Guest Column

Personal Tribute to a Communist Veteran

By Pippa Curwen 8 June 2017

On May 29, 2017, Yebaw (Comrade) Htun Lin, a leading member of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), passed away in the Thai border town of Mae Sot. He had been rushed to the hospital with sudden gastric pain, and died soon afterwards. He was in his mid-seventies.

Few attended his funeral service. Several remaining comrades were either too elderly or had no documents to travel to Mae Sot.

I was greatly saddened, as much by his sudden death as by the oblivion accorded to a revolutionary leader who had committed his entire life to his beliefs, at huge personal sacrifice.

I had only known Yebaw Htun Lin for a few months. He had come to stay in Chiang Mai for medical treatment, and despite his infirmities—including crippling back pain—he was a gracious and affable house guest.

I spent many a fascinating hour listening to his life story and critique of the current political situation in Burma. Due to the ongoing outlawing of the CPB, he had been living at the Thai border for about twenty years. He refused to return to Burma if it meant officially surrendering.

Yebaw Htun Lin was born in Yemethin, Mandalay Division, towards the end of the Second World War. “I was born into war, and spent my life at war,” he would say wistfully. After completing school, he joined the Air Force, but, disillusioned with military rule, within a few years had become an underground member of the CPB.

In 1965, he was exposed as a CPB cell member and arrested. He was interrogated and tortured by military intelligence for two weeks in Mingaladon, then imprisoned in Insein. One year later, he was transferred to the penal colony on Great Coco Island (200 kilometers off the Burmese coast), where the majority of the 230 prisoners were communist party members. He stayed there for five years, until a mass hunger strike, in which eight prisoners starved to death, forced the authorities to transfer all inmates back to the mainland. He returned to Insein Prison, enduring further torture—hooded with a blanket and beaten with a metal rod—before being released in 1972.

After doing manual labor in Rangoon for a few years, he regained contact with the CPB and traveled up to their Panghsang headquarters on the Chinese border. He spent a year there, before moving down to the southern Shan-Karenni area, where he worked as military commander of the Central Region Democratic Front, a CPB-linked alliance including the Kayan New Land Party (KNLP), Shan Nationalities People’s Liberation Organization (SNPLO) and Karenni National People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF). Constantly on the move, hounded by Burma Army troops, he described being without food and water for days on end.

While in the jungle, he married Ma Saw Hla, head of the allied front’s women’s association and cousin of U Than Soe Naing, the current KNLP chairman. Tragically, she died of blood poisoning only days after bearing their first child. On her deathbed, she asked her husband to make two promises: to continue the revolutionary struggle, and to take care of their baby daughter. To his lasting sorrow, he was unable to keep his second promise, as the baby died three months later. He never remarried, and kept his wife’s picture with him till the end.

After the 1989 mutinies against the CPB leadership on the China-Burma border, Yebaw Htun Lin remained in the southern Shan-Karenni area, only moving out when the CPB’s former allies signed ceasefires with the military regime in 1994. He survived by cultivating a small farm on the Thai border.

Despite his party’s reversal of fortune, Yebaw Htun Lin remained proud of being part of a revolutionary force which had played such a key role in Burma’s political history.

His time on Coco Island, and the heroism of the hunger strikers who sacrificed their lives, was clearly inspirational for him. He described how, even as they lay dying – too weak to wipe ants off their bodies – the strikers called for the downfall of the military dictatorship. One’s last request was to hear comrades sing the Communist Internationale. “Their courage inspired me my entire life,” he said.

I feel privileged to have known Yebaw Htun Lin, however briefly. He was confident that a new left-wing movement would emerge in Burma, and to contribute to this, was in the process of writing his memoirs when he died. I very much hope his friends can complete his book and fulfill his wishes.