The Malayan “emergency,” as it was called by the British, lasted from 1948 to 1960. The violence killed more than 10,000 people, including many civilians. Chin Peng, a onetime secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya, kept up his ruthless fight even after the former colonial protectorate of Malaya gained independence in 1957 and after the new country became part of Malaysia in 1963.
Rufus Phillips, a scholar of guerrilla warfare and author of “Why Vietnam Matters,” said in an interview that Chin Peng was the figure who “really spearheaded the whole emergency.”
Chin Peng’s guerrilla fighters burned villages, attacked police stations and orchestrated assassinations before an overwhelming military force supplied by the British Commonwealth nations pushed his movement deep into the jungle. His indiscriminate attacks robbed him of much of his popular support, and British promises of Malayan independence sapped the rest.
At its height, the Malaya crisis was an international battleground in the fervid conflict between nationalism and anti-colonialism. In time, the fight there was overshadowed by the burgeoning war in Vietnam. Once a formidable outlaw, Chin Peng gradually faded into “irrelevance,” Phillips said, especially as Malaysia’s economic might grew in the 1970s.
Prime Minister Najib Razak told the Malaysian newspaper the Star that Chin Peng “will be remembered in Malaysia as a terrorist leader of a group that waged war against the nation and caused immeasurable cruelty to the people and attacking our security forces.”
Chin Peng — a name he took as his nom de guerre — did not officially surrender until 1989, making him one of the world’s longest-surviving communist guerrilla leaders. “I fought a liberation war,” he wrote in his 2003 memoir, “My Side of History.” “To ask whether I would do it again is idle talk. . . . You can tell me I was wrong. You can tell me I failed. But I can also tell you how it was and how I tried.”
The son of a bicycle dealer who had emigrated from China, he was born Ong Boon Hua in the northern Malay state of Perak. The reported years of his birth range from 1920 to 1924.
He joined the Communist Party of Malaya in his teens, inspired after reading Mao Zedong’s manifesto “On Protracted War.” He was described as studious, learning four Chinese dialects as well as Malayan and English, and was deeply offended by what he perceived as the economic exploitation of the country’s Chinese and Indian ethnic minorities.
The Malay peninsula was one of the British Empire’s most important economic engines, providing a steady supply of tin and rubber until the Japanese drove out most of the Anglo colonists in 1942, during World War II.