Women in the Malayan Communist Party are still alive, and it is our task to find them

May 17, 2023
This article aims to retell the story of women in the Malayan Communist Party, one among many other groups. It offers a glimpse into this period of history and how these women employed their voices and actions as active participants in wars and revolutions.
The stories of independent movements in Southeast Asia have been the stories of men. Many who associated with such movements have been elevated to the position of national heroes. Theirs are familiar names: Sukarno of Indonesia (1901-70), Aung San of Myanmar (1915-47), and Ho Chi Minh of Vietnam (1980-1969). While some national heroines, such as Ma San Youn of Burma or Suyatin Kartowiyono (1907-83) and Lily Eberwein (1900-80) of Indonesia, have been remembered in public memory, many other ordinary women in reformist, anti-colonial and nationalist activities have barely been mentioned. One might question where ordinary women were in this moment of history? Were there any contributions worth revisiting? This article aims to retell the story of women in the Malayan Communist Party, one among many other groups. It offers a glimpse into this period of history and how these women employed their voices and actions as active participants in wars and revolutions.

Historical Background

Figure 1. Communist Party of Malaya’s office in Kuala Lumpur before the Emergency (1948)
Source: British Government, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The Malayan Communist Party (MCP), officially the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), was formed in 1930. The party gained influence, and its members increased throughout the years it operated. The party also vowed to uphold gender equality and aimed to provide a base for women’s political participation. This was influenced by the international and global feminist movements from the Soviet Union to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Many women joined the MCP during the Japanese Occupation of Malaya (1942-45), the Emergency (1948-60) and until the peace declaration. The MCP peaked as an anti-colonial movement in the late 1940s due to a small yet furious war fought in the Malay Peninsula, then a colony of British Malaya. The British called the war the ‘Malayan Emergency’ whilst the MCP called it the communist revolution. Following the subsequent counter-insurgency throughout the early 1950s, the MCP retreated into the jungle and was forced to operate underground. Eventually, the party relocated to the hinterlands along the southern border of Thailand. [1] Revolutionaries rebels finally laid down their arms following the Hat Yai Peace Accord in 1989.

Communist Women of the MCP: Roles and Duties

Since the official establishment of the MCP in 1930, women from diverse social, cultural and ethnic backgrounds have become part of the struggle. Many were Chinese, Malay and Thai, originating from China, Singapore, Malaysia and southern Thailand. Women who joined the MCP had different motivations. Some of them were highly educated intellectuals who followed Marxist ideology and communism to emancipate from patriarchal oppression, whilst some were illiterate. Many joined due to financial difficulties, lack of access to education and escaping oppressive family structure; others followed their husbands. Regardless of the reasons behind these decisions and motivations, it is undeniable that their contributions to the Party were well-founded.

Women of the Malayan Communist Party assumed different roles. Before the Malayan Emergency, female comrades were heavily involved in the Party's cultural and local-level political works. This included working in propaganda work, organising labour strikes and assuming the role of local leadership. [2] After the MCP relocated to southern Thailand in the 1950s, the Party opened its doors to embrace a new generation of female guerrillas and ordered extensive participation in mass work. [1] Female comrades organised underground networks linking the party in Singapore, Malaya, and southern Thailand. Additionally, they were trained in various crafts in the jungles to be prepared for fighting along the border. They were at the forefront and became commanders, leaders of civilian movements, members of the Politburo, and soldiers in combat; they also assumed the roles of doctors, surgeons, as well as nurses on the same terms as their male comrades. [3]
Figure 2: Women in the village of Kubang Tiga in Perlis, five miles from the Siamese border, have volunteered to join the local Home Guard.
Although we see women’s active participation in this movement as one form of gendered liberating experiences, female MCP members often found themselves expected to perform different roles from their male comrades. They were mothers, daughters, partners and simultaneously warriors. Duties expected of female comrades apart from being active on the field, they were supposed to do all kinds of housekeeping. [3] These double duties fell on these women regardless of how much self-proclaimed progressive leftist the MCP touted gender equality.

Comrades, We Are Still Alive!

Figure 3. Chulaphorn Village No.10, now a tourist destination, Nakhon Si Thammarat Province (2000)
Source: 馬姥, CC BY-SA 4.0 , via Wikimedia Commons
In 1989, the Malayan Communist Party, led by its Chairman and General Secretary, signed a peace agreement with the Thai government and the Malaysian government in Hat Yai, a province in southern Thailand. [4] The MCP ended sixty years of war and revolution, destroyed their weapons and left the borders which had been their homes. They retired and resettled in the so-called the Peace and Friendship villages. Many of them remained stateless, except for those who were born in Thailand. [4] There are currently four MCP villages in southern Thailand: Betong Peace Village, Banland Peace Village, Sukirin Peace Village, and Yaha Peace Village. These villages have presided under the patronage of Princess Chulaborn of Thailand, the youngest daughter of the late King Rama IX. [4]

Inside these villages are museums and memorial statues remembering those who were part of the revolutionary movement. Located in the southern part of Thailand, the villages are not inaccessible yet remote enough for one to make sense of their existence. In the zone of obscure limelight, these former communists have become a living statue, primarily for researchers and some enthusiasts to pay a visit to a lesser extent. These former communists, now old and retired, while some passed away in the flow of time, have assumed the role of tour guides introducing visitors to their homes. Visitors can travel in time and see displays and ways of life of the old communist era through those living comrades; one could even stay, live and eat like a communist.

Women in the Malayan Communist Party joined the movement for myriad reasons and motivations. Their voices and actions have never been monolithic. Instead, they are vibrant and dynamic throughout time. They have their stories and experiences worth remembering and retelling. If anyone has a chance to travel to southern Thailand, I would recommend paying these revolutionaries a visit to recognise their struggles and existence. They are still alive, and it is our task to find them.
[1] Musa, Mahani. “Women in the Malayan Communist Party, 1942–89.” Journal of Southeast Asian Studies 44, no. 2 (2013): 226-249.
[2] Ng, Sze-Chieh. "Women Guerrillas in the Malayan Communist Insurgency." Translocal Chinese: East Asian Perspectives 16, no. 2 (2022): 207-227.
[3] Tan, “The forgotten women”, 2008
[4] Khoo, A. Life as the River Flows: Women in the Malayan Anti-Colonial Struggle (an Oral History of Women from Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore). Merlin Press, 2007. https://books.google.se/books?id=8RnYAAAACAAJ.

Anchana Wachira-Asakon

Anchana is a master's student in Asian Studies at the Centre for East and Southeast Asian Studies. Her research interests are gender history in Southeast Asia, human rights studies and the political history of Thailand.
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