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.”
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.
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.
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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