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Communists' role in securing independence

Millennium markers - Road to Independence

THE "peace'' talks at Baling in Kedah on Dec 28 and 29, 1955, between Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra al-Haj, Malaya's then Chief Minister, and Chin Peng, the secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya, was an important turning point in Malaya's postwar independence struggle.

It strengthened the Tunku's hand in the independence talks with the British Government in London in February 1956, and brought forward the end of British rule by at least three years. This was largely due to the "unexpected'' concessions that Chin Peng had made to the Tunku at the talks.

Baling 'peace' talk

The communists, Chin Peng had assured the Tunku, would lay down their arms immediately if Britain agreed to transfer power over internal security and defence into the hands of the Tunku's Umno-MCA-MIC Alliance Government.

At the London talks, the Tunku asked for and was granted those powers by the British Government. Despite scepticism about whether Chin Peng would make good his promise, the publicity surrounding Chin Peng's assurance had not only committed the communists, but also driven the Tunku to secure those powers - and this, in turn, had put pressure on the British Government to concede those powers.

Anxious not to appear as a stumbling block in ending the "shooting war'' quickly, the British Government not only acceded to the Tunku's request but also to his suggested date for independence - "if possible, by Aug 31, 1957''.

Chin Peng in Baling

However, later, Chin Peng failed to keep his promise after Malaya had obtained her independence. He would claim that the Tunku had not granted him a second meeting, as promised, to discuss the matter. But events since the Baling talks had moved so fast that once independence was secured, the Tunku saw no further need to have a second meeting.

The communist rebels also had retreated north to the Thai border and no longer posed a serious threat by then. In 1960, the Government felt confident enough to end the Emergency that had been declared in June, 1948.

In fact, the Communist Party of Malaya withdrew to the Thai border because military conflicts in the jungles were not going well for the party by then. Fearing an attempt on Chin Peng's life, the party even advised the leader to leave his base in southern Thailand for Beijing on the last day of 1960.

In Beijing, he established a foreign bureau to manage the party's overseas relations and direct its activities in Malaya until 1989 when the party decided to end its armed struggle.

In 1960, the communists were losing both the psychological and military wars. They were no longer seen as fighting British imperialists, but a nationalist government. In fact, the party's reverses were so serious that the party even considered winding up its struggle for a while, but eventually abandoned the idea.

Rashid Maidin, Chin Peng and Chin Tien

How was the Tunku able to secure such a startling assurance from Chin Peng at the Baling talks? Had Chin Peng been trapped into making it? Or was it a ploy on the part of the communists to end British rule quickly?

The Tunku has recorded his recollections of the talks in three volumes of his memoirs. Chin Peng's accounts, which were recently presented while he was writing his memoirs, also throw some light on their encounter.

It was the Tunku who first said he would go anywhere to meet the communists to end the Emergency. But the idea was opposed by the British Government.

However, in the 1955 general elections, the Tunku's Alliance party swept to a landslide victory, winning 51 of the 52 contested seats to the Legislative Council. It had campaigned on a "peace'' programme to end the Emergency quickly. Its election manifesto offered an amnesty to communist insurgents who turned themselves in to the authorities.

The people were fed up with the oppressive conditions of the Emergency, which had affected social and economic life. The British Government imposed restrictions on the movement of people, supplies of food and medicine, and censored information and the newspapers.

The public wanted the Emergency to end as soon as possible. But none of the other political parties came up with a platform to rival the Alliance's peace proposal.

Unknown to the Tunku and the British Government, the Communist Party of Malaya had decided to throw their support behind the Alliance's amnesty proposal.

"We told our cadres on the ground to back and campaign for the Tunku's Alliance Party because we wanted to end British rule quickly. It was stifling,'' says Chin Peng in an interview he granted me in 1999 at the Australian National University in Canberra. The interview was held after a seminar on Chin Peng's recollections of the Malayan Emergency (1948-1960).

Asked whether he was now using hindsight to claim credit for the Alliance's election victory, Chin Peng said, "No. We were convinced of the Tunku's honesty and sincerity in making the offer. When we agreed to meet him, we hoped to secure better terms. We were hoping that amnesty would not mean surrender and would give us a face-saving way out.''

The amnesty offer also met with the disapproval of the British Government. But after the Alliance's election victory, it was forced to adopt it to avert open conflict with the Alliance. In order to protect their own prestige, the British authorities were keen to prolong the "war'' until the communist rebels were totally wiped out.

After becoming Chief Minister, the Tunku delivered two radio broadcasts in which he urged the communists to accept the amnesty offer, saying it came from a party elected by the people and not from the British Government. However, he made it clear that the communists who accepted the offer had to be screened by the police for a short period. They had to give up communism before they could be released.

The Tunku in his volume of memoirs, Political Awakening (1986), - which, like his other volumes of memoirs, was based on his weekly articles in The Star - said that that among those who did take advantage of the offer were several Malay communist leaders in the Pahang-Kelantan area.

Ahmad Saleh, who had been in the jungle since 1948 and whose father was a member of the Pahang State Assembly, gave himself up in Kota Baru, Kelantan. Another Malay communist was Sulaiman Ibrahim, who had entered the jungle in 1955 with six Malays and 21 others, all high ranking communists. The amnesty offer was also taken up by several Chinese and Indian communists, but the number of Communist Party of Malaya members who remained in the jungles was still high.

This forced the Tunku to give his third radio talk on Oct 7, 1955. This time, he announced that he had received a letter from the communist headquarters which indicated they were willing to meet him with one aim: to end the shooting war and secure better terms for ending their armed struggle. In reply to Chin Peng, he gave a date and time for their meeting.

"I then approached the High Commissioner, Sir Donald MacGillvray, for permission to meet Chin Peng,'' says the Tunku.

"They (the British) advised me against meeting Chin Peng, but I insisted, as I had organised the nation-wide demonstrations (in favour of the amnesty) and had informed the people that I would hold talks with Chin Peng; and if they, the British officials, did not allow me, I would have to go back to the people.

"(They) finally agreed that I could meet Chin Peng, but, first, I must not come to terms with Chin Peng, and, second, I must not shake hands with Chin Peng.''

The Tunku's team at the talks in Baling included Singapore's Chief Minister, David Marshall, and the Malayan Chinese Association leader, Tun Tan Cheng Lock, while Chin Peng was accompanied by two of his communist party colleagues, Chen Tien and Rashid Mydin.

According to the official minutes of the Baling meeting, the unexpected assurance from Chin Peng to the Tunku came as follows:

Chin Peng: "The present Government, although it is a popularly elected government, still is not an independent government.''

David Marshall: "Tell him that we recognise that fully.''

Chin Peng: "Under such circumstances, therefore, when we bring out our suggestions, we have got to have regard to this situation. If those popularly elected Governments of the Federation and Singapore have self-determination in matters concerning internal security and national defence, then all problems could be solved easily. As soon as these two Governments have self-determination on internal security and national defence matters, then we can stop the war immediately.''

Tunku: "Is that a promise? When I come back from England, that is the thing that I am bringing back with me.''

Chin Peng: "That being the case, we can straightaway stop our hostilities and also disband our armed units.''

However, the talks ended in a stalemate because the Tunku had rejected Chin Peng's demand for recognition of the Communist Party of Malaya if it terminated its armed struggle. The Tunku also turned down his second demand that there be no police screening of the party's members who turned themselves in to the authorities.

The official records of the Colonial Office in London, now open to historians, reveal that since the Tunku had won a promise from the communists, the British Government in London felt they should not try to block Malaya's independence and prolong the Emergency any further and should appear conciliatory to the Tunku.

A Colonial Office confidential memorandum written by an official adviser to the Secretary for Colonial Affairs said: "I see no effective counter to the answering argument that a determined Malayan Government with full responsibility for their own internal affairs could deal more successfully with the communists than a 'Colonial' regime running a country anxious to be rid of it

"The indications are that, if we accept the Alliance view on this, we shall be able to secure satisfactory agreements on defence and the other issues of particular concern to us.''

This optimism turned out to be justified. At the London talks, the British Government granted virtually all of the Alliance demands, including independence, if possible, by Aug 31, 1957. It was also decided that a British judge would head an independent commission to draft Malaya's Constitution.

In return, the Tunku's delegation agreed to sign a defence treaty with Britain under which Britain could maintain its military bases in Malaya after the country's independence for as long as it was mutually acceptable to both parties.

In an earlier volume of memoirs, Looking Back (1977), the Tunku had recalled, "Throughout the talks, I was very polite with Chin Peng.

"When I gave Chin Peng time to consider the terms offered for his surrender, I also made it clear that I did not want him to surrender now, because there was no point pretending that I was not under pressure by the Colonial rulers. So, if he had to surrender, he could do so when I had full power or in a position to offer him terms.''

In Lest We Forget (1983), the Tunku acknowledged the communists' role in the struggle for independence: "Just as Indonesia was fighting a bloody battle, so were the communists of Malaya, who, too, fought for independence. With the difference that the communists of Malaya were not the indigenous people of this country and they were fighting to set up a communist regime which the believers in the faith in Islam could not support, nor could those orthodox people who believed in democracy and freedom.

"So the struggle for the independence of this country was carried out by the communists alone and they fought a subversive as well as a shooting war, losing many of their men and at the same time killing many of our men and the Commonwealth soldiers. The battle continued for 12 years and would have gone on had the British Government not yielded to our demand for a general election as a step towards independence.''

In the interview in Canberra, Chin Peng said: "At the Baling talks, the Tunku appeared honest, sincere and a gentleman. I did not like David Marshall, who was very arrogant.

"Yes, it was a war in which many incidents and mistakes occurred and a lot of lives were sacrificed. As the Communist Party of Malaysia's leader, I accept full responsibility.

"But had it not been for our armed struggle, it is unlikely that Britain would have expedited the granting of Malayan independence. We did not reap the fruits of victory. These went to the Alliance Government under Tunku Abdul Rahman.''

* Prof Cheah Boon Kheng served as professor of history at Universiti Sains Malaysia. Among his many publications are Red Star Over Malaya (Singapore University Press) and The Masked Comrades (Times Books International).

Millennium Markers is a weekly series that looks at events and happenings that shaped Malaysia and the surrounding region over the last 1,000 years; it is coordinated by Dr Loh Wei Leng, Universiti Malaya.

Notes: STF - : This week's Millennium Markers kicks off a generation-spanning series on people involved in events and in formulating policies that had a significant effect on the founding of Malaysia. With new information garnered from recently-opened colonial files and an exclusive interview with communist leader Chin Peng, PROF CHEAH BOON KHENG begins the series by shedding new light on the famous talks between Malaysia's first prime minister and the Communist Party of Malaya that hastened Malaysia's independence.

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