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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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