LONDON – AISHAH Wahab, the 72-year-old Malaysian woman who lived under the control of a Maoist cult leader for 40 years, broke her silence on Thursday night in an hour-long BBC documentary, The Cult Next Door.
In the documentary made by award-winning producer Vanessa Engle, Aishah spoke about life in the commune under the tight control of Aravindan Balakrishnan, who brainwashed her and others into believing that he was God and had the power to destroy and cause natural disasters like earthquakes. Aishah came to the city at the age of 24 to study quantity surveying.
The soft spoken and gentle woman said she met Balakrishnan, the leader of the Workers’ Institute of Marxism–Leninism–Mao Zedong Thought, in the 1970’s, and, like other members, helped distribute leaflets outside universities.
Among those who fell under his control were two other Malaysians, one who died during the stay at the commune, and another who gave evidence that she was sexually abused and raped. She later escaped. In January last year, Aravindan, or better known as Comrade Bala to his small band of followers living in several addresses in the south of the city, was sentenced to 23 years’ jail after he was found guilty of raping two of his followers and keeping his own daughter, Katy Morgan-Davies, a prisoner since birth.
It was 30 years later that Katy walked out to freedom, helped by another member of the cult. Aishah had voluntarily left Bala and his wife, Chanda, a day after Katy escaped after calling a helpline to tell about her involuntary detention.
Recalling the fateful day in 2013, Aishah said she had offered to cook them lunch when the police came. “I told the police I would come with them. As I was coming out, I saw Chanda and Bala there, and I went and hugged them.” Aishah became tearful and said she was very sad when she remembered the last time she saw them.
She nodded, on the verge of crying, when it was suggested that Bala and Chanda were like family, after being with them for 40 years. When asked about beatings by Bala, Aishah said she was beaten and slapped if she did something wrong. She recalled an occasion when she was punished after trying to comfort Katy, then 4, when she accidentally wet herself. It was then that she considered leaving, but could not do so as she had no money or friends outside the collective. She was also scared of being deported.
Aishah Wahab shares he story in BBC’s documentary, ‘The Cult Next Door’
Cult members, who were reduced to only about three after the police raid, were subjected to daily indoctrination. Notes found in logbooks showed that Bala was very much in control, noting down what he wanted for his dinner and what programmes they could watch on television. After 40 years of living in the commune, Aishah, who had severed her relationship with her family, said she was “happy” to be a member of the cult. She found life to be interesting. “I was never bored. There is always something new to learn and do.
I just can’t imagine a life better than that I would have had a better life than that,” said Aishah, who is now rebuilding her life, living on her own. There were chuckles and laughter when she was reminded of some “nonsensical” ideas that were planted in their minds by Bala.
Cult members were not allowed to go to the hospital or get dental treatment. They were told that teeth would drop naturally and “regrow after 100 years”. Aishah was shown asking a dentist whether he had heard of such a thing, to which the answer was “no”. She told the dentist that she had heard about it from someone she knew and she believed it to be true. When one of the followers, Sian Davies, got pregnant with Katy, Aishah and other members were told that the reason her tummy was getting bigger was because of gas.
When the baby was born, they were not told who the father was, and while they all looked after Katy, they were discouraged from cuddling or caressing her. “I think on the question of whether we were brainwashed, I quite agree. “The reason that we were given was that the brain needs to be washed because it’s dirty or mucky or whatever. “If you want a new world, you have to chip away the old.”