To mark the 30th anniversary of the 1988 uprising this week, The Irrawaddy is revisiting some of its past articles about the event. In this article from The Irrawaddy magazine’s August 2008 edition, the author recalls his memories of the communist current that ran through the early days of the pro-democracy movement.
“First, you must be faithful to the party,” said my colleague softly and in the kind of tone adopted in a “State of the Union” address.
“Second, you have to swear on oath never to betray the proletariat and poor peasantry.” I gasped, he paused—and then went on: “Third, you must believe in armed struggle.”
I was 19 and astonished to hear these words from somebody I had known for three years. He was one of a group of writers and intellectuals, in his 50s, and he ran a small shop selling secondhand books, where I regularly hung out. He and others in his group represented Burma’s world of letters and were widely respected and well known. They were poor—but rich in intellectual thought.
I was in his shop on this occasion not to buy books but to ask for a copy of the first edition of Aryoon-Oo (or Dawn), an underground newsletter published by the Communist Party of Burma (CPB).
He parted with the copy only after I had agreed to the three conditions. I hesitated at first, but I was dying to read the newsletter and finally nodded to his conditions.
I stowed the newsletter away in my bag and stole nervously out of the shop, well aware that if I were caught with it I could be charged with high treason. Safely at home, I unfolded the publication and found it full of “battle news,” anti-government pronouncements and communist propaganda.
It was my first contact with an underground communist cell. But I never became a Communist Party member—nor did I stick to the three conditions I had assented to in the bookshop.
The year was 1988, and Burma was heading rapidly towards crisis. The 26-year regime of Ne Win’s nominally socialist government was in a shambles, and the people were looking desperately for an alternative.
Public dissent had already surfaced in 1987, with Ne Win’s unpopular demonetization of the Burmese currency.
Many thought the time was ripe for revolution. The communists, who had established an underground network of cells throughout the country, foresaw trouble—but also opportunity. The launch of Aryoon-Oo was among the first offensives of their anti-government campaign.
Long before the uprising in 1988, communists had decided to regroup in Burma’s heartland even after losing their headquarters in the Burmese army assault on Pegu Yoma, near Rangoon, in 1973-74. At the third party congress, held in Panghsang, at that time the CPB headquarters on the Sino-Burmese border, it was decided to step up underground activities inside Burma.
I belonged at the time to a small literary group, later known as “Insein Sarpay Wine,” which had been established in the Rangoon suburb of Insein.
Many respected literary gurus were invited to address weekly discussions on Burmese and international literature. Although we carefully avoided political topics, the gatherings were illegal and we were worried about the possibility of regime agents monitoring our activities.
I remember an energetic young writer and physician, Dr Zaw Min, who took part in our weekly meetings. He loved the writings of Franz Kafka and had translated some of the Czech author’s short stories into Burmese, which were then published.
The last time I met him was at Rangoon General Hospital in September 1988 during the daily street protests. He was no longer the Kafka-reading intellectual but clearly a leading activist in the uprising. As soon as he saw me, he gave me instructions to take to leaders of the protests. “Go and see them, tell them I sent you.”
The following year, on August 5, 1989, Zaw Min’s name cropped up at a marathon press conference given by the then intelligence chief, Maj-Gen Khin Nyunt.
He was described there as a leading underground communist.
Zaw Min worked for the CPB’s student section and was a member of the 4828 underground network—a coded number referring to the start of the communist uprising on March 28, 1948.
In his six-hour speech at the press conference in August 1989, Khin Nyunt charged that communist cells and underground networks intended to destabilize the government. Communists were behind the 1988 pro-democracy uprising, he claimed.
Twenty years later, many opposition sources admitted there was some truth in what Khin Nyunt had to say.
Zaw Min was answerable to four leaders of 4828, who were known simply as A.1, A.2, A.3 and A.4. All four were arrested following the 1988 uprising, and A.1, identified as Maung Ko, aka U Lay Gyi, died under torture in Mandalay interrogation center. He was reportedly determined to die a martyr, and is said to have told his interrogators: “I was in the business of revolution but not to cooperate with you.”
The remaining three leaders were each sentenced to 20 years imprisonment, and one, Kyaw Mya, the group’s A.3, remains in jail after his sentence, which expired in 2005, was extended after a riot involving political prisoners.
A.2’s name—Thet Khaing, aka Ko Latt—featured prominently at the Khin Nyunt press conference.
He was married to the daughter of Maj-Gen Kyaw Zaw, one of the “Thirty Comrades” who fought for independence alongside Gen Aung San. Kyaw Zaw joined the CPB in the 1970s after serving in the Burmese army and now lives in China.
A.4 was Tin Aung, aka Uncle Gyi, who worked with Thet Khaing on editing Aryoon-Oo newsletters.
Thet Khaing moved freely in and out of Rangoon for several years, even helping to arrange for Kyaw Zaw’s wife and family members, who had remained in the capital, to join the general at CPB headquarters in the late 1970s.
After his arrest in July 1989, Thet Khaing’s colleagues suspected that he had disclosed details of the network to his captors, basing their fears on a series of raids launched simultaneously the same month against more than 200 activists, mainly in Rangoon, the Irrawaddy delta and Mandalay.
The four “As” came under the command of CPB central committee member Kyin Maung, aka Yebaw Htay, who lived on the Sino-Burmese border after moving in 1985 from Panghsang to Mongko, an area closer to Upper Burma and convenient for communicating with underground members operating inside the country.
In the 1980s, the CPB was expecting political upheaval because of deteriorating economic conditions, and at the third party congress it urged Gen Ne Win to hold multiparty democratic elections.
According to former political prisoners who worked with 4828 members, the CPB cells began to operate inside Burma as early as 1986, targeting Mandalay and Rangoon, cities with many communist sympathizers and former party members.
Tin Aye, aka Khin Maung Yi, Burma’s top chess player, who was imprisoned from 1989 until 2005, told me: “They (communists) were not looking for me. I was looking for them. I knew that they were around.”
He was not alone. Many students and civil servants who were dissatisfied with the way Ne Win was running the country were searching for opposition forces and assistance to overthrow the regime, no matter whether they were communists or capitalists.
Ne Win himself, in a speech to the UN in 1987, confirmed that Burma was in trouble, admitting that his regime had made mistakes.
With resistance to the regime on the rise, Ne Win’s intelligence service stepped up its activities, monitoring the movements of communist sympathizers and their popular hangouts.
Leftwing activists and former communists were known to have opened bookshops, tuition centers and teashops, regarded by the regime as breeding grounds for new recruits, places where they could establish study groups and plot an anti-government campaign.
It was a cat and mouse game in which the regime spooks often suffered embarrassing setbacks.
Aye Win, publisher of Aryoon-Oo and a former member of the 4828 research department, who now lives in the US, told me: “They (intelligence officers) thought Thet Khaing was selling secondhand books, so they monitored old book shops in downtown Rangoon, but we acted ‘bourgeois’ and opened a grocery store in Bogyoke market.”
In this way, dodging the attentions of the secret police, Aye Win and Thet Khaing increased the circulation of Aryoon-Oo and other underground papers and leaflets.
The 4828 group also grew stronger and even infiltrated the inner circles of government.
Min Zin, a prominent former student activist and a regular contributor to The Irrawaddy, said “The communists had a big network [inside Burma] and could reach many of society’s intellectuals and educated people.”
Recruits were also drawn from the armed forces and the police, and they provided classified information and logistical support to the hardcore 4828 members.
Htay Nyunt, a sub-inspector in the special branch of the police, was one such sympathizer, providing the party not only with information about the armed forces and the defense ministry but also passing on the monthly reports of the police department.
There were many others who were able to pass on important information to the party.
Dr Maw Zin, who held a major position in one of the army’s two Rangoon hospitals, was a key activist in 1988.
Win Kyi, the nephew of then deputy prime minister Thura Tun Tin, provided the CPB with classified materials while serving in the Industrial Planning Department and then as Minister of Industry 1.
When the crackdown intensified in 1989, Aye Win moved his offset printing machine to the premises of the government-owned Mazda jeep factory, owned by a friend of his— “So no one would suspect us.”
Looking back at those years, many former activists who worked with the 4828 network now say grave mistakes were made in 1988 and 1989. By forming political parties to contest the 1990 general election, several veteran communists exposed themselves and their networks to the regime.
The 4828 group targeted mainly idealistic students who were angry with the regime, and Tin Aye claimed that the student union set up in August 1988 was, in fact, controlled by 4828.
Prominent student leaders such as Ko Ko Gyi, Moe Thee Zun and Nyo Tun—but not Min Ko Naing—knew Thet Khaing and Zaw Min. But not all were communists. Thet Khaing met Ko Ko Gyi several times in 1988 but failed to persuade him to join the communist movement, some activists have now revealed.
Apart from recruiting students, 4828 also returned to its roots, establishing contacts with former CPB members and their sympathizers.
Among prominent activists was Kyi Kyi, wife of Thakin Zin, who led the CPB in the 1970s after the death of Thakin Than Tun. Thakin Zin was killed in the government attack on Pegu Yoma in 1973-74, while Kyi Kyi was captured.
Kyi Kyi eventually returned to Rangoon to live with her family, but she remained under surveillance and in 1989 she was arrested on suspicion of supporting the CPB financially.
The CPB also targeted some prominent veteran politicians and their family members, including Khin Kyi, the widow of independence hero Gen Aung San and mother of detained Nobel Peace Prize winner Aung San Suu Kyi. The CPB chairman at that time, Ba Thein Tin, corresponded with both Khin Kyi and Suu Kyi.
Khin Kyi suffered a stroke and took no part in the pro-democracy movement. Her daughter Suu Kyi nursed her and then turned to politics. Although Suu Kyi carefully avoided any connection with the CPB, the regime accused her of being a communist.
Anyone who opposed the regime could be accused of communist sympathies, of course, and this became a convenient political tool of the present junta.
Although many hardcore former communists are free today, Suu Kyi’s close party colleague, Win Tin, 79, formerly chief editor of the Hanthawaddy newspaper, remains behind bars.
Win Tin helped edit several underground student newsletters in 1988. Ironically, in the years prior to 1988, Ne Win called on Win Tin for political consultations whenever he visited Mandalay and even allowed him to produce a newspaper—prompting Tin Aye to ask facetiously: “Was Ne Win a part of 4828?”
Kyaw Zaw’s son Aung Kyaw Zaw, who lives on the Sino-Burmese border, has acknowledged the role that 4828 played in the 1988 uprising, although he says it was limited. “The party could do little,” he has said.
Aung Kyaw Zaw is critical of the CPB’s political stand in those years, saying that although it called for multiparty democracy in Burma, its true aim was absolute power.
Min Zin has said: “They [the communists] were not ready to embrace liberal thought and [were not] open for change. They themselves are radical, very commanding and afraid of compromise.”
Tin Aye agrees. “They are very dogmatic,” says the man who spent time in prison with some leading 4828 members.
Behind prison walls, the debate over communist ideals continued, fuelled by world-shaking events, such as Soviet Communist Party leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s “glasnost” policy, the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Soviet empire and the end of Marxist and Maoist doctrines.
Tough prison conditions also took their toll. Thet Khaing reportedly attempted suicide in 1994 because of depression. He was subsequently released but did not return to the CPB fold and now lives in Mandalay. Tin Aung was released in 2005 and returned to his family.
Zaw Min, also freed in 2005, still suffers from psychological trauma. He once applied for CPB membership but no longer believes in communism, according to Tin Aye.
Zaw Min’s former comrade, Htay Thein, a 31-year-old Rangoon University tutor in 1988, is free, but reportedly suffers from mental illness.
The big irony in the story of Burmese communism is that many of those CPB leaders who hoped to overthrow the Ne Win regime, and who faced serious mutiny in 1989, fled to China, the country that now nurtures good neighborly relations with the junta in Burma.
Nearly 20 years later, the original longing for a democratic Burma remains unchanged. Communists might have played a role in pushing for change, but by and large the uprising in 1988 was a genuinely all-inclusive event—the Burmese people as a whole wanted change.
They financed the campaign and many parted with more than money—dying for the cause. To describe them sweepingly as communists would insult their memory.
Communism as such certainly served a purpose. As Zay Latt, a former political prisoner now living in exile, put it: “We had to find a stick to beat [the enemy], so we found it [the CPB].”