|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
End of Empire: Memoirs of a Malaysian communist guerrilla leader
My Side of History
By Chin Peng
Published by Media Masters, 2003, £16-99
CHIN PENG was the leader of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM) which played an important role in two guerrilla struggles: in the second world war, and in the post-war twelve-year ‘emergency’, in reality, a war against British colonial rule in Malaya (now Malaysia). He is clearly a striking character with an extraordinary story of self-sacrifice to tell. Between 4-5,000 CPM fighters lost their lives in the guerrilla struggle against British imperialism, while 200 party members were hanged.
British imperialism in Malaya had, before the Japanese invasion in 1941, pursued a policy of jailing or banishing to their ‘homeland’ suspected communists. Notwithstanding this, following Britain’s capitulation in 1941, 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 their distrust of the social and class base of the party – but insufficient numbers of Chinese who leant towards Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuo Min-Tang (KMT) materialised.
Initially, the CPM drew most of its support from the ethnic Chinese. Although it later involved sections of the Malay and Indian populations, this was the Achilles heel of the CPM, which was to prove fatal in the struggle against the British. Chin Peng makes a significant remark in view of the essentially rural guerrilla struggle that was to be pursued later on: "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". Membership of the party in the early 1940s was just over 3,000.
At the same time as having a firm industrial base, the party had begun to dig roots amongst the peasant population. This became useful once the CPM’s offer to the British to help in the 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 January 1942.
Circumstances during the war compelled the CPM to organise what was essentially a rural guerrilla struggle because industrial activity had collapsed. The CPM set up jungle bases from which to harass the Japanese. While it was developing its rural base, it did not neglect the working class: "In Sitiawan we had 40 to 50 members. Among the Kinta Valley mining workers we were soon boasting more than 500 members". At this stage, Chin Peng, 19 years old, was appointed acting chief of the CPM in the Perak region. In one area, resistance troops operated from a leper colony. The Japanese feared going near the settlement and police gave the area a wide berth.
The collaboration of the CPM-led Malayan national resistance forces with the British worked successfully, but it was always an arm’s length collaboration. Anticipating future conflict with the British, a CPM underground army stashed 5,000 weapons in jungle caches, many 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 its then leader Lai Te, was watered down: from a ‘democratic republic’ of Malaya, which would involve independence from the British, to ‘self governance’. 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 20th century that in ‘backward countries’, the struggle to carry through completely the bourgeois-democratic revolution is only possible by linking this to changing society, eliminating both landlordism and capitalism. Chin Peng seems to recognise this belatedly. He states that the CPM’s main demand was for a "democratic government through elections from an electorate drawn from all the races". But: "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 was against 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 re-occupation by 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 rural masses to take power and carry through a social revolution. 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 could have split the 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. The CPM would have had to put itself 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.
Such a movement had every chance of success. The British had not arrived and were stretched militarily. The whole of Asia was in ferment. Tragically, the course followed by the CPM led to a defeat. The British bided their time and prepared for a showdown, profiting from the mistakes the CPM made.
The weakness of its democratic structures – a hallmark of Stalinist parties – is underlined by Chin Peng. Contrary to popular understanding fostered by British imperialism, the CPM was not in the pay of the Russian or Chinese ‘communists’ at this stage. 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.
Some Japanese military commanders put out feelers to the CPM to form 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". Nonetheless, 400 individual Japanese joined the guerrillas. This could have become the starting point for agitation amongst the Japanese forces throughout Asia by a conscious, particularly working-class, force. Instead, on Lai Te’s orders, most of the Japanese who had joined the guerrillas were executed.
The CPM was drawn in to defend villages from attacks by Malays, resulting in substantial deaths of Malays, not disguised by Chin Peng. These events played into the hands of the British, who fomented divisions between the different ethnic groups.
British imperialism was able to begin to reconsolidate its rule with the establishment of a ‘temporary government’, the British Military Administration (BMA). Seeking to appease the CPM, some of its representatives were drawn onto the BMA, a reward for not conducting a struggle against British re-occupation. The guerrillas’ intention was to demobilise, handing over 4,000 weapons while secretly burying more in jungle caches for future use.
British occupation brought economic blunders. The Japanese occupation currency was declared valueless, reducing the vast majority of the labouring population to paupers. Food supplies dwindled and prices soared. 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 people’s committees". At the same time, clubs, unions and organisations for workers, 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. These strikes were for increased pay but also against handling ships carrying arms for Dutch troops who were then fighting nationalist forces in the 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 – with a ‘Labour’ government under prime minister Clement Attlee – met this with force, shooting down demonstrators.
In the midst of all of this, Chin Peng was given the Burma Star and, a little later, the Order of the British Empire (OBE). But the attempt to placate the leaders of the CPM failed. It was not long after that this holder of the OBE was confronting the forces of the British empire.
The prelude to the guerrilla action was the economic and social turmoil which followed British re-occupation. At the same time, prompted by Lai Te and the British, a new policy line was proposed for the CPM: setting up the ‘Malayan Democratic United Front’, a "broad alliance with other political parties". It dovetailed with steps taken by the CPM to set up the Malay Nationalist Party (MNP) and the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU). These steps, together with the beginning of the formation of what later became the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO – an amalgamation of 41 Malay associations led by Datuk Onn bin Jaafar), laid the basis for the splits between different ethnic groups.
In 1946-47 and the first half of 1948, a massive strike wave erupted, causing extensive disruption to rubber plantations, tin mines and merchant shipping. Alarmed, the British urged the arrest of 5,000 suspected members of the CPM. On 20 October 1947, a massive hartal – a countrywide general strike involving not just workers but also peasants and the middle classes – paralysed Singapore and Malaya. According to CPM politburo member, Ah Dian, the party controlled the plantation workforce, mines, wharves, public transport and all essential services.
Given this social base amongst the working class, why did the CPM later resort essentially to a rural guerrilla struggle? One reason is that it did not seize the initiative at the end of the war to launch a revolutionary struggle for national and social liberation. But even in 1947, as these strikes indicate, a new opportunity was presented to the CPM to organise the struggle, based primarily on the working class but drawing in the rest of the population, to evict British imperialism. Moreover, this movement cut across social and ethnic divisions. Unfortunately, the CPM did not have the programme or perspectives to utilise this position, trapped as it was within the framework of Stalinist ideas.
The government introduced the Federation of Malaya on 4 February 1948, a blow to the CPM’s perspective of national independence. This set in train the decision of the CPM to engage in rural guerrilla warfare. To say the least, this was a questionable conclusion to draw from the experiences of the Malayan workers and peasants.
The CPM was clearly influenced by the success of Mao Zedong in the Chinese revolution. But while the struggle was heroic, a defeat ensued because the CPM lacked a clearly worked-out perspective. Chin Peng gives the statistics on the population of Malaya at the time: "5.8 million people, of whom 2.2m were Malays, another 2.6m were Chinese and a further 600,000 were Indians". Moreover, why engage in a guerrilla war, by its very nature focussed in rural areas, when such an important class base had been established in the cities and urban areas, as well as in the countryside? The guerrilla struggle of Mao Zedong was itself an echo of the defeat of the Chinese revolution of 1925-27, which was a product of the false policies of Joseph Stalin and the Russian bureaucracy.
The aim of the CPM was to establish not a socialist regime but – as in China, Vietnam and Eastern Europe – a ‘people’s democratic republic’ of Malaya. Chin Peng says: "In hindsight, I think we made another critical mistake here. What we should have done was to announce our aim of fighting for the broad concept of independence. This approach should have gone on to emphasise independence for all political persuasions and all races. Our battle cry should have been: Independence for Malaya and all Malayans who want independence".
Here is a tacit recognition that the CPM’s struggle was based mostly on the ethnic Chinese, although episodically it got some support from the other ethnic populations. But even this admission is deficient. A mere call for independence, within the confines of capitalism, would not have been sufficient to mobilise the ethnically divided masses. The only way to really unite the majority of all races is to appeal on a class basis by putting forward a concrete programme on economic, social and ethnic issues, linked to independence but in the context of a socialist Malaya and a socialist confederation of the region.
Some of the most interesting chapters deal with the methods of the British in successfully curtailing the guerrilla war. Lieutenant-General Harold Briggs was its rather reluctant director of operations. His plan involved the establishment of ‘new villages’ throughout Malaya. These were fenced, patrolled and fortified centres, illuminated at night and continually monitored by day. They complemented the policy of dividing the population along ethnic lines, and isolated them as a possible source of food for the guerrillas.
The author admits that attracting significant numbers of Malays to the guerrilla forces and, more importantly, support from the poorest sections, was crucial to the success of this struggle. He states: "In a six-month period from late 1949 to early 1950, we were able to attract more than 500 Malay recruits". Unfortunately, when they were attacked by KMT bandits organised by the British High Command, they melted away or were captured. Isolated, with dwindling food supplies, the guerrillas faced a brick wall: "The realisation that a military approach from late 1948 through to 1951 had been utterly inappropriate was a bitter pill to swallow".
Chin Peng deals with the repressive methods of the British at length. He reproduces the famous photograph that first appeared in the Daily Worker (the then paper of the British Communist Party) on 10 May 1952. It showed a British soldier holding the severed heads of two guerrillas. Truly, the barbaric al-Qa’ida inspired terrorist groups in Iraq had good teachers in the form of British imperialism in Malaya, Kenya and elsewhere in the past. But by 1953, almost five years since the guerrilla struggle to evict the British began, "it was very obvious we held no territory, no liberated zones". The guerrillas were forced northwards over the border to Siam, now Thailand.
The guerrilla movement was running into the sand but it had taken a heavy toll on British resources. Together with processes in the rest of Asia and Africa, the outright military domination of the ‘colonies’ was becoming unviable. Serious reforms are always a by-product of revolution. In a sense, even the failed guerrilla struggle in Malaya exerted big pressure on the British to loosen its grip on the peninsula.
UMNO had begun to emerge as a significant force, under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman, pressing for a kind of staged process of ‘independence’. Moreover, Tunku had indicated a "non-communal approach to politics", reversing the unrelenting Malay nationalist programme of UMNO of only two years before, consolidating a broad nationalist front involving the Malayan Indian Congress as well as other Malayan organisations. All of this compelled the CPM to undertake peace negotiations. The Baling talks, although initially unsuccessful, were a staging post along the road towards the winding-up of the guerrilla force. The CPM refused to accept proposals for its complete capitulation, insisting on recognition of its struggle and fighting for the possibility of political space within the new set-up. However, the British had concluded that the humiliation of the CPM was necessary, particularly in view of the ongoing battles unfolding in Indo-China, above all Vietnam.
Despite the weaknesses of the CPM, it struggled on until 1987 when successful ‘peace negotiations’ began in the Thai resort of Phuket. When all hostilities ceased, the total number of CPM members was 1,188: 694 were Thai-born and 494 claimed Malaysian origin. They were given temporary grants and promised integration into Malaysia. Chin Peng never returned officially to Malaysia but has continued his exile in Thailand up to the time of the publication of this book.
Despite his experiences and the bitter pill of ultimate defeat, Chin Peng restates his faith in the socialist future for Malaysia and the world. The tragedy of those like him and his followers was that they were trapped within a Stalinist framework. Their heroic struggle was doomed, partly because of the objective circumstances – which were not a simple replication of China or Vietnam – and partly through the mistakes, some honestly admitted, by Chin Peng and the CPM leadership.
My Side of History is full of lessons for those seeking the correct means of struggle against capitalism in Malaysia and worldwide. It is a cautionary tale about the limits of guerrilla war. Those with a keen eye will seek out the lessons of this important book, the role of the working class in the socialist revolution, the need for democracy in the parties that fight for such an idea, and the absolute necessity for workers’ democracy in the state that ushers from a revolution, in transition between capitalism and socialism. We can salute those who heroically fought against British imperialism. But the new generation, standing on their shoulders, must learn the lessons in preparing for the new socialist future.
The full text of this review, of which this is a substantially edited version, is available on:
CWI website: www.socialistworld.net
Parti Sosialis Malaysia (PSM) website: www.parti-sosialis.org
At the invitation of the PSM, Peter Taaffe recently spoke at a series of meetings in Malaysia.