Burmese Communist Party [BCP]
In the nationalist days before World War II, many students at the university called themselves "communists" and defined it as they saw fit. Perhaps it meant giving the university president an argument at every turn or being jailed for bravely speaking against the British, or perhaps it meant organizing a strike at the oil fields. In those heady days, fellow students like U Nu and Aung San moved in and out of a confusing array of secret groups, playing national and personal politics at the same instant.
In July 1946 Thakin Soe, leader of the Burmese Communist Party [BCP], formed an underground movement known as the Red Flag faction of the BCP. Hard on the heels of the decision to include Aung San in the government, the communists under the leadership of Thakin Than Tun labeled Aung San a collaborationist. Aung San in turn expelled Than Tun and the latter's communist White Flag faction from the the Anti-Fascist People's Freedom League (AFPFL). The White Flag faction thereafter adopted a policy whereby it opposed the government by all means short of armed struggle. Immediately after independence, however, the White Flag communists also took up armed struggle against the government; its large contingent of armed men and countrywide organization dated from the Japanese occupation, and the group proved a formidable foe of the independent Burmese government. The British government in London, under Labor Prime Minister Clement Attlee since July 1945, was apparently encouraged by Aung San's break with the communists, believing that it could negotiate with him.
In March 1948 a reconciliation of the government with the communists was attempted; when the attempt failed, Thakin Than Tun left Rangoon for Pyinmana and raised the standard of revolt. The White Flag insurrection spread through central Burma in the Sittang-Pegu Yoma region; at its height it involved as many as 25,000 rebels. By 1951 areas under communist control were significantly reduced, although the Red Flag faction maintained its base in the Ardan Yoma and the White Flag faction its base in the Pegu Yoma.
In October 1949, the People's Republic of China was proclaimed. Burma was the first noncommunist nation to recognize the new Beijing government, on December 16, 1949, hoping in part to stem the perceived threat of Chinese aid to communists within Burma. The neutralist turn in Burmese foreign policy dates from this time.
Although none of the insurgent groups, or coalition of groups, was strong enough to seize power, the role of China in the communist movement in the late 1960s posed a new threat. In the mid-1960s the White Flag faction of the BCP, based in the Pegu Yoma, was in the process of carrying out a "cultural revolution" purge similar to the one going on in China at that time. Thakin Than Tun, the organization's leader, had purged most of the old leadership but was himself assassinated in September 1968. As a result of a Burma Army attack on the White Flag stronghold that disrupted radio contact with Beijing, a new leader, Thakin Zin, was chosen without consulting China, which favored the selection "* of another BCP leader, Thakin Ba Thein Tin, then living in China.
The radicalization of China that took place during the great Proletarian Cultural Revolution of 1966-68, however, led to a sudden worsening of relations. The Chinese embassy in Rangoon began encouraging local Chinese to participate in Cultural Revolution style activities in 1967, much to the distress of the government. An especially touchy issue was the wearing of red badges showing pictures of Chinese Communist Party Chairman Mao Zedong, which the government prohibited. Resident Chinese students protested, and there were violent confrontations with Burmese students on June 27, 1967. This led to attacks against Chinese shops, houses, and automobiles and against the Chinese embassy. One Chinese aid official was killed by Burmese mobs. When the government refused to give a full apology and punish the perpetrators, the Beijing official press began calling for the overthrow of General Ne Win, labeling him a "'fascist military dictator."
China began to give material support to communist insurgents in Burma. Rather than aiding the White Flag faction, which was located too far from the China border to be readily accessible, the Chinese recruited veteran Kachin rebel Naw Seng - living in China - to form a new insurgent force. Naw Seng was made a member of the BCP White Flag Central Committee and later of the BCP Politburo; in reality the new insurgency, known as the BCP Northeastern Command, was quite separate from the original White Flag movement. It was directly dependent on China for training, aid, and support, and its personnel consisted primarily of ethnic Kachin, Shan, and Wa minorities; the Burman contingent was virtually nonexistent, in contrast with the original Red Flag and White Flag factions.
Established under Chinese guidance, the new BCP was composed overwhelmingly of Shan, Kachin, Wa, and other ethnic minorities, recruited from both sides of the Burma-China border. By the early 1970s, with the aid of Chinese-supplied arms, training, and equipment, it was able to assemble an army some several thousand strong and to control a strip along the Chinese border in Shan State some 12 to 30 kilometers wide, stretching from near Namhkam in the north to near Keng Tung in the south. Although its forces sometimes clashed with other insurgents operating in the area, the BCP, by virtue of its capacity to supply arms to major Kachin and Shan separatist groups, was able to forge shifting alliances with them and with other small, armed rebel groups. By the early 1970s government forces rarely crossed into the area east of the Salween River in Shan State and then kept only to major roads and towns.
Naw Seng's army of some 1,000 strong began attacking villages in northern Shan State and southern Kachin State in early 1968; by the ptime he was killed in the early 1970s, the center of BCP insurgehcy had shifted to these areas. In November 1970 the Red Flag insurgency had been critically weakened by the capture of its leader, Thakin Soe, by government forces; the White Flag faction was virtually eliminated in March 1975 when Burma Army troops killed Thakin Zin and other leaders in combat. Thakin Ba Thein Tin, who had previously switched his allegiance within the party to the Northeastern Command, was then elected chairman of the entire BCP, encompassing both the Red Flag and the White Flag remnants and the insurgency in the northeast. The latter had diversified at that time into several components. It made alliances with ethnically based groups, such as the Kachin Independence Organization, the Shan State Army, the United Pa-O Organization, and the Shan State Nationalities Liberation Organization.
Communism was effectively muted in central Burma. Most of those who remained underground were either members of the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) White Flag faction, located in the highlands known as the Pegu Yoma, or associated with the Red Flag faction in Rakhine State (formerly Arakan State). Both groups suffered such heavy defeats in confrontations with the Burmese armed forces during the late 1960 and early 1970s that communist influence among ethnic Burmans and within central Burma was virtually eliminated. Since that time, Burma's socialist government has successfully arrogated those goals traditionally championed by communists and thus prevented a resurgence of ideological challenge from the far left.
In the face of new Chinese priorities and the subsequent sharp drop-off in Chinese aid, the BCP, whose ideology has closely mirrored that of China since the 1960s, concluded that it must change its military strategy to take into account both the failures of its campaigns in the 1970s and the changed international situation. In 1979 the BCP indicated in broadcasts transmitted over its China-based radio station that it would discontinue large-scale military action against Burma and would focus instead on guerrilla warfare designed in large part to ensure the party's self-defense. By the early 1980s communist opposition appeared to exist only among ethnic minorities in the border areas.
In the early 1980s Burmese fears of becoming another Vietnam, Laos, or Kampuchea seemed to have been reduced somewhat by the rapproachement between the United States and China. But even the retreat of the communist insurgents to the northeastern corner of the country did not signal the end of fighting. Burmese still worried about the cold war of ideas that was introduced whenever foreign libraries opened, books flowed in and out of the country, intellectuals jousted, journalists and editors bid for the reader's attention, or foreigners stayed too long.
By the end of the Cold War much of the world's illicit opium and refined heroin was produced in an area of Southeast Asia known as the Golden Triangle. This area is nearly 150,000 square miles in size. It extends from the Chin Hills in western Myanmar (Burma) to China's Yunnan province to the northwestern provinces of Laos and Thailand, and into the Kayah State of southern Burma. There were major concentrations of opium cultivation in Burma, Thailand, Laos, and China and in the 1980s these concentrations were steadily increasing.
Insurgents ranged from ideological revolutionaries to ethnic separatists and profit oriented drug warlords. Whatever their objectives, these groups are very much involved in the production, transport, and sale of heroin. The relationship between insurgents and drug traffickers is extremely close in Burma. Most of the primary insurgent groups relied on the trafficking of heroin to finance their activities. A wide range of ideology existed among these insurgent groups. Burma was at that time the single largest producer of opium. More than half the opium harvested in Burma was in the areas controlled by the leftist and ethnic separatist insurgents. Although they existed, insurgent-terrorist links to the narcotics trade are weaker in other areas of northern Thailand, Laos, and southern China.
The largest of these groups was the Burmese Communist Party (BCP). The BCP, as with the other groups, involved themselves in the production, delivery, and sale of heroin. In 1983 the BCP even began to establish refineries to convert opium into heroin. Also, the BCP engaged in direct drug sales to middlemen.
During the Cultural Revolution of the late sixties, The CPB made the mistake of supporting the "gang of four" and condemning Deng Ziaoping. Ten years later they had to pay the price for this choice. In 1978 Beijing decided to withdraw the generous support it had previously given the CPB. The CPB responded in the same manner as all other armies in the Shan State since war broke out in the 1950's. "Necessity knows no laws . . , An army must have weapons. You must have money to buy weapons. Here in the mountains, opium is the only source of money," the legendary Kuomintang General Tuan Shiwen once said. That was true for the Kuomintang, it was true for the Shan rebels, and it eventually became true for the CPB.
The Thais had kept a wary eye on the movements of the CBP units in Shan State, and in the 1970s and 1980s the threat of a link-up between the Beijing-backed CPB and the pro-China insurgents of the Communist Party of Thailand (CPT) operating in northern Thailand was of perennial concern to Thai security planners. The CPB continued as the most powerful player in the Shan State, a state in and of itself, supported by the opiate trade, until it finally disintegrated in 1989.
|Join the GlobalSecurity.org mailing list|