Sunday September 21, 2003
History, according to Chin PengPhotos from ALIAS CHIN PENG, MY SIDE OF STORY
The legendary Chin Peng, the British Empire’s most wanted man during Malaya’s undeclared war with the communists, finally breaks his silence by publishing his long-awaited memoirs. CHEAH BOON KHENG turns the pages and discovers a mine of information and revelations about this intriguing man, comrades and their cause.
IN Alias Chin Peng, My Side of History, his engrossing, candid and sensitive memoir, Chin Peng tells the story of his life as a communist and guerrilla leader, admits to making many strategic mistakes and reveals many dark secrets about the communist movement and its armed struggle in Malaya.
Chin Peng’s extremely readable book is probably based on earlier drafts that he had written in Canberra and in Bangkok and Haadyai where he had retired to after the communists’ armed struggle ended in 1989. It offers an insider’s incisive analysis of why and how the communist insurgency failed.
As losers in the insurgency war, Chin Peng explains in the foreword that the communist side of the Emergency story had to be told. However, he realised he could not rely only on his recollections, but needed to look at various sources, including declassified official records of what was decided and ordered in the corridors of power in Kuala Lumpur and London. “It was important that I remain as dispassionate as any human being could be in the predicament I had been placed,” he says.
Born Ong Boon Hua in October 1924 in Sitiawan, Perak, Chin Peng joined the clandestine party at the age of 15 and was the Communist Party of Malaya’s (CPM) secretary-general, its highest-ranking member, by the time he was 23.
He adopted the alias “Chin Peng” as all secret cell members were required to conceal their true identity from the police.
Once feared and glamorised as Malaya’s “most wanted man,” who had a reward of $250,000 (Straits dollars) on his head, he appears in this book as a simple, warm-hearted personality, who speaks with a voice of moderation.
His approach, he says, is “neither a boast or an apology,” but to “understand how beliefs are formed and how conflicts can start and run unabated”. When it comes to the CPM’s acts of assassinations and armed violence, he is extremely defensive, and he indulges in self-criticism.
“Propagandists have claimed I targeted innocent civilians. Untrue. I have been reported to have thrown out of the CPM people who were not even members of the Party; to have ordered the executions of those who opposed me. Again, baseless,” says Chin Peng.
Critics are likely to conclude that the self-criticism has come with the help of hindsight. Some of the moral judgements may appear to be “politically correct”. But there is little doubt that Chin Peng is willing to bear responsibility for the thousands of lives lost and sacrificed in the cause of the communist struggle. This was inevitable, he says. It was a “war” for national independence.
While people may not agree with his politics or his methods, Chin Peng’s claim to being a Malayan nationalist may merit some consideration; he certainly considers himself one.
The book’s style, impeccably that of the collaborators Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor, a husband and wife writing team, captures well the views and thought-patterns of Chin Peng, but it is always Chin Peng’s own conclusions and opinions that are startling.
He is admirably fair to friends and foes. For instance, he pays the greatest tribute to Sir Harold Briggs, Malaya’s Director of Operations in 1950, as the man who broke the back of the communist insurrection with what became known as the “Briggs Plan”. This plan caused the communist insurgents to suffer severe food shortages because it isolated them from their food suppliers, the bulk of Chinese squatters living on the jungle fringes who were forcibly moved to fenced-up “new villages” that came under government control.
On the Malayan Emergency, after evaluating many interpretations on its origins, Chin Peng makes the startling disclosure that the killing of three European estate managers in Sungei Siput, Perak, on June 16, 1948, by communist elements – long held as the incident that set off the Emergency – was unauthorised.
He says that neither he nor the CPM’s Central Committee had ordered the killings. It was only after the British authorities declared a state of Emergency following the murders that the CPM launched its insurrection.
A horrifying picture that appeared in Britain's 'Daily Worker' paper in 1952. It should have shocked the British Public into stopping the Emergency but didn't because it was regarded as mere communist propaganda.
“Indeed, if I had had my way, the killings at Sungei Siput would never have taken place. They resulted from over-enthusiasm for revenge at the local level coupled with a serious lack of command control at the state level.”
Chin Peng further claims that the declaration of the Emergency gave the psychological advantage to the British and the Sungei Siput incident threw the carefully laid plans for a communist uprising into disarray. He himself was resting in a mining bungalow at Kampar, Perak, when the police, acting on a tip-off from an informer, closed in on him.
“I have sometimes reflected on how many things would have turned out had I not been 20 seconds ahead of the raiding party at the Kampar bungalow,” he says. “Unquestionably I would have had a very brief Emergency indeed.”
On the assassination of Sir Henry Gurney, the British High Commissioner, on Feb 7, 1952, Chin Peng confirms that it was totally unplanned. It was the work of a platoon of 36 guerrillas – led by CPM member Siew Ma – who were on patrol on the Gap road to Fraser’s Hill in the Pahang highlands when they chanced upon Gurney’s large armed convoy. Gurney, in a heroic gesture to save his wife, came out of the car to divert the communists’ fire, and was instantly killed.
Chin Peng says that when news of the incident arrived at his jungle camp, it was greeted with “the silence of amazement”. “It then dissipated into shouts of incredulity,” but he added, “There was no gloating on our part.”
This unexpected success had come in the midst of deep gloom, when the party was beset by “countless regrettable errors” and was “increasingly isolated from the Min Yuen (people’s support groups) by the Briggs Plan, suffering debilitating food shortages and continually undertaking measures to avoid enemy military patrols.”
Political realities soon hit home. By 1955, the winds of change were blowing strongly in Malaya. Political independence was coming. The Umno-MCA-MIC Alliance Party had won a landslide victory in the 1955 general election, grabbing 51 of the 52 contested seats to the Legislative Council and had begun demanding independence. It had also offered amnesty to communist insurgents who were willing to lay down their arms.
Chin Peng acknowledges frankly that the communist party knew that its struggle was hopeless and nearing an end unless it could try to seize the high political ground. Given the military setbacks they faced, including the severe food crisis and the constant communications blackout in contacting their regiments throughout the Malayan peninsula, they decided to negotiate with the Alliance government to end the Emergency. The communists desperately wanted peace, but on honourable terms.
At the peace talks held in Baling, Kedah, on Dec 28 and 29, 1955, Chin Peng’s strategy was to gain a foothold in the independence talks that the Alliance Government intended to conduct with the British Government in February 1956 by playing a “trump card”. This came on the last day after the government side, headed by then Chief Minister (later Prime Minister) Tunku Abdul Rahman, had rejected the party’s two demands: that the CPM be recognised as a legitimate political party in Malaya, and that communist insurgents who accepted the amnesty should not be detained and screened by the police.
His trump card was that the CPM would cease its hostilities and lay down its arms if the Alliance government could obtain the powers of internal security and defence from the British Government prior to independence.
Chin Peng recalls: “An air of optimism filled the room. A noticeably buoyed Tunku leaned forward and said: ‘Is that a promise? When I come back from England that is the thing I am bringing with me.’ I followed up: ‘That being the case, we can straightaway stop our hostilities and also disband our armed units’.”
The trump card indeed served to strengthen the Tunku’s bargaining position at the London independence talks. It forced the British Government to concede those powers of internal security and defence and grant independence to Malaya on Aug 31, 1957. This hastened the arrival of independence by at least three years.
Chin Peng says the Tunku acknowledged the importance of the Baling Talks when the latter wrote in 1974 that, “Baling had led straight to Merdeka.”
When independence came in 1957, the communists waited for the Tunku to invite them again to a second meeting, as promised, but the invitation never came, as the Tunku saw no further need for it. In his reply to Chin Peng’s letter, the Tunku said that all that was required was for them to surrender to the authorities.
In 1960, some seven years after the communist insurgents had retreated to the Malayan-Thai border and reluctantly admitted to being militarily routed, the Alliance Government declared the Emergency ended. This meant that the emergency restrictions would be lifted, even though the communists still posed a security threat.
Meanwhile, the party had quietly accepted defeat and decided to abandon the armed struggle and wind down its military operations. Chin Peng was ill, and the party directed that, at this point in time while demobilisation was taking place, he should leave for Beijing to recuperate and plan operations by remote control. The day-to-day operations would be handed over to a Central Committee member, Ah Hai.
Chin Peng’s stay in Beijing coincided with the outbreak of the Sino-Soviet ideological conflict, the re-starting of the “second Indo-China war” in which North Vietnam would infiltrate and move its forces into South Vietnam, and China’s Cultural Revolution that began in 1966.
The bullet-riddled Rolls Royce of Sir Henry Gurney, the British High Commissioner, whose assasination was an unplanned incident, says Chin Peng.
These events started fierce debates within the party and finally led the CPM to renew its armed struggle. Among those who stood for a resumption of hostilities was the party’s chairman, Musa Ahmad, who had joined Chin Peng in Beijing. Chin Peng later asked to return to Malaya, but the Central Committee rejected the idea, saying he should devote his efforts to promoting the party’s international relations.
I believe one of the strongest indictments that may be levelled at Chin Peng is that he abandoned his party comrades and guerrillas to a further futile period of 29 years of struggle by his continued stay in Beijing from 1960 till the surrender of the CPM in 1989. The insurgency had failed, and he knew it.
Although he claims he repeatedly made offers to return to the jungles at the Malaysian-Thai border and even to step down as party secretary-general, these offers were rather feeble – his heart was no longer in it. His continued stay there is indefensible except for personal reasons.
A most striking omission in Chin Peng’s memoir is his failure to discuss why the CPM was unable to win large-scale Malay and Indian support to the communist cause and turn it into a genuinely multi-racial party. The presence of Malay members in the Central Committee, like Musa Ahmad, Abdullah C.D. and Rashid Maidin, while important, did not make much of an impression. There is also no mention of the party’s Indian vice-president, R. Balan, who was under detention.
When “peace feelers” came from the Thai and Malaysian governments in 1987 and 1988 respectively, the CPM officials responded. The communist cause daily seemed more hopeless with the collapse of the Soviet Union and the decline of world communism.
Chin Peng did not become involved in the negotiations until the last minute, finally flying out of Beijing to, first, Bangkok and then to Haadyai. He credits the success of negotiations to Thailand’s General Kitti Rattanachaya, then deputy commander of Thailand’s Fourth Army, based in the kingdom’s southern region, who was instrumental in establishing and maintaining contacts between all involved parties.
The Malaysian representative whose calm, authoritative approach did much to smooth over countless problems was Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Mohamed Noor, then Malaysia’s Director-General of Special Branch and later Inspector General of Police.
On Dec 2, 1989, a joint communiqué was issued, announcing the end of the CPM’S armed struggle and the two agreements concluded in the negotiations, one between the CPM and the Malaysian Government and the other between the CPM and the Thai Government regarding the disbandment of the party’s units, the disposal of the arms and the return of members to Malaysia, or their repatriation to China and Thailand.
At the ceremony held at a hotel in Haadyai, Chin Peng spoke in Bahasa Malaysia and declared: “As Malaysian citizens, we pledge our loyalty to His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the country. We shall disband our armed units and destroy all weapons to show our sincerity in terminating the armed struggle.”
Chin Peng claims he made sure that the peace terms he had negotiated with Malaysia and Thailand worked. It was only after this was done that he began thinking about writing his memoirs.
In late 1990 he made an application to settle down in Malaysia but it was rejected in December 1991. “There are days when I end up thinking, if the price of my dream for a liberated Malaya extends to this continuing exile, then so be it,” he says.
Yet, he still desires to return to his former hometown in Sitiawan to pay his respects at the family graves, visit his old school, trace familiar routes and renew old friendships.
“These are the images that would not leave me, of roads and trees, houses and street signs that could only belong to what I knew as Malaya. I want to see them again. It is naturally my wish to spend the last years of my life in Malaysia. It is ironic that I should be without the country for which I was more than willing to die.”
It was reported that Chin Peng’s application to return to Malaysia to launch his book has been rejected by the Home Ministry. ‘Alias Chin Peng, My Side of History (As Told to Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor)’, published by Media Masters, Singapore (527 pages) is priced at RM70 and available at all major bookstores.
Cheah Boon Kheng was formerly Professor of History at Universiti Sains Malaysia in Penang until his retirement in 1994. He is the author of several books including ‘The Masked Comrades’ (1979) and ‘Red Star Over Malaya’ (1983).
On Lee Meng, the Tunku, Deng Xiao Peng and othersLEE Meng, real name Lee Ten Tai, the beautiful Ipoh girl whose trial on a charge of possessing a hand grenade made her a cause celebre. She was defended by the late lawyer S.P. Seenivasagam, who also made his name in the court case. Despite her denials that she was a communist, she was convicted and sentenced to death. Communist Hungary offered to exchange her life for that of a detained British spy. Following appeals, the Sultan of Perak commuted her death sentence to life imprisonment. She was later repatriated to China. Chin Peng confirms the “grenade girl” was a Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) member and adds, “Lee Meng had always lacked caution. There was a certain recklessness in her operational style. She was certainly dedicated, active and brave. But I remember then being glad she was not functioning for me.” In China, Lee Meng married a comrade, Chen Tien, who was one of the three party representatives who attended the Baling Talks.
Sir Harold Briggs, Malaya’s Director of Operations in 1950. Chin Peng pays him a tribute: “I have read that Briggs, who retired to Cyprus and passed away there in October 1952, died convinced he had been a failure in Malaya. As I see it, Briggs, the soldier, devised the programme and implemented it with little concern for marketing the man behind the (Briggs) Plan. This was a different approach to that taken by (Lt General Sir Gerald) Templer. The latter was a supreme egoist who wallowed in the limelight.”
Tunku Abdul Rahman is acknowledged by Chin Peng as a shrewd leader who seized the concessions that the communists offered at the Baling Talks. Chin Peng says: “Clearly, the Tunku had bargained heavily with the British on the basis of my Baling promise to ensure our guerrilla army set aside its weapons once the Malayan Government was granted fundamental powers of internal security and defence. In effect, the Tunku capitalised on my pledge and gained considerably by this. My Baling pledge had been given in good faith and on the understanding that there would be a second round of peace negotiations from where we could proceed further. Perhaps it was, once again, political naivete on my part that had me accept the Tunku’s assurances of an all-important follow-up meeting (which never materialised).”
Juliet Chin, a Malaysian university student, who had involved herself in issues of social concern in Singapore in the 1970s, had been in touch with a CPM contact in Hong Kong and offered to join the movement. Chin Peng recalls, “But our leaders felt she was inappropriate material for jungle living and instead offered her a job with Suara Revolusi (the CPM’s radio station broadcasting from Hunan province in China). Miss Chin gave the impression she was a Marxist socialist. We regarded her as a liberal socialist. She certainly never joined the Party.”
Deng Xiao Peng. In 1979 Deng called Chin Peng to his office for a meeting, at which he told him to shut down the Suara Revolusi. Deng had informed him that Singapore Premier Lee Kuan Yew had requested that the Chinese authorities order the closure. Chin Peng recalls, “Deng explained to me that unless the radio ceased operation on Chinese soil, it would be very difficult for the Asean bloc countries to lobby African and Latin American support for the Khmer Rouge (Beijing’s ally against Vietnam with which Beijing was at loggerheads then).
Of the Puthucheary brothers, Chin Peng says, “Neither Dr Lee Siew Choh, the Barisan Socialis party chief, nor, as I understand it, other prominent opposition figures like the Puthucheary brothers – James and Dominic – had ever been CPM members. Nor had we ever been able to control them. Unquestionably we tried, as we did with many other aspiring politicians of the time.”
Related Stories:Lai Te, the double agentConversations in CanberraChin Peng tells his side of the CPM story by Wong Chun Wai