The Irrawaddy News Magazine [Covering Burma and Southeast Asia]
Broadening the Breach

Ne Win’s visit to Khmer Rouge-controlled Cambodia in 1977 demonstrated his gift for exploiting his enemies’ weaknesses. In late November 1977, Burma’s military dictator Ne Win became the first-and only-head of state of a non-communist country to visit Cambodia when the Khmer Rouge was still in power. He spent several days in the country, hosted by Khieu Samphan and other Khmer Rouge leaders. Ne Win was taken to Angkor Wat and to a crocodile farm near Siem Riep, and he toured Phnom Penh, which at that time must have been almost completely deserted. In a speech in the capital on November 26, Ne Win stated that "April 17 was a historic day for the people of Kampuchea. We are very happy that the Kampuchean people on that day won a decisive victory in their struggle for independence." Despite the rhetoric, and the diplomatic niceties, the Chinese were no doubt behind the unusual visit, hoping to draw the Khmer Rouge out of its diplomatic isolation. Ne Win played along, for his part hoping that Beijing would further reduce its support for the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which had been fighting against the Burmese government virtually since independence from Britain in 1948 and with massive Chinese aid since 1968. The Chinese poured in more arms, ammunition and other support—including military advisers and "volunteers"—to the CPB than it did to any other communist movement in Asia, outside Indochina. The CPB also resembled the Khmer Rouge in many ways. Its chief ideologue, Khin Maung Gyi, attended Moscow’s Academy of Social Sciences in 1957-1960, and then wrote a thesis on agrarian problems in Burma that is strikingly similar to Khieu Samphan’s infamous Sorbonne thesis on the same issue in Cambodia. Following the split in the international Communist movement in the late 1950s and early 1960s, the Burmese Communists sided with China, and their representatives in Moscow, including Khin Maung Gyi, were forced to leave the Soviet Union in 1963. In 1968, China decided to give all-out support for the CPB’s "revolutionary struggle" in Burma, and within a few years, a 20,000-square km "liberated area" had been established in northeastern Burma, conveniently located along the Yunnan frontier. The CPB, which was recognized as a "fraternal communist party" by the Chinese, dealt with the infamous intelligence chief Kang Sheng and his International Liaison Department (ILD) of the Communist Party of China. The ILD reported directly to the Central Committee and had, as Australian researchers John Byron and Robert Pack put it, "an almost unlimited charter in external affairs during the 1950s and 1960s, wielding far greater influence than its government counterpart, the Foreign Ministry." During the 1970s, the CPB’s headquarters at Panghsang near the Yunnan frontier was not only the main base for the Burmese communists; there were also about a dozen representatives of the Communist Party of Thailand and more than 20 cadres from the PKI, the Indonesian Communist party, including two daughters of its once powerful Chairman, DN Aidit. The Communist Party of Malaya’s Suara Revolusi Malaya ("Voice of the Malayan Revolution") broadcast from Hengyang south of Changsha in Hunan province. All "fraternal communist parties" also had offices in Kunming as well as in the diplomatic quarter of Beijing. Kang Sheng had grand plans and the CPB’s base area along the Yunnan frontier was the springboard from which he hoped to spread communism down to Southeast Asia. But then, Kang Sheng, the CPB’s mentor, died in Beijing on December 16, 1975 at the age of seventy-seven. On January 8, 1976, less than a month later, Zhou Enlai died of cancer of the bladder. It was widely believed that Zhou had intended to position the more pragmatic Deng Xiaoping to take over the government. With the Kang out of the picture, the hardliners felt that their influence was in danger of being curbed. Mao’s wife, the voluptuous former film actress Jiang Qing, launched a vicious campaign aimed at ousting Deng and other moderates. The power struggle raged until April 1976, when China’s radical Left managed to reassert itself and oust Deng. The CPB —unlike other communist parties in the region—made the crucial mistake of speaking out loudly in favor of the hardliners: "The revisionist clique [with which Deng was linked] headed by Liu Shaoqi has been defeated," the CPB stated in a congratulatory message on the fifty-fifth 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". Then Mao Zedong himself died on September 9. In a message mourning the old Chairman’s death, the CPB spoke of his role in containing revisionist tendencies within the CPC and thus "consolidating the People’s Republic of China (as) the reliable bulwark of the world proletarian revolution." But the CPB had reason to reevaluate the reliability of that bulwark when Deng reassumed power at a Central Committee meeting in Beijing in July 1977. Kang was gone, and so was Mao. The Beijing Review and other official Chinese publications, which had previously published battle news and CPB documents, stopped printing anything about the "revolutionary struggle in Burma". The CPB had been mentioned for the last time in November 1976 when CPB chairman Thakin Ba Thein Tin and vice chairman Thakin Pe Tint went to Beijing to call on Mao’s successor as Chairman, Hua Guofeng, who was soon to lose power to Deng. In was in that context that the Burmese military government, led by General Ne Win, quickly and shrewdly exploited the rift by lending its good offices to China in Cambodia, by then forming the focus of Chinese interest as concern in Beijing increased over Vietnam’s designs on its Indochinese neighbor. Communist forces had emerged victorious in all three Indochinese countries, only to fall out with each other, with China supporting the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, and the Soviet Union backing Vietnam and Laos. Ne Win’s visit to Phnom Penh paid off. In 1978, the CPB’s entire China-based central office, including the broadcasting station, the People’s Voice of Burma, was forced to return to Panghsang. The Chinese "volunteers" were also recalled. Relations between Beijing and Rangoon were showing signs of serious improvement for the first time in decades. Admittedly, Deng had at about the same time declared in Malaysia that "government-to-government" relations were different from "party-to-party" relations, thus implying that Chinese support for the CPB and similar communist rebellions in the region would continue. But the writing was on the wall: all the erstwhile Chinese patrons of Thakin Ba Thein Tin and the CPB were either dead or out of power—and Deng, the old "capitalist roader," to use the pejorative of the Red Guards, was back at the helm in Beijing. He had other plans for spreading China’s influence in Southeast Asia than arming communist revolutionaries. Faced with this new situation, the CPB central committee met for a marathon meeting that lasted from November 1978 to June 1979. The party’s fortieth anniversary on August 15, 1979 was subdued. In a lengthy speech to his sullen comrades, Thakin Ba Thein Tin emphasized that the party must be "self-reliant" and, without being specific, said that the CPB "had made many mistakes" during its 40-year long history. In other announcements, "non-interference" was declared as a major aspect of the CPB’s relations with "fraternal communist parties". The CPB continued its struggle for another ten years, but in 1989, a mutiny among the mainly hill-tribe rank and file of the party’s army—which made up more than 90% of the communist fighting force—drove the old, mainly Burman Maoist leadership into exile in China, where they still remain. The old CPB army split up along ethnic hill-tribe lines into four different regional resistance armies, which soon entered into cease-fire agreements with the Burmese government in Rangoon. The most powerful of these former rebel armies to spring out of the old CPB was the United Wa State Army (UWSA), today Southeast Asia’s main armed drug smuggling organization. Although the ultimate demise of the CPB was chiefly due to its own failure to pick the winners in the power struggle within the Chinese leadership, Ne Win’s visit to Phnom Penh in 1977 may also have played an important role in weakening the CPB and thus preventing it from taking over Burma. Just as regional power politics prompted even the so-called "pragmatist" Deng Xiaoping to continue his support for Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge well into the 1990s, China’s support for Burma’s Maoists could conceivably have continued if not for Ne Win’s readiness to exploit the rift that had appeared between the BCP and China’s reformist leaders.

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