FRIDAY, MARCH 11, 2005

Chin Peng, My Dad And Me

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:

Having lived as long as I have, I am now able to enjoy what I can only describe as a levitated view of history. I was instrumental in playing out one side of the Emergency story. Access to declassified documents today gives me the ability to look back and down on the other side and see the broad picture. In the grim days of 1953, my comrades and I were struggling to hold our headquarters together. We plotted and manoeuvred to outfox security force ground patrols and outwit not only enemy jungle tactics but overall strategy as well. Sometimes we succeeded. Sometimes we failed.
Last week Chin Peng filed an application to return to Malaysia with hundreds of his comrades at the Penang High Court. The Malaysian government has previously rejected his applications to return. He has made this moving appeal to the authorities: 
I had indicated my wish to be allowed to visit my hometown so that I could pay homage to the graves of my grandfather, parents and my brothers in the Chinese cemetery, halfway between Sitiawan and Lumut. This duty is still uppermost in my mind .… It is ironic that I should be without the country for which I was more than willing to die.
As his autobiography demonstrates, Chin Peng is a remarkable man. Today his burning idealism is tinged with a new realism about the possibilities for change but he still holds to a core set of beliefs that must make the Malaysian ruling class shudder:

I am still a socialist. I certainly still believe in the equitable distribution of wealth, though I see this could take eons to evolve.
The campaign to bring Chin Peng home has already begun in earnest.