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.
Strikes, guerrilla struggle, and ethnic splits
The prelude to the guerrilla action was the turmoil, economic and social, which followed in the wake of the British re-occupation. “A string of workers’ strikes were called in 1946,” according to Chin Peng. “All, of course, were organised by the party.” But, at the same time, prompted by Lai Te, and no doubt by the British, a new policy line was proposed for the CPM. It was termed the “Malayan Democratic United Front”. This proposed a “broad alliance with other political parties” and dovetailed with steps taken by the CPM for the setting up of two political organisations: the Malay Nationalist Party (MNP) and the Malayan Democratic Union (MDU). It is clear that these steps together with the beginning of the formation of what later became the United Malay National Organisation (UMNO), led by Datuk Onn bin Jaafar, an amalgamation of 41 Malay associations, laid the basis for the split between the different ethnic groups, which the British were able to successfully exploit.
At the same time, in the immediate post-war period, particularly in 1946-47, and the first half of 1948, a massive strike wave erupted, involving 300 strikes across Malaya and Singapore. Nearly 700,000 man-days of strike action took place during this period, causing extensive disruption to rubber plantations, tin mines, and to merchant shipping traffic through the ports. Alarmed, the British, particularly the Special Branch in Malaya, urged the arrest of 5,000 suspected members of the CPM who were armed – with the support of 250,000 in the ‘Min Yuen’ CPM sympathisers’ organisation. On 20 October, 1947, a massive hartal – a countrywide general strike, involving not just workers but also peasants and the middle class in general, which was borrowed from the examples of India and Sri Lanka – was “monumentally successful”. It paralysed Singapore and Malaya. At this stage, the Communist Party controlled, according to Politburo member, Ah Dian, “in effect, the entire plantation workforce of the country… It is the same situation in the mines… It is the same situation in the wharves, in the public transportation companies and with all essential services.”
Given this social base amongst the working class, a question arises: why did the CPM later resort essentially to a rural guerrilla struggle? One reason is that they did not seize the initiative at the end of the war to organise to launch a revolutionary struggle for national and social liberation. But even later in 1947, as these strikes indicate, a new opportunity was presented to the CPM to launch a 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.
Despite this, 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 at this stage. In the book, there is a significant interchange between CPM leaders and a visiting Australian at the time, who was the General Secretary of the Australian Communist Party. This individual remarked how force had been used to eliminate strike breakers and this had a powerful effect on the CPM leaders. Unfortunately, this was a signal for the CPM to resort to the elimination of strike-breakers, to organise “economic sabotage” in the factories, etc. This played into the hands of the British.
The disappointment felt by the re-occupation of British imperialism, fed by the betrayals of CPM leader Lai Te, the increasing repression, as well as the increasing support for the CPM, led them to relaunch the armed struggle against the British. They were quite clearly influenced by the success of Mao Ze-Dong in the Chinese Revolution but their attempt to emulate this was to end in defeat. Their struggle was heroic, but nevertheless a defeat ensued because of the wrong perspectives taken, “pragmatically” and empirically, on the basis of events without a clearly worked-out perspective. Chin Peng gives the statistics on the population of Malaya, which he says consisted at that time of “5,800,000 people of whom 2,200,000 were Malays, another 2,600,000 were Chinese and a further 600,000 were Indians.”
Moreover, why engage in a guerrilla war, which by its very nature focussed in the countryside, 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 Ze-Dong in China was itself an echo of the defeat of the Chinese Revolution of 1925-27, which was a product of the false policies of Stalin and the Russian bureaucracy.
The author makes some significant comments about the ultimate goal of the CPM. On the one side, a military decision was taken to set up “liberated areas” in both the northern and southern regions of the Malayan peninsula. Moreover, they would follow “Mao’s blueprint for revolutionary warfare to the letter”. Their aim was to establish not a socialist regime but – as in China, Vietnam and, ultimately, in the Stalinist regimes of 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. 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 – dividing the ethnic populations on class lines – 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. This was clearly not done by the CPM. They conducted a heroic struggle, spelt out b Chin Peng in very simple and clear terms, but the result was a defeat.
Significantly, Chin Peng comments on the linking of the struggle of his party to events in China. He was to become a supporter of the Chinese in the later Sino-Soviet dispute – albeit in a restrained fashion – and participated in the Cultural Revolution, which he approaches in this book uncritically. In that sense, despite the honesty with which he deals with the process of the struggle, as well as the CPM’S and his mistakes, he nevertheless was ideologically imprisoned, and still is to some extent, in Stalinist perceptions, both politically and organisationally. Members of the CPM who travelled to China, either to seek refuge from British repression or in solidarity, were effectively restrained in China by the new Maoist regime.
Some of the most interesting chapters in ‘My Side of History’ deal with the methods of the British in successfully curtailing the guerrilla war in Malaya. Chin Peng, in particular, stresses the approach of Lieutenant-General Sir Harold Briggs, the rather reluctant director of operations for the British against the guerrillas. The ‘Briggs Plan’, as it was subsequently referred to, involved the establishment of ‘new villages’ throughout Malaya. These were fenced, patrolled and fortified centres, illuminated by night and continually monitored throughout the day. They succeeded in complementing the policy of dividing the population along ethnic lines, as well as isolating them as a possible source of food for Chin Peng’s guerrillas.
The author is honest enough to admit that the attraction of significant numbers of Malays to the guerrilla forces and, more important, significant support from the poorest sections of Malays, was crucial to the success of this struggle. He states: “As early as 1948, I had looked to creating a prominent Malay unit…Our drive proved highly successful. In a six-month period from late 1949 to early 1950, we were able to attract more than 500 Malay recruits.”
Unfortunately, when these recruits were attacked by KMT bandits, organised by the British High Command, they were so raw they fled the field of battle and, through demoralisation melted away or were captured. Chin Peng comments: “We didn’t lose a single Malay guerrilla. They just left.”
This speaks volumes about the difficulties of attracting the Malay population and, conversely, the success of the British in dividing the Chinese from both the Malays and the Indian population. 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 great length. There is the reproduction in this book of the famous photograph that first appeared in the ‘Daily Worker’, then journal 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, with their beheading of hostages, had good teachers in the form of British imperialism in Malaya, Kenya, and elsewhere in the past.
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. Chin Peng comments: “Having lived as long as I have, I am now able to enjoy what I can only describe as a levitated view of history. I was instrumental in playing out one side of the Emergency story. Access to declassified documents today gives me the ability to look back and down on the other side and see the broad picture. In the grim days of 1953, my comrades and I were struggling to hold our headquarters together. We plotted and manoeuvred to outfox security force ground patrols and outwit not only enemy jungle tactics but overall strategy as well. Sometimes we succeeded. Sometimes we failed.”
By 1953, the guerrilla movement was running into the sand but it had taken a heavy toll on British resources and, moreover, together with processes in the rest of Asia, and in Africa, was making unviable outright military domination of the ‘colonies’. Serious reforms are always a by-product of revolution. In a sense, even the failed guerrilla struggle in Malaya resulted in big pressure being exerted on the British to loosen its grip on the peninsula. The peace talks on Indo-China in 1954, the Bandung conference in Indonesia in 1955, as well as other developments, contributed to pressure from within Malaya for the British to make concessions. As Chin Peng comments: “Making matters more complicated for the CPM were growing indications that Malaya might soon be seriously considering general elections to usher in a form of semi-representational government through a Federal Council firmly under colonial control.” Significantly, he also states: “It was very clear neither Moscow nor Beijing saw value in an armed struggle dragging on in Malaya. A military victory for the CPM, it had been decided for us, was out of the question. This was by far the toughest of the tough realities we had had to confront since the outset of the Emergency.”
Moreover, UMNO had begun to emerge as a significant force, under the leadership of Tunku Abdul Rahman. The amalgamation of Malay parties saw the emergence of a significant political force which was pressing for a kind of staged process of ‘independence’. Moreover, Tunku had indicated a “non-communal approach to politics”. This was a reversal of the unrelenting Malay nationalist programme of UMNO, of only two years before. UMNO had, moreover, consolidated a broad nationalist front involving the Malayan Indian Congress and the Malayan Chinese Association (MCA). All of this compelled the CPM to undertake peace negotiations, which at that stage broke down. However, the Baling talks, although initially unsuccessful, was a staging post along the road towards the winding-up of the guerrilla force. But the CPM refused to accept the 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 at that stage that an unconditional surrender and the humiliation of the CPM was necessary, in view of the ongoing battle unfolding in Indo-China, particularly Vietnam, which was to result in 1975 in the outright defeat of US imperialism for the first time.
Lessons of struggle for today
The most disturbing part of the book is the account of the process of disintegration of the guerrillas in the camps, resulting in fratricidal internal struggle and the execution of ‘traitors’, some of who were subsequently found to be innocent. This is an indication of the lack of democracy within the CPM, just as the execution of MK guerrillas in exile in the camps of the South African ANC indicated a similar disease of Stalinism (the source of ongoing discontent with the South African Communist Party to this day). Chin Peng, in this respect, provides some very useful information, highlighting the authoritarian character of the Maoist regime in China. At one stage, this took the form of Deng Xiao-Ping demanding a complete about-turn by the CPM in 1961, when they were about to wind up their military struggle. Deng insisted that the military struggle should not only be maintained but stepped up. Military and financial resources were made available by China. This was largely motivated not by the interests of spreading revolution to the rest of Asia but to enhance the position of the Chinese in Asia and worldwide.
However, an about turn was affected by the same Deng in 1980, when it served the interests of the Chinese bureaucracy. Deng had “created a very friendly atmosphere” for Lee Kuan Yew, then Prime Minister of Singapore and its leading political figure, since independence from Malaysia, in a visit to Beijing. Chin Peng comments: “Unfortunately, during the Cultural Revolution, we in the CPM had joined in the general anti-Deng clamour. Pointedly, he hadn’t bothered to meet me since his return to power in 1978. I therefore felt, as we hadn’t spoken for 14 years, there must be a very sensitive matter he wished to discuss with me [when Chin Peng was summoned to Deng’s presence in 1980].” Deng immediately demanded the closure of the CPM’s radio station which broadcasted regularly from China to Malaysia. This was a quid pro quo for Asian countries such as Malaysia lobbying for recognition of the Khmer Rouge, then supported by the Chinese. Chin Peng asked Deng Xiao-Ping when he would like him to cease broadcasting from Hunan Province in China. Deng replied, “The sooner the better… Lee asked me to stop the broadcasts immediately.”
Despite the weaknesses of the CPM they struggled on until 1987 when successful ‘peace negotiations’ initially began, ironically, in the Thai resort island of Phuket, one of the scenes of devastation caused by the recent tsunami. Once more, complete surrender was demanded, which was again rejected by the CPM, but through negotiations an agreement was eventually arrived at. When all hostilities ceased, the total number of CPM members was 1,188; 694 were Thai-born and 494 claimed origins in peninsula Malaysia. They were given a temporary grant and promised integration into Malaysia. Chin Peng declared: “As Malaysian citizens we pledge our loyalty to His Majesty the Yang di-Pertuan Agong and the country. We shall disband our armed units and destroy all weapons to show our sincerity in terminating the armed struggle.” 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 he was trapped within a Stalinist framework. His and his comrades’ 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 and the CPM leadership. He states: “I am still a socialist. I certainly still believe in the equitable distribution of wealth, though I see this could take eons to evolve… In the Malaysian context, I have definitely dropped the idea of the dictatorship of the proletariat as the central concept for an administrative blueprint.”
Genuine Marxism long abandoned the formula of “dictatorship of the proletariat” because of its association with the dictatorial bureaucratic regimes of Russia, Eastern Europe and China. However, its original usage by Marx, Engels, Lenin and Trotsky, meant workers’ democracy. This idea retains its full validity today.
‘My Side of History’ is a book full of many lessons for the modern generation 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 of 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.
Published by Media Masters, Singapore, 2003. 527 pages
REVIEW BY PETER TAAFFE, CWI
4 MARCH 2005