THE COMMUNIST SOUP
Speaking of communism in Malaya, the mainstream narrative would focus on saving Thailand from the threat of communism during the Cold War and on integrating the members of the Communist Party into the Thai society. However, the food narrative of the Malaya Communist Party will shed light on another perspective of the communists in Thailand, in particular on their way of life and social ties they had with the local, which continue until this day and may give us some hints at the future.
Understand the communist base area
The Hala-Bala Forest was once the Malaya Communist Party’s base area during the Cold War. The Party members who fled the British troop entered the forest in Betong. To get a glimpse of the situation at that time, we have to trace back to at least the 1930s when the Malaya Communist Party was founded on April 30, 1930 by Chinese, Indian and Indonesian leaders under the Marxist-Leninist ideology, the influence of the Chinese Communist Party, and the resistance to imperialism.
It seems like the communist ideas, especially those from the European communist school, entered Malaya in the same way as imperialism: through western people. According to the biography of Abdullah C.D., the secretary-general of the Communist Party of Malaya, he learned of the left-wing ideas from a British teacher in Perak. This idea propelled him to speak up and become a student leader. This story is consistent with the case of Indonesia. At the time of the arrest of leftist activists in Holland, the colonizer Holland deported these activists to Indonesia. These deported Dutch brought with them the leftist ideas and were a contributing factor to the expansion of the communist ideology in Indonesia.
Later, during World War II, Japan expanded its power to the Southeast Asia to fulfil the New Order of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere, to drive the Western influences led by Britain and the United States out of the eastern hemisphere, and to build solidarity among the Asia-Pacific nations under Japan’s leadership and policy blueprint. Under this plan, during World War II, Japan deployed its army to the Malay Peninsula in 1942. The Malaya Communist Party joined the British colonizers in the fight against the Japanese imperialism for three years and eight months. When Japan finally lost the war, the Malays thought they would gain independence from Britain, but Britain continued to rule. The Malaya Federal Government under the British government declared a state of emergency in 1948 and abolished the Malaya Communist Party, trade unions, and arrested members of the Malaya Communist Party across the country. This was a huge crackdown. Many Malays interpreted this as a betrayal from the British and, thus, in that same year founded the Malaya People’s Army, an underground anti-British force. In the following year, in 1949, the Malaya Communist Party established the Malaya National Liberation Army. Between 1948-1955, it was estimated that as many as 3,000 members of the Malaya Communist Party were killed and 10,000 deported. This heavy crackdown forced the Malaya Communist Party to retreat into Thailand in the 1960s to protect its army. And in the following year (1961), the Party started recruiting new members in the Thai-Malaya border area to expand its force.
The expansion of the Party led to inter-ethnic and cultural interactions which is the subject of interest of this research, but on the flip side, it led to espionage, information leaks, loss of some members, and ultimately internal rupture and schism among the leaders. Even worse, the Malaya Communist Party had to face two battles from the Malaya Federal government under Britain and the Thai government. Standing by them were only the forests and the indigenous peoples living in the border area. In 1988, as the world situation changed, the Chinese Communist Party cut all support, leading to a tripartite peace talk between the Communist Party of Malaya, the Thai government, and the Malaysian government under the Order of the Thai Prime Minister’s Office 66/2523 of the Thai government. The peace agreement between the Communist Party of Malaya and the Malaysian government known as the “Hat Yai Peace Agreement” was achieved and witnessed by the Thai government in 1989. The Malaya Communist Party ended its armed fight, dispersed its troops and destroyed all weapons. While about 400 Party members moved back to their hometowns in Malaysia, the remaining 800 Party members settled in Yala and Narathiwat in Thailand as “Thai Nation Development Cooperators.” The Thai state established four villages to accommodate these Cooperators which were “Rattanakitti Villages 1,2,3, and 4” with support from the 4th Area Army. Later, er Royal Highness Princess Chulabhorn Walailak, President of the Chulabhorn Research Institute, wishing to improve the environment and livelihood of the people in Yala, Pattani and Narathiwat provinces and to ensure stability in the border areas, included the four Rattanakitti Villages under a project of the Chulabhorn Research Institute, and changed the villages’ names to Chulabhorn Phatthana Village 9 (Mae Wad Subdistrict, Than To District, Yala Province), Village 10 (Ayerweng Subdistrict, Betong District, Yala Province), Village 11 (Ba La Subdistrict, Kabang District Yala Province), and Village 12 (Sukirin Subdistrict, Sukirin District, Narathiwat Province).
The Party: The interracial and cultural interaction in the Cold War
The Malaya Communist Party (hereinafter referred to as “the Party”), at the time of retreat into the jungle of Thailand, was made up of members of various nationalities, including Malays, Chinese, Indians, and even Japanese. The mainstream history may give a fairly comprehensive picture of these people, but it fails to mention another group, the Orang Asli, who, in fact, played a vital role in helping the Party operate the warfare and survive until the day of the armistice negotiation. I will discuss it in detail later.
According to the focus group discussion participants, the Malays were the best in adapting to living in the wild thanks to their vegetarian culture, simple recipes and cooking methods. The Chinese had to learn how to eat from the Malay. Some Chinese who found it hard at first to adapt to the new setting eventually suffered from malnutrition, which forced them to adapt to the life in the forest anyway. The relationship between the Malay and the Chinese is very interesting. In the era of international maritime trade, China disseminated the innovation of frying, but in the Cold War era, the Chinese learned how to cook and eat wild produce from the Malay. Although the Malay are now dressed in Arab robes, the root of their daily lives are closer to the Chinese culture than the Arab culture.
Wild food is whatever one can find in the forest, but it does not necessarily mean that wild food has to be lacking in aesthetics. The Party could oftentimes enjoy simple desserts from cassava. As for the coconuts that were harder to find, they would manage to get them in “the surrounding villages,” indicating a certain degree of the relationship between the Party and the Malay communities in the area and as far as in Northern Malaysia. “Budu” mentioned in the previous chapter, was also on the ingredient list. Entering the forest was not an obstacle for them in their quest for budu. They obtained budu from the surrounding villages, from the spies that infiltrated the towns and seaside communities, and from the Party’s unit called “the shopping unit” which was responsible for buying food, doing public relations and psychological operations in surrounding communities, cities and seaside communities. Of course, when the “shopping unit” returned to the forest, they would never forget to bring budu back for their Comrades.
“When we had just crossed the border to the Thai side in Betong and then in Than To to set up a training camp there, the local villagers brought us food. When we built the “Division 10 Political School” in Sukhirin, the local villagers came to help us clear the space, spread the news when we organized events. Some brought their elephants to help carry things. Today we all know each other. The Malay people here helped us. We helped each other. The people around here were so good to us,” said one participant. These are the evidences that the Party was not isolated from the society but managed to maintain a good/positive social interaction on a daily basis with the surrounding communities.
One of the wild dishes that the Party members made from budu is “Por-yor,” which is budu mixed with ripe durian meat, or ripe durian meat marinated in budu. It is believed to be another version of “Tempoyak,” or salted durian, a dish mentioned in Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir’s “Hikayat Abdullah,” also known as “Munshi Abdullah.” It says that Tempoyak is a staple food of the Terengganu people. It can be said that Por-yor was evolved from the Malay cooking culture and originated from the recipe of the Party members.
As mentioned in the beginning, the Chinese who went into the forest learned new culinary skills from the Malay and were budu-ized in the process. Many people were addicted to budu to such a degree that “they wouldn’t eat without budu,” said one of the participants with laughter. This conversation reminds the participants of a person. He was a Chinese from Malaysia but was of the Mainland Chinese descent. When the war ended, China called him back to the Mainland. When he returned, he soon fell ill for an unknown reason and was incurable. He decided to go back to Pattani and stayed in his familiar place in Sukhirin District, Narathiwat Province, and there, he recovered from his illness. When China once again called him back, he refused. This Chinese gentleman believed that what caused him to fall ill when he returned to China and to recover from his illness was food-related. During his time with the Party, he was accustomed to a healthy diet, and the most important food item he was extremely addicted to was budu. In other words, this Chinese person loved budu so much that he refused to return to his homeland.
When his Comrades who had come out of the forest learned of his story, they were worried for him and tried to persuade him to return to China. “He shouldn’t be here because he would have to live in a Malay community not Chinese, and he was already old, but I believed he chose to stay anyway because he fell in love with the Malay budu,” said one participant. The Chinese man’s name was “Amu” which means “wood” and when he chose to spend his life with friends in the Malay community like this, the Malays changed his name to “Comrade Kayu,” which is a Malay word for “wood.” “Budu turned him into a Malay,” said one participant.
Diversity happens in the kitchen.
The Party members came from a variety of ethnic groups, mainly (1) Malays – the leaders were mostly from Perak and most of the members were from Pahang Perak, a tin mine with lots of workers. The economic structure was based on inequality and trade union was a frequently discussed. Perak and Pahang were, therefore, the main source of news and intelligence of the Party, (2) Chinese, many from Singapore, a major city and economic center of Malaya, and (3) Indians brought in by the British during the colonial era.
When these people decided to sail in the same boat and entered the forest in Thailand, they went through trials and errors when selecting food ingredients. Sometimes, they tried feeding the fruits or leaves to monkeys to see if they were edible. They used Malay recipes as the primary method of cooking. They took turn working in the kitchen, exchanging ideas and creativity, and there fusion food happened based on the limited materials. It also led to the “conversations on food culture” among them. For example, “the Chinese eat elephants, deer, but the Malay do not. The reason, I believe, is not a matter of culture, but probably because the Malay don’t know how to eat it. Elephant meat is chewy, thick, and hard. They don’t know how to make it palatable,” said one of the participants. Even hornbills were part of the menu at that time and they were not considered exotic food at all, but a source of protein for sustenance. “In the past, hornbills were easily found everywhere like any other bird. I ate it too at that time. I can tell you that the meat was hard, not delicious at all, but I had to eat it. Now hornbills are hard to find and must be protected. Whoever thinks of trying it can brush off that idea because I already tried it for you and it didn’t taste good,” said another participant.
All of these food-related anecdotes are different from other stories in my research project. That is to say, for the Comrades in the Party, in such a time of refuge in the forest, food was a means of survival and a source of energy to keep on fighting. “Good food” had to be generous in portion and high in energy. They did not have a fixed menu like in a military camp, but the menu was varied due to two factors: 1) available raw materials 2) Comrades who worked in the kitchen that day. The menu depended on the creativity and imagination of the chef and would vary from day to day even with the same ingredients thanks to the differences in the backgrounds and the culinary cultures of the Comrades.
For example, “if bitter beans fell into the hands of Indian cooks, we would get to eat a bitter bean curry. When it was the Chinese members’ turn, they would often create a Chinese style menu that everyone liked, the bean paste buns, because they were delicious, filling, easy to eat and giving high energy. The participants recalled the time when the Chinese and Indian cooks joined forces. They stir-fried canned fish with curry powder and Indian spice and paired it with Chinese steamed buns. This legendary meal was unforgettable and the participants still remember the taste of it until this day.
“When you are in the forest, everything is delicious. Whether food will taste good or bad depends on the atmosphere and whom you eat with,” one participant continued. This shows that the meaning and the abstract value of food may not lie in its presentation or taste, but rather its social context. “What to eat” is sometimes not as important as “whom you eat with.” Another participant exchanged, “Another simple dish that was often eaten in the wild was thick soybean soup. Actually, it was not entirely soybeans, but whatever beans you could get. We boiled all of them as a savory soup with a little meat, curry paste and canned sardines. We boiled it for a long time until it got mushy to get the largest volume. It was very filling. This soybean soup had to be boiled for so long that we had to take turn watching the boiling pot.” When I asked how it tasted, he replied, “It was so good, very very good… but strangely, when I make it again these days, it’s not that delicious anymore.” At the end of the sentence, he burst out laughing. This once again confirms that the meaning of food and eating depends on the society that embraces that food and the people. Cooking and eating is a collective culture of human beings.
A Japanese in the Communist Party of the Hala Bala Forest
“There was one Japanese in our Party,” said one participant. I was a little perplexed because the mainstream history says that the Party was founded to expel the Japanese force. The participant then explained that Japan had launched the New Order of the Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere Warfare to liberate Asia and drive out Western imperialism. This was a common cause for the Party and the Malay nationalist group as well. Many Japanese warriors joined the war with the faith in that ideology. On the day of the Japanese defeat, they did not give up and chose to continue fighting against the British. These former soldiers then decided to join the party. This phenomenon did not occur only in Malaya. In the Philippines, a small Japanese military unit tasked with fighting in the forest did not know and absolutely would not believe that they had been defeated and that the Japanese government had surrendered, so they continued to fight. For the Party, the presence of Japanese soldiers was not a big problem although “sometimes there are some problems because they were old soldiers and liked to think that they were better ,” joked one participant.
Thus, when World War II ended, some 40-50 Japanese soldiers joined the Party. By the end of the Cold War, there were two former Japanese soldiers who remained with the Party. They were Comrade Kiyoaki Tanaka and Comrade Shigeyuki Hashimoto. On the day the war ended, the Supreme Headquarters of the Malaya People’s Army agreed on September 15, 1989, to praise the two Japanese comrades as “Internationalist Warriors.”
All this was possible because of the Orang Asli.
As has been said, the mainstream history of the Malaya Communist Party rarely mentions the role of the Orang Asli people. But the food story in this research project will shed light on the Orang Asli people and show that they are an indispensable support that helped the Party survive until the end of the war. In the period overlapping World War II and the Cold War, the Orang Asli resided on the Thai-Malaya border and were oppressed by the British government. They were dissatisfied with the British imperialism. When the Federal Government of Malaya under Britain was established after World War II, the new government launched a policy to attract the indigenous people like the Orang Asli by giving them certain privileges or special services, such as raising their status to forest keepers, called “Sanai Pra,” the position that still exists today. The Sanai Pra is a forest police force with their own commando. However, the frustration rooted in the inequality and oppression by the British drove a number of Orang Asli people to join the Party which upheld the ideology of equality.
The presence of Orang Asli in the Party was crucial because when the Party retreated into the forest, “There was no one better that we could turn to than the kings of the forest. When the kings of the forest sided with us, we would not be defeated,” said one participant. The term “the kings of the forest” refers to the Orang Asli. The king of the forest was the decisive factor in the victory and defeat of the forest battle because they knew the forest better than anyone else. They even earned the name of “the walking map of the jungle.” The Orang Asli not only guided the way for the Party, but in the early stages of the Party’s entry into the forest, this group helped them precisely identify “edible/inedible plants” or “poisonous/non-poisonous things” including how to remove the poison. The Orang Asli was also “forest doctors” and the knowledge bank of the forest to the party. They easily led the Party to water sources, food sources and medicinal herbs in the forest. Since an army marches on its stomach, the Orang Asli is like the protectors who help others survive the wild especially in the food-related aspect.
The Party’s leader who was the closest to the Orang Asli people was Mr. Rashid Maiden, who “hung out every day” with the kings”, according to one participant. The Orang Asli gave him the nickname “Dato,” and hence everyone calling him “Comrade Dato.”
Today, the Orang Asli live in the former work area of the Party, in the vicinity of Chulabhorn Phatthana Village 12. Most of them live in the forest on the hills. From time to time, they will come down to work on the lowland. As for the neighborhood of Chulabhorn Phatthana 9 Village, some Orang Asli members have moved to settle there and built a community with their old comrades. For anyone who wants wild herbs to cure ailments or plants believed to be great tonics, the Orang Asli will bring them down. The villagers can find them available in grocery stores or tea shops in the area.
The communist soup
At this point, many of you are probably beginning to wonder where the communist soup is in this story. At the end of the Cold War and when the former Malaya Communist Party work area was transformed into something else, each Chulabhorn Pattana village began to develop eco-tourism activities. What remains from the days of the battle are kept in museums and monuments. But one of them, which is still a part of the day-to-day life of the Party members, is the “communist soup.” This is an important dish that tourists must try at least once. This soup is a clear broth made from wild herbs and various spices, has a hot flavor, but varies in taste according to the recipe of each community because each cook who made this soup during the wartime used to make it their own way and never forgot to add a handful of their cultural identity. People in Sukhirin call it “communist soup”, but those living in Than To call it “daliwang soup” (the powerful soup). Different names and different seasonings are the result of the different cultures of old Comrades in the two communities. The soup in Than To is simmered with Chinese medicinal herbs and is clearer. The Sukhirin version is thicker, hotter and spicier, using chamuang leaves for a sour taste instead of lime.
“The communist soup is a name given by outsiders,” said one participant. When I asked what it is called actually. The participant replied, “It doesn’t have a name. We just call it soup.” This emphasizes the status of food in the eyes of the Comrades that the importance of food and eating lies more in its abundance and nutrition than in presentation and name. “In the cold mountain forest, after working hard, nothing beats a hot, spicy, flavorful and high-energy soup,” the statement once again emphasizes that the soup was born to serve the Party’s culinary purpose. In other words, high energy is the key. Of course, the ingredients of the soup are a mixture of Chinese and Indian recipes, and wild herbs from the wisdom of the Orang Asli.
When people from the surrounding communities saw it, they were somewhat puzzled as the soup was different from the soup in the local Malay food culture, so they named the soup according to where it came from, “the communists.” Today, the communist soup has made its place on the menu throughout the southern border provinces. People like to add duck meat as a source of protein because duck meat is easily found in the community and goes well with the taste of the soup. Even though the “communist soup” is widely known, it is not an everyday dish, but for special occasions. The soup is often made for dinner at the gathering of Comrades and activists. The purpose of making this soup, which requires a lot of ingredients and time to simmer, is to bring people together. Conversations over the soup are often social, political, and public agenda-driven issues. The atmosphere makes everyone feel that they are “Comrades.” The persons invited to make and eat soup are usually members of the social-political network. This soup is a reminder for them to not forget the ideology of the Party, that the soup is part energy-boosting food, and part symbol of equality and social activism.
Focus group discussions
Chulabhorn Pattana Village 12, Sukirin Subdistrict, Sukitin District, Narathiwat Province, February 23, 2021.
Chulabhorn Pattana Village 9. Mae Wad Subdistrict, Than To District, Yala Province, February 20, 2021.
Chana Sae-oo. Mae Wad Subdistrict, Than To District, Yala Province, February 20, 2021.
Apisit Binsa. Sukirin Subdistrict, Sukitin District, Narathiwat Province, February 23, 2021.
Yusof Muso. Sukirin Subdistrict, Sukitin District, Narathiwat Province, February 22, 2021.
Mahamasabri Jelah. Sukirin Subdistrict, Sukitin District, Narathiwat Province, February 22, 2021.
This story is the ninth of mini series on “Food Dialogue for Social Cohesion” written by Mr. Arthit Thongin as a part of the independent research under the Southern Thailand Social Innovation Platform initiated by UNDP
Disclaimer: “The views expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily represent those of the United Nations, including UNDP, or the UN Member States.”