banished from his homeland.
The Malaysian Chinese Association supported the return of his remains, pointing out that even ethnic Malay terrorists had been allowed burials in their respective hometowns.
At Chin Peng's wake in Bangkok's That Thong temple last Friday, his old comrades repeated the plea for his ashes to be taken home. A 69-year-old woman, who wanted to be known only as Ms Quah, reasoned: "It was a war, and a lot of our people on our side died too. They were also Malaysian and they also had families."
She was among the tens of former guerillas in their 50s and 60s paying their respects to their leader. Some had arrived from Kuala Lumpur, Perak, Penang as well as southern Thailand.
Others present included retired Thai general Kitti Ratanachaya, one of the major players behind the 1989 peace accord which ended communist hostilities.
Outside the funeral hall bordered by wreaths, photos of Chin Peng at various party milestones were flashed on a TV screen. Attendees were given a booklet with a letter by him, titled My Last Wish.
In it, he expressed regret at being unable to return home. But he also wrote: "My comrades and I had dedicated our lives to a political cause that we believed in and had to pay whatever price there was as a result. Whatever consequences on ourselves, our family and the society, we would accept with serenity."
Divisive figure
Chin Peng, the son of a migrant from Fujian province in China, was born in the western Perak district of Sitiawan in 1924. He joined the communist party in his teens and was not even 24 when he was made secretary-general of the then Malayan Communist Party.
In 1946, British colonial authorities made him an officer of the Order of the British Empire after World War II for his role in resisting the Japanese invaders. Not long after, however, the communists launched an armed struggle to drive out the British, which cost an estimated 11,000 lives between 1948 and 1957.
During their armed struggle, communists struck fear through rail and road ambushes and assassinations, and extorted money or supplies from villagers to sustain their campaign.
While wily and tenacious, Chin Peng also tended to rule by consensus, which also meant he was slow to react. That, coupled with the lack of a long-term political vision, left him eventually pursuing a lost cause, said Mr C.C. Chin, an independent researcher who co-edited the book Dialogues With Chin Peng: New Light On The Malayan Communist Party.
Various other factors, including the forced relocation of communist-friendly villages, starved the guerillas of support. But historians say it was Malaya's independence in 1957 that took the wind out of the campaign.
Deprived of their anti-colonial rudder, the communist cause struggled to gain traction among citizens of the new Malaysia. Their fighters eventually retreated across the border to southern Thailand.
It was there that some of these communists, including Chin Peng, would remain, after the peace deal that was inked in 1989 with the Malaysian government in the city of Hat Yai.
At home in Malaysia, Chin Peng remained a divisive figure. While some historians say his actions forced the British government to relinquish power sooner than later, former servicemen who witnessed their colleagues die at the hands of the communists see him as a murderer. A 2006 Malay documentary based on his life, titled The Last Communist, was banned in Malaysia.
Hopes dashed
Cancer ravaged his body in the last few years of his life, which he endured quietly. "Whenever we asked him if he was in pain, he just shook his head," said one of his former comrades, who wanted to be known only as Mr Chong.
The ailing Chin Peng led a private life in a friend's house in Bangkok, a location kept from all but a small circle. Mr Chong, a fellow Perak native who had known Chin Peng since 1969, never met him in his home. Chin Peng met Malaysian supporters for Chinese New Year celebrations in restaurants, and his lawyers in hotels.
Although he gave up the armed struggle, he never renounced his political ideology. In his ghost-written 2003 memoir Alias Chin Peng: My Side Of History, he said: "I fought a liberation war. To ask whether I would do it again is idle talk."
But he tempered his stance six years later in an interview with the Malaysian newspaper The Star. While stressing that it was impossible to "differentiate between the innocent (and) the non-innocent" in a war, he said sorry for possible mistakes his party had made.
"If we had intentionally killed innocent people, then I apologise. I apologise to the families who had suffered," he told the paper.
Chin Peng also never gave up hope of returning to Malaysia despite his ailing health.
A left-wing supporter from the Perak-based 21st Century Friendship Association Malaysia, who declined to be named, remembers asking Chin Peng about three years ago when he planned to return to Malaysia. "Wait for Anwar to come to power," she recalled him saying.
He was referring to Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim, Malaysia's opposition leader. But the Pakatan Rakyat coalition he led won only 89 of the 222 seats in Parliament in the May general election even though it secured more than half the total votes.
Datuk Seri Anwar, who has supported Chin Peng's return, told the Malaysian media last week: "Yang sudah, sudah lah (let bygones be bygones)."
As the body of the former communist leader is cast into the flames tomorrow, the big question is whether this will ever be possible.
  • Chin Peng's real name was Ong Boon Hua.
  • He was born in Sitiawan, Perak, on Oct 21, 1924.
  • His father was a migrant from Fujian province in China.
  • In his teens, Chin Peng joined the Malayan Communist Party. Formed in 1930 to establish communist rule, the party initially operated underground. But when World War II broke out, the British colonial authorities agreed to cooperate with its members to resist the Japanese.
  • In 1946, Chin Peng was given the Officer of the Order of the British Empire award for helping the British to retake Malaya from the Japanese invaders.
  • But in 1948, as secretary-general of the communist party, he launched an armed struggle against the British. About 11,000 lives were lost from 1948 to 1957.
  • The guerilla war continued after Malaya gained independence in 1957. It ended only in 1989, with the signing of a peace accord in Hat Yai, Thailand.
  • In 2004, Singapore lifted a ban on him temporarily and allowed him to visit the city for three days. He spoke at a closed-door session at the Institute of Southeast Asian Studies, toured historical landmarks such as City Hall, and also called on local war heroine Elizabeth Choy.
  • He died of cancer on Sept 16 in Bangkok.