Chin Peng, Malaysian Rebel, Dies at 88
Published: September 16, 2013
Chin Peng, a Communist guerrilla leader whose tenacious, bloody struggles for an independent Communist Malaysia pitted him against Japanese invaders, British colonialists and finally the government of what had become his own newly sovereign nation, died in exile on Monday in Bangkok. He was 88.
Agence France-Presse, the French news agency, said the cause was cancer, quoting a retired Thai military commander who had acted as a liaison between Mr. Chin and the authorities. Mr. Chin had lived in Thailand for many years.
Mr. Chin was the last surviving revolutionary leader to have successfully fought for independence from colonial rulers in Asia after World War II — a cohort that included Ho Chi Minh in Vietnam, Sukarno in Indonesia, Aung San in Burma (now Myanmar) and Norodom Sihanouk in Cambodia. When he finally laid down his arms in 1989, Mr. Chin was called “the world’s senior surviving guerrilla.”
Chin Peng was the nom de guerre of Ong Boon Hua, who had joined with the British to battle Japanese troops after they invaded what was then British Malaya in 1941. His honors for heroism included the Order of the British Empire.
But after the war, as the newly named head of Malaya’s Communist Party, he ordered an armed insurrection against the British colonial rulers, and when Malaya became independent of Britain in 1957, the insurgency morphed into a fight against the new government.
(Malaysia, consisting of Malaya, Sabah, Sarawak and Singapore, came into being in 1963. Singapore became independent of Malaysia in 1965.)
“I suppose I am the last of the region’s old revolutionary leaders,” Mr. Chin wrote in his 2003 memoir, “My Side of History. “It was my choice to lead from the shadows, away from the limelight.”
He may not have actually had a choice. By the mid-1950s, the British had effectively put down the Communist offensive, although a final peace agreement would not be signed until 1989. Mr. Chin disappeared, although his voice was heard on broadcasts of the clandestine Malaysian Revolution Radio. Then he fell silent, and it was assumed that years of living in the jungle had taken their final toll on him.
It turned out that in 1960 he fled to China, the principal backer of the Malaysian Communists, who themselves were mainly ethnic Chinese. He later moved to Thailand. After the 1989 peace pact, he tried to return to Malaysia but was refused entry.
Ong Boon Hua was reported to have been born on Oct. 21, 1924, in the Malaysian state of Perak. His father, an immigrant from Fujian Province in southeast China, made a good living selling and repairing bicycles, and sent him to English-language schools, where he excelled. Attracted to Communism as a means of fighting prejudice against Chinese-Malayans, he joined party youth organizations at 15.
Soon he left school and went to work for the party, which assigned him to lead three anti-Japanese organizations for students, teachers and shop assistants. After the Japanese invaded in December 1941, he became a liaison to British commandos. The Associated Press reported in 1989 that John Davis, a British officer, said of him, “Unusual ability, and commanded the natural respect of men without fuss or formality.”
After the war, Lai Teck, secretary general of the Malayan Communist Party, fled with most of its money after collaborating with both the Japanese and the British. Mr. Chin was placed in charge of investigating him, and was appointed to replace him in 1948 at age 24.
He ordered an armed struggle, perhaps on instructions from Moscow, and began by attacking two rubber plantations and methodically executing three planters. Twelve years of violence, which came to be known as the Malayan Emergency, ensued. A $250,000 reward was offered for information leading to Mr. Chin’s capture.
At the height of the conflict, some 70,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, Fijian, Gurkha and other British Commonwealth troops fought about 10,000 guerrillas. More than 10,000 fighters and civilians died between 1948 and 1960. Britain rescinded the Order of the British Empire it had granted him.
“I make no apologies for seeking to replace such an odious system with a form of Marxist socialism,” Mr. Chin wrote. “Colonial exploitation, irrespective of who were the masters, Japanese or British, was morally wrong.”
In 1955, Mr. Chin emerged from the jungle to negotiate with Malayan officials at a schoolhouse near the Thai-Malay border. Talks broke down after Malayan negotiators refused Mr. Chin’s demand to be part of a coalition government. Though the point was largely moot after Malaya’s independence in 1957, fighting sputtered on, with periodic escalations.
When it finally ended in 1989, some 1,200 guerrillas were allowed under the peace pact to returned to civilian life.
Mr. Chin thought the 1989 agreement provided for his own return to Malaysia, but he was denied in court on the grounds that he could not prove he was Malaysian, having lost his birth and citizenship certificates. Many said the real reason was a lingering resentment over the insurrection.
Information about his survivors was not available. Mr. Chin’s wife, Khoon Wah, is deceased. They had two sons. The Malaysian police have refused to allow his remains to be returned to his home country.