Chin Peng: The afterlife of a patriot4 min read . Updated: 25 Sep 2013, 09:16 PM IST
Dead or alive, Chin Peng inconveniently reminds Malaysia of its alternative history, of what could have been
Over the past few weeks, Malaysian border control officers have been on a heightened alert to prevent an undesirable person from entering the country. No matter that the man is dead and cremated, and what his well-wishers might want to smuggle into the country and take to his birthplace, the village of Sitiawan in Perak state, is an urn containing his ashes. Such is the symbolic significance of the man and of the politics he represented, that Malaysia cannot even let his ashes to return.
His name was Chin Peng. Born as Ong Boon Hua, the leader of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) (as the country was known before Singapore separated from what became Malaysia), was once a war hero. Lord Louis Mountbatten raised a toast with him, and he was hosted at the stately Raffles Hotel in Singapore, at the end of World War II, because of his wartime bravery. Chin was part of the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Association and its daredevil Force 136, which worked with British officers who stayed behind, operating in a clandestine manner, sabotaging the Japanese who had conquered Malaya by February 1942. The Japanese treated the Chinese harshly, suspecting them when taking a short break from despising them. The ghastly Japanese treatment of civilians in China was described as the Rape of Nanking.
In Malaya, the Chinese turned against the Japanese, just as the local Indian community sided with the Japanese. During the war, many of the defeated Indian troops of the British army joined the Indian National Army (INA), first under Mohan Singh and later under Subhas Chandra Bose. The INA allied with the Japanese occupiers, hoping to liberate India through Burma.
After the war, the British honoured Chin with the Order of the British Empire. Imperial gongs were fine, but Chin wanted independence for Malaya; the wartime alliance with the British was one of convenience. Once the Japanese left, the British too should go—after all they were granting Burma independence, handing power to General Aung San, who had once betrayed the British. Why not Malaya, too?
Unlike Aung San (or Indian leaders like Gandhi and Nehru), Chin was a Communist, deriving inspiration from Mao. With the Korean War imminent, Britain did not want to lose a colony as rich with natural resources as Malaya, with its abundant supply of rubber and wood, to Communist hands. The conflict began when the Communists killed three British plantation managers. The British declared an Emergency, and fought a bitter counter-insurgency war against the CPM in the lush Malayan landscape. Attitudes hardened as Communist insurgencies elsewhere in Asia became strong—there was the Vietnam War, Communist control of Cambodia and Laos, and in Indonesia, Sukarno was flirting with the Communists, and “the year of living dangerously" ended only when Suharto took over, and a bloodbath followed. In the Malayan violence, thousands died. To cut off civilian support to the Communists, the British created “strategic hamlets", moving villages and towns dominated by ethnic Chinese to other parts, to prevent fragmentation of the country, and providing basic amenities which were superior to the life in kampung, as villages are called in Malay. By 1960, the insurgency waned; independence came in 1963, but in 1965 Singapore left the federation, consolidating the stronghold of the United Malays National Organisation in Malaysia (UMNO).
Chin politicized the countryside, radicalizing many young people who formed trade unions to defend the rights of plantation workers, a large majority of whom were Tamil-speaking Indians. UMNO resented Chinese-Indian unity because it interfered with the racially-exclusive policies UMNO would implement.
Chin had, meanwhile, fled to Thailand. In 1989, with Communist governments collapsing in Eastern Europe and China itself in post-Tiananmen turmoil, Chin agreed to Thai-brokered peace talks in the Thai town of Hat Yai. A truce was signed, old CPM activists were allowed to return to Malaysia. Chin repeatedly tried to return, but the Malaysian government kept refusing. Saying Chin wasn’t a Malaysian, it asked him to prove his citizenship. Chin no longer had any papers to prove his nationality—but he had fought for Malayan freedom! In his memoir, My Side of History, Chin wrote: “When we worked with the British during the Japanese occupation and killed people essentially in Britain’s interests we were neither bandits nor terrorists. Indeed, we were applauded, praised and given awards. Thus, you only become a terrorist when you killed against their interests."
Malaysia’s national history projects UMNO as the deliverer of Malaysian independence. Chin didn’t succeed in driving the British out. But he made it difficult for them to function, convincing them to leave sooner. Chin, the war hero, who troubled the British, undermines Malaysia’s narrative. Dead or alive, Chin inconveniently reminds Malaysia of its alternative history, of what could have been. Malaysian leaders would rather that his remains are immersed in Bangkok’s river Chao Phraya, than permitted to scatter in the Malaysian countryside. It is a fertile land: who knows what might power Chin’s ashes possess?
Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at firstname.lastname@example.org. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi-