BOOK REVIEW
Red Star on a Stormy Journey
By KO KO THETT FEBRUARY, 2008 - VOLUME 16 NO.2

A legendary Communist leader recalls his life from farm boy to the Thirty Comrades to revolutionary commander

Living history” is a good way to describe retired Brig-Gen Kyaw Zaw, who has published his memoirs at age 88.  The book, as a firsthand account of a lifelong Burmese revolutionary, will be invaluable to scholars.

My Memoirs: From Hsai Su to Meng Hai (in Burmese), by Brig-Gen Kyaw Zaw (Retired). Duwun Publishing, Hyattsville, Maryland, 2007. P 278
The story begins in a small farming village near Tharrawaddy in lower Burma in 1919 and ends with Kyaw Zaw’s dramatic break with the late dictator Ne Win’s “Burmese Way to Socialism”  in 1976 and his journey to what he calls “home,” one of the strongholds of the Communist Party of Burma in northern Shan State.

Since the late 1930s when he was schooled in Rangoon and anti-colonial nationalism was in full swing, his life has been what Filipino historian Renato Constantino calls an “escalation of consciousness.” Determined to be self-educated, he took part in the 1938 Indo-Burman riots with all his patriotic fervor, and he witnessed the fall of student leader Aung Kyaw in a student protest in Rangoon in December the same year.  During World War II, he joined the nationalist group, Dobama Asiayone (We Burman Association), which would become pivotal in Burma’s independence movement.

In 1941, he was selected by the Dobama to be sent clandestinely to Japan for  military training to form the nucleus of a modern Burmese army.  The strenuous and dehumanizing training given by the Japanese to the now legendary Thirty Comrades on Hainan Island is well-known.  The book describes a horrendous bayonet practice session in which the young Burmese patriots were ordered to charge at a Chinese prisoner tied to a post. In retrospect, the author says that in forging them to become warriors, “elementary fascism had been instilled in the young minds.”  He acknowledges that it took years of working together with other people to be able to phase out “the mindset [that] unconsciously held sway by the Japanese training.” 

Contrary to the myth that Ne Win was despised by many of the Thirty Comrades, he says the future dictator, with his characteristic slickness, nurtured a good relationship with most of them, including Aung San. Without self-pity or self-praise, Kyaw Zaw matter-of-factly admits that he was one of those responsible for the unfortunate massacre of  Karens in the Irrawaddy delta during the war.  His exposure to communism came relatively late, in 1944, at a crash course given by one of Burma’s foremost Communists, Thakin Soe, who was organizing an anti-fascist revolution in the country. 

It was ironic, he writes, that many young nationalists, many of whom were left-leaning, ended up as Japanese “collaborators” in their desperate attempt to liberate Burma.  It was the Thirty Comrades again, with the communists this time, who turned against the Japanese and ensured the victory of the Allies in Burma in 1945. 

As for the 1947 assassination of Aung San and his cabinet members, which remains an enigma to many Burmese, he maintains that the British government was “politically responsible.” 

Anti-colonial and anti-capitalist sentiments are natural in any communist writing. What’s interesting is how Kyaw Zaw justifies the sentiments with acute observations.  He notes how the British government provided Ne Win with arms and armoured vehicles for the army to quell the civil war following Burma’s independence in 1948.  The author also notes how World Bank loans for newly independent Burma were tied to American interests. 

His sketches of the people who were near and dear to him as well as of those he despised are equally attractive.  In contrast, the roles of his family members appear very pale. 

Kyaw Zaw gives detailed analyses of numerous battles in which he fought or commanded. A chapter is dedicated to the successful operations against the American-backed, anti-communist Chinese Kuomintang invasion of Shan State in the early 1950s. 

The author’s military career ended abruptly in 1957 when he was dismissed from the army by Ne Win for leaking secrets to the Communists.  He was only 38.  Ne Win found it expedient to get rid of a high-ranking Communist in the army, which was divided along communist-socialist lines. 

Burmese can learn from the author’s experiences as an advocate of peace and national reconciliation.  As the struggle for what he calls “people’s democracy” continues, his belief has been reinforced that a “national economy will not be achieved without national reconciliation.” 

Reading his memoirs brings to mind an oft-cited axiom by the late Burmese Marxist writer, Bamaw Tin Aung: “The worth of a person can be measured by how well the person bares ‘historical responsibilities’ which were bestowed on him or her by the circumstances directly encountered, given and transmitted from the past.”  No doubt Brig-Gen Kyaw Zaw is one of the very few people who have borne their historical responsibilities steadfastly, stoically and gracefully.

Ko Ko Thett is a Burmese researcher who studies world politics at the University of Helsinki

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