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From Decorated Hero to Public Enemy No. 1

By Bertil Lintner

Memoirs of Malaysian communist leader an invaluable contribution to understanding how history shaped modern Southeast Asia.

My Side of History by Chin Peng, As told to Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor. Media Masters, Singapore, 2004, 527 pp. Baht1,195

In January 1946, 21-year-old Chin Peng was invited to Singapore to attend a special ceremony presided over by the supreme commander of Allied forces in Southeast Asia, Admiral Louis Mountbatten. World War Two was over, the Japanese army had been defeated, and Chin had been one of the most outstanding fighters in the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA). Working with British officers in the jungle, he and other members of the resistance had fought the Japanese and, eventually, forced them to surrender.

The British had booked Chin and seven of his comrades into lavish accommodation at the famed Raffles Hotel in Singapore. At the ceremony on January 6 they received medals from Mountbatten himself, who spoke of their contribution to the Allied victory. That night, a cocktail party was held in honour of the freedom fighters.

A few years later, Chin was proclaimed Public Enemy No.1 of the British Empire and an 80,000 Straits-dollar reward was placed on his head. Wanted posters with his portrait were put up all over the Malay Peninsula and thousands of troops were sent out to track him down. When the fight against the Japanese was over, the MPAJA, which, in effect, was the armed wing of the Communist Party of Malaya, the CPM, had turned its guns against the colonial power to continue what it perceived as an ongoing struggle for independence.

For the CPM, the alliance with the British had been of a tactical nature only; it wanted to rid the country of the Japanese invaders but that was not its final goal.

The CPM wished to establish an independent, communist people's republic in Malaya. As far as the British were concerned, the brave fighters of the MPAJA had only helped them expel the Japanese so that colonial rule could be re-established. The decorated heroes of the anti-Japanese resistance were branded "communist terrorists" and the campaign against them continued, at least officially, until a peace treaty between the CPM and the government of independent Malaysia was brokered by the Thai authorities in 1989.

Chin, however, was not allowed to return to his native town of Sitiawan on the west coast of the Malay Peninsula. He now lives in southern Thailand, and, at the age of 80, has retired from the struggle but says that "I suppose I am the last of the region's old revolutionary leaders."

And he has no regrets: "I fought a liberation war. To ask whether I would do it again is idle talk. I was a young man in an entirely different setting. You can tell me I was wrong. You can tell me I failed. But I can also tell you how it was and how I tried."

Chin is doing exactly that in his autobiography, and he does it brilliantly. Even many of his former enemies must consider this book an invaluable contribution to the understanding of how history shaped modern Southeast Asia.

My Side of History is actually a compilation of hours of tape recordings by Ian Ward, a former correspondent for London's Daily Telegraph who once covered "the Emergency", as the civil war in Malaya was called. Needless to say, Ward has no sympathies for the communist cause that Chin fought for, but, describes him as "a quiet, gentle man who has strong views and a real moral outlook on life".

The book begins with Chin's childhood in British Malaya. His father, a poor immigrant from a small fishing village in China's Fujian province, found work in a bicycle repair shop in Sitiawan. He was nearly bankrupted during the Depression in the 1930s, but managed to send Chin to a Methodist kindergarten as well as to a local Chinese school. As a teenager, Chin read the Marxist classics and was inspired by Mao Zedong's struggle for a socialist revolution in his ancestral homeland, China. In January 1940, before his 16th birthday, Chin became a probationary member of the CPM. His long life as a revolutionary had begun.

Following the Japanese invasion of Malaya in 1941, Chin and his comrades retreated into the hills and jungles of the peninsula, receiving extensive support from Britain's clandestine Special Operations Executive. One of the British officers who joined them, Major Frederick Spencer Chapman, later wrote a book about the campaign called The Jungle is Neutral in which he expressed his admiration for Chin and described his time with the MPAJA as the happiest in his life.

But they were destined to part ways as soon as the war was over. The British, Chin says, would not face up to the new realities following the Japanese defeat: "After the occupation they wanted to return to resurrect their glory days as though nothing had happened."

The MPAJA was ordered to lay down its arms and disband, but Chin and his comrades had other plans. They hid most of their weapons in the jungle, and, on June 16, 1948, three British planters were killed by CPM guerrillas at Sungei Siput, a small town in the middle of the Malay peninsula. The British saw it as a declaration of war, and declared an "Emergency" that lasted from 1948 to 1960. A total of 1,800 police and military were killed in what became the last of Britain's colonial wars.

By 1957, however, Malaya had become independent, and, in 1963, it merged with some other British possessions in the area to become Malaysia. But the new state, a constitutional monarchy with a British-style parliamentary system, was not what Chin was fighting for. His rag-tag guerrillas retreated into the remote jungles along the Thai border, where they remained until the 1989 peace treaty. Chin, meanwhile, had escaped to China in 1961. Malaysia never became a people's republic.

Chin acknowledges the British success is herding villagers into strategic hamlets, thus depriving the guerrillas of bases that could provide them with supplies as well as intelligence. He goes on to describe how betrayal and inner party struggles led to a series of vicious purges, which eventually crippled the CPM. He also sheds light on two events that until now have been shrouded in mystery: what prompted the attack on the plantation in Sungei Siput, and what actually happened to Lai Te, the first secretary-general of the CPM whom Chin ousted from the party and succeeded in 1947.

Lai, an ethnic Vietnamese, had arrived in Malaya in 1937, claiming he was sent by the Communist International, Comintern, to organise the CPM. He said he had visited Moscow and met Zhou Enlai in Shanghai.

All that turned out to be false. Lai was, in fact, sent by French intelligence in Saigon to help the British crush the CPM. Following the British retreat from Malaya, he became a spy for the Japanese enabling them to locate and attack several of the CPM's secret meetings. As a result, almost the entire CPM leadership was wiped out.

After the war, Lai reverted to being a British spy. Eventually, when the party found out about his activities, he fled with the CPM's entire war chest, nearly two million Straits dollars. He disappeared without a trace, and some historians speculated that he had gone into hiding in Burma.

Chin, however, reveals that the party sentenced Lai to death for his treachery. Chin set out after him, arriving in Bangkok in July 1947. With the help of the Thai communist party, whose secret headquarters was then located in a wooden building on Si Phraya Road, Chin found Lai but he then slipped through the net.

Chin discovered through his contacts in Hong Kong that Lai had gone into hiding in the British colony. Chin flew there, but Lai escaped again. Later, Chin learned that his Thai comrades had apprehended Lai in Bangkok and killed him. Lai's body was unceremoniously dumped into the Chao Phraya River.

The money Lai stole was never recovered, so Chin set out to collect some debts from a mine in the Malaysian state of Perak to finance the CPM's plans to establish a "liberated zone" in the jungle. By coincidence, Chin says, some of his guerrillas then killed the planters in Sungei Siput. It has always been assumed that the CPM launched the surprise attack in order to get the upper hand. Chin, however, says that it came as much of a surprise to him as to the British.

The attack was premature, and put the CPM on the wrong track from the very beginning. At the time, the authorities had managed to locate Chin at the mine in Perak, and he was in hiding in the maids' quarter there: "If I, as leader of the CPM, had sanctioned the Party's declaration of war against Britain on June 16, 1948, what was I doing, 24 hours later, stuck in an old woman's hut? A raid from which I had barely escaped had resulted in my passport being seized. I was alone, devoid of a security escort and in an area on which a state of emergency had been clamped."

According to Chin, a group of younger party members had been carried away by a statement from Lawrence Sharkey, the leader of the Australian Communist Party. On his way back from an international leftist meeting in Calcutta, Sharkey had stopped over in Singapore to meet Chin and other CPM leaders. Chin had asked Sharkey whether they should use violence against strike-breakers whom the British had brought in to undermine a CPM-led campaign in Malaya's plantations. Sharkey replied that, in Australia, they eliminated such people in "remote areas".

The CPM's guerrilla war was meant to be launched from the jungles of Perak and with the Chinese Yanan model in mind: a large, well-defended base area from where raids would be launched. That did not happen as some young firebrands, inspired by Sharkey, went ahead and murdered the three planters.

My Side of History contains other clarifications of events which, Chin says, have been wrongly interpreted by Western historians. Perhaps even more importantly in today's context, his book shows the blurred nature of the distinction between "freedom fighter" and "terrorist".

According to Chin, "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."

Chin is not bitter about the failure of his struggle, and it almost seems to amuse him that he was once considered the most dangerous man in the British Empire. And, at last, he has spoken out and given his side of the story in a highly readable account of a troubled time in the history of modern Southeast Asia.

This review first appeared in the Bangkok Post, July 10, 2004

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