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Revolutionary leadership is a hard row to hoe. While respect and even occasionally adulation may be enjoyed among one’s own followers, it is vitriol and denigration which are the most common responses to any efforts made to forcibly change political regimes. And when revolutions are unsuccessful, the forces of the establishment will, almost without exception, vituperate those who led them. This is certainly the case with Chin Peng (the nom de guerre of Ong Boon Hwa), who led the Communist Party of Malaya (and then Malaysia) (CPM) as its Secretary General from 1947 until his death in a Bangkok hospital on 16 September 2013.

Establishment figures have been quick with their denunciations. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak noted that: “We will not allow him to be buried in Malaysia because of the black history he had created,” while Ibrahim Ali, head of the supremacist group Perkasa, clearly reflected the perceived danger of Chin Peng’s memory to the UMNO party-state when he averred “People like Chin Peng must be erased from history, from being known by people, especially the younger generation.” Home Minister Ahmad Zahid Hamidi advised that Putrajaya did not want his remains interred in the country as it could lead to a memorial dedicated to him.

But the reactions to his passing have certainly not been solely those of state vilification. PAS Sepang MP Mohamed Hanipa Maidin referred to Chin Peng as “an independence fighter,” while Kedah PAS leader Fadzil Baharom travelled to Bangkok to offer his condolences. MCA vice-president Gan Ping Sieu urged that Chin Peng’s ashes be allowed to be returned to Malaysia, while Thai former prime minister General Chavalit Yongchaiyudh was key guest at the cremation. Retired Thai generals who attended his cremation lauded Chin Peng as “Malaysia’s version of Myanmar’s Aung San, Indonesia’s Soekarno and Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh.” Even the former Inspector-General of Police in Malaysia, Abdul Rahim Noor, who had negotiated with Chin Peng in 1989, noted that Malaysia would be a laughing stock if it did not allow Chin Peng’s ashes into the country.

The diversity of responses to Chin Peng’s death and assessments of how the man and his party should be remembered in Malaysian history have constituted a virtual online civil war, reflecting many of the social fissures and political cleavages within the country. While a whole spectrum of opinions has been expressed, two basic strands can be distilled — that Chin Peng was a traitor and terrorist who tried to destroy Malaysia and brought death to many, or that he was a freedom fighter who tried to liberate the country and achieve social justice within it.

The agendas of Chin Peng were indeed diverse over time and, before further assessing how relevant any of the present-day interpretations of the man are, it might be worth briefly examining what Chin Peng was seeking to achieve at various stages of his life. His earliest recorded political involvement occurred during his middle school years in his home state of Perak where, in 1937, he joined activities which were aimed at opposing the Japanese occupation of China and professed a wish to travel to China to fight against the Japanese forces there. At this time the CPM, which organised the anti-Japanese activities, was promoting a “Malayan People’s United Front of all nationalities,” in order to “realize a Malayan Democratic Republic.”

In 1940 Chin Peng joined the party and was placed in charge of the local underground newspaper Humanity News. While the party was local, its concerns as reflected in this journal were indeed international and the Fascism of both Europe and Asia were key aspects of concern. The subsequent key role of the CPM, through the Malayan People’s Anti-Japanese Army, in opposing the Japanese in Malaya post-December 1941 and in assisting the British special forces in Malaya throughout WWII is well-known and needs no rehearsing here. Following the Japanese surrender in 1945, while being awarded an OBE by the British for wartime assistance, Chin Peng was also promoted to the CPM’s Central Military Committee and was tasked with implementing a policy of “open democratic struggle” involving “the unity of the three races” in pursuit of self-rule in Malaya.

In some ways, this is what the British were also intending with the implementation of the Malayan Union in 1946, which sought to create a peninsular Malayan polity rather than a Malay-dominated state. This provided for equal citizenship for all races of the peninsula and reduction of the powers of the feudal rulers. However, through subsequent opposition from the new-created UMNO, paternalism within the Colonial Office and growing British Cold War fears, between 1947 and 1948 the Malayan Union was completely reversed and replaced by the Federation of Malaya – an arrangement deliberated upon only with the sultans and UMNO — which provided for a special place for the Malays in the new state and a revived role for the sultans. As this new framework for Malay ethnocracy was being drawn up, Chin Peng assumed leadership of the CPM in 1947 following the flight of the British agent Lai Tek. It was quickly recognised that the new political arrangements being instituted by the British essentially precluded any possibility of the CPM gaining power through constitutional means.

Whether it was mainly this which led to the CPM under Chin Peng planning and launching a rebellion (aka revolutionary war) in mid-1948 is unclear, but the degree to which British failure to include Chinese and Indian aspirations in the 1948 Constitutional arrangements precipitated the rebellion or encouraged the assistance it was to receive from the Chinese and Indian communities and the Left from all communities remains a key issue for further research.

Over the 12 years of the Emergency (1948-60), Chin Peng led a revolutionary war against the British and then against independent Malaya. By 1951, it was clear that the CPM could not win a shooting war, and the Central Committee, including Chin Peng, moved from Pahang to southern Thailand. In 1955, as plans for Malayan independence were progressing, the Tunku made a public offer of amnesty to the CPM, which was met by a counter-offer from the party for talks. The subsequent talks in Baling between the Malayan authorities and the CPM, represented by Chin Peng, broke down primarily because the Tunku reneged on a previous undertaking that through surrender CPM members would be able to “enjoy a status that would enable them to fight for independence by constitutional means.” The failure of the talks and the recognition that there was little future in armed struggle saw Chin Peng push in 1957 for further political and ideological work among students across the peninsula, while most of the CPM guerilla fighters regrouped with him at Sadao in southern Thailand.

The CPM had long been aided at least ideologically by the Communist Party of China (CPC) and in 1960 Secretary-General Chin Peng travelled overland to China, meeting Ho Chi Minh in Hanoi en route. Beijing was already funding other armed revolutions in Southeast Asia and Deng Xiaoping urged Chin Peng to revive armed struggle in Malaya. Somewhat later, efforts were expended on opposing the “Malaysia plan” which the British had implemented to create the new country of Malaysia which would serve as an anti-communist bulwark in Southeast Asia.

While the second revolutionary war raged in Malaysia, from 1969 Chin Peng created and oversaw the Suara Revolusi Malaya (Voice of the Malayan Revolution), a radio station which broadcast from Hunan in China to Southeast Asia in Mandarin, Malay, Tamil and English. The broadcasts began in the year that riots in Malaysia following the federal election were used as a pretext to invoke martial law and install a National Operations Council, led by Tun Abdul Razak, which further entrenched racially discriminatory systems and practices. In response, the CPM broadcasts urged “people of all nationalities” to unite to overthrow the “semi-feudal Razak clique,” and highlighted the chauvinism and “racial suppression” by the Malaysian government, noting that “The CPM puts forward a programme for a new democratic revolution to ensure racial equality in all respects, oppose racial discrimination and strengthen national unity.” This claim, that the UMNO-led Malaysian government was intrinsically racist and therefore socially unjust continued to be a key claim of the CPM and validated their continued opposition to the Malaysian state. It also earned them considerable support among those who were the losers under the ethnocracy practiced by the UMNO party-state.

However, in 1981, with PRC support for Southeast Asian communist movements being withdrawn, Deng Xiaoping instructed Chin Peng to close down the CPM radio station. Within the following decade, a succession of talks between the CPM, and the Thai and Malaysian governments explored avenues for the cessation of all CPM functions. During these talks, conditions for the ceasefire set by Chin Peng included the right to form a political party to contest in federal elections in Malaysia, that the Internal Security Act be repealed, that the CPM’s struggle be recognised as a factor in Malayan independence, and that those CPM members desiring to return to Malaysia be allowed to do so. Only the last of these demands was eventually acceded to.

The peace documents were signed in Haadyai, Southern Thailand on 2 December 1989, and while Chin Peng pledged allegiance to the Malaysian ruler, both he and Abdullah Che Dat (Abdullah CD) urged Malaysians to unite in the cause of social justice. Most veterans of the Malay 10th regiment of the CPM were accepted back into Malaysia, as were Abdullah CD (CPM Chairman) and Rashid Maidin (CPM Central Committee member). However, new conditions involving statements of confession and surrender instituted by Malaysia obstructed the return on many of the Chinese fighters, including Chin Peng. Despite repeated requests, support from the International Association of Democratic Lawyers, and a court challenge seeking permission to return, the Malaysian government kept Chin Peng out of the country until his death.

It is likely that this enforced exile gave Chin Peng even more cachet among some people as both a victim and–whether earned or not — as a fighter for both ethnic and social justice in Malaysia. In the period after the signing of the peace accord, Chin Peng certainly did set about trying to create his own history, researching in the British archives, participating in academic seminars on CPM history in Canberra and Singapore, and writing his autobiography “My Side of History.” A film about Chin Peng, “The Last Communist” (2006) by Amir Muhammad, is banned in Malaysia, while a plethora of publications by former CPM guerillas and underground operatives now bring attention to their authors and, albeit not always positively, to the leader of the party. Within these works, in usual Communist parlance, “the struggle” is depicted as an almost sacred duty, with those who died during the Emergency or subsequently being referred to as “martyrs” and “heroes.” There have also been a not insignificant number of statements by members of the Left in and beyond Malaysia claiming that the CPM forces were the real freedom fighters and assessments that Malayan independence in 1957 was brought about by the CPM.

Chin Peng’s death has brought together a range of opponents of UMNO and its policies, historical and contemporary. The voices of the Old Left, the New Left and the ordinary citizens who feel that they have been excluded from Malaysian society by ethnocratic policies and practices or by UMNO corruption and decadence have found common cause. Even the reputation of the CPM is being publicly rehabilitated by some. P. Ramasamy, deputy chief minister of Penang, has publicly proclaimed that: “Political, social and economic developments in post-war Malaysia would make no sense without any reference to the CPM. The formation of trade unions amongst urban and plantation workers was largely initiated by the CPM. The fight against plantation capital for the improvement of the lives of Tamil workforce was directly inspired by trade unions that came under the influence of the CPM.”

Malaysia’s Sedition Act provides that actions which “question any matter, right, status, position, privilege, sovereignty or prerogative established or protected by the provisions of part III of the Federal constitution or Article 152, 153 or 181 of the Federal Constitution” are seditious. Open interrogation of ethnic provisions and privilege in Malaysia is thus precluded. But indicating common cause or sympathy with a person who led a party whose rhetoric stressed the equality of all Malaysians and the unmet need for social justice allows the same sentiments to be expressed legally. This reveals why there is so much intensity, anger and angst on the two sides of the Chin Peng assessment debate. It is, in effect, a proxy debate on the future of Malaysia.

The excesses, violence, purges, and ideological straightjackets of the Communist Party of Malaysia do not necessarily endear it or its members to the New Left. But Chin Peng, perhaps more in death than in life, is being lauded and remembered not as Secretary General of the Communist Party of Malaysia, but as a symbol of opposition both to UMNO privilege and corruption and to the ethnocratic practices which continue to destroy the social fabric of Malaysia. And it is precisely on this basis that UMNO’s vitriolic opposition to Chin Peng, to the repatriation of his ashes, to memorials to him and to a positive historical assessment of the man is such an essential task in validating UMNO privilege and Perkasa’s raison d’etre.

The Left in Malaysia need symbols around which they can unite and Chin Peng has, through his death, provided such a symbol for this moment.

Geoff Wade researches historical and contemporary Asian Interactions. He developed the China-ASEAN and China-India Projects at the Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong and subseqently worked with the Southeast Asia-China Cluster of the Asia Research Institute, NUS before helping to establish the Nalanda-Sriwijaya Centre of ISEAS, Singapore. He is now Canberra-based.