BANGKOK (AP) — Malaysia’s best-known former communist guerrilla, Chin Peng, who led a bloody insurgency against British rule in Malaysia in the late 1940s and early 50s, and lived in exile ever since, died in Bangkok Monday. He was 88.
Chin Peng, whose real name was Ong Boon Hua, died of cancer in a private hospital, according to his former lawyer in Malaysia, Darshan Singh Khaira, and officials in Thailand.
He was the last of a breed of Asian anti-colonialist figures that included Vietnam’s Ho Chi Minh, Indonesia’s Sukarno, Myanmar’s Aung San and Cambodia’s King Norodom Sihanouk, who died just last year. Chin Peng’s dubious distinction was that unlike others he didn’t win his war.
“I suppose I am the last of the region’s old revolutionary leaders,” Chin Peng, which was his nom de guerre, wrote in his 2003 memoir ‘My Side of History.’ “It was my choice to lead from the shadows, away from the limelight.”
Chin Peng also lost a legal struggle in recent years to be allowed back into Malaysia.
Government leaders insisted his return would upset many Malaysians who lost their loved ones during the communist insurgency, which he had continued after the country became independent of Britain in 1957.
The mistrust for Chin Peng remained to this day.
“Well done to the Malaysian people and government,” Mohamad Ezam Nor, a senator in the ruling United Malays National Organization, wrote on Twitter.
He wrote that “because of our firmness the traitor Chin Peng has not achieved his desire to return to his homeland until the end of his lifetime.”
Born in October 1924 — the date is not known — Chin Peng first gained public attention during World War II, when he and other guerrillas provided the bulk of resistance to the Japanese occupation after Allied troops were swept from the Malayan peninsula and Singapore. He was a courageous, behind-enemy-lines fighter, learning guerrilla tactics from his British then-comrades-at-arms in the jungles.
He also became a committed Communist.
The ethnic Chinese were an underprivileged class in British-ruled Malaya, and for a number of young people among them, communism represented social justice and a shortcut to power and status.
“Most of the British colonials who came after the surrender of Japan were not just opportunists and corrupt; they were downright disdainful of the people they were exploiting,” Chin Peng wrote.
In 1948 the Communist party decided to wage armed struggle, the opening volleys of which were fired June 16 when guerrillas walked into two rubber plantations in northern Malaya and executed three British planters.
“I make no apologies for seeking to replace such an odious system with a form of Marxist socialism. Colonial exploitation, irrespective of who were the masters, Japanese or British, was morally wrong,” he wrote. “If you saw how the returning British functioned the way I did, you would know why I chose arms.”
Leading a 10,000-strong force, Chin Peng faced some 70,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, Fijian, Gurkha and other British Commonwealth troops in the jungles between 1948 and 1957.
The war, known as the Emergency, took the lives of an estimated 10,000 fighters and civilians, and stamped out communism from Malaysia.
Chin Peng contended the British were at least as brutal. Tens of thousands of often innocent Chinese were uprooted as a result of the ultimately successful strategy to isolate the guerrillas from all sources of support.
Despite being publicly demonized, he earned a large measure of personal respect from some of his foes.
“If there is a Communist who can be called gentlemanly it was Chin Peng,” said C.C. Too, the onetime Malaysia psychological warfare chief in a 1976 interview.
Chin Peng continued to fight the Malaysian government even after independence in 1957. But with the dragnet closing in on his jungle hide-outs and his Marxist-Leninist campaign losing steam, he fled to China in 1960. From there, he went to southern Thailand to reunite with hundreds of fighters loyal to him.
He was never allowed to return even though he signed a peace treaty in 1989 and pledged loyalty to the Malaysian government. Malaysian authorities remained suspicious of his communist ideology.
Chin Peng launched a court battle in 2005 to force the government to allow him back into Malaysia. The country’s top court eventually ruled he could not return unless he first produces birth and citizen certificates, which his lawyers said were lost after being seized by British authorities in the 1940s.
“It is ironic that I should be without the country for which I was more than willing to die,” he wrote in his memoir.
Chin Peng’s family was in Bangkok where his funeral was to be held at a Buddhist temple. The family hopes to have his remains brought to a final resting place in his northern Malaysian hometown but it was not clear whether they would be able to obtain government approval, Darshan, his former lawyer in Malaysia, said.
Lim Kit Siang, a senior Malaysian opposition leader, wrote that Chin Peng’s death marked the “end of an era. Whether one agrees or not with his struggle, his place in history is assured.”