Saturday May 14, 2005
A fresh new start for ex-communistsBy FOONG THIM LENGPictures by LEW YONG KAN
The winding road from Betong on the Thai-Malaysian border to the former hideout of the guerrillas of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) inside Thailand climbs through remote mountain forests, giving visitors a glimpse of the terrain where bitter battles were once fought.
For decades, the guerrillas refused to give up armed struggle and were hunted by armies on both sides of the border.
Their lives changed in December 1989 when CPM leader Chin Peng signed two ceasefire accords with the Malaysian and Thai authorities in Hat Yai. About 1,000 of the guerrillas were then given the chance to return to society and start life afresh.
Today, about 200 of these ex-guerrillas are living in four camps and supporting themselves and their families by planting rubber, vegetables, fruits and flowers. Their camps, named the Piyamit villages, have also become a popular tourist destination in southern Thailand.
Piyamit 1, located in the jungle about half an hour’s drive from Betong, is the largest and the most popular of the four villages. Here, tourists are charged RM5 each to visit the tunnels once used by the CPM as a military base, air shelter, kitchen and provision storehouse.
A store room used by CPM guerrillas inside atunnel at the Piyamit 1 camp.
The tunnels were built in 1976 by 50 CPM members, and took three months to complete. The longest tunnel is 1.5km long and 1m wide. The tunnels have six exits. There is also a museum nearby which displays photographs of guerrilla training and activities, various medical and dental instruments, machinery and gadgets.
A large concrete archway is being constructed at the entrance to the village, which has been landscaped with plants and flowers. Statues of doves (symbolising peace) and a statue of Kuan Yin, the Chinese Goddess of Mercy, have been built beside a restaurant and the souvenir shops.
Camp manager Chen Jian Feng, 50, said there used to be 150 families in Piyamit 1 but 90 have since moved to the towns.
“We had 70,000 visitors when the camp was first opened to outsiders in 1989. Most of them were curious to find out about our struggle and survival in the jungle.
“Now an average of 500 tourists come here during weekends and public holidays. The entrance fees collected are used for landscaping and the maintenance of public amenities in the village,” said Chen, who left Kuala Lumpur to join the CPM in 1974.
However, building a community from scratch has been tough for the ex-CPM members. Lim Leong Hua, 58, formerly of Rawang, now stays in Piyamit 2, which is located about 6km from Piyamit 1. She recalls that each of the 150 families was given land and 16,000 baht (about RM1,600) to build a house, plus 15 rai (2.4ha) of agricultural land. For the first five years, each family also received an allowance of RM500 from the Thai Government.
“We first planted rubber but the trees were slow to mature because the highland weather was unsuitable for their cultivation and most of the families left the village for the towns. With only 11 families left, we started to plant roses on a small plot of land with the help of a member from each family,” she said.
Former CPM member Lim Leong Hua (centre) and two comrades checking on the flowers they have planted at Piyamit 2.
Lim said the families then pooled their resources to acquire more land in a valley near their homes.
“We employed helpers and managed to clear about 8ha of the land. We then planted carnations, roses, chrysanthemums and vegetables,” she said. The villagers then set up a committee to supervise this particular project.
Visitors getting a feel of the tunnels dug by former CPM guerrillas at the Piyamit 1 camp; (left) Camp manager Chen JianFeng looking at the images of doves built to depict peace in the former CPM camp.
“Flowers are in demand in Thailand, which is a Buddhist country. Devotees love to pay homage to Buddha with flowers. We supply about RM20,000 worth of flowers to towns in southern Thailand monthly,” she said.
The entrance fee to Piyamit 2 is RM3 per person. Rental huts and tents are available for those wishing to stay overnight. There are also natural attractions in the vicinity, such as the hot springs and the Chalermprakiat waterfall.
The hot springs and waterfall were at one time out of bounds to the public as they were the sites of many bitter battles between the guerrillas and the armies of Thailand and Malaysia. The hot springs, which can hard-boil an egg in seven minutes, are believed to be able to cure body aches and skin diseases. W
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