China and Burma: Not Only Pauk-Phaw

By Bertil Lintner 6 June 2017

Part 2 of a 5-part series.

1962 to 1978: Brothers No More

It is generally assumed that Sino-Burmese relations took a turn for the worse in 1967, when anti-Chinese riots broke out in Rangoon. The fervor of the Cultural Revolution influenced the Chinese community in the Burmese capital and many young Sino-Burmese began wearing red Mao badges.

This violated an official Burmese regulation banning the display of such political symbols in public, and the young “Red Guards” were ordered to take off their badges. When some of them resisted, anti-Chinese riots broke out in June and July that year.

Chinese shops and homes were ransacked and looted, and many Sino-Burmese were killed. A mob even attacked the Chinese embassy in Rangoon before the situation was brought under control. However, the role of the authorities in this affair was a matter of dispute: the Chinatown riots in Rangoon came at a time when there were acute shortages of rice and basic food supplies in Rangoon. According to eyewitnesses, the police did not interfere with the killings and the looting until the Chinese embassy was attacked. It is widely believed that Burma’s military government encouraged the riots in order to deflect attention from the country’s internal problems at that time.

The incident was followed by the withdrawal of ambassadors from both capitals and the expulsion of the “Xinhua” (New China News Agency) correspondent in Rangoon. Beijing also suspended its aid program to Burma, granted under the 1960 friendship treaty. Radio Beijing began broadcasting fierce attacks on the Ne Win government branding it “fascist.” On January 1968, heavily armed CPB units crossed from China into northeast Burma. The Chinese Communist Party decided to lend all-out support to its fellow communist Burmese-sister party.

However, more thorough research into Sino-Burmese relations indicates that the 1967 incident was little more than a convenient excuse for the Chinese to intervene directly in Burma’s internal affairs. In reality, the new era in Sino-Burmese relations began in 1962 when General Ne Win seized power. The military takeover had upset the regional stability that existed by virtue of Burma’s weak but neutral democratic government.

Furthermore, China had long been wary of the ambitious and unpredictable general in Rangoon. Six important events took place immediately after the coup in Rangoon: 1.) In the early fifties, several groups of CPB cadres had trekked to China to request assistance for their armed insurrection in Burma. However, as long as U Nu was in power, these Burmese communists—in all 143 people—were housed in Sichuan Province. There they attended communist party schools, but received no other support, and certainly not arms and military training. The leader of these CPB exiles in China was Thakin Ba Thein Tin, who later became the chairman of the CPB. He resided mostly in Beijing where he became close to Mao Zedong, and the two developed a long-lasting, personal relationship. Following Ne Win’s takeover in Rangoon, the CPB was for the first time allowed to print propaganda leaflets and other material in Beijing. On August 1, 1962, Beijing-and Sichuan-based exiles published a document titled “Some Facts about Ne Win’s Military Government,” denouncing the new regime.

Former Communist Party of Burma Chairman Thakin Ba Thein Tin. (Photo: Hseng Noung Lintner)

2.) The most urgent task for the CPB exiles in Beijing was to find a way to contact the CPB units in the old base area located in the Pegu Yoma mountains of central Burma, north of Rangoon, where the once strong communist army was crumbling. There had been no links between the CPB units in Burma and the CPB exiles in China since the latter had trekked to Yunnan in the early fifties.

By a strange twist of historical events, it was the new military regime in Rangoon that unwittingly provided an opportunity for the CPB exiles in China to re-establish these links. Probably hoping that the insurgents would give up when faced with the massive force of the military government, the Ne Win regime called for peace talks after about a year in power. On July 14, 1963, the CPB, Thakin Soe’s much smaller “Red Flag” communist party, the Karen, Mon, Shan, Kachin ethnic rebel armies, and some smaller groups attended the negotiations in Rangoon with guarantees of free and safe passage to and from the peace parley, regardless of the outcome.

The colorful Thakin Soe probably attracted the most attention when he arrived accompanied by a team of attractive young girls in khaki uniforms. He placed a portrait of Stalin in front of him on the negotiating table and then began attacking the “revisionism” of Soviet leader Khrushchev and the “opportunism” of Mao Zedong’s China (Thakin Soe was soon excluded from the talks). However, 29 veterans from the main CPB exiles in China also arrived in Rangoon, purportedly to participate in the peace talks. Among the “Beijing Returnees,” as they came to be known, were “yebaw” (comrade) Aung Gyi, Thakin Bo, Bo Zeya­—and Thakin Ba Thein Tin who did not actually participate in the talks but seized the opportunity to visit the CPB’s headquarters in the Pegu Yoma, bringing with him radio transmitters and other aid from China.

According to CPB documents, the Burmese government demanded that the communists should concentrate all their troops and party members inside an area stipulated by the authorities, inform the government if there were any remaining guerrillas or cadres elsewhere, stop all organizational activities of the party and cease fund-raising. The intransigence of the military regime was a blessing in disguise for the CPB. The talks broke down in November and the various insurgents returned to their respective jungle camps. Thakin Ba Thein Tin and another CPB cadre returned to Beijing, while the other 27 returnees stayed in the Pegu Yoma where they assumed de facto leadership of the party at home.

3.) In November 1963, shortly after the Sino-Soviet split in the international communist movement, some CPB cadres who had been studying in the Soviet Union—Khin Maung Gyi, San Thu and Thein Aung—returned to Beijing. To direct the work in China, a leading group of five was set up in Beijing shortly after Thakin Ba Thein Tin’s return from the peace talks in Rangoon. This group, which became the nucleus of the new leadership of the CPB that emerged during the sixties, consisted of Thakin Ba Thein Tin as leader, with Khin Maung Gyi as his personal secretary and Khin Maung Gyi as the CPB’s main theoretician.

4.) In late 1963, San Thu, one of the Moscow returnees, was put in charge of a team that began surveying possible infiltration routes from Yunnan into northeastern Burma. During this period, China built a network of asphalted highways, leading from Kunming to various points along the borders with Burma and with Laos, where another communist movement was active.

5.) Nearly all the CPB cadres in China were well-read Marxist intellectuals with little or no experience in military matters. But in 1950, an ethnic Kachin rebel leader, Naw Seng and 200 to 300 of his followers, had retreated to China where they resettled in Guizhou province as ordinary citizens. Naw Seng was a decorated World War II hero—he had fought brilliantly against the Japanese—and he was exactly the kind of military commander that the CPB intellectuals needed. In early 1963—even before the peace talks in Rangoon—Naw Seng was brought to Sichuan. He was introduced to Thakin Ba Thein Tin and told that the time had come to go back to Burma and fight. Naw Seng, eager to leave his people’s commune in Guizhou, readily agreed. He assembled his men and they began military training in Yunnan in 1965. On January 1, 1968, Naw Seng’s Kachin warriors at last entered northeastern Burma from the Chinese side, accompanied by Khin Maung Gyi and other political commissars from the CPB.

6.) Since the thirties, small cells of ethnic Chinese communists had been active in towns in central Burma, completely separate from the mainstream Burmese communist movement. In the early sixties these entities were put in touch with the CPB for the first time. They were few in number, but the Chinese embassy in Rangoon arranged for ethnic Chinese from the capital and some small towns in the Irrawaddy delta to visit the CPB’s then-base area along the Shweli River (and later to travel to the northeastern base area set up after 1968). The CPB’s numbers increased after anti-Chinese communal riots in Rangoon in 1967; these riots may have provided the catalyst for the already planned China-sponsored CPB thrust into Shan State, but they were not the reason for China’s support for the Burmese communists.

During the decade that followed, China provided the CPB with assault rifles, machine-guns, rocket launchers, anti-aircraft guns, radio equipment, jeeps, trucks and petrol. Even rice, other food supplies, cooking oil and kitchen utensils were sent across the frontier into the new revolutionary base area that the CPB was establishing along the Sino-Burmese frontier in northeastern Burma. The Chinese also built hydroelectric power stations inside this area, and a clandestine radio station. “The People’s Voice of Burma,” began transmitting from the Yunnan side of the frontier in April 1971. Thousands of Chinese “volunteers”—mostly youthful Red Guards from China but also regular soldiers from the People’s Liberation Army—also streamed across the border to fight alongside their Burmese comrades. Within four years of the first thrust into northeastern Burma on New Year Day 1968, the CPB had wrested control over a 9,000 square mile area along the Sino-Burmese frontier.

During the Cultural Revolution, the Chinese saw themselves as the leaders of the “World Proletarian Revolution” and the massive support they lent to the CPB was only one of several powerful expressions of this policy; however, it was the main element of China’s Burma policy until the late seventies. The change towards a less militant foreign policy began when an internal power struggle broke out within the Communist Party of China (CPC) after Mao Zedong’s death in 1976. In April of that year, when China’s radical Left reasserted itself and ousted Deng Xiaoping, the CPB—unlike other communist parties in the region—spoke out loudly in favor of the hardline Maoists. On the 55th anniversary of the CPC in June 1976, the CPB offered the following congratulatory message:

“The revisionist clique with which Deng was linked headed by Liu Shaoqi has been defeated … 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.”

In a second message mourning the death of Mao in September 1976, 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 criticizing 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.”

The CPB had reason to re-evaluate the reliability of that bulwark the following year when Deng began to return to power in Beijing. The CPB, which once had branded its own “revisionists” Yebaw (Comrade) Htay and Hamendranath Ghoshal as “Burma’s Deng Xiaoping” and “Burma’s Liu Shaoqi” respectively, became silent. Htay and Ghoshal were two of the founders of the CPB and they had been executed during a series of bloody internal purges in the late sixties. The “Beijing Review” and other official Chinese publications, which had previously published battle views and CPB documents, stopped printing anything about the “revolutionary struggle in Burma.”

The CPB was mentioned for the last time in November 1976 when Thakin Ba Thein Tin and his Vice Chairman Thakin Pe Tint, were received by the new Chinese Chairman Hua Guofeng in Beijing, who was soon to fall into disgrace. No details about the meeting were disclosed, but it is plausible to assume that the two Burmese communist leaders wanted to ensure continued Chinese support for the CPB in the post-Mao era.

The Burmese military quickly and shrewdly exploited the CPB’s rift with Beijing by lending its good offices to China in Cambodia as China shifted its focus to Vietnam’s designs on its Indo-Chinese neighbor. In November 1977, Ne Win became the first foreign head of state to visit Phnom Penh after the Khmer Rouge takeover. 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 CPB. He was not disappointed. In 1978, the CPB’s entire China-based central office, including the “Peoples Voice of Burma” broadcasting station, was forced to move to Panghsang on the Yunnan frontier.  The Chinese “volunteers,” who had fought alongside the CPB since 1968, were also recalled.

In September 1979, Burma left the Non-Aligned Movement — which it had helped form in the fifties — at its Havana summit to protest against Cuba assuming the chairmanship and its decision not to let the Khmer Rouge represent Cambodia. Burma’s delegate San Yu said in a report to parliament after the Havana meeting: “Every nation has the inalienable right to freely choose its political, economic, social and cultural system without interference in any form by another state…Burma strictly stands for the solution of problems by peaceful means rather than resorting to threats or use of force.”  San Yu’s remarks were made with a vague reference to Vietnam’s December 25, 1978 invasion of Cambodia, but they were also interpreted as a signal to Beijing that Rangoon disapproved of its continued support for the CPB—however limited it had become.

Read Part 1 of the series here. Tomorrow: Part 3. Rapprochement and Stalemate

This article was originally published here by The Project 2049 Institute, a policy group based in the US.