Betong, Thailand — In a small jungle clearing at the Thai-Malaysian border, hundreds of former communist guerrilla fighters, dressed in khaki-green uniforms, waved artificial flowers and colorful scarves. It was a welcome ceremony, for Thailand's Army commander in chief, Gen. Chavalit Yongchaiyuth, marking the end of an almost 40-year communist insurgency. The guerrillas belonged to a major faction of the Communist Party of Malaya (CPM), which had been fighting to seize control of Malaysia.
Most of the guerrillas had been bottled up on the Thai side of the Malaysian border for nearly three decades. They no longer posed a serious military threat to either Thailand or Malaysia, but they continued to wield considerable influence over the people in the border area.
The insurgents supported themselves largely by growing rubber, operating a light-bulb factory, and collecting illegal taxes and protection money from rubber plantations and tin and logging operations in the area. Their income totalled between $4 and $8 million each year, according to Thai military estimates.
Some 644 insurgents from the CPM's Marxist-Leninist faction turned themselves in to commanders of Thailand's Fourth Army region in March and April under an amnesty program which gives the defectors land for farming and a one year living allowance.
According to Maj. Gen. Opas Pothipaet, deputy commander of the Fourth Army, the insurgents will be settled in five communities on the Thai side of the border with Malaysia, not far from the areas where they operated as guerrillas. The defectors say they will plant rubber trees and raise vegetables and livestock to make a living.
``We didn't surrender,'' insisted Chiu Chen, a former member of the faction's Politburo who had spent 39 years fighting and living in the jungle.
``We settled our problems with the Thai government through peaceful negotiations,'' he said. ``If the Thai government had laid down a condition of surrendering, we would not have come out.
``We've now given up the armed struggle and are engaged in peaceful reconstruction,'' Chiu Chen declared. ``We want to better our lives and develop this region,'' he said. ``We have no time to consider other questions at the moment.''
About 80 percent of the recent Malaysian communist defectors are ethnic Chinese from Malaysia and the rest are Malays, ethnic Indians from Malaysia, and ethnic Chinese from Thailand.
But, Thai military officials say none of the Malaysian citizens want to return to Malaysia.
``We don't want to go home now,'' said Khao San, a former school teacher from Kuala Lumpur who had spent the past 12 years in the jungle. ``Malaysia doesn't have an amnesty program. We wouldn't have freedom there like we have here,'' he continued, implying that the rebels fear they will face imprisonment arrested if they were to return home.
Thailand is required to extradite Malaysian citizens according to a Thai-Malaysian border agreement signed in 1965, but Major General Opas said Thailand would not repatriate them until they are ready to go.
The Thais have long been irritated at what they consider Malaysia's inflexible attitude in dealing with the communist insurgents. According to Western diplomats in Bangkok, Malaysia rejected Thai requests for help in shouldering the costs of the resettlement program.
Malaysia further annoyed the Thais earlier this year when it began building a tall cement wall along the Thai-Malaysian border.
Malaysia says it is building the barrier to stop the smuggling of drugs and weapons, but the Thais believe it is also intended to keep the Malaysian insurgents bottled up in southern Thailand.
Chiu Chen, the deputy leader of the defecting group, said the Malaysian communist movement split 17 years ago, roughly along the lines of the divide between China and the Soviet Union.
Diplomats in Bangkok say the Marxist-Leninist group which recently defected was better armed and disciplined than the older Maoist group which is still holding out.
In May, the Thai Army mounted a large-scale military operation aimed at forcing the remaining 800 to 900 guerrillas in the pro-Chinese faction to surrender, according to Major General Opas. He was confident the others would come out within a year.