Memoirs of Malaysian communist guerrilla leader holds many lessons for today
Peter Taaffe, cwi
This book is important from a number of points of view. The author was the leader of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), which he joined as a 15-year old schoolboy, and which played an important role in two guerrilla struggles - in the Second World War and in the post-war 12-year ‘Emergency’, in reality a war against British colonial rule in Malaya (now Malaysia). It therefore provides important insights into guerrilla war, in general, and in the struggle for national liberation in the colonial world. The book is also important because of the lessons of Malaya in the post-1945 struggle of imperialism, against what was then the colonial revolution in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
The seemingly successful defeat of the CPM guerrillas in Malaya in the 1950s has been invoked, in the past and to some extent today still, as a ‘model’ of how counter-terrorist measures in the neo-colonial world can succeed. But former British Defence Secretary Denis Healey - once deputy leader of the Labour Party - commented on this in relation to the Vietnam War in the 1960s: "In fact the analogy with the Malayan emergency was misguided. In Malaya the communists belonged almost wholly to the Chinese minority; they were easily identifiable… The Viet Cong, on the other hand, were drawn from Vietnamese in the [Mekong] Delta; they had a long history of struggle against foreign domination, in which the Communist Party had played a leading role since the Japanese occupation in 1944."
Chin Peng is also quite clearly a striking character with an extraordinary story of self-sacrifice to tell. He became the CPM’s leader at the ripe old age of 23. Between 4,000-5,000 CPM fighters lost their lives in the struggle against British imperialism, while some 200 members of the party were hanged by the British. A similar tale of repression has come to light recently in a very detailed account about the methods of ‘democratic’ British imperialism in the suppression of the Kikuyu uprising in Kenya. There, the British established huge concentration camps, employed torture and mutilation of Kenyans, and hanged more than 1,000 Kikuyu anti-colonial fighters.
World War Two
British imperialism in Malaya had, before the Japanese invasion in 1941, pursued a policy of jailing or banishing to China every suspected communist, ethnic Chinese "they could lay their hands on". A similar fate awaited those communists of Indian extraction who were summarily despatched to the ‘homeland’. Notwithstanding this, following Britain’s capitulation in 1941 - when the Japanese themselves, according to Chin Peng, were preparing to retreat - a war of national resistance was conducted with the CPM as its backbone. The British at first tried to find a counterweight to the CPM - because of the distrust of the social and class base of the party - but the attempt to find a sufficient number of Chinese who leant towards Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuo Min-Tang (KMT) failed to materialise. Once it was clear that the CPM was the only major force resisting Japanese occupation, the British threw in their lot, for the time being, with them.
The guerrillas initially were very weak but according to the author "could count on the particularly strong following the CPM enjoyed amongst Chinese villages throughout the coastal flatlands". This is a significant remark, indicating that, at this stage, the CPM drew most of its support from the ethnic Chinese. Although it was widened later to involve sections of the Malay and Indian population, this nevertheless indicates the Achilles heel of the CPM, which was to prove quite fatal in the struggle against the British - but more of that later.
Up to 1947, the leader of the CPM was an ethnic Vietnamese who, as Chin Peng comments, commanded "an essentially ethnic Chinese movement…Amazingly, it never became an issue in the day-to-day running of the party in those days."
This may have something to do with the fact that one of the central figures, as a Comintern [Stalinilst Communist International] representative, at the formation of the CPM in 1930, was Nguyen Ai Quoc, none other than Ho Chi Minh, who was destined to play a pivotal role in the Vietnamese revolution. However, Lai Te, the leader of the CPM from the late 1930s, was actually a ‘triple agent’; first of the British, then the Japanese during the Second World War, and then of the British, once more, in the aftermath of that war!
The author makes a significant remark in view of the essentially rural guerrilla struggle that was to be pursued later on, when referring to the early period of the CPM’s activity in the 1930s: "The party’s initial operations centred, naturally, on Singapore as there was a far greater concentration of union movements on the island than anywhere else on the Malayan peninsula."
The arrest and banishment of indigenous Malayans, albeit most of them were of Chinese origin, left a space for an immigrant from Vietnam, Lai Te, to emerge as a leader of the CPM in 1938. Membership of the CPM at this stage, the early 1940s, numbered just over 3,000.
At the same time as having a firm industrial base, the party had also begun to dig roots amongst the peasant population. This became useful once the offer of Lai Te to the British to help them in resistance against the Japanese occupation was taken up. The first detachments of the Malayan Peoples’ Anti-Japanese Army (MPAJA) were in action against the Japanese occupying forces from 1 January 1942. Within a few weeks of imposing military rule in Singapore, the Japanese had targeted the CPM leadership. A number of key figures were arrested, including Huang Chen, "the CPM’s top intellectual", who was eventually executed. This and other betrayals were quite clearly the work of the leader of the party itself, Lai Te, who quickly transferred his allegiances to the Japanese occupation force. This, however, was only discovered much later.
Circumstances during the war compelled the CPM to organise what was essentially a rural guerrilla struggle because industrial activity had collapsed throughout Malaya and Singapore due to the war and Japanese occupation. The CPM, therefore, set up jungle bases from which to harass and confront the Japanese, with incredible success, given the presence of a traitor in its ranks, moreover, one leading the party itself! This was not without cost to the CPM, as a number of its jungle bases were betrayed, obviously by Lai Te, to the Japanese, which led to the execution of many of its leaders. While the CPM developed its base amongst the rural population, at the same time, it did not neglect the working class: "In Sitiawan we had 40 to 50 members. Among the Kinta Valley mining workers we were soon baosting more than 500 members."
At this stage Chin Peng, already a ‘mature’ 19-year old, found himself appointed acting chief of the CPM in the Perak region of Malaya. In one area, the resistance troops operated from within a colony of a few hundred lepers. The Japanese feared going near the settlement and the police and troops happily gave the area a wide berth.
The collaboration of the Malayan national resistance forces, under the leadership of the CPM, with the British - from whom they received material support - worked successfully but it was always an arm’s length collaboration. In 1943, Lai Te suddenly began to sanction more military activity against the Japanese, obviously expecting them to be defeated by the British forces, which were massing for an attack on Malaya. At the same time, clearly expecting a future conflict with the British, the CPM had prepared an underground army which stashed away 5,000 weapons in jungle caches, many of them previously supplied by the British for the war against the Japanese.
But, rather than preparing for a serious struggle against the British, the programme outlined by the CPM, under the pressure of the traitor Lai Te, was one which mollified them. The CPM received arms and military training but, at the same time, it led the party to water down its programme, from a Democratic Republic of Malaya, which would involve independence from the British, to "self governance".
Imprisoned by ‘stages’ theory
Chin Peng and his comrades were imprisoned by the Stalinist theory of "stages"; first bourgeois democracy and independence and only later could the social issues, and particularly socialism, be posed. However, only by linking the struggle of Malayan workers and peasants for independence with the social issues - freedom, especially from imperialism, land, peace and bread - would the possibility of real national liberation be posed.
The Russian Revolution had demonstrated at the beginning of the twentieth century that in "backward countries" the struggle to carry through completely the bourgeois-democratic revolution is only possible by linking this to the changing of society, eliminating both landlordism and capitalism. Chin Peng seems to recognise this belatedly when he states that their main demand was for a "democratic government through elections from an electorate drawn from all the races". Chin Peng states: "I realised the programme amounted to nothing more than a vapid move to appease the incoming British… [It] made no mention of the goal of self-determination for the nation." Lai Te, the secretary-general, was against the militant struggle by the CPM. He preferred a "political posture" involving "co-operation with the British coupled with a concentrated effort on the organisation of labour and the infiltration of the unions". The latter point was correct tactically and was carried out to some extent. But it was not a question of posing either/or, military struggle or "the organisation of the working class". Both tactics should have been pursued in the struggle against the re-occupation of the British.
In fact, the possibility was there for a short period in 1945, following the capitulation of the Japanese and before the arrival of substantial British forces, for the CPM to mobilise the working class and the rural masses to take power and carry through a social revolution. However, to achieve this, the CPM would have had to cut across the ethnic divisions cultivated before the war by the British and carried on by the Japanese. It seems that the majority of the Malay population - particularly in the rural areas - tended to be conservative and swayed by the Malay princes and landlords. But the working class movement in the cities under the banner of the CPM - and including the setting up of democratic committees of action - could have split the Malay workers and peasants away from the Malay grandees. This would have involved a call for the peasants to take the land and drive out the landlords. In other words, the CPM would have had to put themselves at the head of an uprising of the working class in the cities, supplemented by a peasant uprising in the rural areas - uniting Chinese, Malays and Indians - on class lines, with the goal of an independent socialist Malaya, linked to similar struggles throughout the region.
Would such an uprising have succeeded? Of course, nothing is certain in a deep, revolutionary struggle but such a movement had every chance of success. The British had not arrived and were, in any case, stretched militarily. The whole of Asia was in ferment. One thing is certain: the course followed by the CPM, both then and later, led to a defeat. The British bided their time and prepared for a showdown with the CPM, profiting from the mistakes they made.
The weakness of the democratic structures of the CPM - a hallmark of those parties based upon Stalinism - is underlined by Chin Peng. The unquestioning acceptance of the authority of the leadership, facilitated betrayals like those carried out by Lai Te. Incredibly, the "liberation forces" of the CPM and the MPAJA were transformed by the British into a "three-star army", with Chin Peng appointed as a number two officer of what was in effect a force under the control of the British. Chin Peng comments: "Once again, nobody questioned the wisdom of our Secretary General’s views. He was the Comintern man and this aura had not left him despite the fact we knew the Comintern had been disbanded in 1943."
According to Chin Peng and contrary to popular understanding, fostered by British imperialism, the CPM was not in the pay at this stage of either the Russian or the Chinese ‘communists’. Its funds in the 1930s, during the battle against the Japanese and in the subsequent struggle against British imperialism were raised due to its own efforts and by its own resources. And yet, the "aura" of the Comintern and the methods of Stalinism compelled an unquestioning obedience, which in turn prepared the ground for betrayals and defeats.
One consequence of these developments was the feelers put out by some Japanese military commanders and troops to the CPM for a bloc of "Asians" against the colonial white invader. This was rejected by the CPM leaders despite the fact that the "revolutionary spirit within the party had never run so high. The greater majority of our guerrilla units had, for seven days, been preparing for continuing armed struggle that now would switch to target the returning colonial power." However, the stand of Lai Te and the CPM leadership could not prevent 400 individual Japanese joining the ranks of the guerrillas. This could have become the starting point for agitation amongst the Japanese forces throughout Asia, by a conscious, particularly working-class, force. Unfortunately, the CPM was still in the grip of Stalinist methods and approach. This led subsequently, through orders handed down by Lai Te, to the tragic execution of most of the Japanese who had joined the CPM’s guerrilla ranks.
Instead of this being the starting point for class solidarity across ethnic lines, the opposite took place. Even before this, the Japanese fomented clashes between Malay Muslims and local Chinese villagers. The CPM was drawn in to defend these villages from attacks by Malays, resulting in substantial deaths of Malays, not disguised by Chin Peng in his book. These events undoubtedly played into hands of the British, who subsequently fomented divisions between the different ethnic groups in Malaya. Chin Peng, however, stresses the attempts of the CPM to draw Malays into their ranks, which enjoyed some success even in the struggle against the Japanese, with the recruitment and training of some Malays.
However, because of the temporising of the CPM leadership, the British were able to begin to reconsolidate their rule with the establishment of a "temporary form of government" for the Malaya-Singapore region, to be known as the British Military Administration (BMA). Seeking to appease the CPM, some of its representatives were drawn onto the BMA, a just reward for not conducting a struggle against British re-occupation. The guerrillas’ intentions were to demobilise with 4,000 weapons handed over while more were secretly buried in jungle caches for future use.
British occupation, however, came together with economic blunders by the British administration. The Japanese occupation currency was declared valueless, which reduced the vast majority of the labouring population to paupers. Food supplies dwindled, prices soared, and the crime rate surged. An embittered population became increasingly hostile to the returning colonials and Malaya became a "cauldron of simmering discontent". The CPM, rather than using this to organise national resistance against the British, "moved to impose a moderating effect and respect for order by encouraging the formation of Peoples Committees". At the same time, clubs and unions and workers’ organisations, as well as those for women and young people, sprouted.
The actions of the British authorities provoked massive working-class opposition, with the first dock strike in Singapore, followed by wharf labourers coming out on strike. These strikes were for increased pay but also in protest against handling ships carrying arms for Dutch troops who were then fighting nationalist forces in the neighbouring Dutch East Indies (now Indonesia). The BMA used Japanese prisoners of war and certain British military units as strike breakers. This upsurge in working class opposition resulted in the formation of the Singapore General Labour Union (SGLU) with a claimed strength of 200,000 members.
Women paraded through the streets demanding rice and a government subsidy of $20 to rescue families from destitution. The British authorities met this with force, shooting down demonstrators. Chin Peng comments: "For British troops to be called out to fire on white unarmed demonstrators demanding better living conditions in, say, Yorkshire or Cornwall, would , of course, have been unthinkable." Of course, British troops had shot down Welsh miners in 1911, under the orders of Churchill, whose government pursued a similar policy on a wider scale against Malayan workers then. Now, it was the ‘Labour’ government of Prime Minister Clement Attlee that was carryout the repression in Malaya.
It was in 1946, probably through the pressure exerted by the traitor Lai Te, when mass executions of Japanese prisoners of war were carried out by the CPM. Chin Peng states: "I was stunned by the callousness of Lai Te’s orders." He points out that some of the Japanese "joined our guerrillas and became fighters once again, only this time not for the emperor but for world communism." Lai Te was later ‘eliminated’ by the CPM in collaboration with the Vietnamese Communist Party, but not before he had absconded with $1 million of the CPM’s funds.
In the midst of all of this, Chin Peng received British accolades and awards. First came the Burma Star, then the 1939/45 Star, and, a little later, he was awarded an even higher accolade. When he arrived at his mother-in-law’s house one day, he was informed, "‘You have been given a very high British honour. The King has granted you an OBE’… ‘The King has given me what?’ I blurted, believing my brother was surely joking. I had no idea what an OBE - Order of the British Empire - might be."
But the attempt to placate the leaders of the CPM failed, as this holder of the OBE was not long after confronting the forces of the British Empire that had bestowed this honour on him in the first place.