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Thursday, 23 August 2012

The end of Lai Tek


The Secretary General of the Malayan Communist Party (MCP) Lai Tek had smoothed Chin Peng’s ascent to power in the Party. Now his downfall allowed Chin Peng to seize complete control of the MCP. The Central Committee was purged and Chin Peng elected as Secretary General. He was just twenty three. But the Lai Tek crisis was not over. For one thing, Chin Peng realised that Lai Tek must have been planning to pass on information about the location of secret weapons caches to the British. He had cunningly streamlined the Party organisation to create autonomous Organisational Bureau that functioned independently of the Central Committee. Lai Tek had sent a stream of messages to the Bureau, which were never seen by Central Committee members, demanding information about the arms caches and who controlled them. None, however complied. It was simply inconceivable for the old MPAJA fighters to consider putting such high value information in writing. 
On this at least, Lai Tek had been foiled - but the MCP wanted and needed their money back – and no doubt hungered to enact revenge. At a meeting on 6 March, the Politburo agreed that their newly elected Party leader Chin Peng should be granted leave of absence to track down Lai Tek. He would become a Malayan Oedipus, whose destiny was to liquidate the Party’s fallen patriarch... In early July, Chin Peng boarded a north bound train to Butterworth, then changed to the Bangkok line. In the Siamese capital, Chin Peng found a cheap hotel and contacted local communists. He planned to stay there two weeks and then take a flight to Hong Kong – assuming, that is, he had found no trace of the renegade in Bangkok. 
As Chin Peng was returning from the Cathay Pacific office by trishaw, accompanied by a Siamese communist, he noticed a figure in the shadows on the other side of the hot, crowded street. A man was buying cigarettes from a street vendor. He had his back turned. Chin Peng jolted forward to get a better view. There was something terribly familiar about shape of the body, the posture… Could it be Lai Tek? The man turned towards the street and lit up. It seemed to Chin Peng that he was looking directly at him. Time froze. It was a moment worthy of ‘The Third Man’. No, there could be no doubt. There was the fugitive Lai Tek, standing just yards away. Chin Peng ordered the trishaw driver to turn round. But his quarry was already boarding a motorised tuk-tuk which roared off in a cloud of oily smoke. Chin Peng rushed to the Bangkok headquarters of the Vietnamese Communist Party in Sukhumvit and told the comrades about his sighting. He was certain it was Lai Tek. His contact assured him that they would launch a full scale search. It would be well nigh impossible for any Vietnamese gone to ground in Bangkok to avoid detection. 
Soon afterwards, Chin Peng flew on to Hong Kong, another repossessed British colony. This seems an odd decision, given his certainty that Lai Tek was in Bangkok. But he was a young man having an adventure; he had never travelled outside Malaya; he may well simply have wanted to experience his first flight – and on a wonderful four engine Skymaster to boot.  The jaunt, however, paid off. Not long after his arrival in Hong Kong, Chin Peng nspotted a familiar name in the day’s passenger lists in the ‘China Morning Post’: Chang Chan Hong. This was the very name that Chin Peng himself had come up with to get Lai Tek a bogus passport. He had it seemed slipped through the Vietnamese dragnet in Bangkok. The trail was getting hotter by the day. It may appear surprising that Chin Peng’s first call was to Inspector Francis Wong Chui Wai of the Hong Kong Special Branch, who had served in Malaya before the war. The fact is that the MCP was not yet a banned organisation in Malaya or Singapore. In any event, Inspector Wong knew nothing about the whereabouts of Lai Tek. Chin Peng knew that shortly the end of the war, Lai Tek had travelled to Hong Kong to confer with Zhou Enlai, who was second only to Mao Zedong in the Chinese Communist Party leadership. Lai Tek was told in no uncertain terms not to expect material assistance from the CCP which, at the time, was locked into frustrating negotiations with Chiang Kai-shek and the Americans. Lai Tek's audience with Zhou Enlai had been arranged by General Fang Fang, a former editor of the ‘Red Flag’ and a member of the CCP Central Committee. He was still resident in Hong Kong. Chin Peng tracked down General Fang at the offices of the Chinese business daily the ‘Hwa Sung’, a front for the Chinese Communist Party. He discovered that Lai Tek had called by just days earlier and had spun a tale about being kidnapped by the British Special Branch. According to Chin Peng’s account, Fang had supplied Lai Tek with funds to return to Bangkok. Leon Comber, former Special Branch officer and now historian, says that Lai Tek did not request financial assistance. Why should he? He was loaded. Lai Tek had submitted a report, Fang revealed, saying that he was planning to eventually travel back to Singapore to continue the struggle. For Chin Peng, this was all very convenient. A British colony like Hong Kong was not the safest place to carry out an assassination. He now followed Lai Tek’s trail  back to Bangkok on a BOAC flight.
The Viet Minh comrade had news. Lai Tek had contacted the local Vietnamese News Agency and left details of the hotel where he was staying. When a few comrades made further enquiries, they discovered that Lai Tek had checked out of the hotel and was holed up in ‘in a small house on the klong’. It was here that Lai Tek received a visit from a three man Vietminh squad. Chin Peng did not accompany them. He may have assumed that Lai Tek would be brought back to headquarters alive. If he did, he would be very disappointed.
For years afterwards, the fate of Lai Tek remained an unresolved mystery. Some intelligence experts claimed that Special Branch had whisked him off to Hong Kong and resettled him there with a 'new identity’. One historian suggested that Lai Tek was active in ‘Siamese Communist circles’. It was only in 1998 that Chin Peng, by then permanently exiled in Bangkok, finally revealed to Chinese newspaper reporters what had happened to the fugitive Malayan Lenin. Or did he?
Lai Tek had bowed out of history not with a bang but a whimper. The Vietminh squad comprised three young and completely inexperienced men. They waited outside the shop house 'on the klong' and pounced on Lai Tek as he returned to his squalid quarters. The diminutive, sickly Vietnamese put up a tremendous fight. One of the young men gripped him round the neck; Lai Tek writhed and contorted; then he frothed at the mouth; finally he stopped breathing. At the back of the shop house, the assassins found some discarded lengths of hessian used for making sacks. In these, they wrapped the corpse and waited for dark. As soon as night fell, they heaved Lai Tek's body into the rushing waters of the Chao Praya river.
So ended the remarkable life of one of the most enigmatic secret agents in 20th Century intelligence history – the enigmatic puppet master of Malayan communism. He had done sterling clandestine service for the French, the British and the Japanese. Arguably, he put the brakes on a communist revolution in post war Malaya. Many would regard that as a 'good thing'. Not one of these powers would ever honour or acknowledge Lai Tek's contributions to their cause. 
It is odd that Chin Peng did not accompany the squad to positively identify Lai Tek and to confront him about his multiple betrayals. Perhaps he did... He will probably take that secret to his grave. We have no idea at all why the British Special Branch abandoned their ‘Mr Wright’ to his fate. They owed him a great deal. No one has any idea what happened to all the money Lai Tek stole from the Party coffers. As Leon Comber points out, these puzzles are unlikely ever to be solved. 
Freddy Spencer Chapman summed up his impression of Lai Tek: ‘I personally find a character like that – a person who has spent the whole of his life as an informer or traitor, or whateverword you like to use, for one side or the other, then doubly, develops a strange sort of character. You can’t dislike a man intensely just because of that – you’ve got to look behind and understand a certain amount about it. And I don’t think Lai Teck let us down, we couldn’t have got anywhere without him.’

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