Communist insurgency in Myanmar
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The Communist insurgency in Myanmar (known as Burma from 1948 to 1988) was led primarily by the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) ("white flags"), and the Communist Party (Burma) ("red flags"). The conflict ended in 1988, when the armed wing of the CPB disbanded following the Fall of Communism and the ousting of the Burmese socialist dictatorship.
While in Insein prison in July 1941, Thakin 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 co-operation with the British and the establishment of a broad coalition alliance that should include the Soviet Union. 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 Myanmar with a group of young men, who later became known as the Thirty Comrades, 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), whom fought Allied Forces.
A puppet government 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 the 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 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 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.
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 Communist Party (Burma) or the "red flags". The majority remained with Thakins Than Tun and Thein Pe and continued to co-operate 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 traveled 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.
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 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 annexe 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.
Beginning of conflict
On 8 November 1947, Nu called for a new coalition of socialists, the CPB and the People's Volunteer Organisation (PVO) 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 Muslim mujahids in Rakhine. 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 Ye 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.
The communist military offensive began to lose traction, and in 1955, the CPB put forward the 'Peace and Unity' proposal. 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 (Burma Armed Forces) 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.
Yugoslavia became the primary arms supplier for the Burmese government beginning in 1952, when the Burmese reached out to Belgrade due to the slow and uneasy support from the United States and the United Kingdom. The two nations became very close as a result, and the Yugoslav National Army sent advisors to aid in the front lines. The sudden strong relationship between Burma and Yugoslavia prompted concern among the Americans, who worried the Yugoslav support would strengthen Marxist ideology in the government. General Ne Win, who previously sought support solely from the West, was impressed with the speed of the Yugoslav-Burmese cooperation, and traveled to Belgrade in 1953.
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.
Collapse of peace talks
Talks broke down on 14 November, when the Revolutionary Council government demanded that:
- All troops must be concentrated in a designated area.
- No one can 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 November 1978 Thakin Ba Thein Tin presented a ‘political report’ at a historic meeting of the politburo 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.
1980–81 peace parley
Shortly after Myanmar 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 People's Army 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.
The government of Myanmar heavily blamed the CPB for the tremendous upheavals in 1988, the economic collapse that resulted in the country being recognised 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 ‘demonetisation’ 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 politburo member in charge of the CPB underground Task Force 4828 (named after 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 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.
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- Bertil Lintner, Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency since 1948, p. 154.
- NARA, RG 59, 690B.9321/12-2253, Memorandum of Conversation between General Ne Win and the Army and Air Attachés of the U.S. Embassy in Burma, December 22nd 1953.
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- FRUS, 1952-54, vol. XII, part II, East Asia and the Pacific, pp. 194-195.
- NARA, RG 59, 690B.9321/12-2253, Memorandum of Conversation between General Ne Win and the Army and Air Attachés of the U.S. Embassy in Burma, December 22nd 1953.
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- Official website of the CPB
- The Nu-Attlee Treaty and Let Ya-Freeman Agreement, 1947 Online Burma/Myanmar Library
- Burma Communist Party's Conspiracy to take over State Power and related information Online Burma/Myanmar Library
- Sixty Fighting Years Guardian, Communist Party of Australia, 20 October 1999
- No Option but Armed Struggle if Talks Fail: CP Burma Communist Party of India (Marxist), January 2003
- Communists Go Online The Irrawaddy, 27 January 2004
- Living under the Eye of the Dragon Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy July 2005
- Book Review: Burma and the KGB Bertil Lintner, February 2006
- Burma's Communist Party Warns Against Superpower Confrontation Yeni, The Irrawaddy 1 February 2007
- Top militia chief is top drug producer S.H.A.N.
- The Civil War Question in Burmese, Nguyinpyin.net
- CPB urges people to say 'NO' during referendum Nay Thwin, Mizzima News, 28 February 2008
- Secrets of Commune 4828 Aung Zaw, The Irrawaddy, August 2008
- CPB Urges Search for Moderates within the Tatmadaw Wai Moe, The Irrawaddy, 3 March 2009