Slavery case: the high-flying student who vanished into a Maoist sect
Malaysian 'slave' held in London for 30-years named as highflying student who disappeared while studying in London
A Malaysian family has come forward to claim that a woman allegedly held as a slave for 30 years is a relation who disappeared virtually without trace after joining a Maoist sect.
Kamar Mautum, a retired teacher, said she believed her 69-year-old sister, Aishah, was one of the women who had allegedly been held captive by the leaders of a 1970s Communist collective for 30 years.
She said her disappearance had caused extreme heartache for her family.
Aishah had studied at one of Malaysia’s most elite schools, eventually winning a Commonwealth scholarship to study surveying in London.
She moved to Britain in 1968 with her fiancé and dreamed of balancing an exciting career with a family, but was soon involved in extremist politics, eventually giving up everything to follow a Maoist doctrine.
She fell under the spell of Aravindan Balakrishnan and his partner Chanda, who were last week arrested on suspicion of holding three women against their will for more than three decades in south London.
Speaking from her home near Kuala Lumpur, Kamar said their mother’s dying wish had been to know what had happened to her daughter, who never returned.
Kamar said: “I have felt so choked without her for years and years. She was so talented, she was the apple of my mother’s eye. She asked for her on her death bed.” She added: “When my mother died she [Aishah] did not want to talk to us and I could not do very much.”
Dressed in a plain white Islamic hijab, Kamar said her younger sister had a promising future after excelling at a leading private school.
She said her father, who was a school inspector and wealthy landowner, had given the children strong Muslim values but Aishah had turned her back on her upbringing.
Kamar said: “This has been a dark age for her and for all of us. I will do anything to bring her home. I want to see her before either of us dies.”
When Aishah and her fiancé, Omar Munir, arrived in London together it was the time of increasing social unrest with growing protests about the war in Vietnam.
Both were soon attracted to an organisation called the Malaysian and Singaporean Students Forum (Mass), which had a reputation as one of the more extremist Maoist groups operating in London.
Under the leadership of Mr Balakrishnan and his partner Chandra Pattni, a Tanzanian of Indian descent, the collective was at the forefront of many student protests, despite boasting only a small membership.
Mr Balakrishnan was a short, plump and mustachioed ideologue, known derisively in Left-wing circles as “Chairman Ara”.
But, bright and charismatic, he was also respected by many on the far Left.
Among the group’s many supporters were Malaysians who had fled a crackdown on radicals in their country and were backing the Maoist uprising from their London base.
Kamar said her sister was so in awe of the leader that she eventually split with her fiancé, throwing her engagement ring into the River Thames, in a row over her loyalty to 'Chairman Ara’, or 'Comrade Bala’ as he was known to his followers.
According to Aishah’s family, the Malaysian government became aware of her political activities in London and warned her in the 1970s that it would make it very difficult for her to return home.
Her brother, who lived in London at the time, once received a visit from Aishah, who was accompanied by Mr Balakrishnan and an English woman.
Despite being hard-working, Kamar said Aishah was headstrong and stubborn.
She explained: “She is very headstrong, she sticks to her opinion and does not waver. My brother discouraged her from going to his house because of the stigma of her involvement in politics, because he had children.
“Aishah’s attitude was 'if you don’t want me, fine.’ And then she disappeared.”
Aishah’s brother later regretted his comments but when he tried to find his sister she had disappeared.
He asked Ishammuddin Rais, a prominent Malaysian radical living in London in the early 1970s to help find her, but he could not locate her.
According to one member of Balakrishnan’s group, Aishah soon moved in permanently with the small Marxist cell which regularly moved between squats and council homes in Brixton, Haringey and Woodford Green.
The fellow Malaysian, who asked not to be named said: “Aishah joined the group after me. She was an ethnic Malay with privileges in Malaysia so it was a big step for her, she had a big sense of social justice. She was very determined, loyal.”
He explained that Aishah, in common with other members of the group, used to work to subsidise the party.
They would give away the vast majority of their wages, keeping only enough back to use as pocket money.
At one point there were thought to be up to 45 members and 200 supporters, but the group’s popularity waned as Mr Balakrishnan’s ideology became more and more extreme.
The former member said this coincided with the leader becoming more manipulative and controlling and he soon began expelling anyone he regarded as a threat.
He said: “We were extremely concerned about Aishah, some people tried to bring her away. They knew … Bala had initiated the break up of her relationship with Omar.
“If he felt someone was challenging him or they didn’t toe the line, he would try to isolate them and if they were in a relationship he would try to break it up.”
He said eventually he was also expelled from the group after Mr Balakrishnan accused him of being a spy and a 'counter-revolutionary’.
“He was concerned that I was getting too much limelight and followers who took my way of thinking so he started circulating rumours that my wife was trying to [have an affair] with my cousin. That’s how he broke up Aishah’s relationship with Omar,” he said.
The former supporter claimed that as his previously loyal followers became disenchanted, Mr Balakrishnan sought to bolster his standing in the group by deliberately getting himself arrested.
He claimed this was merely a cynical bid to portray his self-sacrifice for the revolution.
“He wanted to bolster his authority, so he engineered his arrest and told us it was for political reasons. He wanted to appear a martyr,” he explained.
He later aligned his group with the Maoist Communist Party of England (Marxist-Leninist), which supported China’s Cultural Revolution and regarded only China and Albania as true Communist countries.
But he was later expelled from the party after clashing with the leaders over ideology.
In a letter outlining the reasons for his expulsion, he was told: “Your attempts to split and disrupt those who are participating in the revolution can only be seen as despicable and sordid attempts to turn the wheel of history backwards. You will not succeed.”
Aishah was one of just a small band of loyalists who remained with Mr Balakrishnan and Chanda.
The former member said: “What happened is that over 25 to 30 years all of the things that were supposed to happen, didn’t happen.
“The world did not have a global revolution. His vision collapsed but he still tried to keep a grip on a small number of people.
“Aishah had cut herself off from everybody, her relationship, her family and lived in the collective. She remained with them, was financially dependent on them, had no friends, she became more and more reliant on them.”
He went on: “If your self-confidence is being chipped away all the time, self-esteem chipped away, you feel intellectually inferior … and you are dependent on group living, you are as good as being in prison.”