Communist Party of Burma
The Communist Party of Burma (Burmese: ဗမာပြည်ကွန်မြူနစ်ပါတီ; CPB) is the oldest existing political party in Burma. It is currently illegal and operates clandestinely, often associating with insurgent armies along the border of People's Republic of China. It is often referred to as the Burma Communist Party (BCP) by both the Burmese government and the foreign media.
- 1 Origins
- 2 Fight for independence
- 3 Browderism and Red Flag – White Flag split
- 4 Armed revolution
- 5 Civil war
- 6 "1955 line" vs. "arms for democracy"
- 7 AFPFL split and caretaker government
- 8 United fronts
- 9 Military coup and peace parley
- 10 Cultural revolution
- 11 North-East Command
- 12 ”Four Cuts”
- 13 Reorganisation
- 14 Opium warlords
- 15 Minorities question
- 16 New agenda
- 17 Peace parley 1980–81
- 18 8888 Uprising
- 19 Today
- 20 See also
- 21 References
- 22 External links
- Thakin*Aung San
- Thakin Ba Hein
- Yèbaw Ba Tin aka H. N. Goshal (**)
- Thakin Soe
- Thakin Hla Pe (later Bo Let Ya)
- Yèbaw Tun Maung aka Dr Nath and
- Thakin Bo
Its leaders in its long history of nearly 70 years were:
*Thakin is Burmese for master – members of the nationalist Dobama Asiayone (We Burmans Association) put Thakin in front of their names proclaiming that they were the true masters of Burma and not the British.
Fight for independence
The CPB fought for independence from Great Britain and against Japanese occupation. Between 1942 and 1945, the party prepared for and organised resistance against emerging fascism, particularly Japanese occupation of Burma.
While in Insein prison in July 1941, Thakins Soe and Than Tun had co-authored the Insein Manifesto which declared fascism as the major enemy in the coming war and called for temporary cooperation with the British and the establishment of a broad coalition alliance that should include the Soviet Union. The fight for independence would be resumed after the defeat of fascism. It followed the Popular Front line advanced by the Bulgarian communist leader Georgi Dimitrov at the Seventh Comintern Congress in 1935. This was against the prevailing opinion of the Dobama movement including Thakin Aung San who had secretly left Burma with a group of young men, who later became known as the Thirty Comrades, in order to receive military training from the Japanese and founded the Burma Independence Army (BIA), later renamed the Burma Defence Army (BDA) and subsequently the Burma National Army (BNA).
A puppet administration was set up during the occupation by the Japanese on 1 August 1943. Soe had gone underground in the Irrawaddy Delta to organize armed resistance soon after the invasion, and Than Tun as Minister of Land and Agriculture was able to pass on intelligence to Soe. Other communist leaders Thakins Thein Pe and Tin Shwe made contact in July 1942 with the exiled colonial government in Simla, India. In January 1944 at a secret meeting near Dedaye in the Delta, the CPB successfully held its First Congress chaired by Soe.
The Communists were in the forefront of armed resistance which subsequently became a national uprising on 27 March 1945 led by the BNA under the command of General Aung San. The communist commander Bohmu Ba Htoo of the northwest command based in Mandalay started the rebellion three weeks earlier on 8 March. The CPB together with the BNA and the People's Revolutionary Party (PRP, later renamed the Socialist Party), had formed the Anti-Fascist Organisation (AFO) at a meeting in Pegu in August 1944; it was transformed into the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL) a year later after the defeat of Japan and the return of the British colonial administration in order to continue the fight for independence. The party that had started with a small group of men now became a major legal political party from 1945 until 1948 when Burma gained independence from Britain.
Browderism and Red Flag – White Flag split
In February 1946 Thakin Soe denounced the leadership, accusing them of Browderism, the form of revisionism espoused by Earl Browder, leader of the American Communist Party, who proposed that armed struggle would no longer be necessary, as world fascism and imperialism had been weakened, making constitutional methods a real option to achieve "national liberation". Thein Pe, who had replaced Soe as secretary general, was the leader responsible for the policy paper on strategy entitled Toward Better Mutual Understanding and Greater Cooperation written in India and adopted at the party's Second Congress at Bagaya Road, Rangoon in July 1945. Soe broke away from the CPB to form a splinter group called the Red Flag Communist Party. The majority remained with Thakins Than Tun and Thein Pe and continued to cooperate with the AFPFL; the main party became known as the White Flag communists although the title has never been officially accepted. During negotiations the British noticed that Than Tun was the thinker behind Aung San as he referred to his brother-in-law repeatedly for his opinion. Also dubbed 'Thein-Than Communists' in the popular press, in the end they failed to achieve 'Leftist Unity' with Aung San and the Socialists led by U Nu and Kyaw Nyein within the AFPFL.
Soe and Ba Tin had travelled to India in September 1945 to talk to the Communist Party of India where Browderism was already under attack, and Soe came back convinced that armed struggle was the only way forward. Amidst widespread strikes starting with the Rangoon Police and mass rallies, the new British Governor Sir Hubert Rance offered Aung San and the others seats in the Executive Council which after an initial refusal was taken up in September 1946. The CPB had by now abandoned the Browderist line, and a rift that had opened up between the party and Aung San with the socialists culminated in Than Tun being forced to resign as general secretary of the AFPFL in July of that year, a position he had held since its inception. The party was finally expelled from the AFPFL on 2 November after the communists had accused Aung San and the socialists of 'kneeling before imperialism', selling out by joining the Executive Council, and calling off the general strike.
Elections and "sham independence"
In February 1947 Ba Thein Tin and communist student leader Aung Gyi attended the British Empire Conference of Communist Parties in London, the first time the CPB took part in an international communist forum. After denouncing the elections to the Constituent Assembly that took place the following April, the party fielded 25 junior candidates but won just 7 seats. The assassination of Aung San and his cabinet members on 19 July stunned the CPB as much as the rest of the country, but the party was still anxious to build a united front with the AFPFL in order to drive the British out of Burma, convinced that the assassination was an imperialist plot to stop Aung San from achieving Leftist Unity.
Thakin Nu concluded negotiations that Aung San had started with the British premier Clement Attlee in London, and the Nu-Attlee Treaty of October 1947 was condemned as a sham by the communists, the bone of contention in particular being the Let Ya-Freeman Defence Agreement, appended as an annex to the treaty. It provided for an initial period of three years for a British military training mission to remain in the country and a possible future military alliance with Britain. This was to the CPB proof of British intention to subvert Burma's sovereignty and Nu's capitulation.
Crossroads to conflict
At the first Cominform meeting in Poland, on 22 September 1947, the Soviet delegate Andrei Zhdanov in his speech had divided the world into two camps: the anti-democratic imperialist camp led by the US, and the democratic anti-imperialist camp led by the Soviet Union. He argued that, though greatly weakened by the war, the imperialist powers were now trying to regain their former colonies, either by handing over power to 'collaborationist national bourgeois' as in India and Burma, or by trying to crush national liberation movements"as in Indonesia and Vietnam.
On National Day, 8 November 1947, Nu called for a new coalition of the Socialists, the CPB and the PVO (People's Volunteer Organisation) formed from the demobbed war veterans by Aung San as his own paramilitary force. When it failed Nu accused the communists of gathering arms for an insurrection. The impact of communist campaigning against the treaty left its mark in Burma's decision not to join the British Commonwealth. The party's Burma-born Bengali theoretician Goshal's thesis in December titled On the Present Political Situation and Our Tasks set out a revolutionary strategy reviving the slogan 'final seizure of power' from the previous January, and called for a 'national rising to tear up the treaty of slavery', nationalisation of all British and foreign assets, the abolition of all forms of landlordism and debt, the dismantling of the state bureaucracy and its replacement with a people's government, and alliances and trade agreements with 'democratic China, fighting Vietnam and Indonesia' and other democratic countries resisting 'Anglo-American imperialist domination'. A twofold strategy would be followed: an escalating campaign of strikes by workers and government employees in Rangoon and other cities, and the establishment of "liberated" areas in the countryside to be defended by Red Guards consisting of PVOs trained in guerilla warfare.
February 1948 saw a wave of strikes in Rangoon by the All Burma Trade Union Congress (ABTUC) backed by the CPB, and in March a 75,000 strong mass rally by the All Burma Peasants Organisation (ABPO) at Pyinmana. Nu gave the order to arrest the communist leaders convinced that they were planning an uprising on Resistance Day, 27 March, only to find the CPB headquarters at Bagaya empty on the morning of 28 March; his quarry had flown to their stronghold Pyinmana to start an armed revolution. The CPB was not however officially outlawed until October 1953.
Within eight months of independence Burma plunged into an all out civil war. Soe's Red Flag Communists had already started a rebellion, so had the Rakhine nationalists led by the veteran monk U Seinda as well as the Mujahid Rakhine Muslims. The PVO had split into White-band and Yellow-band factions; the majority White-band PVO led by Bo La Yaung, a member of the Thirty Comrades, and Bo Po Kun, joined the insurrection in July. Nu's government deployed the Karen and Kachin Rifles to suppress the communist uprising, and took Pyay, Thayetmyo and Pyinmana during the latter half of 1948. The Karen National Union (KNU) rebelled at the end of January 1949 when the Army Chief of Staff Gen. Smith Dun, an ethnic Karen was replaced by Gen. Ne Win, a socialist commander and senior member of the Thirty Comrades after Aung San and Bo Let Ya. The Mon joined the Karen. The Pa-O in the Shan State also rose up. Three regiments of the Burma Rifles also went underground led by communist commanders Bo Zeya, Bo Yan Aung and Bo Yè Htut, all members of the Thirty Comrades, forming the Revolutionary Burma Army (RBA).
The CPB's appraisal of Burma as a 'semi-colonial semi-feudal' state led to the Maoist line of establishing guerilla bases among the peasants in the countryside as opposed to mobilising the urban proletariat, although it continued to support above-ground leftist opposition parties such as the Burma Workers and Peasants Party (BWPP) led by trade union leaders Thakins Lwin and Chit Maung, and dubbed 'crypto-communists' or 'red socialists' by the Rangoon press. They tried unsuccessfully to bring the communists back into mainstream politics, and in 1956 formed an alliance called the National United Front to contest the election on a 'peace ticket' winning 35% of the vote though only a small number of seats.
The politburo's decision to fight 'for the very existence of our party' at a clandestine central committee meeting in April 1948 in Rangoon was confirmed the following month by the full plenum of the CC at Hpyu 120 miles north of the capital. The headquarters of the CPB remained on the move mostly in the forests and hills along the Sittang River valley, Pyinmana – Yamethin area in central Burma, sometimes north into the Three M triangle (Mandalay – Meiktila – Myingyan). Debt was abolished, and farming and trading co-operatives established in areas under their control. One year into the insurrection its forces were reorganised along Maoist lines into a main force, mobile guerilla forces and local people's militia, with the command shared between military and political commissars. In September 1950 the People's Army (PA) was formed by merging the communist People's Liberation Army (PLA) with Bo Zeya's Revolutionary Burma Army (RBA). Its regular forces consisted of four main divisions, each with 1,000 men under arms.
The Karen National Union (KNU) with its 'reactionary feudal leadership' was regarded as being used by the British to destabilise the Union by both the AFPFL government and the communists, although Than Tun had supported the earlier Rakhine nationalist rebellion against the British, the Shan struggle against the feudal autocracy, and the Karen right to self-determination. The civil war was thus waged from three sides: the AFPFL, the Communist-PVOs and the ethnic minority nationalists with the KNU threatening Rangoon itself in early 1949. Nu estimated government casualties alone at 3,424 dead including 1,352 army personnel in 1952.
"1955 line" vs. "arms for democracy"
The communist military offensive began to run out of steam, and in 1955 the CPB put forward the 'Peace and Unity' line. It combined a strong peace movement by its above-ground supporters and sympathizers and proposals by Than Tun to the AFPFL government in 1956. War-weariness had led to a desire for peace, and the move was welcomed by both the leftist opposition and conservative groups in Rangoon. Thakin Kodaw Hmaing, the revered veteran nationalist leader, formed an Internal Peace Committee which in 1958 was allowed by the government to speak on the CPB's behalf. The results of the 1956 election, where the National United Front did very well on a peace ticket, had also given the AFPFL a jolt.
On the international front, US support of the Kuomintang (KMT) forces, that had crossed over from Yunnan province into northeastern Burma after Mao's victory in China, had resulted in Burma's refusal to join the South-East Asia Treaty Organisation (SEATO). Zhou Enlai visited Rangoon on his return from the Geneva Conference on Indo-China to meet Nu, and issued a joint communique reaffirming the 'five principles of peaceful co-existence' and the right of people 'to choose their own state system'; Nu repaid the visit the same year receiving the assurance that Chinese leaders had no contact with the CPB. Ne Win also led a military delegation to Beijing in 1957, and met Chairman Mao Zedong. A week-long visit in December 1955 by Nikolai Bulganin and Nikita Khrushchev appeared to endorse Burma as a model non-aligned, socialist Third World country developing at its own pace; Burma was a strong supporter of the 1955 Bandung Conference. Joseph Stalin's death and the shift in Soviet policy under Khrushchev contributed to the mood of national reconciliation.
Now U Nu turned the communist peace offensive to his advantage and came up with a very successful 'arms for democracy' offer. Tatmadaw offensives in early 1956, Operation Aung Thura (Valiant Victory) in Pakokku area and Operation Aung Tayza (Glorious Victory) in Pathein area, had been partly successful. The year 1958 saw mass surrenders of first the Rakhine nationalists led by U Seinda, next the Pa-O, Mon, and Shan communists, but most importantly the PVO led by Bo Po Kun. The official figure was 5,500 armed insurgents that 'entered the light', of which about 800 were White Flag communists mainly in Sittwe, northern Rakhine State. The one crucial exception was the KNU.
AFPFL split and caretaker government
The year 1958 also saw the AFPFL split into a 'Clean' faction led by U Nu and Thakin TIn, and a 'Stable' faction led by Ba Swe and Kyaw Nyein, despite the success of the 'arms for democracy' offensive. Those groups that had taken the offer now formed legal opposition parties such as the PVO's People's Comrade Party (PCP). As Nu carried on with his 'peace initiative' wooing them for support, army hardliners began to see the threat of the CPB being allowed to re-enter mainstream politics through their agency and contest in elections. This led to Nu having to hand over power to the Army Chief of Staff U Ne Win who became prime minister of a caretaker government facing opposition and protest only from the NUF and students. Over 400 communist sympathizers were arrested, and among the 153 deported to the Coco Islands in the Andaman Sea was a leader of the NUF Aung Than, older brother of Aung San. The Botahtaung, Kyemon and Rangoon Daily newspapers were also closed down.
The military also intensified psychological warfare accusing the communists of being enemies of Buddhism in a widely distributed booklet titled Dhammantaraya (Dhamma in Danger). The CPB countered with a pamphlet titled Rip off the Mask reaffirming its support for Buddhism and the individual's right to practise any religion. The Tatmadaw however achieved better success in its military offensives between 1958 and 1960.
In March 1949 the first united front to overthrow the AFPFL called the People's Democratic Front (PDF) was set up in Pyay after the town was captured by a joint CPB, RBA and PVO force. The Tripartite Alliance Pact was the next, signed by Than Tun, Soe and Bo Po Kun at Alaungdaw Kathapa village near Monywa on 1 October 1952 amidst great rejoicing. Apart from the CPB-RBA merger of September 1950, the agreements mainly involved demarcation of territory and terms of cooperation.
National Democratic United Front
In November 1952 the Zin-Zan Agreement for a ceasefire was reached between the CPB and the KNU but a military alliance did not materialise until May 1959 in the form of the National Democratic United Front (NDUF). The surrender of the smaller ethnic nationalists had put paid to the Democratic Nationalities United Front (DNUF) established in April 1956 by the KNU now dominated by the Maoist Karen National United Party (KNUP) led by Mahn Ba Zan. This left the KNU isolated and it moved closer to the CPB despite the many staunch anti-communists in the veteran Christian leadership.
The NDUF also included the fledgling New Mon State Party (NMSP) formed after the surrender of the Mon People's Front (MPF) and led by Nai Shwe Kyin, the Chin National Vanguard Party (CNVP) formed in March 1956, and the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP) formed in July 1957 and led by Saw Maw Reh. Both the NMSP and the KNPP had been founded with the help of the KNU. It was the most successful united front with the nationalities militarily, and lasted till 1976 when the KNU broke away from the NDUF to form the National Democratic Front (NDF). Political differences however remained unresolved as no compromise was possible between the CPB's support for regional autonomy only as in China and the minorities' demand for self-determination.
Military coup and peace parley
Ne Win's caretaker government presided over a general election in February 1960 which saw the return of U Nu to office after his Clean faction, renamed the Union Party, won a landslide majority over the Stable faction. Parliamentary democracy this time however lasted just two years before Ne Win staged the 1962 coup d'état on 2 March, as the Shan Federal Movement led by the first president of independent Burma Saopha of Yawnghwe Saw Shwe Thaik was seen as a secessionist movement by army diehards. A major crackdown on the above-ground opposition followed, rounding up and imprisoning most of the remaining leaders of the AFPFL as well as the ethnic leaders, and as a foretaste of thngs to come a peaceful Rangoon University student protest was brutally suppressed by the military ending in the massacre of over a hundred students on 7 July 1962.
In 1963 Ne Win as head of the Union Revolutionary Council government launched a peace offensive starting with a general amnesty on 1 April. Bo Ye Htut, a member of the Thirty Comrades and central military committee of the CPB who had been to Rangoon on a secret peace mission before the 1958 AFPFL split, took the offer together with Bo Ye Maung and Bo Sein Tin. The KNU split in the same month between the KNUP and the Karen Revolutionary Council (KRC) led by Saw Hunter Tha Hmwe. The first insurgent group to arrive in Rangoon was the Red Flag delegation in June later joined by Thakin Soe himself from Arakan in August. After just three meetings the talks were abruptly ended by the RC on 20 August and the Red Flag communists were flown back to Sittwe.
Three CPB teams arrived in July and September by air from China led by Bo Zeya, Yebaw Aung Gyi, Thakins Pu and Ba Thein Tin. These 'Beijing returnees' were allowed to travel to the party’s jungle headquarters in the Bago Yoma near Paukkaung where the leadership, reunited after 15 years, held an historic meeting of the Central Committee. Talks began on 2 September after the CPB delegation headed by the general secretary Yebaw Htay and the People's Army's chief of staff Bo Zeya arrived on 28 August. A second team headed by Thakin Zin, politbureau member and secretary of the NDUF which agreed to negotiate as one team, arrived on 20 September. Meetings with the CPB and NDUF overshadowed those with other nationalities such as the Shan and Kachin delegations.
Talks broke down on 14 November when the Revolutionary Council government demanded that:
- All troops must be concentrated in a designated area.
- No one must leave without permission.
- All organisational work must stop.
- All fund-raising must stop.
Expectations had been running high, and the People’s Peace Committee, set up by the NUF and supported by Thakin Kodaw Hmaing and former brigadier Kyaw Zaw, staged a Six-District Peace March in early November from Minhla to Rangoon. The marchers were cheered and applauded along the entire route by large crowds chanting anti-government slogans, and given food parcels collected by the Rangoon University Students Union (RUSU) and the All Burma Federation of Student Unions (ABFSU). When they reached Rangoon at a mass rally of 200,000 in front of City Hall, speakers openly supported the NDUF’s demand to keep its weapons and territory. Although at first the CPB and NDUF had misinterpreted Ne Win’s peace offensive as a sign of weakness desperate for a solution, once they arrived in Rangoon they realised it was going to be a mainly cosmetic exercise. They therefore took the opportunity to re-establish contacts and meet family and friends.
Over 900 people were arrested in the immediate aftermath, mostly BWPP and NUF activists, but also Thaton Hla Pe, leader of the Union Pa-O National Organisation (UPNO) and formerly of the insurgent Pa-O National Organisation (PNO), who was one of the main organisers of the peace march, and Nai Non Lar leader of the former Mon People’s Front (MPF). By the end of the year over 2,000 were believed to be in prison. Almost the entire executive committees of the RUSU and the ABFSU fled to join the CPB.
In 1967 Than Tun carried out his own cultural revolution, purging the party of ‘revisionists’, and as in China things went out of control, gaining notoriety as the line of ‘purge, dismiss and eliminate’, before he could finally pull the reins back. Great damage nonetheless had already been done to the CPB's image, particularly the killing of young university student leaders who had joined the CPB after the failed peace parley in 1963. The country had experienced this kind of treatment of their young only recently at the hands of General Ne Win's army in the 7 July 1962 massacre. From now on the CPB would no longer be the destination and refuge of later waves of students fleeing government crackdown and suppression of major protests and demonstrations; they would instead go to ethnic rebel areas, most tellingly in the wake of the failed national uprising in 1988.
The failure of the peace talks, the intensification of political repression combined with military offensives, and more significantly the military junta’s manifesto of the ‘’Burmese Way to Socialism’’ soon after the coup and the founding of the Burma Socialist Programme Party (BSPP) with the help of ex-Communists, all contributed to a certain part of the CPB leadership’s review of its armed struggle which had been the main difference between the party and the above-ground leftist opposition BWPP and NUF. Goshal, Yebaw Htay and Bo Yan Aung headed the faction that now questioned the relevance of the armed struggle, and Thakins Than Tun, Zin, Chit and Bo Zeya became the majority reinforced by the ‘Beijing returnees’ headed by Yebaw Aung Gyi, a former RUSU leader whose detailed analysis of the party’s history so far was adopted as the ‘1964 line’ at the meeting of the CC near Nattalin from 9 September to 14 October 1964.
At this historic meeting, which 11 out of 20 CC members were able to attend, they reached unanimous agreement to reaffirm Burma’s status as ‘semi-colonial’ after her ‘pseudo-independence’ and the primacy of the armed struggle against Ne Win’s ‘armed counter-revolution’. The party would establish a broad alliance of the nationalities and peasants in a united front, with the key task identified as party building.
The Soviet-China split saw the CPB squarely behind the Communist Party of China (CCP), rejecting the 1955 ‘revisionist’ line. On the 50th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution, the party declared that the Communist Party of the Soviet Union (CPSU) was now supporting Ne Win’s ‘pseudo-socialism’.
Burma’s insurgent armies, both ethnic and communist, had been students of Mao’s Protracted War whatever their ideology. Now the CPB began to identify so closely with the CCP that it became China’s most important ally among the communist parties in the region, more so after China’s cultural revolution spilled over its borders leading to violent anti-Chinese riots in Burma with huge loss of life and property in Rangoon and the rest of the country.
Upholding the banner of ‘Marxism-Leninism-Mao Tse-tung Thought' (MLMTT), the CPB embarked on building up rural bases called Red Power areas with ‘hard core’ activists in order to encircle the cities from the countryside for the ‘final seizure of power’ once again the strategic goal. A central school for political training in MLM was established and the first course began on 25 March 1965. Growing dissension in the party however prompted Thakins Than Tun, Chit and the Beijing returnees to meet on 16 August 1966 in order to decide on a strategy to counter this. They borrowed directly from China in their decision to use Red Guard youth teams and chose university and high school students at the party headquarters.
On 27 April 1967 Goshal and Yebaw Htay were suspended from the politbureau, and a number of senior officials, such as Yebaw Ba Khet, sensing the danger, defected. Goshal was summarily tried and executed on 18 June followed by Htay whose own son formed part of the execution squad. They were dubbed Burma’s ‘Deng Xiaoping’ and ‘Liu Shaochi’ respectively. Than Tun and the remaining politbureau passed a resolution on 15 December to adopt the ‘intra-party revolutionary line’ and ordered party units around the country to carry out their own purges. Bo Yan Aung, who accompanied Aung San to Amoy on the historic journey in search of military training abroad as the first of the Thirty Comrades, was the next victim on 26 December.
Government troops took advantage of the chaos and confusion among the communists, and on 16 April 1968, in a battle on the Pyay-Tharrawaddy border Bo Zeya, the People’s Army’s chief of staff and another great hero of Burma’s struggle for independence and member of the Thirty Comrades, was killed in action. Dr Nath, the other Bengali founder-member of the CPB besides Goshal, was the next to fall later the same year near Hpyu in the Bago Yoma.
In August 1968 Bo Tun Nyein who led the Red Guards in the executions of Goshal, Htay and Yan Aung, was himself charged with ‘trying to set up a rival party headquarters’ and executed. Former RUSU student leaders such as Aung Thein Naing, nephew of Bo Yan Aung, and Soe Win, son of Ludu U Hla and Daw Amar met the same fate the next month.
Death of Thakin Than Tun
On 24 September 1968, whilst on the run from government troops, Than Tun was shot dead without warning by one of his bodyguards who later surrendered to Ne Win's government. The assassin had joined the Communists just two years before as an 'army deserter'. Thakin Than Tun, one of the greatest political leaders of the 20th century history of Myanmar, albeit now a fallen idol, died at the age of 57. He was no mere ideologue but a man of unequalled organisational skills, and the only politician who nearly matched his brother-in-law Aung San in reputation and status and who left his mark on every stage of Burma's struggle for independence.
The deterioration in relations between China and Burma led to the Chinese government now openly supporting the CPB, whereas it had been confined to party to party support by the CCP before. The outcome was an invasion force of 300 former First Kachin Rifles under the command of a war hero Naw Seng who had joined the Karen rebellion in 1949 and went into exile in China the next year. They entered the Shan State on New Year Day 1968, captured Mong Ko, and established the first war zone ‘303’ of the CPB North-East Command (NEC). This was quickly followed by ‘404’ in Kokang substate winning over the local warlord Pheung Kya-shin. Here a rival warlord Lo Hsing Han and his Ka Kwe Yay (KKY, lit. defence) force was built up by the Tatmadaw, and another force led by a member of the Saopha’s family Jimmy Yang, a former MP, was supported by the insurgent Shan State Army (SSA) and later by U Nu who founded the Parliamentary Democracy Party (PDP) and launched his own armed rebellion after going into exile in Thailand in 1969, three years after his release from prison.
To the north, war zone ‘202’ was established along the River Shweli, but war zone ‘101’ had to be added with difficulty the following April, and only after the defection of Ting Ying and Zalum from the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO). The advance farther south along the border was again quickly accomplished capturing Kyukok on 28 March 1970, the anniversary of the CPB insurrection, followed by Mong Mau in northern Wa hills on 1 May. The fierce battles for Kutkai and Kunlong towards the end of the year however ended in retreat. On the anniversary of the uprising in March 1971, the Voice of the People of Burma (VOPB) started its transmission from the Chinese side of the border moving into Burma only in the late 1970s.
By 1973 the NEC had overrun almost the entire Wa substate establishing a new CPB headquarters at the border village of Panghsang. A vast area next to Laos became known as the ‘815’ military region named after the party’s founding anniversary 15 August. A 1,000 strong SSA East led by Khun Myint was also won over and merged to form the ‘768’ brigade in the Kengtung area. The plan to build up the '108' region north of Taunggyi however was thwarted after the Shan state commander Bo Soe Maung, a Burma Rifle veteran, and CC member Thakin Tin Tun, a Dobama veteran, were killed in action in 1969–70 by an all out Tatmadaw offensive.
The strategic aim of the NEC was to connect the party’s heartland of central Burma with the northeast which eventually failed due to a combination of resistance on the part of the KIO and the SSA and the government military offensives. The CPB to this end had formed seven new Taik taing aung (Ever Victorious) battalions in the Delta, Bago Yoma, North-West Division and Arakan. The Tatmadaw’s response was to embark on a scorched earth campaign, never before tried in mainland Burma, called the Hpyat lay hpyat (Four Cuts), a counter-insurgency programme modelled on the ‘new village’ tactics developed by the British during the Malayan Emergency and later adopted by the US in Vietnam as the ‘strategic hamlet’ now translated into byuha kyay-ywa, albeit ignoring the battle for 'hearts and minds'. It sought to cut the links of food, funds, information and recruits between the insurgents and their families and the local populace. The rural communities now faced the stark choice of flee, fight or join the Tatmadaw.
Black, brown and white areas were mapped out as insurgent-controlled, contested and government-controlled areas respectively. Entire districts became free-fire zones where villagers spotted outside designated areas could be shot without warning. They were forcibly relocated and also organised into a 'people's militia' with an army garrison at the centre shielded by the village. A network of watchtowers was built covering crucial points in the entire area, and troops patrolled the area flushing out the insurgents. It proved devastatingly effective, and soon the CPB units found themselves pulling out of one area to the next with no prospect of regaining their old haunts. The Tatmadaw had created new special strike forces called Light Infantry Divisions (LID), starting with the 77th LID in 1966, then the 88th and 99th in 1967–68, all under not regional but central command.
The New Year Day of 1968 also saw the first stage of the 'Four Cuts' offensive deploying the 88th LID. Within eight years the CPB units in the Delta and Bago Yoma were decimated, the mountains virtually cleared of human habitation. The last major government military offensive code-named Operation Aung Soe Moe (Conquer and Rule) finally succeeded in wiping out the CPB in central Burma. On 15 March 1975 Thakins Zin and Chit were killed in action when finally cornered by a unit of the 77th LID they defied the demand for surrender; they were both in their mid-sixties. Zin, a wartime organiser and former leader of the All Burma Peasants organisation (ABPO), had succeeded Than Tun as chairman, and Chit, a schoolteacher who had co-founded the Socialist Party and sent several future members of the Thirty Comrades to Japan before joining the CPB and former leader of the All Burma Trade Union Congress (ABTUC), was the general secretary.
A new leadership emerged in May 1975 from among the China-based leaders with Thakin Ba Thein Tin as chairman, a politbureau member and vice-chairman since 1946 and veteran organiser of Dobama and resistance against the Japanese; he was also very widely travelled. Another veteran Thakin Pe Tint and Moscow -trained Khin Maung Gyi from the next generation were appointed his deputies. Ba Thein Tin signalled a change in policy in his warning against 'left dogmatism' as much as against revisionism. The party must still fight a peasant war in a semi-colonial country but forge a worker-peasant alliance and united front including the 'urban bourgeois, national capitalists, progressive democrats and all the nationalities'.
The CPB was handed a rare propaganda coup when in July 1976, former Brig. Kyaw Zaw, a member of the Thirty Comrades and hero of Tatmadaw’s campaigns against the KNU and the KMT in the 1950s, defected with his family to Panghsang. He was appointed to the Central Military Commission, and immediately made a damaging broadcast on Ne Win on the VOPB. For the first time in history he revealed that Aung San and others had once seriously considered removing Ne Win from the military on account of his ‘fascist’ tendencies under the Japanese. He addressed the government troops directly, “Your life is the life of an assassin and a murderer serving the power-mad and evil king Ne Win”.
Besides the NEC, the communist People’s Army (PA) still controlled the North-West Division, Arakan and Tenasserim. Ba Thein Tin drew up a plan in October 1975 called the ‘7510 plan’ to strike west and link up with the guerrilla bases on the western edge of the Shan plateau. Its first major offensive to the west of the Salween River into the Tangyang area in June had been unsuccessful after heavy fighting, even though it had inflicted heavy losses on the 99th LID earlier including its deputy-commander.
Late 1975 also saw the 815 military region launch an offensive against the 88th LID in the Mong Yawng area in order to consolidate control of the mountainous region along the Laotian border. The next year the Shan 768 brigade formed from the former SSA East began building up its own adjoining base area. Another force tried to break through from the Shweli River towards Shwebo. The 683 brigade also struck west to link up with the former 108 region to the north of Mandalay.
Ne Win meanwhile extended the Four Cuts campaign to the North-West Division and Arakan driving out both KNUP and CPB units further west into northern Arakan. Bo Thet Tun, another veteran Burma Rifles officer and erstwhile comrade-in-arms of Ne Win, was in charge of the CPB’s North-West Division and something of a legend among both ethnic Chins and Bamar. He and his decimated troops were eventually caught up and forced to surrender in July 1980 after the 66th LID had cleared the mountains of all human habitation.
A Tatmadaw counter-offensive code-named Operation King Conqueror was launched in November 1979 east of the Salween succeeding in recapturing the mountains overlooking Panghsang just 30 km away. In 1980 the CPB countered with two major operations briefly overrunning Muse and later Mong Yawng 250 miles farther south. After heavy losses on both sides they had fought each other to a standstill. The ten year plan of Chinese aid to the CPB was finally coming to an end, and the supply lines stretching west of the Salween proved too long to sustain and defend, even though the CPB had by now shown its mettle in fighting set-piece battles of regular warfare as well against the Tatmadaw.
When the Kokang and Wa substates came under CPB control, the party inherited an old problem namely the opium trade. The KKY forces, led by Lo Hsing Han and Khun Sa and set up by the Tatmadaw, had engaged in opium trafficking often with the Tatmadaw officers and mainly with the KMT on the Thai border as business partners. Although the CPB took strong measures to eradicate poppy cultivation with crop-substitution in the early 1970s, it began to relax these restrictions later on and collected 20% of the crop as well as tax on the trade after Chinese aid eventually dried up. Its hardline Maoist stance during the Cultural Revolution in China had hardly endeared itself to the new premier Deng Xiaoping. The strategy of winning over local warlords and absorbing their forces into the PA had also contributed to this politically embarrassing contradiction to its Maoist principles. In 1985 at the CPB’s Third Congress, regulations against the opium trade were introduced prohibiting party members from involvement in narcotics including a death penalty for large-scale heroin traffickers. The leadership would claim later that it was these measures which triggered the internal rebellions that led to the collapse of the party in 1989.
There is however a deeper issue of the nationalist struggles of Burma’s diverse ethnic minorities in relation to the CPB’s handling of the problem. Like the other Bamar–led political parties in history including the AFPFL, Ne Win’s BSPP and Nu's PDP, it too was open to criticism and allegations of chauvinism. The party had characterised its armed struggle as a 'national democratic revolution' against feudal oppression, imperialism, and 'military bureaucratic capitalism' before achieving the goal of a ‘people’s democracy’. It believed that the correct settlement of the nationalities question was the realisation of the worker-peasant alliance under the leadership of the working class namely the CPB.
Despite periodic military alliances between the party and the ethnic insurgent armies with considerable mutual benefit while they lasted, the CPB's influence proved divisive to the nationalist groups. Skaw Ler Taw, a leader of the Karen National Union (KNU), stated, “ The CPB had a standing order to split nationalist parties. Mao said that in any organisation there are three groups: the progressives, the neutrals or moderates, and the conservatives. Like Mao, the CPB’s policy was to join with the progressives, win over the neutrals and expel the die-hards”.
The nationalist groups had sent missions to China for assistance since 1968, and they usually came under intense pressure to join the communist struggle. Besides aid was only forthcoming through the CPB which would then provide training as well as arms but would also often succeed in ideological indoctrination. Consequently it has tended to split the movements into pro-CPB and anti-communist factions to this day.
In November 1978 Thakin Ba Thein Tin presented a ‘political report’ at a historic meeting of the politbureau held in Panghsang, unanimously approved at the CC meeting in early 1979. It formed the basis of the resolutions passed in September 1985 at the CPB’s Third Congress, 40 years since the last one in Rangoon, attended by just 170 of the party’s estimated 5,000 members.
- The party’s past errors of the 1955 ‘revisionist’ line and the 1964 ‘intra-party revolutionary line’ were now admitted.
- Ne Win’s regime was characterised as representing ‘imperialism, feudal-landlordism and bureaucratic capitalism’.
- The primacy of the armed struggle, Marxist–Leninist-Mao Zedong Thought and China’s example was reaffirmed.
- Soviet ‘socialism-imperialism’ and Vietnam’s ‘hegemonism’ were to be resisted as much as ‘US imperialism’. The CPB had supported the Khmer Rouge and written to both the Vietnamese and Cambodian parties urging them to settle their dispute peacefully. Ne Win, for his part in playing the China card, also happened to be the first head of state to pay a visit to Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge came to power.
The party’s general programme was drawn up in the light of ‘the experiences of the last 30 years of the armed struggle’.
- It warned against ‘sectarianism’ and ‘leftist’ and ‘rightist deviationism’.
- The party’s constitution was revised to ‘suit the changing conditions’ of the world.
- New ‘party building’, ‘military’ and ‘agricultural’ lines were adopted.
- Party membership had failed to fulfill the 1964 directive of recruiting at least one member from every village.
- The new military line would be ‘strategic defence’ at a time when the party was weak and the enemy strong.
- Because Burma was still a ‘backward semi-colonial, semi-feudal, agrarian country with uneven political and economic development’, ‘agrarian revolution’ with the slogan 'land to the tillers' was still the basis of a ‘people’s war’ waged by building up Red Power areas and encircling the cities. In insisting on not ‘copying the October Revolution of Russia’ by calling a ‘general strike and uprising’ (in Burmese – thabeikson thabonhta), it appeared to have ignored the recent upheavals of 1974–76 in the cities.
Peace parley 1980–81
Shortly after Burma resigned from the Non-Aligned Movement in protest against Soviet and Vietnamese manipulation at the September 1979 Havana Conference, the Chinese Foreign Minister Huang Hua paid a visit to Rangoon. Ne Win announced an amnesty in 1980 which saw the return of U Nu and others from Thailand. The CPB responded with an attack on Mong Yawng, but proposed talks in September after letting the amnesty expire. The first meeting took place in Beijing in October between the teams led by Ba Thein Tin and Ne Win who paid a surprise visit to China leaving the Kachin delegation in the middle of the talks in Rangoon. At the second meeting headed by Thakin Pe Tint for the CPB and Maj. Gen. Aye Ko for the BSPP the following May in Lashio, three new conditions were put on the table by Aye Ko:
- The abolition of the CPB.
- The abolition of the PA under the command of the CPB.
- The abolition of all the ‘liberated areas’.
The CPB was told that according to Article 11 of the 1974 Constitution which had established Burma as a one-party state there was no place for another political party. Ne Win ended the peace talks on 14 May and let the ceasefire deadline of 31 May with the KIO pass without replying to the Kachin position. There had been no ceasefire agreement with the CPB.
The VOPB began to broadcast appeals for ending the civil war, developing democracy and building national unity in a new multi-party system. The CPB still commanded 15,000 troops in the north-east, and the Tatmadaw, after resuming the Operation King Conqueror belatedly in 1982 and having suffered losses amounting to several hundred in the Kengtung-Tangyang area from CPB counter-attacks, finally retreated. Both sides now faced another challenge in the rising strength of the National Democratic Front (NDF) formed in 1976, pointedly excluding the Bamar, by the ethnic insurgencies uniting the Karen, Mon, Kachin, Shan,Pa-O, Karenni, Kayan, Wa and Lahu, particularly with the return of the KIO in 1983 after its separate peace talks with the BSPP failed. This finally led to the CPB reaching an agreement with the NDF in 1986.
However much the military junta tried to lay the blame at the CPB’s door for the tremendous upheavals in 1988, the economic collapse that resulted in the country being granted recognition by the UN as one of the Least Developed Countries in the world in 1987 and simmering discontent over the years compounded by yet another round of ‘demonetization’ culminated in a great outburst of angry protests and demonstrations countrywide which led to a national uprising on 8 August 1988. It was brutally crushed by the Tatmadaw, killing thousands of civilians and this time in the cities alleging communist infiltration.
Kyin Maung, then politbureau member in charge of the CPB underground Task Force 4828 (named after the 28 March 1948 insurrection), was forthright in admitting the presence of cadres in the cities including Thet Khaing, son-in-law of Kyaw Zaw, but asserted that the Military Intelligence Service (MIS) had greatly exaggerated the party’s 'leading role' in the uprising. The party had begun advocating a multi-party democracy system after 1981, and it was not until 28 March 1988, the anniversary of the insurrection, that it called for a provisional government composed of various opposition parties, forces and personages. The students’ call for an interim government in order to end one-party rule and to hold multi-party elections never materialised as U Nu and Aung San Suu Kyi could not agree to work together, and this failure to achieve a united opposition sealed the fate of the uprising.
Former communists, both CPB and Red Flag, and leftwing sympathizers old and new were active organisers and supporters of the democracy movement and strike committees in the cities. Kyin Maung stated,”We had never said that we initiated the upheavals. Nor did we say that our cadres comprised the leading core. On the contrary, we firmly believe that the upheavals had so much impact only because all the forces for democracy took part. Marxism holds that it is the people who make history”. Neither the CPB nor the NDF took advantage of the deep crisis that the government found itself in, the former evidently unprepared for an urban uprising as opposed to a peasant war, and the ethnic armies apparently regarding it as an internal Burman issue.
The party continues to recruit according to the 'hard to join, easy to quit' principle. Some analysts still consider the CPB a force to be reckoned with in future upheavals and potentially a major challenge to the military regime.
- Smith, Martin (1991). Burma – Insurgency and the Politics of Ethnicity. London and New Jersey: Zed Books. pp. 56,61,66–69,105,70–71,102–104,107–109,125,122–126,136,119,161–163,157–159,176–182,167–169,134–136,183–185,186,195,202,207–212,227–234,251–255,258–261,268,304–307,311,309,313,314–315,322–329,316–317,318–321,365–373.
- Hensengerth, Oliver (2005). The Burmese Communist Party and the State-to-State Relations between China and Burma (PDF). Leeds East Asia Papers. pp. 10–12, 15–16, 17.
- Benjamin, Roger W.; Kautsky, John H.. Communism and Economic Development, in The American Political Science Review, Vol. 62, No. 1. (Mar., 1968), pp. 122.
- "Possibilities for Political Change in Burma". Irrawaddy News 23 Dec 2004, ARDA (Alliance for Reform and Democracy in Asia).
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