Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Book review: Alias Chin Peng


I’ve just finished reading Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History, which I bought online from Select Books in Singapore.

Chin Peng was the Malay Chinese leader of the Malayan Communist Party during the so-called Malayan Emergency.

He was born Ong Boon Hua on October 21, 1924 in Sitiawan where his parents had a bicycle shop. By the age of 13 he was active in the nationalist movement around Sitiawan. “My generation dreamed of doing away with British colonialism in Malaya,” he remarks in the opening paragraph of the book. “I am proud of this fact.”

By the age of 15, he had read Edgar Snow’s Red Star Over China and Anna Louise Strong’s Soviet Democracy. But what impressed him most was Mao Zedong’s On Protracted War.

In January 1940, having been active in raising funds to support Chinese resistance to Japan, Ong Boon Hua was inducted into the Communist Party of Malaya as a probationary member.

The Japanese conquest of Malaya and the British capitulation in Singapore created the conditions for the emergence of the armed forces led by the CPM, the Malayan National Liberation Army, to be the only reliable and consistent anti-Japanese force in occupied Malaya.

During this period, Chin Peng - as Ong Boon Hua became known – hosted members of the British South East Asia Command in the jungle bases of the CPM, giving the war-time ally and former colonial rulers every opportunity to witness the effectiveness of the CPM’s campaign.

So highly regarded by the British was Chin Peng that he was personally decorated with war service medals by Lord Mountbatten, and later bestowed with an OBE.

Yet with the reimposition of British rule after the defeat of Japan, Malaya was plundered of US dollar reserves (resulting from the sale of tin and rubber to the US) by the British. It was Britain’s major source of US currency at the time. A growing impoverishment of the labouring population followed.

The British plantation owners oppressed the mainly Indian and Chinese labourers, and used thugs to physically break strikes for better conditions and pay. The British administration refused to grant the CPM legal status, although it operated openly between 1946-8 (see opposite) and planned legislation restricting the activities of trade unions.

It so happened that around this time, in 1948, Communist Party of Australia leader Lance Sharkey was passing through Singapore.

Chin Peng recounts how the CPM arranged to meet with him, and questioned him on how the CPA dealt with strikebreakers. He describes Sharkey as saying bluntly: “We get rid of them”.

One of the CPM members present then asked Sharkey: “You mean you eliminate strikebreakers, Comrade….kill?”

Sharkey “considered the question carefully. The he said, ‘But not in the cities. Only in the outlying areas. The rural areas. The mining areas.’”

According to Chin Peng, “Sharkey’s words sent a rush of reinforced fervour through our gathering.”

The “fervour” was for armed struggle against the plantation owners and in defence of plantation workers, and against the British and for Malayan independence.

From this moment on, and partly inspired by the boastfulness of the Australian Party leader, Chin Peng, OBE, became Chin Peng, CT – communist terrorist.

Chin Peng, however, is at pains to point out that the CPM conducted its armed struggle cleanly, treating captives according to Mao’s policies on leniency towards prisoners.

The British, he says, were the real terrorists, killing and decapitating captives (see photo opposite).

Chin Peng is not at all reluctant to reveal the weaknesses of the CPM’s position at this time. Despite having some prominent Malays in its leadership, the party was overwhelmingly Malay Chinese in its composition. And by “resettling” villagers sympathetic to the CPM, and controlling their access to food, the British were able to reduce the CPM guerillas to starvation as the jungle provided no real sources of sustenance.

The CPM and its armed forces, with no choice in the matter, operated less like the Red Army in China - which had access to liberated areas and civilian support - and more like Che Guevera’s isolated guerilla units in Bolivia.

A chance for a ceasefire in 1955 was largely torpedoed by British arrogance in insisting on a surrender by the CPM, and the armed struggle persisted until 1989 when the CPM, by now operating largely out of bases in southern Thailand, negotiated a ceasefire.

In the interim, Chin Peng had traveled to China, establishing and operating a clandestine radio in Hunan Province and broadcasting in three languages to Malaya and Singapore.

With its operational strength in decline, and the formation of breakaway “parties” influenced by China’s Cultural Revolution, the idea of once again attempting a negotiated ceasefire arose.

Conditions for a ceasefire eventually matured in 1989. In the absence of the British, and partly facilitated by the Thais, Chin Peng was able to achieve what he called “peace with dignity”. There was no formal surrender and the MPA destroyed its own weapons or arranged for their sale, rather than being forced to hand them over to the Malaysian government.

However, the CPM could not win acceptance of its bid for legality. Faced with the cessation of its armed struggle, unable to operate openly and without the cadre strength to develop as an underground party, the CPM came to a close.

An octogenarian today, Chin Peng still lives in southern Thailand from where he is pursuing the right to return to Malaysia in the courts of that country – a right guaranteed to CPM members of Malay origin by the 1989 peace agreements. A recent film on Chin Peng, The Last Communist (opposite) has been banned in Malaysia.

He has no regrets about his past: “I had to be a liberation fighter”, he says in the book.

On p. 514 he describes himself as “still a socialist” although one who no longer believes that the dictatorship of the proletariat is applicable to contemporary Malaysia.

Undoubtedly, Chin Peng is one of the great men of Malayan history, a hero of the anti-colonial struggle, a hero of the anti-Japanese struggle, a man who contributed as a staunch proletarian revolutionary to a difficult stage in the application of Marxism-Leninism to the conditions of his country.

As I write, Malaysia is experiencing an upsurge in dissident activity and the state apparatus is being used to suppress peoples’ aspirations for multiracial equality and social justice.

Either Malaysia will become engulfed in a global crisis of capitalism creating unforeseen circumstances for the rapid creation and growth of a new Marxist-Leninist Communist party, or the slower unfolding of social contradictions will help develop a widespread mass movement for social change in which there will be an emerging opportunity for communist politics, organization and activity.

The memoirs of Chin Peng, together with those of his comrades such as Siriana Abdullah (Eng Ming Cheng) and her husband Abdullah C.D., and Shan Ruhong (Ah Cheng) will provide important lessons for a new generation of Malaysian activists.

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