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Keeping promises to communists

IT’s not about giving sympathy. It’s about honouring an agreement.

As I rode the bus back to Kuala Lumpur from Haadyai after covering Chin Peng‘s media conference on 30 Nov 2009 in conjunction with the 20th anniversary ceremony of the tripartite Haadyai Peace Agreements, I could not help thinking. I tried to wrap my head around the different sentiments that various groups feel over this controversial man.



Original footage of the signing of the tripartite Peace Agreements on 2 Dec 1989 
at the Lee Gardens Hotel in Haadyai. Footage made available to media representatives
by the 21st Century Malaysia Friendship Association, which comprises former CPM
comrades now resettled on both sides of the Thai-Malaysian border

Have sentiments against his return been blown out of proportion? I think they have. But for saying that, I know that I too, will be vilified. After all, I never lived through the Emergency. I don’t have relatives in the police or armed forces who fought against the communists. I’ve never known the pain of losing a loved one to war. I don’t walk with shrapnel in my arm or with a limp from stepping on booby traps.

I do try to imagine what the pain of such loss might feel like. I know my feeble attempts will never come close to what those who suffered at the hands of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), of which Chin Peng was secretary-general, have experienced. And I am sure it is not so easy to say, as Chin Peng is asking us to do, “Leave the past behind.”

Whose history?


Chin Peng’s memoirs
So what do I know? I’m just a young journalist who interviewed Chin Peng, now a dying octogenarian. But in covering the peace agreements anniversary, I’ve had to learn more about Chin Peng’s side of the story. The Court of Appeal, in denying his return, said that “Chin Peng’s memoirs cannot be accepted as the gospel truth. Anything can be written in the memoirs.” But there is also a well-known saying: “History is written by the victors.”

I just know that this is probably how the young look at the issue today. If you say that Chin Peng shouldn’t be given sympathy, can the same also be said of those who chose to be in the armed forces, who fought against the CPM?

We definitely honour the memory of those who fought against the communists. But unless one is drafted or is a kidnapped child soldier, don’t soldiers join armies willingly, knowing the possibility of death on the battlefield? Don’t police officers who opt to protect society as a career choose the risk of injury or death in the line of duty?

As a journalist, I know that by choosing this profession, I face the risk of being criticised for my writing. That’s nothing compared to detention or death, which is the reality for my counterparts in more repressive countries, or even in a neighbouring country like the Philippines.

Making choices

The point is, we all make our own choices. Chin Peng made a choice — the path of revolution. Personnel from the armed forces and the police also made a choice when they enlisted. And both sides lost lives.

The only one on the Malaysian side today who can openly admit this is former Special Branch director Tan Sri Abdul Rahim Noor, who led Malaysia’s peace negotiations with the CPM.


Chin Peng takes a moment of silence to remember
those who died in the armed conflict
“To me in any war, in an armed conflict, big or small, there must be casualties … If you say the army, police personnel and civilians suffered the most, ask the CPM [and] they would say the same thing: ‘What about me and my people?’

“So to me, views expressed by [associations representing] veterans and ex-police [personnel] are just emotional,” said Rahim, who later became inspector-general of police.

Honouring agreements

Now you may ask, what about innocent civilians who died needlessly?

All I can say is that the same question is probably asked in every conflict worldwide. Yet, that doesn’t stop governments from signing peace treaties to end wars. If all sides to a conflict were to dwell on the question of innocent civilians, no agreements would be signed. If emotions were always allowed to get the better part of arguments, no rational decisions would ever be made.

War sucks. But it happens. I’m lucky not to have lived through it. But should one come to our shores, and if I lived through it, I would hope that the people my government signs a peace treaty with would uphold it to the letter.

The young today may have a weak grasp of history. But values like honesty and honouring promises endure through time.

I hope the young today don’t look at the Malaysian government as an example, but will learn instead from figures like Datuk Seri Yuen Yuet Ling. Yuen fought during the Emergency and survived assassination attempts by the communists. But he can still argue for Chin Peng’s right of return in his comments on The Nut Graph.


Tan Cheng Lock (Public domain;
Wiki commons)
I hope the young will also use leaders back then as role models; like Rahim, who believed in the sanctity of written agreements. And the late Tun Tan Cheng Lock, who sought to make peace with Chin Peng at the 1955 Baling talks, even though he was on the receiving end of a communist hand grenade.

Life is never black or white. People, too, are complex in nature. Rahim is the same police chief who admitted to beating up Datuk Seri Anwar Ibrahim in custody after the deputy prime minister was sacked and detained in 1998. If we were to judge Rahim solely on that incident, we would not discover other sides of his character, such as his principle about keeping a promise.

The pain of memories and personal demons is a private battlefield. But because the larger world is complex and history can be subjective, written agreements are meant to be binding as a way out of the confusion and to restore order. However, they are only as good as the parties that keep them.


Deborah Loh ponders the meaning of forgiveness.

Read previous Sideways columns

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4 Responses to “Keeping promises to communists”

  1. Peter Yew says:

    As a Christian I am often confronted with choice, between what is lawful and what is of love. By that I mean we can decide to use law to solve conflict, or use love to end them.

    Law is man-made, so it can also be unmade, as we are now seeing in the Malaysian government’s decision to dishonor the Haadyai Peace Treaty. (They may decide to upturn this stance, if we can believe what Tun Dr Mahathir has said about the public “allowing Chin Peng to return” … this is as good as not commenting, since how do we assess the level of “permission” that qualifies Chin Peng to return?)

    No, the reason why Chin Peng was denied his right as protected by the Treaty is because it would raise anger and emotion. But that must not be the stance the government should take. If so, the government would always be reacting to how the public feels about current issues, and would never promulgate policies and laws based on in-depth study and visionary thinking.

    The government has been overly reactive and shallow in dealing with matters that show a lack of leadership, such that now it is bent on listening to how a particularly segment of society is feeling and then moulding their replies accordingly; that is, pandering to the gallery, which is a terrible and wrong way to run a nation. A just government must rule based on principles and professionalism, instead of popularity. We are at high seas and at risk of being destroyed by a government with visionless thinking!

    Back to the issue of Chin Peng. The treaty gave him the right to return. Period. The government denied him. Period. What does this leave us who are called by a name given by God? A creation called man made in God’s image, and hence able to display love and compassion? And with a gift to forgive?

    Instead, we not only fail to see love or compassion; we see hatred being spread out against a spent man. It is laughable that we are so afraid of a 85-year-old man, that he still has the influence to change Malaysia back to a communist state. For this, I believe Chin Peng must have felt a snicker of laughter that he can still control Malaysia’s destiny! The fact is, he can’t; and we have moved too far ahead to think that communism might be an option to adopt.

    The concept of forgiveness is applicable only by people who understand what it is. The world at large considers forgiveness as a weakness, a surrender, or worst, an admission that we lost and therefore want an end to strife and misunderstanding. But forgiveness is really a balm and a cure to human ills, more so to the forgiver than the forgiven. It is a return to normalcy, a way to say, “Let us start all over again” — or, as children would say, “Can we be friends again?”

    I cannot imagine how much hurt can be melted away when we forgive, and how much life we can regenerate thereafter both for ourselves and the person we forgave. In forgiving we loosen the knot of pain and hurt, and allow our spirits to be restored. I wonder if the Malaysian government leaders who push so hard to not forgive Chin Peng really understand how much they and the nation could benefit.

    Let go of the past, I say. Chin Peng will not lead a parade or rally like Bersih or Hindraf to Sitiawan, Perak. He just wants to go home. And that is what we will all want one day when we arrive at his age. To find peace and go home to eternal rest.

    I am still praying that our leaders will awake to political maturity and decide, not based on public reaction but based what is morally right and correct, to say that Chin Peng’s crime against innocent Malayans are forgiven, and to rally all Malaysians to move on towards Vision 2020.

  2. Kamal says:

    Well put. It just goes to show the complexities of life. Also, as these men are probably in their seventies upwards, hopefully their concerns remind us of the cycle; forgiving, honoring promises and recognising humanity is all part and parcel of life. Eventually we will get there, but let it happen while it can still do some good for the living.

    On a personal level, I do appreciate the sacrifice these volunteers made in joining the armed forces (police and military). I am sure if we dig deep enough into our family histories, we would have relatives who fought the CPM, but they would hardly talk about it. Perhaps for them, the trauma was too great, or maybe they felt that the memories of war should be left on the battlefields.

    The same can be said for those who joined the CPM: they made a choice to stand up for something they truly believed in. In the end they failed, but that does not make them any less human in their experiences, frailty and sentiments. No one talks about their experiences during the emergency; perhaps Malaysians have a natural abhorrence to violence and would rather not colour their society with the glorification of war.

    I remember a quote purportedly by the Tengku, that he would rather see his people in civilian clothes and not military fatigues, carrying cangkuls instead of guns. Malaysia, unlike her neighbours, for whatever reason has not become militarised, and for that I am grateful.

    The politics of the cold war and the emergency have ended, and this episode in our history should now be left for historians to investigate and explore in minute detail. It is time, perhaps, for all of us to move ahead.

  3. Jackie says:

    I am very glad that you write a few articles on Chin Peng on TNG. I am no fan of Chin Peng or communism, but I can sense that there is a mistreatment of the old man. On two grounds, breach of agreement and forgiveness — as you wrote here in this article.

    What is the government trying to tell us? Is it trying to tell us that it is okay to breach any agreement as we wish? Or that we should never forgive any person for his [or her] past mistakes?

    As far as I am concerned, there is no religion in the world that doesn’t teach forgiveness; it is the best thing you can do for fellow human beings. Islam is no exception. Why harbour the hatred when this man has already said sorry? Why not just let go and move on? Carrying past burdens is the worst thing you can do to yourself.

    Also, I can sense that there is racism here. Why are other ex-comrades of Chin Peng allowed to come home, but not him? Is it because he is Chinese? I am not being racist here, but the way the government handles this issue leaves me no choice but to wonder if this is the reason for turning down the request of this old man. If he was responsible for the killings, so were his comrades. We also allowed a terrorist to come home; why not Chin Peng?

    After all, what can a man in his eighties do?

  4. mycuntree says:

    Dear Deborah,

    I disagree with most of your reasons in this matter to allow CP to return to his home country, i.e. Malaysia. In my mind, the only valid reason CP must be allowed his wish to return is solely because the Malaysian government, in signing the peace accord with the CPM, agrees to let him do so.

    If his return is to be based on pity, on sympathy, on forgiveness, on being a senile old man who is close to death, on the fact that other CPM members were allowed to return, on the graciousness of the civilian victims of CPM’s fight with the Anglo-Malayan government or on that of the police and armed forces who were casualties of that same conflict; then the Malaysian government reserves the right to or not to allow Chin Peng @ Ong Boon Hua to come home.

    Chin Peng must be allowed home on the strength of the agreement alone. All other excuses are just that. Excuses.


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