Chin Peng – Malayan patriot and lifelong fighter for communism
Following a last lengthy battle with cancer, on 16 September 2013, Comrade Chin Peng, who served as the secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) for well over six decades, passed away in a hospital in the Thai capital, Bangkok, at the age of 88.
Ironically, 16 September is Malaysia Day, marking the country’s independence from British colonial rule – independence that would not have been won in 1957 without the heroic armed struggle organised and waged by the CPM.
Yet, successive reactionary regimes in Malaysia have not only denied the communist contribution to the winning of independence; and have not only reneged on the peace agreement they signed in 1989 whereby Chin Peng should have been able to return to the land of his birth – they are still preventing his ashes from being brought home.
Although the armed struggle waged by the CPM has been to a great extent forgotten, in reporting his death, the New York Times stated:
” Mr Chin was the last surviving revolutionary leader to have successfully fought for independence from colonial rulers in Asia after World War II – a cohort that included Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Sukarno in Indonesia, Aung San in Burma (now Myanmar) and Norodom Sihanouk in Cambodia. When he finally laid down his arms in 1989, Mr Chin was called ‘the world’s senior surviving guerrilla’ .” (‘Chin Peng, Malaysian rebel, dies at 88’ by Douglas Martin, 16 September 2013)
Chin Peng was the adopted name of Ong Boon Hua, born on 21 October 1924 in the Malaysian state of Perak. His father, an immigrant from China’s Fujian province, owned a bicycle repair shop.
The young Chin Peng joined the communist youth organisation at the age of 15, inspired by the Chinese communists’ resistance against Japanese aggression, and reportedly after reading Mao Zedong’s article On Protracted War.
He soon left school and went to work for the party, which assigned him to lead three anti-Japanese organisations, for students, teachers and shop assistants. After the Japanese invaded in December 1941, he became a liaison to British armed forces. The Associated Press reported in 1989 that John Davis, a British officer, said of him: “Unusual ability, and commanded the natural respect of men without fuss or formality.”
Such was his reputation that, at the end of the war, he was personally decorated by Earl Mountbatten and was awarded the OBE – although it was rescinded shortly after when the CPM went back to war, this time against British imperialism.
As with the other oppressed peoples of the east, the Malayan communists and patriots saw the defeat of Japanese militarism as a milestone on their road towards complete emancipation. But the imperialist Labour government had other ideas. Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin had famously stated that he did not wish to preside over the dismantling of the British Empire as it would, he claimed, adversely affect the standard of living of his constituents.
It would be hard to under-estimate the importance of Malaya, and specifically of its rubber and tin, to the British Empire at that time. By 1947, Malaya was earning twice the amount of US dollars as the rest of the empire put together. Yet wages were lower in real terms than they had been even in the depths of the 1930s recession.
Accordingly, the so-called ‘Malayan Emergency’ was actually Britain’s bloodiest colonial war of the post-1945 period.
Chin Peng found himself catapulted into the leadership of that resistance. Lai Tek, the previous secretary general of the party, absconded with nearly all the party’s funds, after he was exposed as a double agent of both the Japanese and British. (He was subsequently assassinated in Bangkok.) Chin Peng was put in charge of investigating his case and was named to the post of secretary general in 1947. He was just 23 years of age.
At the height of the conflict, some 70,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, Fijian, Gurkha and other empire troops were pitted against some 10,000 guerrillas led by Chin Peng.
Still, the British were only able to contain the people’s war by means of the most brutal repression, as well as the assiduous practice of ‘divide and rule’, seeking to pit the country’s Malay, Chinese and Indian communities against each other.
One example of the imperialist brutality was exposed in the Daily Worker of the time, which printed photos of grinning squaddies holding the severed heads and hands of captured freedom fighters.
Another brutal, but extremely effective, British tactic was to herd the civilian population into so-called ‘protected villages’, in reality concentration camps, where they could not give support to the freedom fighters. Just as Mao had described the guerrilla fighter as a fish swimming in the sea of the people, so this approach might be termed as one of draining the sea. It had first been used by the British, to devastating effect, against the Afrikaner people in the Anglo-South African war of 1899-1902 and was later used by the British in Kenya and Oman, as well as by the Americans in Vietnam.
Speaking decades later about this period, during a visit to an academic conference in Australia, Chin Peng said:
” I make no apologies for seeking to replace such an odious system with a form of Marxist socialism. Colonial exploitation, irrespective of who were the masters, Japanese or British, was morally wrong .”
In 1955, as Britain prepared to grant neo-colonial independence to its stooges, Chin Peng led his party in peace talks, which floundered on the rock of the British-instigated refusal of his demand that the CPM be given legal status and allowed to participate in the country’s political life.
Faced with this refusal, Chin Peng declared: “In that case we will fight to the end.” With these words, he returned to the jungle and the people’s war continued until 1989, when a peace accord was finally signed in Thailand.
Under that agreement, Chin Peng should have had the right to return to Malaysia, but it was denied to the end, on the specious grounds that he could not prove, with original documents, that he had in fact been born in the country – documentation that had, understandably, been lost in the long years of armed struggle.
In later life, Chin Peng reflected: ” We were defeated in a sense, we did not realise our goal to set up… a people’s democracy. But we didn’t [experience] defeat in forcing the British to grant independence to Malaya. Without our struggle, I don’t think the British would grant independence to Malaya. Or it will be many years later… I don’t think we were humiliated. At least I never surrendered, and at least I feel proud, not for me, for our movement, for all those supporters. We could carry on a struggle, a military struggle for twelve years against a major power… This is the longest, the largest scale guerrilla warfare in the British Empire, in the twentieth century .”
Although the Malaysian government vindictively prevented Chin Peng’s return home, under the terms of the 1989 peace accord, he and many of his comrades were allowed to settle in self-administered villages in southern Thailand, and succeeded in gaining the respect of much of the Thai military top brass, to whom they were once bitterly opposed.
Chin Peng’s 23 September funeral was remarkable in bringing together both senior Thai generals, along with numerous former leaders and members of the Communist Party of Thailand, as well as Chin Peng’s old comrades from Malaysia and China.
Present at the funeral service were former Thai prime minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh, along with former Thai military commanders General Kitti Rattanachaya and General Pisarn Wattanawongkiri.
Paying tribute, General Pisarn Wattanawongkiri said Chin Peng is the Malaysian equivalent of Ho Chin Minh, Aung San and Kusno Sosrodihardjo or Sukarno, for his ceaseless efforts during the battle for independence.
Pisarn said Chin Peng had fought ceaselessly and sacrificed a lot for the cause of the Communist Party of Malaya.
Although the Malaysian government vilified Chin Peng, Pisarn said he was a kind, honest and principled individual.
” He was like a father figure to his men and I looked up to him like a big brother. He has been like a relative of mine for the past 20 years and I will always appreciate the time that we have spent together .”
Chavalit, who was the Thai premier between 1996 and 1997, said he never viewed Chin Peng as a guerrilla, but as a friend.
“Chin Peng was not someone who was fighting for personal glory or interests, but fighting for the people.
” In the hearts of many Thai people, especially the soldiers, Chin Peng was a hero, who was much admired for his dedication, perseverance and resourcefulness. Despite the insurmountable obstacles he faced, Chin Peng was never deterred, he did what he felt was right ,” Chavalit added.
A wreath was also sent by Thai princess Chulabhorn Walailak.
Also paying tribute were former secretaries general of the currently defunct Communist Party of Thailand (CPT), Thong Chamsri and Vichai Chutham.
Thong Chamsri told the Bangkok Post that it was a pity that communism had met global challenges, but he hoped the younger generation, who have experienced different types of injustice, would carry the torch.
“Successful stories can actually be seen in China and Vietnam. So if we resolve the crisis of existence or faith in communism, we could walk on the same path,” said the 90-year-old Thong.
Although the Malaysian government is to date still refusing even to allow Chin Peng’s ashes back into the country – even mobilising special security at borders and entry ports to prevent any attempt to smuggle in his remains; something that his family and comrades have stressed would in any case be in violation of the late leader’s dignity – there have been no shortage of Malaysians, across the political spectrum, who have defied threats of repression to pay their respects to an outstanding patriotic figure in their country’s history.
Indeed, there are several signs, that the high-handed attitude of the Kuala Lumpur government may succeed only, in Mao’s famous words, in lifting a rock to drop it on their own feet.
Among the first to fly to Bangkok to express condolences was opposition MP Tian Chua from the Parti Keadilan Rakyat, or People’s Justice Party, who said that Malaysia should treat the late leader fairly and with dignity.
Hanipa Maidin, an MP from the Pan-Malaysian Islamic Party (PAS), said that Chin Peng should be honoured as an independence fighter and other PAS leaders attended the funeral service.
Charles Santiago, MP from the Democratic Action Party (DAP), said that Chin Peng contributed to the wellbeing of Malaysia.
“His armed struggle against the Japanese and British helped expedite Merdeka [freedom] for Malaya.”
Santiago had been among the first to pay his respects to the remains of Chin Peng.
He told the Star newspaper he had gone to Bangkok for a meeting with non-governmental organisations and later dropped by the temple where the late Chin Peng’s remains were, to pay his respects. He was seen kneeling and holding a joss stick at a floral dais inside the hall, where the sealed casket bearing Chin Peng’s remains was placed.
The Malaysian Chinese Association, a constituent party of the ruling Barisan National coalition, also called on their government to allow the remains of Chin Peng to be brought home.
Even Abdul Rahim, who was the director of Special Branch at the time of the peace accord, said that his government was now making itself a laughing stock in the eyes of the world, adding:
“I was involved in the drafting of both agreements [the main agreement plus a supplementary one setting out the administrative details for implementation], so I know full well that under the terms of the agreements, all the agreements applied are binding on every CPM member, from the highest topmost to the bottom .
” So if you say that Chin Peng, as secretary general of the party, is the highest most member, then he qualifies to get all the privileges, advantages or whatever promises made in the agreement, which includes for him to be allowed to come back (to Malaysia). ”
The Socialist Party of Malaysia (PSM) said that it was “deeply saddened over the passing of Chin Peng, secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). We would like to express our condolences to Chin Peng’s family and his comrades in the CPM.
” Chin Peng was a determined, resourceful anti-colonial and anti-imperialist fighter, who led the heroic struggle against the Japanese occupation and British colonisation. He played a significant role in the national liberation struggle of Malaya and he definitely has his place in the history of the independence of our country …
” Chin Peng and the CPM have been vilified in our official history with all kinds of negative labels, not unexpectedly, as history is written by the victors. But discerning Malaysians, including today’s younger generation, know that Chin Peng and his comrades took up arms in 1948 not for personal benefit but for an independent Malaya and justice for ordinary people. It is undeniable that Malaya would not have achieved independence in 1957 had there been no national liberation struggle waged against colonial rule by Chin Peng and the CPM .
” It is unfortunate that the Malaysian government has refused to recognise the contribution of CPM to the independence of our country. The Malaysian government has also failed to honour the peace accord signed by the Malaysian government, the Thai government and the CPM in 1989 by refusing to allow Chin Peng to return to his homeland even up to his death. Chin Peng had applied several times to return to the land of his birth. While many other CPM members were allowed to return, Chin Peng remained the government’s bogeyman .
” Hence, PSM calls upon our government to recognise the struggles and sacrifices of all anti-colonial figures including Chin Peng, in order to preserve a truthful account of our struggle for independence. The people of Malaysia have a right to know the true story of our anti-colonial struggle .
“Chin Peng and his struggle will always be remembered, recognised and respected.”
Chin Peng’s funeral service was also a reunion for many of his old comrades, who remain proud of their struggle and indignant at the efforts of imperialism and the reactionary regime to paint Chin Peng as a brutal figure.
The Malaysian Insider reported: ” The death of Comrade No.1 brought together many of his soldiers to his wake, reminiscing about the lives they led as insurgents, with most of them never regretting having joined the struggle .
“Wong Chien, 81, was one such person.
” Despite losing his right hand and going blind in one eye after spending 41 years in the jungle, he does not regret his decision in 1948 to join the Communist Party of Malaya .
“The veteran, who now lives in the Thai border town of Betong, was at the Wat That Thong temple in Bangkok to bid farewell to Chin Peng today.
” Wong, who was born in Taiping, Perak, was not a personal acquaintance of Chin Peng nor did he know him very well. Wong was one of many foot soldiers who spent decades in the jungles of Malaya ….
“‘I joined the CPM and spent the next 40 years in the jungle fighting the British and Malayan forces’, he said, showing a stump of a right hand.
“‘ I lost my hand and right eye to a hand grenade thrown by the enemy forces. But it did not deter me, I was back on the frontline again after recovering from my injuries’, he recounted .
” He appeared indignant about the allegations made against Chin Peng by the Malaysian government, which described the former CPM secretary-general as a ruthless and cold-blooded murderer .
“‘ Look at my hand, what does this tell you about the Malayan security forces back then? Can I say they were also cold-blooded and ruthless?’, he asked, waving his stump .
“In 1989, after the peace accord was signed between the Malaysian government and the CPM, Wong applied for permission to return to Taiping.
“‘ My application was rejected by the Malaysian authorities, as I could not produce any identification documents. I was born in 1932, my family was dirt poor; where could we find such documents ? (‘No regrets says Chin Peng’s brother in arms’ by Lee Shi-Ian, 22 September 2013)
A separate article in the same newspaper, also by Lee and published on the same day, reported:
” Chang Yuan, 72, who is also the spokesman for Chin Peng’s family, said the Malayan soldiers were equally cruel and ruthless during the decades-long conflict until the peace accord was signed in 1989 .
“‘ The Malayan forces bombed various communist strongholds during the insurgency. The bodies of communists who died during the bombings were displayed in public for all to see’, he recalled when met in Bangkok today .
“‘ Both sides were at war at the time, it was a case of survival’, Chang said, adding that while Chin Peng was ruthless with his enemies, he was warm and friendly to his comrades …
“‘ Who is Prime Minister Datuk Seri Najib Razak to talk about whether Chin Peng should be allowed to return or not? Where was he during the war against the Japanese, and later, the British ?…
“‘ My elder brother was a member of the CPM and leading a guerrilla resistance against the Japanese. This was the reason the Japanese took my father away .
“‘My father was never seen again and even till today, we do not know where his body was buried’, Chang said with a tinge of sadness.
“In 1969, Chang went to China as he had heard of education opportunities there. He said he first met Chin Peng while they were both in Hunan.
“‘ A radio station called Voice of the Malayan Revolution had been set up and the CPM was looking for fresh blood. I signed up and was made a supervisor in the station .’
“Chang stayed in the same hostel as Chin Peng, and described him as a man who stuck to his principles and was unyielding.
“‘ He commanded everyone’s respect with his passion, determination and principles. As we were an underground movement, secrecy was of the utmost importance .
“‘But he was also warm and friendly to all his colleagues and comrades. He never lost his temper with us nor did he bully anyone…
“‘ Every New Year and Chinese New Year, about 200-300 of us would gather for a reunion meal to reminisce about old times. Next year won’t be the same’, Chang reflected. ” (‘Chin Peng no worse than Malayan soldiers, claims ex-comrade’)
Comrade Chin Peng left behind a final message, which was distributed, in Bahasa Malay, Chinese and English, in a commemorative booklet entitled, In Everlasting Memory, Dare to Struggle, Dare to Sacrifice, and it was read to the funeral service by his close friends and comrades, Lee Tuck Hee and Anas Abdullah, in Chinese and Bahasa Malaya. Lee could not control his emotions as he read the contents of the letter, breaking down several times.
As Chin Peng’s last letter was read, the Internationale, the hymn of the world proletariat, was played in the background, and it is with Comrade Chin Peng’s simple and deeply moving final words that we conclude our own tribute to this great and beloved revolutionary leader:
My dear comrades, my dear compatriots,
When you read this letter, I am no more in this world.
It was my original intention to pass away quietly and let my relatives handle the funeral matters in private. However, the repercussions of erroneous media reports of me [being] in critical condition during October 2011, had persuaded me that leaving behind such a letter is desirable.
Ever since I joined the Communist Party of Malaya and eventually became its secretary-general, I have given both my spiritual and physical self in the service of the cause that my party represented, that is, to fight for a fairer and better society based on socialist ideals. Now with my passing away, it is time that my body be returned to my family .
I draw immense comfort in the fact that my two children are willing to take care of me, a father who could not give them family love, warmth and protection ever since their birth. I could only return my love to them after I had relinquished my political and public duties, ironically only at a time when I have no more life left to give to them as a father.
It was regrettable that I had to be introduced to them well advanced in their adulthood as a stranger. I have no right to ask them to understand, nor to forgive. They have no choice but to face this harsh reality. Like families of many martyrs and comrades, they too have to endure hardship and suffering not out of their own doing, but out of a consequence of our decision to challenge the cruel forces in the society, which we sought to change .
It is most unfortunate that I couldn’t, after all, pay my last respects to my parents buried in my hometown of Sitiawan, nor could I set foot on the beloved motherland that my comrades and I had fought so hard for against the aggressors and colonialists .
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 .
In the final analysis, I wish to be remembered simply as a good man who could tell the world that he had dared to spend his entire life in pursuit of his own ideals to create a better world for his people .
It is irrelevant whether I succeeded or failed, at least I did what I did. Hopefully the path I had walked on would be followed and improved upon by the young after me. It is my conviction that the flames of social justice and humanity will never die .
The author of this article had the honour of meeting Comrade Chin Peng in 1998. Lalkar and the Communist Party of Great Britain (Marxist-Leninist) extend their deepest condolences to the comrades of the Communist Party of Malaya and to Comrade Chin Peng’s family and friends on their irreplaceable loss.