Chin Peng and I

  • Nation Premium
  • Tuesday, 17 Sep 2013

Chin Peng.

PETALING JAYA: Four years ago I was in a taxi making a mad dash for the Malaysian-Thai border.

It was December 2009 and I was with filmmaker Amir Muhammad and we were going to see the Lelaki Komunis Terakhir.

Once Malaysia's most wanted man, the notorious Communist leader was well into his eighties. But his name still evoked great emotion whenever his desire to come home to die in Malaysia was brought up.

He still had enough drawing power to be treated like a rock star at the event we were attending. It really was the most unlikely of events, I must say. It was the 20th anniversary of the signing of the tripartite agreement between the Communist Party of Malaya and the governments of Thailand and Malaysia.

It ended up being like a high school reunion except with loads and loads of Chinese aunties who had once been Marxist guerrillas. And just for the record there were quite a few former cadres of Malay ethnicity too.

Like I said when Chin Peng walked in he was greeted like a favourite son by the crowd of 300 or so. He smiled amiably and somewhat absently at all and sundry before collapsing gratefully into a armchair alongside his old comrade Abdullah CD.

I have interviewed a fair number of people in their 80s and I have come to realise, it doesn't matter whether you used to be a guerrilla or a teacher, a banker or a farmer.

When you are approaching 90, life tends to smooth over those little technical details and really does even things out.

The Chin Peng I saw was no shadowy guerilla. No ebullient figure leading the Baling talks. The Chin Peng I saw was a sleepy old man.

The event passed without much ado, a strange mix of nostalgia, pride and propaganda songs by a group of people who long ago committed themselves to a cause that saw them vilified and ostracised.

Yet a month prior to the reunion, I had spent some days in Kampung Chulabhorn 12, a peace village in Thailand’s southernmost of province of Narathiwat where many of them settled down. They had indeed seemed to find a sense of peace after that bloody war.

For all the anticipation I felt as a lifelong student of Marxist history, most of the excitement came in the form of three separate encounters I had with the Special Branch while trying to get there. One officer actually tried to get me to say that the Communists were now in cahoots with Pakatan Rakyat!

I look back on the day I met Chin Peng and I see that it was not so much a brush with history, but a brief glimpse of its echo. An echo I now find myself mythologising.

I say I talked to Chin Peng but actually I just walked up to him and said hello and he acknowledged me with a vague smile before going back to sleep.

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