AT 61, Neo Kiaw Hong looks like a retired teacher or an ‘everyday’ housewife.
It is, thus, hard to imagine this slim, almost frail, woman once roamed the deepest jungles of Sarawak for 22 years a communist guerilla, only laying down her arms with the last remnants of a 52-strong guerilla group as late as November 3, 1990.
In the foreword of her memoirs, Neo, from Sibu, wrote: “For 22 years, we left footprints in the virgin forests and reforested areas, climbed through mountains, stepped on swampy lands and travelled through the rivers of Sarawak, Rejang, Oya, Mukah, Tatau, Kemena, Baram, Limbang to the borders of Brunei and Indonesia.” (translated from Mandarin).
Indoctrinated with communist ideology by her teachers and peers, Neo joined the revolutionary struggle and entered the jungle at 19 in 1968 for what she and her comrades believed to be a fight for social justice.
They left their homes in the prime of their youth, fired by a fervour ‘to rock Sarawak to gain independence’, risking their lives and undergoing extreme hardships in the often unforgiving wilderness of the state.
It was a fire that finally went out after the focal point of their inspiration died as early as 1972 when China established bilateral relationships with Malaysia.
Since early 1981, Deng Xiao Peng had encouraged the communists in Malaysia to seek an avenue for a peace accord which was eventually signed in Haadyai, Thailand, on December 2, 1989.
That accord — and perhaps the realisation that time was passing them by as they soldiered on with an increasingly irrelevant struggle — persuaded Neo and her comrades to denounce their futile insurgency.
But life as a guerrilla was not bereft of the realities of the normal world and the inevitable when young men and women lived and fought together.
In between almost constant movement in the jungle and occasional skirmishes with the security forces, some of them fell in love and got married.
Neo, the midwife of her group, said she delivered 10 babies in the jungle.
She met her husband, Yii Sie Tung, from Kanowit in the jungle and they got married in 1979, stealing out of the jungle for a proper ceremony and a wedding photo shot.
After the 1990 surrender, the couple settled down to normal life in Sibu after a brief period of adjustment and they have a daughter now in higher secondary school.
Yii, now working with a trading company after holding several other jobs, was calm and composed when we interviewed him and his wife in Sibu recently.
Looking back 20 years after laying down their arms, the couple believe they fought for the people of Sarawak.
“Our struggle together with many others had its significance,” they claimed.
The communist insurgency in the state exacted a heavy toll on their members. With an almost resigned look and a tinge of sadness, Yii said they had documented 763 of their comrades who died in the struggle.
However, not all of them died in action – the jungle can be an unforgiving host. Sicknesses and accidents contributed to many of their casualties.
Neo recalled a comrade who died falling down a steep hill and smashing his head against a stone while carrying a wild boar he had shot.
That being said. The jungle can also be a generous host, providing them with game, fish, fruits and vegetables.
Neo said they sometimes feasted like kings on deer and wild boar they shot, and during fruit season, they often collected wild durians by the hundreds – more than they could eat.
There were times too when food was scarce as they had to be constantly on the move. Communist groups have existed in Sarawak since 1941.
Hsueh Hsih (communist indoctrination) groups were fi rst formed in Kuching in 1949-50, following the communists’ seizure of power in China. Communism in Sarawak had its origin in the Chinese schools in the 1950s.
They were especially active in Kuching Chung Hua Schools.
The two key leaders who emerged from the Chung Hua Middle School and were later pivotal in setting up the Clandestine Communist Organisation (CCO) in Sarawak were Weng Min Chyuan and Bong Kee Chok.
In March 30, 1954, students of Kuching Chung Hua Middle School held a 47-day strike to protest against the school authority’s teaching methods and its measures in expelling students.
“The students eventually won and this developed into a revolutionary organisation and group spreading to other towns.
“Because of this, the group’s influence grew bigger, not only in the schools as it also spread to the business community and farmers, who were parents of the students.” recalled Yii who was 19 when he joined the revolutionary group in 1968.
Another former CCO member Liew Min Jaw, from Bau, has settled in Miri and returned to what he was doing before taking up arms in the jungle – farming.
When met in Miri recently, Liew was initially rather reserved in his replies to our questions but loosened up after a while.
He said he entered the jungle in May 1963 when he was 24 years old, adding that they were forced by circumstances and infl uences of their teachers into taking up arms.
“We were also very much influenced by our school teachers who moved us towards the ideals of socialism and communism where everyone was supposed to be equal,” he added.
Liew returned to society much earlier than Yii and Neo — a few months before the signing of the Sri Aman Treaty between the Sarawak government and Bong Kee Chok in 1973.
Liew lived in Kuching for many years, working as a barber before going back to farming with his family in Miri.
Hiung Kiew Ming, 64, is another former CCO member who surrendered in 1973.
He was only 15 when he joined the communist movement and walked into the jungle in 1962.
Hsiung, from Sibu, has also settled down in Miri. He worked in several companies after he got out, including a few years with a newspaper in Miri.
Communist infl itration
Like Liew, he too was influenced by his teachers and peers into joining the communist movement at an age when most of his friends were still in school.
Hsiung’s case is a good example of how the communists influenced Chinese school students in the 1950’s and early 60’s, making use of these schools as the main recruitment base for new cadres.
According to a government White Paper — The Communist Threat to Sarawak — the CCO had also infiltrated the trade unions and Chinese media and covertly taken over Sarawak United People’s Party (SUPP), Sarawak’s earliest political party.
Based on excerpts from the White Paper, the SUPP was “controlled” by the CCO since just after its formation in 1959 as a base to its subversive campaign.
It was assessed that the CCO had penetrated nearly all levels of the SUPP and exercised complete control at the branch level and below where the communist influence had been reflected from time to time in SUPP’s political rallies, cultural activities, recruiting drives, etc.
However, in a newspaper interview then, Ong Kee Hui, one of the founding leaders of SUPP, said his party was not a communist organisation and that there was no place in it for any CCO members.
“We are a legitimate political party and we have no place for people who choose to conduct activities outside the law.
If the Party had any evidence of any member involved in such activities, it would have no hesitation in taking firm and proper action.”
Nevertheless, Liew confirmed this: “I joined SUPP in 1960, and many of the members were also like me (SUPP-CCO).”
Large scale arrests
Following the Brunei Rebellion in 1962 when AM Azahari launched his attempt to overthrow the Brunei Sultanate, the British carried out large scale arrests of anti-colonisation and anti-Malaysia elements.
According to Liew, the ‘migration’ of the mostly Chinese youths to the Indonesian border was prompted by arrest orders issued by the British to round up suspected communists.
About 700-800 CCO members and supporters slipped across the Sarawak border into Indonesia where they received intensive training in guerilla warfare.
It was this group that formed the core of the communist guerrilla units — Pasukan Rakyat Kalimantan Utara (PARAKU) and Pasukan Gerilya Rakyat Sarawak (PGRS).
Liew recalled joining a group of 30 to Serikin on the border with Indonesia.
“The intensive training included swimming, tree climbing, blind-folded assembly, disassembly of guns and TNT explosive handling.”
In the midst of all this, Tunku Abdul Rahman launched his federation plan to incorporate Singapore, Brunei, Sarawak and Sabah into a single political entity called Malaysia.
“The fi rst operation of the trained members was to lead about 60 guerillas as a show of force to the Cobbold Commission visiting Sibu.
But the plan failed when the guerillas lost their way in the jungle and ran out of food too.”
Another former cadre Lee Nguk Sang, 70, said:
“The timing could not be better for the CCO as Sukarno vowed he would ‘crush’ the federation of Malaysia even before it was formed.
“The Indonesian leader became an instant ally of the CCO, providing the organisation with supplies and training facilities in Kalimantan.”
Lee, unlike Liew, Yiu, Neo and Hiung, did not “walk” into the jungle.
He was more a CCO sympathiser and a vital contact in the town for them.
The tide turned however, things began to sour for the CCO when Suharto took power in Indonesia in 1965.
Suharto did not share his predecessor’s vision, and launched a mopping up operation against the communists and their supporters in Indonesia.
It was just a matter of time before the CCO would be targetted.
Suharto’s acceptance of the federation of Malaysia meant the safe haven for the CCO in Kalimantan had disappeared overnight.
Liew revealed Suharto actually sent a letter to the CCO with an ultimatum that they laid down arms and returned to Malaysia or disarmed and stayed on in Indonesia or the Indonesian army would attack and eliminate the CCO.
On the Sarawak side, the government had instituted the lessons learnt from the Emergency in the peninsula.
‘New Villages’ were created along the Kuching- Serian road to ensure the Chinese and native farmers were out of the CCO’s reach.
Villagers were kept under close supervision and security at night.
By 1970, Sarawak had a new coalition government made up of Parti Bumiputera and SUPP with Rahman Yakub as the chief minister. The ‘moderates’ in SUPP were in full control.
Stephen Yong was appointed deputy chief minister.
The CCO found it harder and harder to operate.
Sri Aman peace deal The CCO also officially established the North Kalimantan Communist Party (NKCP) in 1970 with the manifesto written by Bong (Kee Chok).
In 1973, Bong wrote a letter to Rahman Yakub, then Sarawak’s chief minister, calling for talks.
A secret meeting was held in Simanggang, leading to the signing of a memorandum between the Sarawak government and PARAKU on Oct 21, 1973.
To commemorate this event Simanggang was renamed Sri Aman.
The ‘Sri Aman’ operation on Oct 21, 1973 had severely weakened the people’s armed revolutionary power in Sarawak.
It was the futility of their struggle that prompted Liew and Hsiung and some of his comrades to follow Bong’s initiative in laying down arms to rejoin society.
After 1973, the remaining 121 CCO members, led by Hung Chu Ting and Wong Lian Kui, continued to fi ght.
Yii and his wife Neo were among them.
From 1974 onwards, the war of attrition continued mostly in the Rejang Delta. There were killings on both sides and many innocent civilians lost their lives.
“The catalyst for the ending of the armed struggle was the peace agreement signed between the MCP and the Malaysian government in 1989.
Weng Min Chyuan, from China, issued instructions that the CCO should also open negotiations with the Sarawak government,” recalled Yii who was one of the negotiators.
A series of negotiations took place in Bintulu in July 1990. On October 17, 1990, a formal peace agreement ending the communist insurrection in Sarawak was signed at Wisma Bapa Malaysia, Kuching, following which, the last group of 52 communist guerillas, led by Ang Cho Teng, surrendered.
Ex-CCO members have formed friendship associations to keep in touch with one another, and various memoirs of several ex-CCO guerillas have been published in Chinese.