WITH The Internationale, the global communist anthem, playing in the background, the crowd of senior citizens chat in a mixture of Mandarin, Malay and Thai. Some appear stooped, but most look robust for their age.
A group of Mandarin-speaking grannies get out of their seats with some plastic bags in hand. “Let’s che tui (retreat),” one says to the others using terms more appropriate for a warfront. “We have a ren wu (mission).”
Just a stone’s throw away, a bright-eyed 60-something woman asks some visitors in Malay: “Which regiment are you from?”
The funeral wake of former communist leader Chin Peng earlier this week had brought together hundreds of his old comrades who lived in the jungles of Malaya as well as neighbouring Thailand more than half a century ago, as they waged a war against the Japanese invaders, British colonisers, and then newly independent Malayan government up till 1989.
Some returned to present-day Malaysia after laying down their arms under the Thailand-brokered 1989 peace accord. Others settled in specially designated peace villages in southern Thailand.
Now in their 50s, 60s, and 70s, they gathered at Bangkok’s That Thong temple from last Friday to Monday to pay their last respects to their exiled leader. United in grief, there was nary a complaint about the day-long rail or road journeys they had to make to get to the funeral.
Emotions still run high in Malaysia today over the legitimacy of their guerrilla war, which left more than 10,000 people dead. Wary of government harassment, few are willing to be named. But they remain fervent in their beliefs, and will share their story with anyone willing to listen.
Ms Wang (not her real name), a pint-sized Malayan-born woman in her 70s, pricked up her ears when she learnt I was a Singapore reporter.
“I studied in Nantah for two years,” she declared, referring to the abbreviated Chinese name for Nanyang University, whichwas reorganised by the Singapore government in the 1960s and then eventually merged with the University of Singapore in 1980 with an English curriculum under a new name National University of Singapore. The current Nanyang Technological University was established in 1991.
Angered by the reorganisation in the 1960s – which some quarters felt would destroy Chinese education – she boycotted classes, and shortly after disappeared across the Causeway and into the forests of Malaya as a communist cadre to fight for a more equitable society.
It would be some 20 years before she would emerge again. She recalls her life in the jungle camps with a steely gaze: “We ate everything we could find. The jungles had so many elephants, rats, birds, wild boar, monkeys and peacocks.”
Wild game, however, could only be hunted when the enemy forces were not close enough to hear gunshots. Communist soldiers too near enemy lines were limited to a tapioca-rich diet, or wild fruit and vegetation.
Ms Lin Ping, a 60-something Malaysian who wanted to be known by the alias she used in her regiment, says: “Some of them only got to eat rice once a year – during the Chinese New Year.”
The real challenge, however, came when they had to start over in society after the 1989 peace accord. Having spent decades waging a guerrilla war, they found their skills irrelevant outside and struggled to explain their long career void to prospective employers.
Ms Lin, who did not get her Malaysian identity card until 2009, remembers being rejected by three companies before she found a job as a typesetter with a publisher in Kuala Lumpur who was sympathetic with the left-wing.
“In the beginning, everybody felt lost. My youth was gone. I couldn’t find a job. And I only knew military skills – but stuff like topography was useless in the real world.”Many of the older fighters ended up as hawkers, labourers or shop assistants, she says, as they could not afford to be choosy.
“We were like illegal immigrants,” she says. “We just struggled and struggled on our own.”
She counts herself lucky that her husband – also a cadre – was a medic during the war and used his skills to set up a small traditional Chinese medicine clinic. The couple, who have no children, live frugally.
“We don’t have lavish meals and we don’t go out much. We don’t have a retirement fund, so we have to make plans for when we cannot work anymore.”
None of them, however, look back in regret.
Ms Wang, who eventually became a school clerk and retired a few years ago, says: “We chose to walk this path to create a better society. Even though we had no careers to speak of, we accept this as a necessary sacrifice.”