By Eric Vandenbroeck and co-workers
Myanmar and the looming war for its borderlands Part Three
Having failed to cross the Salween River at Kunlong, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) realized that it had to turn its attention to more minor well-defended government positions. In April 1971, a combined force of Zhao Yilai’s Wa troops and Chinese volunteers had attacked Mong Mau in the northern Wa Hills. It was captured on May 1 (Labour Day), especially chosen by the CPB s Burmese political commissars. Presumably, though, that was of little significance to the Wa troops who marched into town on that day. For them, it was a battle against central authorities, which most Wa despised, and the CPB had given them guns to fight with. Nevertheless, that victory meant that the only motor road into the Wa Hills, from the town of Panglong south of Hopang to Mong Mau, had been cut.1
After the battle at Kunlong, the CPB marched south from Mong Mau, encountering little or no resistance along the way. The aim was to link up with Pe Thaung’s newly established War Zone 815 and thus wrest control over the entire border from Panghsai on the Burma Road in the north down to the Mekong River and the Laotian border. In a rapid sequence in ]une and July 1972, the CPB took over three townships east of the Sal ween: Na Hpan, Man Hpang, and Pangyang. At the same time, the market towns of Loi Leun and Vingngun were captured, and then, finally, the village of Panghsang on the Nam Hka River, which marks the border between Burma and China.
Only one area now separated the Wa forces in the Wa Hills from War Zone 815: the hills surrounding the Burmese garrison town of Mong Yang. That area was controlled by a Shan army led by Khun Myint, a warrior who had been fighting against the Burmese government since the early 1960s. He had been contacted by emissaries sent by Pe Thaung in 1971, and by November 1973, most of the area was controlled by the CPB. But it was not until 1975 that Khun Myint agreed to merge his forces with the CPB's. After all, he and his fighters were Shan nationalists, not communists. In April 1976, they became the 768 Brigade of the CPB s 'Peoples Army.’ The commander of the brigade, Sao Noom Pan, was a Shan Christian, and his deputy, Michael Davies, the son of a Shan mother and a Welshman who had worked as a forestry officer in the Kengtung area in the 1950s.
The CPB could now concentrate on consolidating their new contiguous base area along the Chinese border. More than twenty thousand square kilometers of territory were now under their control, and more than half of it consisted of the Wa Hills. For the Wa, it meant that they came under what could be described as a central governmental authority for the first time in history.
One of the first edicts issued by the Was new masters was a ban on head-hunting. Officially, that was done by educating the masses,’ but according to the Wa leader Zhao Yilai, his men simply shot those seen carrying severed heads.2 Just as the Chinese communists had done in Wa areas on their side of the border, the CPB also destroyed head-poles, drum houses, and other paraphernalia associated with head-hunting. But heads continued to play an essential role in Wa ceremonies, and instead of cutting new ones, some villagers took to unearthing buried corpses and decapitating them.3 After the 1989 mutiny, it also became clear that the Wa had kept skulls hidden in their villages, out of sight of the CPBs political commissars.4
The CPB divided the Wa Hills into two districts, a northern district with its center at Mong Mau and a southern district headquartered at Panghsang. The communities were divided into townships, which in turn were made up of village tracts. On the district level, however, there were, in the beginning, few Wa in leading positions. The new rulers were the CPB’s political commissars.
Panghsang, located in a horseshoe bend of the Nam Hka River with Chinese territory everywhere except the west, was ideal for a significant base. In April 1973, what was called the Northeastern Command moved from Mong Ko to Panghsang. The Chinese built a hydroelectric power station on the outskirts of the village, which soon came to resemble a small town. The top party leaders stayed in small individual concrete buildings behind a well-stocked armory at the far end of the horseshoe. A printing press was also built with equipment provided by China.
After the death of Thakin Zin in March 1975, a hastily convened party congress was held in Panghsang, and Thakin Ba Them Tin became the new chairman of the CPB. He and other central committee members stayed in the secluded headquarters area in Panghsang. Central Burma was lost, and the CPB had to adjust to having base areas in these remote areas along the Chinese border.
Despite the setback at Kunlong, Chinese support continued unabated. Kang Sheng and the hard-liners had not given up their strategy for spreading the revolution to Southeast Asia and beyond. During 1968-1978, the Chinese poured more aid into the CPB effort than any communist movement outside Indochina. Unlike the old units in the Pegu Yoma, who were dressed in Burmese longyi (sarongs) and sandals and were armed with little more than old World War II-era rifles and shotguns, the new troops in the northeast had new Chinese uniforms with red stars on their caps. They were well-equipped with modern Chinese weapons: semiautomatic and automatic rifles, light machine guns, 12.7mm anti-aircraft guns, 60, 82, and 120mm mortars, and 75mm recoilless rifles. Radio equipment, jeeps, trucks, petrol, rice, other foodstuffs, cooking oil, and kitchen utensils were sent across the border into Panghsang, which was designated after the loss of the Pegu Yoma in 1975 the official headquarters of the CPB. The Chinese even sent a truckload of detailed military maps covering all the border areas and parts of central Burma.
On the other hand, the CPB did very little to develop the Wa Hills and other areas the party had captured. The Wa and other recruits from the non-Burmese ethnic peoples in the new base areas were thus viewed as little more than cannon fodder for its army. As Tom Kramer points out in his study of the Wa movement, when the Chinese volunteers began to return to China in the mid-1970s, Wa troops, in particular, formed the bulk of the fighting force: “The organization made modest attempts to bring health and education to the area, but for the CPB the Wa region was never a priority and was always a stepping stone to reach the central plains.”5
The printing press in Panghsang mainly churned out propaganda leaflets and ideological studies in Burmese, which very few Wa could read if they could read at all. Textbooks used in the CPB’s village schools were also in Burmese. Conspicuously absent were publications in Wa or any other minority languages. But like the old CPB in the Pegu Yoma, the new’ party also collected orphans who received some primary education in Burmese and were told that the party was their parent. The ability to read and write non-Burmese languages was kept alive only in Christian churches, Buddhist monasteries, and small schools run by the villagers themselves.
Almost all political posts in the CPB s leadership and top positions in the civil administration were filled by Burmese communists. The top leadership in Panghsang seldom ventured out of the heavily guarded headquarters area at the end of the horseshoe bend in the Nam Hka River. Although Thakin Ba Thein Tin was the party's chairman, he never visited a Wa village. The only times he left Panghsang were when he traveled through China to Mong Ko in the north or went to see Chinese communist leaders and high-ranking cadres in Kunming and Beijing.
Many of the military officers in the CPB’s army were Kokang Chinese. A few who had come with Naw Seng in 1968 and from Ting Ying s and Zalum’s CPB unit in Kachin State were Kachin. Then, on March 9, 1972, Naw Seng, the ethnic Kachin military commander in the northeast, died under mysterious circumstances near Mong Mau. The first internal announcement from the CPB claimed that he had been killed when falling off a horse “on the way to the frontline.”6 However, the official version of his death soon changed to a tale of how he had fallen off a cliff while hunting in the Wa Hills. Many Kachin, however, believes that the CPB murdered him because he refused to fight against his kin in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). In the late 1960s and early 1970s, the two rebel forces were engaged in heavy battles in the hills south of Mong Ko and in Kachin State itself.7 Nevertheless, on July 6, 1976, the Kachin rebels and the CPB signed an alliance ending the war between the two groups. The agreement was written in pure Maoist language:
Today, throughout the world, the two superpowers—the Soviet social-imperialists and American imperialists—are trying to divide and rule the world between them ... it is necessary to decisively stand on the side of the peoples of the world headed by the socialist Peoples Republic of China ... both parties agreed that the common enemy of the people of all nationalities—the Ne Win-San Yu military government—is the chief representative of the three main enemies: imperialism, feudalism-landlordism, and bureaucrat capitalism.8
Had the ardent Christian Kachin become communists? Despite the Maoist rhetoric and despite invitations to all Kachin rebel leaders to visit China, little had changed inside the KIA-controlled areas of Kachin State and northern Shan State. But Chinese-made assault rifles, machine guns, mortars, and ammunition began flowing in. The CPB forged similar alliances with the Shan State Army (SSA) and smaller bands of Pa-O, Padaung (Kayan), and Karenni (Kayah) rebels. These groups also benefited from arms supplies from the CPB to allow the communists to operate in their respective areas.
A new CPB Brigade, 683, was set up for a fresh attempt to push into western Shan State. Militarily, it was led by Bao Youxiang, one of the first Wa warlords to have merged his band of tribesmen with the CPB, and Li Ziru, who belonged to the group of Chinese volunteers who had come across the border in the late 1960s and later decided to stay in Burma. After more than a year of fighting alongside the SSA, the 683 Brigade had been unable to push further than Loi Tsang (‘Elephant Mountain’) in western Shan State, overlooking an old CPB area near the towns of Mong Kung and Lai-Hka.
The Shan and other minority peoples in the area favored the non-communist rebel groups and viewed the arrival of the CPB with suspicion. As a result, the SSA was forced to distance itself from the CPB to lose the support it was still enjoying. This second attempt to push westwards to reach central Burma failed, and thus the alliance with the SSA was in jeopardy. The SSA also had a camp on the Thai border and was dependent on supplies coming from that side as well, and the Thais were not pleased to see their Shan cousins linking up with a potent communist force.
The Chinese must have been frustrated with the CPB’s lack of success. The CPB was recognized as a fraternal communist party. Unlike the KIA, the SSA and other allies dealt directly with Kang Sheng’s security apparatus and his International Tiaison Department (ILD) of the Communist Party of China (CPC). The ILD reported directly to the CPC’s central committee, and as the researchers John Byron and Robert Pack put it, it “had an almost unlimited charter in external affairs during the 1950s and 1960s, wielding far greater influence than the government counterpart, the Foreign Ministry.”9
In line with Kang Sheng’s grand plans, Panghsang was not only the CPB’s headquarters but also played host to about a dozen activists of the Communist Party of Thailand and more than twenty cadres from the Communist Party of Indonesia (Partai Komunis Indonesia, PKI), including the two daughters of its once-powerful chairman, D. N. Aidit. The Communist Party of Malaya’s Suara Revolusi Malaya (‘Voice of the Malayan Revolution’) broadcast from Hengyang south of Changsha in Hunan Province, but its leader, Chin Peng, often visited Kunming where he met CPB cadres.
Those connections were far more critical to the CPB, and the Chinese, than the welfare of the Wa and other nationalities among the rank-and-file of the party’s army. Whenever the CPB fought against the Burmese military, it used senseless human-wave tactics, which may well work in a country like China with a population of more than a billion people, but when employed in this very different contact, what happened to a small, poor people in the Wa Hills was nothing short of a demographic disaster. When I trekked through the northern and southern Wa Hills in 1986, there were hardly any non-disabled males between ten and fifty in the villages. The others were either in the CPBs army or dead.10
At that time, most Wa depended on opium as a cash crop because their mountains were too high, and the soil was too poor to cultivate rice and vegetables. They had to buy food from the lowlands using the meager income from growing opium poppies and harvesting the sap. That was also true in Kokang, the highlands around Mong Ko, and the mountains north of Kengtung. In the late 1970s, an estimated 80 percent of all poppy fields in Burma were under CPB's control. But that led to a security problem, given that outside merchants had to enter the CPB areas to buy raw opium, which they then conveyed down to the Thai border where it was refined into pure white heroin. To do so unhindered, those merchants were well-connected with Burmese army commanders, and in an exchange of favors, provided them with valuable intelligence about the CPB. The CPB collected taxes on the opium farmers and the traders, but it was an income they could well do without.
Shortly after the Burmese communists had wrested control of the Wa Hills, Chinese experts helped them introduce high-land wheat, which they had hoped would become the new cash crop. But not many Wa knew how to prepare the new crop, and the CPB and its Chinese advisers had not taken into account that bamboo flowers every fifty years or so and that it attracts rats in hordes which multiply and destroy crops and food stocks. In 1976, that was precisely what happened in the Wa Hills. The wheat was wiped out, and there was famine.
The CPB assisted the famine victims by distributing 60,000 Indian silver rupees. At that time, it was still the most commonly used hard currency in the Wa Hills as they were made of real silver, not paper, and 1,600 kilograms of opium party had stockpiled at Panghsang. As soon as the crisis was over, most families started growing opium poppies, which are less vulnerable to pests than wheat or other food crops.11
The years 1975 and 1976 also saw some other events that had a tremendous impact on both the CPB and the Wa. Apart from supporting the CPB, Kang Sheng had also been instrumental in building up Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia after its head of state, Prince Sihanouk, was ousted in a coup in March 1970. Kang Sheng lived to see the Khmer Rouge march into Phnom Penh in April 1975 but died of bladder cancer on December 16. The most extreme of China's radical leaders were gone. His death intensified an already existing power struggle between hard-liners and pragmatists within the Chinese leadership. The hard-liners were centered around Mao’s closest followers, including his wife, Jiang Qing. Along with Kang Sheng, she played a leading role during the Cultural Revolution, while Deng Xiaoping was the most prominent pragmatist.
In April 1976, when the radical Left reasserted itself and ousted Deng, the CPB, unlike most other communist parties in the region, spoke out loudly in favor of the hard-liners. “The revisionist clique [with which Deng was linked] headed by [former president] Liu Shaoqi has been defeated,”12 the CPB stated in a congratulatory message to the 55th anniversary of the CPC in June 1976. It went on: “The movement to repulse the Right deviationist attempt at reversing correct verdicts, and the decision of the Central Committee of the CPC on measures taken against rightist chieftain Deng Xiaoping are in full accord with Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong Thought.”13
Then, on September 9, Mao died. In a second message to the CPC, now mourning his death, the CPB stated: Guided by Chairman Mao Zedong's proletarian revolutionary line, the Chinese people seized great victories in the socialist revolution and socialist construction in the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution, in criticizing Liu Shaoqi’s counter-revolutionary revisionist line, in criticizing Lin Biao and Confucius and in charging Deng Xiaoping and repulsing the Right deviationist attempt at reversing correct verdicts and consolidating the dictatorship of the proletariat, thus, consolidating the People’s Republic of China—the reliable bulwark of the world proletarian revolution.14
The CPB had reason to reevaluate the reliability of that bulwark the following year when Deng reassumed power in Beijing. The CPB, which once had branded its own ‘revisionists’ yebaw Htay and H.N. Ghoshal as ‘Burma’s Deng Xiaoping and ‘Burma’s Liu Shaoqi,’ respectively, fell silent. The Beijing Review and other official Chinese publications, which had previously published battle news and CPB statements, stopped reporting anything about the ‘revolutionary struggle in Burma.’ The CPB had been mentioned for the last time in November 1976 when Thakin Ba Thein Tin and vice-chairman Thakin Pe Tint had called on Mao’s successor, Hua Guofeng, in Beijing.15
All those intriguing and bombastic statements meant little to ordinary Wa, who could not care less about power struggles in distant Beijing. Deng’s return to power, however, indicated that Chinese aid to the CPB was significantly reduced. It was not wholly cut off, but the Wa noticed something had changed. They were told to economize with the ammunition they had been allotted, and food, medicines, and other supplies from China did not come in the exact quantities as before.
In January 1978, Deng Xiaoping, then vice premier, traveled to Rangoon to improve relations with Ne Win’s government, showing China’s goodwill towards Burma. In late November 1977, Ne Win became the first and only head of a non-communist country to visit China’s diplomatically isolated ally Cambodia. He spent several days in the country, hosted by Khieu Samphan and other Khmer Rouge leaders. Deng’s visit to Burma two months later was another step towards improved relations between Beijing and Rangoon. China’s interests were economic—to improve bilateral trade—as well as political. China wanted Burma on its side in the regional rivalry with Vietnam. Ne Win obliged, and China promised to scale down its support to the CPB even further.16
Within months of Deng's visit, the CPB had to vacate the offices it had maintained in Kunming and other towns in Yunnan. The Peoples Voice of Burma, which had been broadcasting from Mangshi in Yunnan since 1971, had to move to Panghsang, where a new studio was built for the radio station. The Chinese also recalled most of their volunteers. Only a few were left behind to maintain Chinese influence over the party and its army. Those who stayed were skilled operatives who, after spending years in the CPB s base areas, had become fluent in Burmese and minority languages such as Shan and Kachin. Wa, though, was not spoken by them. When communicating with the volunteers, the Wa had to talk to Chinese, Shan, or Burmese.
The CPB was plunged into crisis, and despite the strength of its army, the actual party organization remained weak. In the late 1970s, there were only 2,520 party members in the CPB’s liberated area, of whom, significantly, only 888 came from the 23,000-strong army. The party’s youth organization claimed a membership of 2,315, and various peasant unions’—the basis of the CPB’s people’s power’ structure in the northeast—enlisted 87,608 members in 882 different local organizations.17, But those ‘mass organizations’ existed only on paper. In effect, the CPB ceased to function as an adequately organized communist party, and the administration of its territory was becoming dysfunctional. Petty party officials had to find ways of making money to support themselves and began to spend less and less time in their offices.18
Faced with this new situation, the CPB’s central committee met, first at Mong Ko and later at Panghsang, between November 1978 and June 1979. The mood was somber when the CPB celebrated its 40th anniversary on August 15. Thakin Ba Thein Tin gave a speech in which he emphasized that the party had to be “self-reliant” and, without being specific, said that the CPB “had made many mistakes” during its forty-year-long history. In other announcements from the meeting, “non-interference” was declared to be a significant aspect of the CPB’s relations with “fraternal communist parties.”19
The Burmese government took full advantage of the situation. In November, a major offensive code-named Min Yan Aung-I (‘King Conqueror-I’) was launched to capture Panghsang before Christmas. Supported by heavy artillery and airstrikes, thousands of troops took up positions in the Mawhpa area southwest of Panghsang. Heavy fighting raged for more than a month. The CPB put up fierce resistance and managed to defend Panghsang. It did not fall, and on January 6, 1980, the government called off the offensive. Although the operation fell short of its objective, the Burmese army regained control over most of Mawhpa. A forward base was established at Loi Hsia-Kao Mountain, less than thirty kilometers southwest of Panghsang. The CPB claims that the government's forces suffered 2,085 dead and 3,537 wounded and that the CPB captured 320 prisoners of war.20 Even if exaggerated, these figures show that the Burmese military was willing to accept heavy casualties to make territorial gains against the CPB.
The government in Rangoon was not averse to finding a solution to the civil war by political means. In 1980, it announced a general amnesty for all insurgents in the country. Though not enthusiastic, the insurgents did agree to the offer. Officially, 450 rebels from the CPB surrendered, 400 KIA soldiers, 260 from the Karen rebel army, 160 from ‘Kokang,’ and over 450 expatriates’ returned from the Thai border and abroad. This adds up to 1,720, but the government claimed 2,257 rebels had surrendered.
There was no way to cross-check those contradictory figures. Still, I am aware of surrenders only among the ‘Kokang group,’ or followers of the opium warlord Luo Xinghan, who had gone underground in 1973 and then stayed in camps near the Thai border, and expatriates’ (the non-communist Burmese opposition led by former prime minister U Nu, who had also been encamped on the Thai border), and remnants of the CPB in the Pokaung range and Arakan (Rakhine) State. There were no surrenders in Kachin State and certainly none from the CPB in the northeast. To whom would any Wa have surrendered? Most of them could not even speak Burmese.
Nonetheless, both the CPB and the KIA entered into peace talks with the government. The Kachin held several rounds of negotiations with the regime, in Rangoon and Kachin State, between August 1980 and May 1981. While in Rangoon, the Kachin rebel leader Brang Seng declared that his troops were willing to lay down arms only if the government granted autonomy to Kachin State, stressing that secession from the Union of Burma was no longer an issue.22 The government’s response was to offer rehabilitation for the KIA’s fighters. They would have to surrender their arms and return to their home towns and villages, where the government would give them some assistance to start new lives. No political concessions were forthcoming, and the talks eventually broke down.
In contrast, talks in May 1981 between government officials and the CPB lasted only one day. A three-person delegation led by vice-chairman Thakin Pe Tint, along with Ye Tun (a veteran from Pyinmana) and Hpalang Gam Di (one of Naw Seng’s men), went to Lashio and put forth three demands:
1. Recognition of the CPB as a legal, political party;
2. Recognition of the CPB s base area as an autonomous entity;
3. Recognition of the CPB’s army.23
Finding no room to negotiate, the Burmese officials ended the talks without further discussion.
As the years went by, some of the old leaders dropped out of the picture. Hard-liner Taik Aung, the butcher of the Pegu Yoma, suffered a stroke and became paralyzed after drinking homemade moonshine in 1983. He left Panghsang and was hospitalized in China. Thakin Pe Tint got throat cancer and also had to go to China to get medical treatment. Hpalang Gam Di, because of old age and ill health, began to spend more and more time in Chinese hospitals. Than Shwe, the first political commissar of the northeastern base area, quit the party and retired in China because of disagreements with the party leadership. He had argued that the time was not ripe for armed struggle and it would be better, at least for the time being, to work within the political system in Burma, even if that meant accepting the rule of the military-dominated government in Rangoon.24
Burma and China improved relations after Deng's visit in January 1981. That paved the way for an agreement on bilateral economic and technical cooperation, signed in June 1984. In March, Chinese president Li Xiannian traveled to Burma. In May, Ne Win met with Deng. Deng said China and Burma were initiators of the Five Principles of Co-Existence, first used in talks between China and India. Two of the fundamental principles were "mutual respect's territorial integrity and sovereignty" and "mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs."
To restructure the CPB, a party congress was convened at Panghsang on September 9, 1985. It was only the third time since the party was founded that a congress was held. The first was in August 1939, when a group of young leftist nationalists met in Rangoon to set up the CPB, and the second was when the party was reorganized after the fall of the Pegu Yoma in 1975. Some call it the 3rd congress, while others do not consider 1939 meeting an actual congress and therefore refer to the one in 1985 as “the 2nd Congress of the CPB.”
Whatever the designation, the congress, which lasted until October 2, was attended by more than 170 delegates from various parts of the northeastern base areas, a representative from the remnants in Tenasserim, and two underground workers from Rangoon. A new central committee was elected and, officially, “taking the integration of Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong thought with the concrete practice of Burma as guidance, the 24-day congress was a congress of unity, a congress of victory.”26
In reality, severe disagreements between the old CPB veterans and younger intellectuals, who had joined the struggle in the 1970s, surfaced during the congress. The central committee’s report stated that on independence on January 4, 1948, “Burma became a semicolonial and semi-feudal state which is politically independent but economically dependent upon various imperialist countries. Hence, the nature of the revolution in Burma is the people’s democratic revolution aimed at overthrowing imperialism, feudalism and bureaucratic capitalism.”27 Therefore, “the tactical line for the present stage of the revolution [is that] armed struggle is the main form of struggle ... [with the aim of] establishing bases in the rural areas surrounding the cities.”28
The younger cadres argued that feudal lords and greedy moneylenders had passed into history long ago. The old leaders described a society they had left more than thirty-five years before for the jungle or China. They also argued that the main problems now facing the peasantry were often meeting unrealistic production quotas set by the government and avoiding selling rice to the government at rates well below market prices. The same younger critics also used semi-colonial and semi-feudal terms to describe Burma and its xenophobic, atavistic regime. Rangoon’s quest for self-reliance and its desire to keep outside influence, and outside trade, at an absolute minimum, had created one of Asia’s most thriving black-market economies on which not only private merchants but also many government officials and army officers had made fortunes. According to the younger cadres, exposing these things would be more appropriate than talking about colonial exploitation.’ However, the opposition was defeated, and some of the younger cadres were even warned not to raise such issues or face disciplinary action.29
Ethnic issues were not discussed during the congress, and ethnic exposure was presented in the new than talking. Only two Wa, Zhao Yilai and Bao Youxiang, along with Saw Ba Moe, a Karen who had joined the CPB in 1973, were among the eight alternate members of the central committee. Of the twenty-one, regular central committee members, one Shan, Sai Aung Win, two came from the Guizhou laobing: Hpalang Gam Di and Zau Mai. The rest, and all five members of the politburo, were Sichuan laobing, or had a background in the old base areas in central Burma.30
The loss of much of China's financial and material support that the party had enjoyed since the 1960s prompted the party leadership to turn to the potentially lucrative drug trade. It was undoubtedly an unorthodox alternative for a party claiming to be communists, but the CPB had already controlled most of Burma’s poppygrowing areas. Some party members objected but were overruled by those who saw no other way out of the party’s financial problems.
Thousands of viss (1.6 kilograms) of opium were collected from the farmers and stockpiled at Panghsang. From there, armed units transported the drugs via Mong Pawk south of Panghsang to the bank of the Nam Hka River, then on by bamboo raft down to the junction of the Salween and downriver to Ta-Kaw, where they were loaded onto mules and porters and carried to the Thai border. Once there, the raw opium was sold to local merchants who ran laboratories refined into heroin. Thus, the CPB became involved with opium merchants associated with remnants of the old Kuomintang and with Khun Sa, or Zhang Qifu, one of the most notorious warlords involved in the Golden Triangle narcotics trade.
The CPB also allowed merchants to operate laboratories in the northeastern base area. Those merchants belonged to the same syndicates as those on the Thai border, and they had to pay protection money and Taxes’ to the CPB. Such laboratories were established at Pang Hpeung near Panghsang, at Wan Ho-tao east of Panghsang, and near the Salween River in the Kokang area in the north. But those laboratories could not refine raw opium into heroin, only pitzu, a brownish-yellowish powder, which becomes pure white number 4 heroin when it is further refined. As a general rule, ten kilograms of raw opium, plus acetic anhydrite and other chemicals, are needed to produce one kilogram of heroin. But raw opium was bulky to move, and transportation of the drugs down to the Thai border was made a lot easier when only bags of pitzu had to be carried by porters or by mules.
Another significant development took place shortly after the 1985 party congress. Following the failure of the peace talks from 1980 to 1981, the Kachin concluded that only a broader front of ethnic and political rebels would be able to force the government to concede their demands for constitutional change, which would be replacing the centralized system which the military had introduced after 1962, and with modifications would signal a return to the federal system that had existed before the coup. Representatives of the KLA, or instead of its political wing, the Kachin Independence Organisation (KIO), left their headquarters in the far north in early 1983 and trekked through Shan State down to the Thai border, where they made contacts with other ethnic rebel armies. The KIO rejoined the National Democratic Front (NDF), a gathering of eight Thai border-based rebel outfits, and invited them to send delegates to KIA-controlled areas in the north.
A twenty-six-man team, escorted by several hundred Shan and Kachin guerrillas, set off from the Thai border in April 1985. The Burmese military tried to intercept and block them. Still, they finally reached Kachin State in November to a rousing welcome of dancing villagers, Kachin bagpipers, and salutes from 12.5mm anti-aircraft guns.
A conference was held at the KIOs Pa Jau headquarters, from December 16, 1985, to January 20, 1986. The conclusion was that the NDF was a united front in name only. More coordination of the activities of its various members was needed. In late January, the NDF delegation marched south into areas controlled by the CPB, and in March, a second conference was held at Panghsang. The meeting took place in the premises of the broadcasting station, a concrete building overlooking the Nam Hka River. On March 24, the NDF and CPB agreed to coordinate their military operations against the Burmese army. The purpose was not to escalate the war but to step up the pressure on the government in Rangoon. The next time peace talks were held, the government would face a unified, militarily powerful opposition.31
The NDF delegates met with the CPB. However, the broader alliance envisaged at Pa Jau and Panghsang never materialized. The Karen leadership, headed by the staunchly anti-communist general Bo Mya, denounced the coalition, causing a split within the NDF and reaching out to the CPB. Only in the north that a joint command consisting of the KIA, the SSA, and the Palaung State Liberation Army was set up and reached out to the CPB.
That alliance was put to the test on the battlefield in mid-November 1986. On the 16th, hundreds of heavily armed CPB troops attacked government positions on Hsi-Hsinwan, a mountain west of Mong Ko. Kachin, Shan, and Palaung rebels were enlisted to ambush reinforcements that the government sent north from Mandalay and Lashio.
The attack on Hsi-Hsinwan was led by Zhang Zhiming, a Chinese volunteer who had come across the border from Yunnan in the late1960s to join the CPB. He liked to style himself‘Kyi Myint,’ which is how ‘Zhiming’ would sound in Burmese. When China had recalled their volunteers in 1978, he belonged to a small group that had been left behind, most probably to keep an eye on the CPB for China's intelligence services.
The battle continued for several days. The outposts on the top of the mountain were overrun, only to provoke a massive counteroffensive from the government’s side. Airplanes were dispatched from Meiktila airbase south of Mandalay, and howitzers and other heavy artillery were positioned around Hsi-Hsinwan. On December 7, the CPB was forced to retreat from the mountain. Four weeks later, government forces pushed on and captured not only Mong Paw, a bustling market village on the foot of Hsi-Hsinwan, but also the border town of Panghsai, which the CPB had captured in March 1970.32 With those territories gone, it was easy for the Burmese army to cross the Shweli and retake, without resistance, the small enclaves of Khun Hai and Man Hio north of the river, or what the CPB used to call its ‘Namkham District.5
That was not a significant territorial loss. The areas the government retook in late 1986 and early 1987 totaled not more than five hundred square kilometers out of the CPB’s large twenty thousand-square-kilometer base area in the northeast. It was a devastating blow to the morale of the CPB’s soldiers. Panghsai was the largest settlement within the CPB’s northern base areas and the party’s main commercial center. Tax on the cross-border trade with China had been one of the CPB’s leading sources of income.
Shortly before the battle of Hsi-Hsinwan began, KIO chairman Brang Seng and some other Kachin leaders had left Pa Jau and trekked down to Thailand. When Burma’s military intelligence services discovered that he was holding talks with other rebel leaders, a massive offensive was mounted in Kachin State. Government forces captured both Pa Jau and the KLA’s military headquarters at Na Hpaw in May 1987. The Burmese army appeared invincible, and the NDF was no closer to achieving its goal of autonomy for their respective areas than it had been before the meetings in Pa Jau and Panghsang.
At the same time, the ethnic rank-and-file of the CPB s army was becoming increasingly dissatisfied with how the predominantly Burman leadership of the party and the military viewed them as dispensable cannon fodder.33 When the NDF delegation trekked through the CPB s base areas, it included a young Wa called Ai Hkam Aik. He represented the Wa National Organisation (WNO) and army (WNA), a small outfit of Wa who had fled to the Thai border when the CPB took over the Wa Hills in the early 1970s. It was not a big group, but it was a member of the NDF. Now, for the first time, the Wa saw one of their own in a uniform that was not communist.
Moreover, they became aware of the existence of the WNO and the WNA. Ai Hkam Aik did not propagate a non-communist line, but it was enough that he was seen there. Many Wa began to wonder why they had to fight for Burmese communists instead of having their army.
The WNO/WNA was led by the old warlord Mahasang, whose father Sao Maha had been the saohpa of Vingngun and participated in the Panglong conferences. In the 1950s, Mahasang s older brother, Maha Khong, had been recruited by the Kuomintang and was even sent to Taiwan for training but was killed by the communists when they took over Vingngun and the entire southern Wa Hills. Mahasang, who commanded a small tribal force in the area, allied himself with the Burmese army and became a home guard commander under a scheme the government called Ka Kwe Ye (KKY), or ‘defense.’ trade in opium to sustain themselves. Mahasang’s partner in the business was Luo Xinghan, one of the most powerful of the KKY commanders and once dubbed ‘the King of Opium’ by the US narcotics bureau.34
However, the KKY militias grew too powerful for their excellence, and in May 1973, they were disbanded by the government. Luo and Mahasang then went underground to join forces with the SSA. Luo, however, was arrested on the Thai border and extradited to Burma, where he was sentenced to death, not for opium trafficking, which he had the unofficial permission of the Burmese army to engage in, but for “treason” and “rebellion against the state” about his brief alliance with the SSA.35
Mahasang remained on the Thai border after Luo’s arrest, and in 1974, with the help of the SSA, converted his former KKY force into the WNA. Three years later, he broke with the SSA and joined forces with another Shan army, the Shan United Revolutionary Army (SURA), allied with the Kuomintang remnants. The WNO, the political wing of the WNA, joined the NDF in 1983. There was also an administrative arm of the non-communist Wa movement, the Wa National Council (WNC), but, in reality, it functioned as a separate organization. Its leader, Ai Kyaw Hso (Ai Xiao Sue), came from Yawnghpre in the northern Wa Hills and had, like Mahasang, also once been a KKY commander. Like SURA, which, in effect, had become the Kuomintang’s operative arm inside Shan State after most of the Chinese nationalists had settled in northern Thai border villages, the Wa outfits in the south were heavily involved in the drug trade. Most of the opium refined into heroin originated in CPB-controlled areas like Kokang, the Wa Hills, and the mountains north of Kengtung.
In line with the new policy of becoming self-reliant,’ the CPB’s official policy was to collect twenty percent of the raw opium harvested in its base areas. This was kept not only in Panghsang but also at local district offices. The CPB’s ‘trade and commerce department’ then sold the opium to local traders from Tang-yan, Lashio, and other opium-trading centers in government-held towns west of the Salween. In addition, there was a ten percent ‘trade tax’ on opium sold in local markets and a five percent tax on any quantity of opium, leaving the CPB’s areas for other destinations.36 The funds derived from these sources were viewed as legitimate, but several local commanders became increasingly involved in personal trading activities and the production of pitzu heroin base.
That was when the CPB’s once relatively efficient civil administration began to break down. Schools and clinics had to dose all over the Wa Hills and other base areas because of lack of funds, and party officials began to show almost no interest in their administrative duties. The main preoccupation of the civil administrators out in the districts became tax collection for the party and enriching themselves and their families by trading in drugs. Ironically, the area controlled by the orthodox Maoists of the CPB became a haven for free trade in socialist Burma. The economy remained thoroughly capitalistic, and the CPB gave up trying to implement land reform in the northeast, in sharp contrast to the dramatic land-distributing schemes which the party had carried out in central Burma in the late 1940s and early 1950s. Communist ideology became an open concept without any real meaning to the Wa and other tribal peoples in the northeastern base area. But then, in the minds of the CPB leaders, those areas had never been anything more than launching pads from which they had hoped to push down to central Burma. Moreover, the people who lived there were not their constituency.
Nevertheless, shortly after the 1985 party congress, the CPB decided to launch a ‘rectification campaign with the aim of “improving discipline and political as well as military training of soldiers and cadres, rebuilding the civil administration, improving relations with other rebel armies and punishing cadres involved in illegal activities.”37 In directives related to the last item, the CPB leadership stated that any party member involved in private opium trading would face severe punishment. Anyone caught with two kilograms, or more of heroin base would be executed.38
The CPB’s involvement in the Golden Triangle drug trade had become an embarrassment to the party’s aging, still ideologically motivated leadership. It is also plausible that the ‘campaign’ had been launched under Chinese pressure. The spillover of drugs from the CPB’s areas into China was becoming a huge social problem. After the decision in 1985 to clamp down on the drug trade, party agents were sent to check up on local cadres and report on wrongdoings to the center at Panghsang. This exacerbated existing frictions between the top party leadership and several local commanders who had begun to act as warlords in their respective areas.
Then came the pro-democracy uprising in central Burma in 1988. Across the country, millions took to the streets to vent decades of pent-up frustrations with a military-dominated government that had turned what was once one of Asia’s most prosperous countries into an economic and social wreck. The CPB paid minimal interest. The 1985 congress had reiterated the Maoist doctrine of capturing the countryside first, then surrounding the cities, and moving into urban areas later. Anything else was considered adventuristic,’ and not by Marxism-Leninism, Mao Zedong thought.
On May 19 and 20,1988, the CPB’s clandestine radio station had carried a surprisingly detailed and accurate account of the first outbreak of anti-government demonstrations in March.39 The sources for that account were most probably Tin Aung and Thet Khaing, the two-party members from Rangoon who had participated in the 1985 congress and afterward returned to the capital. Thet Khaing was married to Hla Kyaw Zaw, the daughter of Kyaw Zaw, one of the Thirty Comrades and a legendary Burmese army officer who had joined the CPB in 1976. Tin Aung was an underground party organizer who, in 1969, had been sent to the Coco Islands in the Andaman Sea, where the government had established a penal colony for political prisoners. He and the other prisoners, most of them CPB members or sympathizers, were released in 1972.40 Tin Aung and Thet Khaing had been active among students in Rangoon in 1988, but both were arrested in July 1989 and severely tortured.
That was almost the extent of the CPBs involvement in the 1988 uprising. The party’s policy towards the pro-democracy movement was discussed at a politburo meeting in Mong Ko on September 10. The demonstrations in Rangoon and elsewhere were at their height, and some of the younger party members were encouraged by the urban rising and wanted to link up with it. But after discussing in general terms, the movements demand the formation of an interim government in Rangoon, one of the aging Maoist leaders concluded: "I would like to say is not to let them [i.e., the younger cadres] lose sight of the fact that we are fighting a longterm war. We can't make attacks in the towns taking months and years. That is possible only in rural areas.”41
When many students and other activists fled Rangoon after the military stepped in to reassert power on September 18, 1988, thousands arrived in areas controlled by various ethnic rebels along the Thai border and in Kachin State. Significantly, only fifty or sixty went to the CPB’s territory.42 The CPB’s failure to link up with the most significant popular uprising in modern Burmese history annoyed the younger intellectuals in the party and some of the better-educated Burmese-speaking minority cadres who had heard about the rebellion on the BBC’s Burmese-language service. The vast majority of the CPB's hill tribe rank-and-file was, however, unaware that there was a mass uprising in central Burma in the first place.
There were also other rumblings within the party and its army. As early as December 20, 1988, Zhao Yilai and Bao Youxiang met for the first time to conspire against the CPB leadership. Plans were drawn up to form a political organization that would be exclusively Wa and not communist.43 Before they could make a move against the CPB leadership, the unit in Kokang, led by Peng fiasheng rebelled. On March 12, 1989, Peng announced that he and his troops had broken away from the CPB, and two days later, they took over the party’s northern bureau headquarters at Mong Ko.44
On April 13, Zhao and Bao met again and decided that they could not wait any longer. Four days later, seven hundred Wa troops marched into Panghsang and surrounded the headquarters area, where the top leaders were staying. The mutineers went on to seize the well-stocked armory, the broadcasting station, and other central buildings. While Wa soldiers were smashing portraits of communist icons Marx, Engels, Lenin, Stalin, and Mao and burning party literature in an outburst of antiparty feelings, the Burman Maoist leaders escaped across the Nam Hka River into China.
The Wa now had their organization and called it the Burma National United Party (BNUP). On April 18, the mutineers broadcast the first denouncement of what they termed “the narrow racial policies of the Communist Party of Burma.”45 An even stronger broadcast followed on April 28:
Conditions were good before 1989. But what has the situation come to now? No progress whatsoever is being made. Why? In our opinion, it is because some leaders are clinging to power and are obstinately pursuing an erroneous line. They are divorced from reality, practicing individualism and sectarianism, failing to study and analyze local and foreign conditions, and ignoring actual material conditions... They have created the people of the Wa region, and through lies and propaganda, have dragged us into their sham revolution. How can an enemy armed with modern weapons be defeated by empty ideology and military methods that do not integrate theory with practice? We, the people of the Wa region, never kowtow before an aggressor army, whether it be local or foreign. Although we are flawed and backward in culture and literature, we are solid in our determination.
What became of people's lives in the Wa region following the wrestling of power by an evil-minded individual within the CPB at a particular time in the past? It was a hard life for the people. The burden on the people became heavier with more taxes being levied.
We faced grave hardships. Can the people avoid staging an uprising under such a condition? 45
It is uncertain who that “evil-minded individual” could have been. But while all of the essential CPB leaders escaped to China unharmed, two especially disliked figures were captured alive: Mya Thaung, the political commissar of the Northern Wa District, and Soe Thein, the overall political commissar of the northeastern region. Both were notorious for having manipulated the ethnic minorities, A third high-ranking CPB leader who was earmarked for arrest, and possible execution, was the chief of staff of the army, Tin Yee, who had been responsible for sending many young Wa to die in human- wave attacks on government positions. Tin Yee managed to cross the Nam Hka before being captured, while Mya Thaung and Soe Thein were kept in custody until the Chinese told the Wa to release them.
China might have played a significant role in the Burmese mutiny. By the time the rebellion broke out, the Chinese had signed several trade agreements with the Burmese authorities, and Chinese pressure on the CPB to reconsider its old policies had become more persistent. In 1981, Deng Xiaoping offered asylum to party leaders and high-ranking cadres, including Mao. However, the offer was contingent on the retired CPB cadres refraining from political activity in China. The old guard saw the offer as treachery, but they did not openly criticize China's new policies. The younger members ignored it.
Then, in early 1989, the Chinese once again approached the CPB and tried to persuade the leadership to give up. A crisis meeting was convened at Panghsang on February 20, and for the first time, Thakin Ba Thein Tin lashed out against the Chinese. In an address to the secret meeting, he referred to “misunderstandings in our relations with a sister party. Even if there are differences between us, we have to coexist and adhere to the principles of non-interference in each other's affairs. This is the same as in 1981, 1985 and 1988. We have no desire to become revisionists”47 The minutes of the secret meeting were leaked, and this may have encouraged disgruntled local commanders to rise against the old leadership. A primary reason it did not happen earlier was that the ordinary soldiers and their officers were uncertain of China's reaction to such a move. After all, the CPB leaders still went to China now and then, and they were always picked up at the border by Chinese officials in limousines.48
After the February meeting, it is plausible that the Chinese gave some local commanders the green light to rebel. The reason the mutiny broke out prematurely in Kokang instead of in the Wa Hills could well have been that the Chinese had closer fraternal relations with the ethnic Chinese in Kokang than with the potentially more unruly Wa. Whatever the case, the more than three hundred party members and their families were first trucked through China north to Pangva in Kachin State, which the CPB controlled. Some remained there while most of them were later moved to Kunming.
The only exceptions were the party’s two oldest members, Thakin Ba Thein Tin and the Pyinmana veteran Ye Tun, the CPB’s delegate to the 1981 peace talks with the government, who were sent to Changsha in Hunan Province where they were kept in isolation so they would not try to rebuild the CPB. Mao had begun his political career in Changsha in the 1910s. The Malayan communists had had their broadcasting station, so it was deemed suitable for the two communist veterans from Burma. They were treated well until they died there, first Thakin Ba Thein Tin in 1995 and then Ye Tun in 1998. But one thing was sure. The CPB insurrection was over forty-one years after the first shots were fired in a small village near Pegu and twenty-one years since Naw Seng and his men had come across the border from Yunnan and captured Mong Ko. Now, the Wa were masters of their destiny. Or, at least, to some extent.
Julia Lovell, a professor of modern China at Birkbeck College, University of London, quoting a Chinese-language Hong Kong publication, writes in her book Maoism: A Global History that the CPB veterans in China “were marginal, impoverished figures, who could occasionally be glimpsed in the cities of south and west China, their Mao jackets tattered, their toes poking through their old cloth shoes.”49
Nothing could be more wrong. I visited the ex-CPB exiles in Kunming several times after the mutiny, and they had been given the pensions and the housing the Chinese had promised them. A few had also settled in Ruili, Tengchong, and other border towns.
1. This Panglong should not be confused with the market town of Panglong in central Shan State, where Aung San and representatives of the Shan, Kachin, and Chin signed an agreement on February 12, 1947, to set up a federal union after independence. This Panglong is a predominantly Panthay, or Chinese Muslim, town, and for many years it was where many prominent opium traders resided.
2. Interview with Zhao Yilai, Mong Mau.
3. Interview with Mya Thaung, political commissar of the northern Wa Hills, Mong Mau.
4. According to Falise Thierry, a Belgian photojournalist who visited the Wa Hills in 1993. See https://www.bangkokpost.com/thailand/special-reports/312577/as-seen- through-the-lens-of-an-insider and https://www,gettyimages.com/detail/news-photo /members-of-the-united-wa-state-army-display-a-human-skull-news-photo /165249418.
5. Tom Kramer (2007), The United Wa State Party: Narco-Army or Ethnic Nationalist Party? Washington: East-West Center, p. 16.
6. Bertil Lintner (2011), Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948. Fourth edition, Chiang Mai: Silkworm Books, p. 272.
7. The news about Naw Sengs death, based on a CPB radio broadcast, was prominently displayed in the Burmese government's newspaper, The Working Peoples Daily, April 27, 1972.
8. Klaus Fleischmann (ed,) (1989), Documents on Communism in Burma 1945-1977. Hamburg: Mitteilungen Des Instituts fiir Asienkunde, pp. 185-86.
9. John Byron and Robert Pack (1992), The Claws of the Dragon: Kang Sheng, the Evil Genius Behind Mao and His Legacy of Terror in Peoples China. New York: Simon & Schuster, p. 324.
10. According to the CPBs own statistics collected in 1986, there were 263,029 people in the CPB-controlled areas, of whom 122,399 were male and 140,630 female. Although the significant disparity in the numbers between the sexes (18,231) could not be attributed to war casualties alone, it nevertheless is a clear indication of the heavy toll the fighting had taken.
11. Interview with Mya Thaung, Mong Mau.
12. Beijing Review.
14. Beijing Review.
15. Beijing Review.
16. To further please the Chinese, on September 7, 1979, Burma announced at a meeting in Havana, Cuba, that it was leaving the Non-Aligned Movement. The Burmese delegate, President San Yu, criticized the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia, which led to the ouster of the Khmer Rouge.
17. See Thakin Ba Thein Tin (1978), The Entire Party! Unite and March to Achieve Victory! (translation from Burmese). Panghsang, CPBs printing press, p. 4.
18. A Wa woman I met in the area in February 1986 told me she had named her young son 'Township Officer.5 When I asked her why she replied that “he’s very lazy, doesn't want to do anything, and he never comes when I call him.”
19. The Spirit of 1948-1949 was one of self-reliance and enduring hardships (translation from Burmese) (1979), Panghsang: CPBs printing press, August.
20. Interview with Khin Maung Gyi, Panghsang.
21. The Working Peoples Daily.
22. Interview with Brang Seng, Pa Jau (Kachin headquarters), August 12, 1986. However, the Working Peoples Daily of May 10, 1989, claims that “the KIA held firm their right to secede,” but that statement is not supported by meeting documents and independent sources.
23. Interview with Ye Tun, Panghsang.