Death of a communist leader

I wrote in April that my neighbour’s husband ‘disappeared’ in the wood one day:

My neighbour’s husband ‘disappeared’ in the wood one day, in the 70s, as he was suspected of supplying food to the communists. He simply vanished from the wood for at least a decade. I remembered watching his wife shriek and thump her fists on her chest and this family had about 10 children to feed.

From “Walking in the wood – Part 1” on Janet’s Notebook

The man’s disappearance caused a stir in our little village. He vanished at a time when communism was still a taboo in Malaysia. Today I heard that Malaysia communist guerrilla Chin Peng 陈平 died in exile in Bangkok, aged 88. Chin Peng represented an era of conflicts of ideas, brutal guerilla wars, and peace in Malaya (later Malaysia), and the news of his death suddenly transported me back to the very scene when I saw my neighbour’s world collapsed.

Who was Chin Peng?

Chin Peng 陈平 was a legendary figure born on 22nd October 1924 in Sitiawan in the Perak state of Malaya. He joined The Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) in 1940 as an ardent and idealistic 16 year-old. He first fought alongside the British against the Japanese invasion, but later became the number one enemy of the British empire.

The headline on the front page of The Straits Times newspaper of 1 May 1952 stated: “NOW IT’S $250,000 FOR PUBLIC ENEMY No. 1—if brought in alive”. The person referred to (and pictured) was Chin Peng.

The headline on page 1 of The Straits Times newspaper of 1 May 1952 stating: "NOW IT'S $250,000 FOR PUBLIC ENEMY No. 1—if brought in alive". The person referred to (and pictured) was Chin Peng, a long-time leader of the Malayan Communist Party who led a guerrilla insurgency during the Malayan Emergency and

Chin Peng: Enemy Number 1 (1 May 1952). Image via Wikipedia

From fighting Japanese to fighting British

The Communist Party of Malaya was founded in 1930 and laid down its arms in 1989, 3 weeks after the fall of Berlin Wall. The Communist Party signed a Bangkok-brokered peace deal with the Malaysian government on Dec 2, 1989 in Hat Yai city in Thailand.

The Communist Party of Malaya played a significant role in Malayan Emergency. It was a guerrilla war from 1948 to 1960 between Commonwealth armed forces and the Malayan National Liberation Army, the military arm of the Communist Party of Malaya.

Chin Peng was decorated with the Burma Star and The Order of the British Empire for his resistance activities during the Japanese occupation of Malaya from 1941 to 1945. However, his wartime OBE award was rescinded, as this patriotic young man turned colonial villain and fought the bloodiest war with the British.

"Unable to return home": Chin Peng lost his last batter to return to Malaysia.

“Unable to return home”: Chin Peng lost his last battle to return to Malaysia.

Fallen leaves dream of returning to their roots

In a rare interview with Sin Chew Daily in Malaysia, Chin Peng revealed his wish to return to Malaysia to kneel at his mother’s grave. He also wished his ashes to be placed next to his parents’. However, Chin Peng lost his legal battle since his application in 2004 to be allowed back into Malaysia, and even in death, his remains are barred from Malaysia.

In his handwriting, Chin Peng wrote these Chinese characters in 2009: “I am a Malaysian. I want fallen leavens to return to their roots.”

Chin Peng: "I'm a Malaysian; I want fallen leavens to return to their roots."

Chin Peng: “I’m a Malaysian. I want fallen leavens to return to their roots.” (Source: Sin Chew Daily, Malaysia)

The purpose of my post today is not about sharing the bloody war itself. I’m going to share with you what I sensed about communism as a small child.

As a child growing up in the 70s, communism was a taboo. I loved my neighbours. This family next to us had about 10 children, so I played with the younger kids close to my age. We played badminton in our little front yard across the barbed wire fence. The shuttlecocks often flew to the rafters, and we had to stand on a chair to try to rescue them with a bamboo stick.

My playmates’ parents came from the Mei County in Guangdong of China, and they spoke the Chinese Hakka language. One day, my friends’ father did not come home after work. After a few days of searching, there was a rumour that my friends’ father, the soft-speaking kind man, was arrested due to supporting the communists ‘in the woods.’ Detectives came to search their house a few times and I remembered the mess of their house afterwards. I peeped through the barbed wire fence. The wife was distraught. The children lost their father overnight.

However, no one actually knew about the details. There was a rumour that the man was very sympathetic, and he might have supplied some food to the communists out of innocence. In those days, a tiny link with communism as such could cost you freedom.

Soldiers of the British Army dismount from a lorry and head into the jungle as the patrol is ambuished by Communist terrorists.

Soldiers of the British Army dismount from a lorry and head into the jungle as the patrol is ambuished by Communist terrorists. © IWM (CT 44)

At about the same time, one of my cousins living next to us also disappeared. A handsome, diligent, and bespectacled young man, he had just finished the high school from our local Chinese school. The adults in my family asked me not to ask question about his disappearance, and never ever ask his parents about his whereabouts. My parents told me that everybody pretended that the young man had gone abroad to study, but in the village, the rumour was that the young man was locked away in a remote island due to his communist activities, or his ideology.

What were the communists like?

I later read some interesting details about supplying food to the communists in the bandit-infested jungle. In her captivating post, The Nuts and Bolts of Writing, writer Valerie Davies wrote how she was educated at boarding school in Cameron Highlands in Malaya, surrounded by the aborigine and the communist bandits. She described beautifully how she travelled by ‘coffins’, and it took her two days to school, with a complicated plane journey involving Bangkok and Kuala Lumpur. Valerie Davies described vividly the missing food in her school kitchen:

“We never knew the date of the beginning or end of term until the day before, so the bandits couldn’t ambush us. We children didn’t worry terribly. We might have felt differently had we realised that our school food was so awful because the cooks were giving our rations to the bandits surrounding us in the jungle. I learned this from the headmaster some years after I’d left school, by which time they’d uncovered the problem. Every night the school was patrolled by armed guards, but somehow I never really believed the bandits could be so close.”

From The nuts and bolts of writing by Valerie Davies

Members of the Malay Regiment inspect equipment, supplies and documents captured in a raid on a communist terrorist jungle camp.

Members of the Malay Regiment inspect equipment, supplies and documents captured in a raid on a communist terrorist jungle camp. © IWM (DM 138)

I was about 8 years old. My playmates’ father and my cousin disappeared, and I was not to ask question. I knew I must abide by the strict rule of silence as it was the command for our own protection. I was shrouded in fear. I knew that something was wrong but could never speak out. Even though I did not understand anything about communism, I respected that it was a taboo.

After a decade or so, my playmates’ father and my cousin were both released. How and why were they released? Were they made to confess and repent? And, under what conditions were they released? No one knew. My neighbours’ father only just passed away early this year, bringing this secret to the grave. He had a simple and fulfilled life after his release, running a small food stall with the help of his children. My family attended his funeral in Malaysia.

The Chin Peng series was inspired by Blog Exercises: What story should I share? by Lorelle VanFossen. You can find more Blog Exercises on . This is a year-long challenge to help you flex your blogging muscles.

My Related Posts: 

34 thoughts on “Death of a communist leader

  1. Lorelle VanFossen

    I heard the news today on the radio and thought of you. Thought about asking you about him, and I check your site and find that you beat me to the punch. Thank you for sharing your perspective on Communism as a child. What a powerful story.

    We think about these things but until we hear the story from someone who lived through it, thinking doesn’t compare. Thank you for opening up your world to us again.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Chin Peng’s death was so topical that I felt I had to do my best to write something. Like any mythical or folklore legends, his name encapsulated a myth over so many decades so huge that I wish I had known more about.

      The wonderful thing about your exercises is thing I could ponder on them over time, and when the right time or opportunity arises, I can take part. Good exercises are timeless. Thank you for your inspiration.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Valerie,

      Thank you for the link. I’ve just read your wonderful story and it was so relevant to this post. I’ll write another post to elaborate on the topic. Thank you for your stories and I know you’ve got more to share about Malaya during the specific period. I really can’t wait! Thanks.

  2. ShimonZ

    It is heartbreaking to think of all the lives that were lost, and the people who suffered all their lives because of ideological conflicts. In most cases, those who joined the communist movements were motivated by the most noble of human desires; wanting to right wrongs, and help the poor, and enable freedom. But unfortunately, the communists themselves, with all their good intentions, brought no less suffering than the forces they were fighting. It is only in retrospect that we can see the terrible waves of sorrow. If only we could learn something from their history.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Shimon,

      You are so right – so many lives were lost and many families were shattered. People were living amongst rumours, fear and speculation. I totally agreed with you that many communists joined the communist movements with noble ideas and a dream that was so romantic. With many failures, the Malayan communists had certainly helped Malaysia’s liberation from the British rule.

      Thank you — if only we could learn from the history.

  3. Hari Qhuang

    This is a very interesting topic for me. Communism wasn’t something we discuss openly in this country (Indonesia). It was especially sensitive when a Chinese descent person did it. There was a general association of Chinese descent people with communism. It was so bad that for 32 years we were not allowed to learn Chinese or display Chinese characters in public places. People literally went to jail if they were seen holding a tabloid or newspapers printed in Chinese. They would be labelled as a spawn of Communism or Chinese Spy.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Hari,

      Thank you for your visit. I understand your feeling about the fear of communism in our region — the name communism had caused terror and fear and it was ‘wise’ to stay clear, as the elderly would advise us. You would have heard a lot of stories of how people suffered due to mistrust and betrayal over the ideological conflicts.

      I thought Indonesia is more relaxed with the teaching of Chinese now? I had some Indonesian (Chinese origin) classmates in Taiwan 2 decades ago, and they learnt Chinese very hard, as the could only write their name, and nothing else in Chinese, and the teachers gave them extra tuition to help them access the Chinese curriculum. That was the first time I realised that I was so privileged to learn Chinese, as my Indonesian classmates of the same age were not allowed to learn Chinese. It is sad that the people in our region paid such a great price in the conflicts in our region.

      Thank you for your comments and though you don’t know a lot about the Chinese language, your blog is full of Chinese culture information, including lovely Chinese food!

      1. Hari Qhuang

        I did take some Mandarin lessons. We had to enter the teacher’s house from the backdoor, quietly and carefully. Chinese language became “legal” in Indonesia circa 1999.

        My Mandarin is very poor. I did not learn the simplified characters, which is why all the Chinese terms in my blog is in traditional forms. My speaking is also very bad because I speak Cantonese and Hokkian at home. 😀

        I really admire Indonesian Chinese folks who managed to learn Chinese Language before 1999. I did not know how they did it. Most of them had never got caught! 😀

      2. Janet Williams Post author

        Hi Hari,

        The experiences you mentioned above are worth mentioning in your blog. Please tell us something more about them. I interviewed some Indonesian Chinese in 1994 in their little grocery stores when visiting Indonesia. Some of them told me how they coped, and how they used to secretly learn Chinese.

        I believed the textbooks used to be coming from Taiwan, as the Kuomintang government was very active in our region. We all went to Taiwan to study due to this post-war, anti-communism link. I’m wondering if the people in Indonesia are still learning the Traditional script these days? Or have they switched to the Simplified script now that China is more open?

        It’s great to be able to speak Hokkien and Cantonese. These are beautiful languages to learn. Hokkien is actually my mother tongue.

        For learning Mandarin Chinese, I have some wonderful resources to share with you:

        L197 – Beginners’ Chinese – Open University Course
        For taster materials: Beginners’ Chinese (L197) Example Material – The Open University
        For iTunes U free tracks: Beginners’ Chinese – Audio – Download free content from The Open University on iTunes
        For Chinese Character App : Chinese Characters First Steps. For iPhone, iPad and iPod touch on the iTunes App Store

        Thanks again for your comment, and I’ve now got to know your country a bit more.

      3. Hari Qhuang

        Mandarin is now a mandatory subject in some private schools in Indonesia. As far as I know, simplified characters are used in those classes, which is why I cannot help my cousin much. I did not even recognize the character for “horse” L-O-L!
        I would love to write more about the experiences of being a Chinese and learning Chinese language pre-1999. The topic is still a bit sensitive, so I will have to think about how I am going to bring up the subject and in what context it is going to be written. Besides, I have decided when I started to blog that my posts will be something described as “very light reading” so… I will think about it. 😀

      4. Janet Williams Post author

        Thank you for this information, Hari.

        My mother knows that I love writing, and she often tells me to be careful about not to write about sensitive topics. People growing up in a complex environment are cautious. I am fascinated by your world, when learning your own ‘mother tongue’ was not a natural right. And, how and why the door is now opened to the younger generation?

      5. Hari Qhuang

        After the great riot in 1998, the country was reformed in many ways, but mostly in political ways. The president of that time, Mr. Abdurahman Wahid – famously known as Gus Dur, The Blind President – said that all Indonesian people should have equal rights.
        He lets us speak Chinese publicly. We also can celebrate Chinese New Year and practice the Lion Dance openly.
        He was such a great man. He saw the beauty of diversity and he urged all Indonesians to embrace their ancestral culture. He said that it would not make us less Indonesian for doing it. He also eliminated the Native/ Non-native section in our ID cards. May He rests in peace.

  4. chennicole2013

    Personal stories give us a glimpse of history through a crack in the wall, making what we learn all the more memorable and true. I won’t soon forget the picture in my mind of you playing badminton across the barbed-wire fence and then learning that your neighbors’ father had disappeared.

    When we lived in the Philippines, there was always a group of Communist rebels somewhere out of sight. One day coming back from a trip to northern Luzon our car broke down. We waited in the car while my husband walked for help. He took a shortcut through a field and was stopped by some Communist soldiers. since he had the “gift of gab” and an extra pack of cigarettes, he was able to make friends with them and even get some help.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Dear Nicki,

      What a wonderful tale from the Philippines! Thank you. An extra pack of cigarettes was so essential. In Malaya, food was rationed during the Emergency, so to reduce the chance of people supplying the communists in the jungle.

  5. janetweightreed10

    Good morning Janet,

    I also heard this new on the BBC….and although I found it interesting….now after reading your blog the story is so much more meaningful.

    When you think of the ideological passions and the sorrows that ensued all those years ago… part of history, we are reminded of the constant human battle to try and ‘get what we think is right’ – no matter what our culture or religion…….and usually at such a cost.

    Once again thank you for a fascinating read. Janet.

    1. Janet Williams Post author

      Hi Janet,

      Your comment has summarised our modern history so well.

      The British was successful in winning the communist uprising in Malaya, but at a great human cost. When I think of the lost years of the nice old man next door, I felt sorrow for him and his family. Thank you for sharing your thought and you have helped me explore this issue further. I’ve just done a new post about The New Village based on the same thread.

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