By Jerry Francis
Local veteran press cameraman Wong Tuck Keong had never expected to come face-to-face with Chin Peng, who was accused of all the atrocities committed during the long-drawn fight against communism in the country.
He had covered the security operations intensively throughout Perak and South Thailand from the early 70s to the signing of the Hatyai Peace Accord on December 2, 1989. Yet, he never had a glimpse of the man with the notorious name.
Tuck Keong and I had formed a press team, described as “Tom and Jerry”. We were at the scenes of various incidents related to terrorists’ activities and security operations.
During those Turbulent Years in Perak, the communist terrorists had re-emerged from their defeat in the 12-Year-Emergency to be a formidable force capable of posing a serious threat to the security of the country until it was reduced to small bands hiding in the jungles and constantly on the run from the security forces.
Tuck Keong had also covered the assassinations of Perak Chief Police Officer Tan Sri Koo Chong Kong in 1975 and six other Special Branch officers in the state.
They, together with five others killed outside Perak, were described as the “systematic elimination of Special Branch officers by the communist terrorists to strike fear among the people and security forces.” The terrorists had even intimidated loggers and mining workers and as well as sabotaged the construction of the East-West Highway and the Temenggor Dam in Upper Perak.
Witnessing all these incidents had created a fear in Tuck Keong’s mind of Chin Peng, secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM). When Chin Peng died in Bangkok on September 16 at 89, I happened to be sitting with Tuck Keong and reminiscing about our “Tom and Jerry” days.
“I had expected to see a fearsome terrorist leader, after hearing all about him from the time I was in school,” Tuck Keong recalled his personal encounter with Chin Peng in Betong. “But, all that impression of him defused when I came face-to-face with him in December, 1989. Instead, I saw a cheerful man with a broad grin wearing a bush jacket and a cap. He appeared like a Chinese businessman,” he said.
Chin Peng had gone to the terrorists’ jungle camp in Betong to brief his comrades on the terms of the tripartite Peace Accord signed by the Malaysian Government, Thai Government and the CPM.
Members of the press corps, who heard that Chin Peng would be in Betong, had gathered at the Thai Border Police Patrol base in Betong. According to Tuck Keong, after about a two-hour wait, a Thai military helicopter landed and the terrorist leader emerged from it.
“We rushed forward before he could get into a vehicle. On seeing us, Chin Peng gave a broad grin and waved,” added Tuck Keong. “He was friendly and responded to all our questions.”
Chin Peng answered the questions in whichever language hurriedly thrown at him by the press. He was fluent in English, Malay and Mandarin. However, he was quickly whisked off by his bodyguards to lunch at a restaurant where residents of the Thai border town who had lived under the shadow of the terrorists for decades, had gathered to have a glimpse of him. Betong Salient had been the sanctuary of the terrorists for decades. Chin Peng left for Hatyai after the lunch.
Following Chin Peng’s visit, the estimated 1200 terrorists in the southern region of Thailand handed over their weapons and ammunition for destruction and were given the choice of either returning to Malaysia or staying in Thailand, in accordance with the provisions of the Peace Accord.
Tuck Keong was in Betong again later on hearing that Chin Peng would be at a ceremony to witness the destruction of the firearms and ammunition in the camp. However, he was stopped by CPM members manning a roadblock along the jungle track leading to their camp.