Sunday November 22, 2009
So close and yet so far
By EDDIE CHUA and FOONG THIM LENG
He has long given up his ambition of creating a communist state in Malaysia and insists he is just a harmless old man who can’t even pull a trigger. But can a leopard truly change his spots?
HE shall return. Dead or alive. That is Chin Peng’s vow. The country’s most notorious communist turned 85 last month. He knows time is not on his side but he remains obsessed with the notion of returning “home”.
He lost his legal battle to be allowed back in Malaysia in June last year when the Court of Appeal ruled that he had to produce his birth certificate to prove he was born in the country. He is now considering taking his case to the International Court of Justice.
In the meantime, he is relocating from Bangkok, where he has lived for many years, to a Malaysian-Thai border town next month just to be closer to his country of birth.
“I am a Malaysian. My only wish is to die in my birthplace and be buried among my ancestors. This is my right and I hope nobody will deny me this,” he says in an interview in Bangkok last month which he granted to mark the 20th anniversary of the Peace Accord between the Malaysian Government and the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) on Dec 2, 1989, in Hatyai, Thailand.
But if he cannot be allowed to die on Malaysian soil, he has made arrangements for friends to bring back his remains for burial in his hometown of Sitiawan, Perak.
One way or another, “I will find my way to return home,” says Chin Peng who adds that he has tasked four of his close former comrades-in-arms to quietly bury his ashes in the cemetery where his ancestors’ graves lie.
Chin Peng who became secretary-general of the CPM at 23 and was Britain’s enemy number one in South-East Asia whose head was worth a reward of 250,000 Malayan dollars – equivalent to the first prize of the Social Welfare Lottery then – is no more.
Today he is again Ong Boon Hua, the name that would have been on the birth certificate that he claimed he lost during the Japanese Occupation during World War II.
Uncle Ong, as his friends call him, is portly and jowly. He comes to the interview in a Bangkok restaurant dressed in a long-sleeved batik shirt and black trousers, looking like a Chinese middle class family’s genial grandfather.
“This shirt is from a friend in Indonesia. I would like to have a batik shirt from Malaysia too,” he quips.
But such moments of wit are few during the interview. He readily admits his memory is spotty and he needs prodding to help him remember. He speaks only when spoken to or when he has a request.
The years have clearly taken a toll on his health. He requires two assistants to help him as he has limited mobility. They escort him to the toilet and even help to prop him up whenever he slides too far down in his chair.
Despite the hot weather, he wears thick socks with his soft leather sandals. His steps are slow as he suffers from gout.
“He can no longer walk far these days. His health has deteriorated in the last two years. He needs medication and stays on a very strict diet,” says one of his caregivers who declined to be named.
Although Chin Peng insists he is still in good health, he doesn’t mind playing up the fact that he is in his twilight years. He also has a habit of placing his right hand on the back of his head or rubbing his nose whenever he finds difficulty in answering a question or recalling an event.
“I am an old man. What can I do? I can’t even pull a trigger now,” says the former guerrilla fighter whose chubby, boyish face had belied the mastermind who plotted bloody attacks against the British colonial masters, planters, miners and the local populace during the 12-year Emergency from 1948 to 1960.
For years, Chin Peng maintained that what he and his fellow communists were engaged in was a war and not a mere emergency with the country’s oppressors and they had nothing to apologise for.
Now, more than 50 years on, he has finally tendered an apology.
He says that although the CPM did not subscribe to the killing of innocent people, he admits that “we might have made mistakes in some cases”.
“If we had intentionally killed innocent people, then I apologise. I apologise to the families who had suffered (too). I take full responsibility for my comrades’ actions. (But) in war, we cannot differentiate the innocent from the non-innocent,” he offers.
He says he does not expect the public to forgive him for the past but hopes they can put their differences aside and behind them.
“That was war. That was then. If you say that we killed people, the communists too were killed by the security forces.”
(Regular police and the army each lost just over 500 men; but over 800 special constables and auxiliary police were killed. Over 3,000 civilians, mainly Chinese, were dead or missing. Almost 7,000 guerrillas were killed, 1,300 captured, and 2,700 surrendered. App-roximately 500 British and Commonwealth soldiers, including Gurkhas, were killed, as were about 100 British civilians, most of them planters. – Britannica Concise Encyclopedia)
Despite the apology and plea for understanding, Chin Peng is aware that he remains a deeply hated figure to many veteran servicemen and older citizens who strongly object to his return.
While he wrote a lucid and well-received autobiography, Alias Chin Peng: My Side of History (with Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor, Media Masters, 2003 ), Chin Peng now has no recollection of many events, including the important Baling Talks (in Kedah), when he emerged from the jungle to negotiate with Tunku Abdul Rahman and David Marshall, then the Singapore Chief Minister, in December 1955.
“My memory is not good any more. I need to be reminded of the details of an event but sometimes even this fails me,” he murmurs.
What he does remember vividly is the “ploy” that foiled his return to Malaysia after the signing of the Peace Accord.
“A few weeks after the accord was signed, government officials were assigned to take me home and we agreed to meet at very specific location along the Malaysian-Thai border. However, the officials never turned up. Instead, they claimed they wanted to meet me at a different location and I failed to turn up there,” he claims, adding that it was a deliberate conspiracy to stop his return to the country.
After that, he chose to live in Thailand.
Asked how he managed financially, his answer is wonderfully ironic:
“Several of my close comrades and I pooled the money we received after the Peace Accord and dabbled in the Hong Kong stock market. Our funds were managed by a trusted former guerilla who was meticulous and good at making money from the stock market.
“We used some of the money to rebuild our lives and reinvested the rest in stocks and investments funds.
“I am not good in business but my friends are. We managed to avoid losses even when the market crashed in 1997 and during the current recession period. The returns have been good enough to see me through in life as an independent person.”
In other words, a group of die-hard communists were saved from a life of penury by the most capitalistic of instruments, the stock market!
Yet, in an interview with the Straits Times Singapore, Chin Peng says he still considers himself a “communist of the Marxist-Leninist mould” and that the leader he admired was Mao Zedong. But as he also adds, it is complicated world, one which has moved on and left behind failed rebels like him.
Malaysians remain divided over the question of whether this man was a freedom fighter or a terrorist and hence whether he should be allowed back (See sidebar). It is a question that will not be answered any time soon and frankly, few care enough to lobby for him.
Whatever the case, loathe or like him, Chin Peng has earned his place in Malaysian history.
As Hong Kong-based journalist, Philip Bowring wrote in 2003 (quoted by A.J. Stockwell in Chin Peng and the Struggle for Malaya, journals.cambridge. org): “Fifty years ago, the name of Chin Peng was feared almost as much as Osama bin Laden is today”.
> Next week: An eyewitness’ account of the Peace Accord and other stories.