Baradan Kuppusamy |
KUALA LUMPUR, May 11 (IPS) - The Malaysian government has banned a film on the life and times of an octogenarian communist insurgent leader, who had also collaborated with the British during World War II, setting off a hornet's nest of charges about denial of freedom and space for democratic expression.
Film makers, movie buffs and ordinary people have expressed shock and anger at the sudden and unexpected ban on ‘The Last Communist' --a semi-musical road movie that looks at life in the small towns in Malaysia that were connected with the colourful career of Chin Peng (pseudonym for Ong Boon Hua), former head of the long defunct Communist Party of Malaya.
Chin Peng, son of Chinese immigrants, collaborated with the British to resist the Japanese occupation of Malaya and was even decorated for it with the Order of the British Empire (OBE). But, in 1948 he launched a communist insurgency in what became Malaysia, Singapore and Thailand.
Ironically, the film, by independent film maker Amir Muhammad, was treated as benign by the Censor Board which approved it for screening to general audiences without a single cut.
Amir himself described the movie as a ''semi-musical do*****entary road movie inspired by the places and events in the early life of Chin Peng'', the secretary-general of the outlawed Communist Party of Malaya.
It was to have been shown in three cinemas from May 19.
Even a group of Special Branch political police, that has a reputation for its anti-communist stance, did not object to the film.
However, the decision to screen the film was objected to by nationalistic-minded Malays in the ‘Berita Harian', a mass circulation Malay-language daily, which launched a venomous attack on the film in early May.
It accused Amir and the film of glorifying communism. It interviewed leading personalities, including a historian who derided the director and the film and urged the government to ban it.
What many found hard to stomach was the fact that none of the critics of the film had actually seen it. Yet, in a knee-jerk reaction, the government suc*****bed to their demands and announced, last week, that the film was banned.
''It is truly disgusting that a Malaysian film which is showing at 14 film festivals around the world is banned in the country,'' said opposition member of parliament, S. Kulasegaran.
''The government has made a fool of itself,'' Kulasegaran told IPS. ''Even Singapore which once fought a life and death struggle with the communists is to screen the film.''
But then the difference may lie in the fact that Chin Peng's movement, for all its ideological moorings, was supported by ethnic Chinese, rather than the indigenous Malays who dominate Malaysia. In Singapore, on the other hand, ethnic Chinese form the majority.
The Malaysian government says people in this country -- a few of whom are victims of Chin Peng's atrocities -- are not ready for such a movie.
Relentless government propaganda is partly to be blamed for the public reaction to Chin Peng. It was trend that continued from colonial days when the British successfully equated communists with bandits and Chin Peng was not only branded a traitor but his name made synonymous with terror.
In his own views recorded in ‘My Side of the Story', a book compiled from interviews by journalists, Ian Ward and Norma Miraflor and released in 2003, Chin Peng speaks about the effectiveness of British propaganda in exaggerating atrocities committed by the insurgents while camouflaging their own -- such as the 1948 massacre at Batang Kali.
In Singapore, the monolithic People's Action Party (PAP) government of then prime minister Lee Kuan Yew locked up leaders of the main opposition party, the Barisan Sosialis, in the early 1960s, on the grounds that it had links with Chin Peng's movement.
Film makers, enthusiasts and critics are not taking the Malaysian ban lying down. They have launched a campaign to force the government to reverse its decision and supporters from countries like Australia and New Zealand are writing to the government and local media arguing against the ban.
Locally, supporters plan to boycott the ‘Berita Harian' and also pressure advertisers to drop the paper.
The government's explanation is that the atrocities committed by the communist are still fresh in people's mind. "I don't think it's right. I also received a lot of objections and negative feedback from the public so I don't believe Malaysians have reached a level where they are ready for such a movie," Interior Minister Radzi Sheikh Ahmad said.
"So whether you like it or not, the underlying message is that this movie will promote Chin Peng. This is the man who was behind the destruction of property and the loss of many innocent lives,'' he said.
The movie, written and directed late last year, made its world premiere at the Berlin Film Festival in February. It has been invited to 14 international film festivals including those in London, Seattle, Vancouver and Hong Kong.
In a long and passionate rebuttal of the ban in his blog, Amir said: "I am not naive and do know that the subject of communism is taboo in Malaysia. I maintain that The Last Communist was made with a certain sense of responsibility and sensitivity to history."
"It is not a propaganda film but a rather ‘odd' do*****entary," he said. The film does not include any interviews with, or even photographs of, Chin Peng himself.
Amir attacked ‘Berita Harian', as a "conservative newspaper whose cultural politics verges on the ethnocentric and the semi-fascist."
"It is, to put it mildly, horribly unfair for a movie to be banned based on comments by people who had not seen it. I am dismayed that a single newspaper (and a culturally chauvinistic one at that) could cause the government to reverse the decision by the censors," Amir said.
Amir and the production company have appealed against the decision. "I made the do*****entary for Malaysians first of all, since it is about our own past and present. We can't let chauvinists tell us what we can or cannot see."
Human rights activists also decry the ban and demand that the government reverse it.
"It lacks accountability and transparency because it was made at the absolute discretion of the minister," said Sonia Randhawa, executive director of Centre for Independent Journalism, Malaysia.
"Under the current law the minister does not have to account for decisions made for the rest of us," she said, urging the repeal of sections of the film censorship act that disallow appeals against a decision.
"The fact that the minister can ban a movie because people who have not watched it have protested also demonstrates that the government is not interested in transparency," she told ‘The Sun' newspaper.
The National Human Rights Society in a statement said the ban was "another nail in the coffin" for artistic expression in the country. Its president Cecil Rajendra said it is because of such ‘'mindless censorship and repression'' that the country's creative and innovative people preferred to emigrate or stay in exile. (END/2006)