I don’t want to sound like Spike Milligan-lite but this man
had a role in my life and I’d like to have a small part in his as he enters his dotage. The man is Chin Peng, who took over the leadership of the Communist Party of Malaya in 1947 and led the armed struggle, first against the British colonial authorities and then against the post-colonial Malaysian state, until 1989 when he agreed to end the struggle and dissolve the party. Today he’s probably the least known of that generation of Asia’s leaders – Gandhi and Nehru, Sukarno, Ho Chi Minh, Aung San – who led popular movements that resulted in the eclipse of empire. Despite his defeat Chin Peng has a legitimate claim to being one of the makers of modern Malaysia. After many decades of exile in Thailand, Chin Peng now wants to come home
to visit his parents’ graves and, probably, to die. I think he should be allowed to do so.
There are two senses in which Chin Peng’s life has had an impact on mine. The first is quite personal. I guess he’s the main reason why my dad came to colonial Malaya all those years ago. Chin Peng had been one of the outstanding leaders of the anti-fascist resistance as a commander in theMalayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army and had even been awarded an OBE by the British authorities. But when he launched the communist struggle from his jungle redoubt the British dubbed him “Asia’s most wanted man” and declared a State of Emergency. My dad’s from a working class family that hails from Holyhead. What was a teenage boy to do in austerity-riven north Wales? He took the queen’s shilling. After cursory training in the Brecon Beacons and the North Yorks Moors he found himself on a troop ship bound for Singapore and fighting communism in Malaya. My dad had no political education, no deep sense of who or what he was fighting, but he became a bit player in the last ignominious stand of the British empire – those dirty little wars fought with brutality in Cyprus and Kenya, Guyana and Malaya. And there he met my mum who’d had her own firsthand experiences of the wartime struggle against the Japanese. The rest is, as they say, history.
The other way that Chin Peng has shaped my life is more academic. I studied and later taught the history and politics of nationalism and decolonisation in Asia, fascinated by the so-called revolution in Monsoon Asia which – at that time – had only just reached some sort of denouement in Indochina. And then there was Malaysia. What lay behind Britain’s desire to hold onto some of its colonial possessions even as Cold War realpolitik and strong US lobbying meant that their fate was effectively sealed? Why had the British resorted with such ruthlessness – the “protected villages” strategy that were effectively concentration camps – and what was their later significance for counter-insurgency measures adopted elsewhere? How did the politics of ethnicity play out in the transition to independence? What were the tactics and strategy of a classic guerilla war? And, ultimately, why had the communist struggle in Malaya failed when it succeeded elsewhere? Those were the kinds of questions I was interested in. And Chin Peng and the struggle he led lay at the centre of my thoughts – nominally the enemy of my dad but, as I would find out later, someone whose politics (even in eventual defeat) were important in shaping post-independent Malaysia and whose character was largely sympathetic.
In the last eighteen months, Chin Peng has published two books. His autobiography My Side Of History and Dialogues with Chin Peng: New Light on the Malayan Communist Party. They are both invaluable insights into the man and the struggle, as well as key documents of contemporary Malaysian history and the history of revolution in Monsoon Asia. They are part of a recent upsurge in publishing the memoirs of these old comrades and may, in the long run, spark an historiographical reappraisal. The autobiography is a story of idealism and self-sacrifice that is well told. And there is a remarkable candour when it comes to assessing the failures of his struggle. Here is an overview of his accounting of history: