Chin Peng, who has died of cancer at the age of 88, was Malaysia's best-known former communist guerrilla, who led a bloody insurgency against British rule in Malaysia in the late 1940s and early 1950s, and had lived in exile ever since. He was the last of a breed of Asian anti-colonialist figures that included Vietnam's Ho Chi Minh, Indonesia's Sukarno, Myanmar's Aung San and Cambodia's King Norodom Sihanouk, who died last year. Chin Peng's dubious distinction was that unlike others he didn't win his war.
"I suppose I am the last of the region's old revolutionary leaders," Chin Peng – his nom de guerre – wrote in his 2003 memoir My Side of History. "It was my choice to lead from the shadows, away from the limelight."
Chin Peng had lost a legal struggle in recent years to be allowed back into Malaysia. Government leaders said his return would upset many Malaysians who had lost loved ones during the communist insurgency, which he had continued after the country became independent of Britain in 1957.
The mistrust for Chin Peng remained to this day. "Well done to the Malaysian people and government," Mohamad Ezam Nor, a senator in the ruling United Malays National Organisation, wrote. "Because of our firmness the traitor Chin Peng has not achieved his desire to return to his homeland until the end of his lifetime."
He was born Ong Boon Hua in 1924, the son of a bicycle dealer, and first gained public attention during the Second World War, when he and other guerrillas provided the bulk of resistance to the Japanese occupation after Allied troops were swept from the Malayan peninsula and Singapore: "The British were desperate and found us useful," he wrote. "Conveniently, we both wanted to defeat the Japanese." He was a courageous, behind-enemy-lines fighter, learning jungle guerrilla tactics from his British comrades. In 1945 he walked in a victory parade in London and was made an OBE, which was later withdrawn.
He became a committed Communist. The ethnic Chinese were an underprivileged class in British-ruled Malaya, and for a number of young people among them Communism represented social justice and a shortcut to power and status. "Most of the British colonials who came after the surrender of Japan were not just opportunists and corrupt; they were downright disdainful of the people they were exploiting," he wrote.
In 1948 the Communist party decided to wage armed struggle, the opening volleys of which were fired on 16 June when guerrillas walked into two rubber plantations in northern Malaya and killed three British planters. "I make no apologies for seeking to replace such an odious system with a form of Marxist socialism," he wrote. "Colonial exploitation, irrespective of who were the masters, Japanese or British, was morally wrong. If you saw how the returning British functioned the way I did, you would know why I chose arms."
Leading a 10,000-strong force, Chin Peng faced some 70,000 British, Australian, New Zealand, Fijian, Gurkha and other British Commonwealth troops in the jungles between 1948 and 1957. The Emergency, as it was known, took the lives of an estimated 10,000 fighters and civilians, and stamped out communism from Malaysia. Chin Peng contended that the British were at least as brutal as the insurgents. Tens of thousands of innocent Chinese were uprooted as a result of the ultimately successful strategy to isolate the guerrillas from all sources of support.
Despite being publicly demonised, Chin Peng earned a large measure of personal respect from some of his enemies. "If there is a Communist who can be called gentlemanly it was Chin Peng," said CC Too, the former Malaysia psychological warfare chief, in a 1976 interview.
Chin Peng continued to fight the Malaysian government after independence in 1957. But with the dragnet closing in on his jungle hide-outs and his Marxist-Leninist campaign losing steam, he fled to China in 1960. From there, he went to southern Thailand to reunite with hundreds of fighters loyal to him. He was never allowed to return to Malaysia even though he signed a peace treaty in 1989 and pledged loyalty to the government. Malaysian authorities remained suspicious of his communist ideology.
In 2005 he launched a court battle to force the government to allow him back into Malaysia. The country's highest court eventually ruled that he could not return unless he produced birth and citizen certificates, which his lawyers said were lost after being seized by British authorities in the 1940s. "It is ironic that I should be without the country for which I was more than willing to die," he wrote in his memoir.
Chin Peng's family was in Bangkok where his funeral was to be held at a Buddhist temple. The family hoped to have his remains brought to a final resting place in his northern Malaysian home town but it was not clear whether they would be able to obtain government approval. Lim Kit Siang, a senior Malaysian opposition leader, wrote that his death marked the "end of an era. Whether one agrees or not with his struggle, his place in history is assured."
Ong Boon Hua (Chin Peng), guerrilla and activist: born Sitiawan, Malaya 21 October 1924; OBE (withdrawn); died Bangkok 16 September 2013.