IT must have been a prank of fate that just as Malaysia was celebrating the 50th anniversary of its formation, two of its most historic nemeses stole the headlines.
Not many Malaysians know that one of the figures of history who led the formation of Malaysia, Singapore's founding father, Lee Kuan Yew, celebrated his 90th birthday on Sept 16, the same day the leader of Communist Party of Malaya, Chin Peng, died in Bangkok.
In Malaysia's charged political atmosphere, the issue of Chin Peng returning to Malaysia has become yet another political flashpoint, debated by both sides of the political divide.
DAP leaders were quick to advocate for the remains of Chin Peng to be buried in Malaysia. They argued he was a nationalist who fought for the independence of Malaya against the British colonials.
The government is standing firm that Chin Peng cannot return. Home Minister Datuk Seri Dr Ahmad Zahid Hamidi asserted that Chin Peng was a terrorist and not a freedom fighter. Defence Minister Datuk Seri Hishammuddin Hussein called him a traitor who had undermined national sovereignty.
Where is the truth in all this?
History is rarely black and white, as textbooks and apologists would want us to believe. Yes, Chin Peng fought against the Japanese. Yes, the British decorated him for his role in resisting the Japanese occupation. But, Chin Peng didn't stop there.
He fought the British and he fought the Malayan government, which by 1957 was a sovereign government when Tunku Abdul Rahman and his colleagues took over from the British. And, yes, he fought against Malaysia, too, when it was formed in 1963.
Chin Peng an "independence fighter"? Yes, he was fighting against the Japanese in order to impose a communist state in Malaya. Some argued that the Malayan government post-1957 was still a British construct. Perhaps, but by 1955, this was also a government that was duly elected by its people. And, at no time in Malayan history, or even Malaysian history, could it be said that there was a plurality of Malaysians who wanted a communist state. The fate of Malaysia would have been different if Chin Peng had won.
Many of those who decry the government's stand against Chin Peng's return to Malaysia are the very people who denounce the Malaysian government's alleged clampdown on freedom, free speech and other transgressions against liberal freedom.
But, as we can see from the fate of Russia, China and other countries run by communists, they have little interest in such niceties as free speech. Gulags, "struggle sessions" and other hallmarks of repression have entered the lexicon of politics by way of communist rule. It is doubtful that many of those who claim to speak for Chin Peng's right to return to Malaysia would have enjoyed much rights under a Chin Peng administration.
There is a racial undertone to Chin Peng, which shows how far we still have to go as a nation. When I was growing up, parents would bid their children to shush by invoking Chin Peng, or Botak Chin. The former was especially effective, and for good reason. For those of my grandparents' generation, the memories of "Bintang Tiga" filled them with dread and bitterness.
Christopher Bayly and Tim Harper drew attention to the confrontations between Malay villagers and the Malayan People's Anti-Japanese Army, which was a forerunner of the Malayan Communist Party in the interregnum following the Japanese surrender in August 1945.
After Malaya's declaration of independence, the communists continued to struggle against the government, which was by this time led by Umno and its partners in the Alliance.
The police force, which was mostly Malay, bore the heaviest brunt of the communist insurgency. Many lost their lives in the struggle to defend the sovereignty of the newly independent nation against the communists.
These are painful and bitter memories, which cannot be erased merely by platitudes or artful concealment of shared history. Only the unceasing tide of time and the passing of generations can possibly put enough distance between those memories and the future when we can truly dissect the issues with honesty and candour.
Let him rest in exile. He had his reasons for militating against his country and we can perhaps forgive him for having a different vision for Malaysia. But, the bloodshed and terror of those years are hard to forgive, let alone forget.
As much as we respect his desire to want to return here and lay down his burden after years of struggle, those who fought and died defending Malaysia against his militancy, and hence protecting our way of life today, must certainly lay greater claim to history's favour.
Ziad Razak New SraitsTime Online Letters to the 20 September 2013