The Demise of a Once Powerful Communist Party—Now in Burmese

By Kyaw Phyo Tha 3 October 2013

RANGOON— It happened one night in the summer of 1989. Mutineers invaded their party headquarters at a border town near the Burmese-Chinese frontier in northeastern Shan State.

In an outburst of anti-party feeling, they took full control on the central armory and smashed the portraits of Marx, Engels, Lenin and Mao Zedong hung on the walls of the office in Panghsang. They destroyed Communist literature and kicked out their aging leaders to China.

After more than four decades of armed struggle against Burma’s central government, the Communist party of Burma (CPB) fizzled out.  Within one month, one of Asia’s longest Communist insurrections, a perpetual headache to the Southeast Asian country’s government since 1948, came to an end.

Now, 24 years later, with the release this week of a Burmese-language translation of veteran journalist Bertil Lintner’s “The Rise and Fall of the Communist Party of Burma,” Burmese readers can glimpse at why this long-living and highly influential political party now belongs to history.

In its heyday, the CPB, which is Burma’s oldest political party, was also the most popular. According to the party’s brief official history, published in 1964, the party was born out of Burma’s nationalist movement during British colonial rule and class struggle. Burmese national hero Aung San was its first elected general secretary when founded in 1939.

The party’s Peasant Union once had nearly one million members and won the hearts and minds of people by resisting fascism, particularly by fighting the Japanese. At that time, CPB reportedly had nearly 30,000 guerrilla fighters under its control.

But in the face of increasing disagreements with the government since in the late 1940s, the party went underground and was outlawed in 1953, finally breaking up after the 1989 mutiny.

“The CPB is dead as a political force, and [has] been so since 1989,” Lintner told The Irrawaddy by email.
“The party has no organization left inside the country. And, let’s face it, there is no future for ‘Marxism-Leninism-Mao Zedong Thought’ or ‘the dictatorship of the proletariat’ in modern politics anywhere in the world today.”

Despite the party’s demise, the book has some lessons for modern-day Burma, said Kyaw Win, who translated Lintner’s text into Burmese.

The newly translated book documents how the CPB turned from a party with mass support to an armed resistance group, and how and why the insurgency failed. Kyaw Win said the party’s history raises the question of why such an influential political party has completely died out.

“The book may not be likely to provide a complete answer to that question, but I think it has, to some extent, something taken into consideration about it,” said the translator, who himself fled into jungle for his belief in Communism in his younger days.

Kyaw Win, 61—who is also famous for his Burmese translation of Thomas L. Freidman’s “The World Is Flat”—explained that even though Lintner is not an historian, the Swedish journalist traveled extensively to the CPB’s stronghold areas and conducted sit-down interviews with the people involved.

“My translation was based on the author’s updates to the book in 2012,” Kyaw Win said.

Lintner, a veteran journalist who has written six books on Burma, also had his book on the 1988 uprising, “Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy,” translated into Burmese and published in the country for the first time in June this year.

Lintner said he had added an epilogue to the latest edition, telling readers what has happened since the book’s first English edition was published in 1990.

“A CPB veteran, now living abroad, also sent me a list of factual errors (very minor, though, mostly to do with the transliteration of Burmese names into English, but also some dates which I had got wrong) and I am thankful to him for being able to correct those,” he said.

The veteran journalist said he thought it was important for people to know what kind of party the CPB actually was.

“I felt it necessary to provide an accurate account of the party, its history and why there was a mutiny in 1989,” he said.

“Some previous books written by Western academics were not accurate, and contained lots of mistakes and misunderstandings. Some of them had never met and interviewed anyone from the party, and never visited its base area,” said the writer who was the only foreign journalist ever to visit the CPB’s territory in northeastern Shan State, including party headquarters at Panghsang.

He spent six months (from October 1986 to April 1987) inside the CPB controlled-area, and interviewed all the leaders of the party, among them chairman Thakin Ba Thein Tin, general secretary Khin Maung Gyi, Brig Gen Kyaw Zaw and several others.

Lwin Oo, the Burmese publisher of the book, said the translation was first serialized in local daily newspaper The Voice. He said that Lintner did much to help make the Burmese translation possible, granting publishing permission, providing pictures and asking for nothing in terms of royalty payments.

“I just wanted to publish the book because young people today should know about a now-defunct and long-time influential political party of our country and take political lessons from what happened in the past,” Lwin Oo said.

Linter points out in his book that the CPB had before the mutiny in effect ceased to function as a properly organized Communist party. He said the party never tried to implement land reform in its stronghold in northeastern Burma—in a sharp contrast to the dramatic land-distribution schemes which the party had carried out in central Burma in the early 1950s.

“Communist ideology became a hollow concept without any real meaning to the people in the northeastern base areas,” he writes.

“It would be an important history lesson for the CPB that it faced mutiny because they had prioritized their ideology rather than ethnic rights (in the region).”