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Communist Party of Burma (CPB)

Introduction & Overview

The Communist Party of Burma (CPB) is one of the oldest political parties in Myanmar which remain active to this day, and through its military wing, the People’s Liberation Army, can be considered one of the oldest, still active militant groups in the world. The party has played a pivotal role in the relatively unstable history of Myanmar (known as ‘Burma’ until 1989). After the 2021 Burmese coup d’état and the re-establishment of a military dictatorship in the country, the CPB once again took up arms.

History & Foundations

The CPB was founded on August 15th 1939 by a group of young intellectuals, in the context of social upheaval in Burma in the preceding decades, as well as the threat of war which was looming over East Asia (1). During the Pacific War, Burma was invaded by Japanese troops supported by Burmese nationalists, who repelled British colonial authorities. Burma was then granted independence by Japanese authorities (2).

It was during the latter part of the war that the CPB experienced an increase in its membership numbers and its organizational efficiency. Amidst the 1945 Japanese defeat and the re-establishment of British rule, a fierce anti-colonial struggle was kickstarted in 1946, after a wave of strikes organized by the CPB and its trade unions hit the British-appointed Burmese government (3). The CPB then went underground as a consequence of both military and political pressure from the Burmese government, and initiated an armed insurgency in 1948, effectively starting the Burmese civil war which, after over 70 years, is still ongoing.

In the following years, the CPB managed to raise an army of 25,000 partisans (15,000 according to more conservative estimates) (4), but the “Upper Burma campaign” launched jointly with Karen insurgents resulted in strategic defeat, since the rebel forces’ advances prompted India to start massively supporting the central government in Rangoon (5).

This failure led the CPB to reorganize their strategy along more classic Maoist lines, which essentially entailed establishing control in rural areas rather than in cities (6). This also enabled the implementation of Marxist-Leninist Maoist ideology in these areas, which also involved the confiscation and redistribution of land to peasants (7). In 1953 the party was outlawed. In 1958, the demoralized remnants of the CPB guerrillas (around 1000 fighters) were repelled from their positions by government forces and had to take cover in the Pegu Yoma mountain range.

The 1962 coup d’état and the military dictatorship, however, destabilized the country once again. Ethnic rebellions flared up and the CPB began receiving open support from China and many young volunteers from Burmese cities who wanted to take up arms against the regime (8).

In 1968, the situation was deemed mature for a new offensive. Areas and towns located in the Shan State along the Sino-Burmese border were overrun (also with the help of thousands of Chinese “volunteers” from across the border) (9). These conquered areas were divided in four “war zones”, from which attacks and incursions were launched. Soon after, the CPB and its forces controlled more than 20,000 square kilometers spread around the Sino-Burmese frontier (10). Starting in 1970, government forces managed to eliminate weaker CPB holdouts in the Irrawaddy Delta and in the Pinlebu area (11). In 1978, Chinese support was drastically reduced, and “volunteers” were recalled (12). The following year, a major offensive was launched by government forces, who despite heavy casualties regained control of a significant swathe of territory (13).

In 1981, a CPB delegation to the Burmese government demanded autonomy for its controlled territory, and recognition of the CPB as a legal party and of the People’s Liberation Army was immediately rejected (14).

During this period, the People’s Liberation Army substantially decreased in numbers; while in 1977 it could hold about 23,000 regulars, by 1987 only about 10,000 remained, augmented by conscripted peasants who were hardly motivated to fight (15). At the same time, the People’s Republic of China reduced the financial aid it was providing to the CPB, and the central committee consequently decided to start trafficking opium to support party operations (16). In 1987, again, government troops launched a major operation and removed the PCB/People’s Liberation Army from a 60-kilometer border area, and thus re-established their control over trade and border operations with China (17). By 1989, tensions inside the party’s leadership reached their breaking point as a result of the CPB failing to join the then-ongoing wave of popular unrest in Burma. A mutiny of the People’s Liberation Army spread across CPB-held territory, forcing the entirety of the cadre into taking refuge in China, while some were executed by mutineers (18). Mutinied troops and officers, who were primarily ethnically Wa, went on to found the United Wa State Army.

In 2021, in the context of the popular uprising against the military junta ruling Myanmar, the Communist Party of Burma – People’s Liberation Army was re-established (19). Reportedly, some of the party’s cadre crossed back in Myanmar through the Sino-Burmese border in March 2021 (20).

Ideology & Objectives

The CPB was founded as a Marxist-Leninist party. After Stalinism was repudiated in 1956, the CPB reorganized itself as a maoist, anti-revisionist party and purged its cadres in the 1960s, removing any elements critical of Maoism or deemed unreliable (21).

After the 2021 re-founding, CPB spokesmen have ruled out any compromise or negotiation with the Burmese military junta (22), with armed struggle being their only perceived way to destroy the ruling regime. The CPB-PLA remains fully committed to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought (Maoism) (23).

In a 2003 statement released through the CPB’s website, the party published a basic political programme, stressing the importance of an independent and self-reliant Myanmar, of sovereignty and territorial integrity, and of economic development as their vision for the country (24). More recent statements have especially criticized the dire economic predicament of Myanmar, inequality, and the forced emigration of Burmese people (25). Their attempts to radicalize anti-junta youth have partially failed on accounts of their strict adherence to Marxism-Leninism and Mao Zedong Thought (26).

Political & Military Abilities

The CPB established a well-functioning bureaucratic machine in the territories under its control, which allowed them to operate as a proto-state, operating even schools and medical clinics, until their administration started to deteriorate during the 1980s (27). During this time, the CPB effectively ceased to function as a civil organization, and in reality only existed as the People’s Liberation Army – a militia which was also involved in tax collection and drug trafficking within its controlled territory (28).

Their military tactics mainly centered around the Maoist interpretation of rural guerrilla warfare (29). In essence, Maoist warfare dictates that urban centres should be avoided as both military and political targets. Instead, a powerbase should be built up in rural areas, from which military operations against more peripheral targets should be launched, essentially striking the enemy before they can react with full force.

After the 2021 re-founding, little has emerged about the current activities of the CPB-PLA other than military training for its members.

International Relations & Alliances

As aforementioned, the CPB cooperated with Karen rebels during the “Upper Burma campaign” (30). Additionally, CPB forces feuded and fought a separate war against Kachin forces between 1968 and 1976, when a ceasefire was signed between the two factions (31).

After 1975 and the decision to re-organise the party cadre, new alliances were forged with the Shan State Army, and also with Pa-O, Kayan and Karenni rebels (32). Deals with these groups typically involved the CPB shipping them arms in exchange for free passage in the territories they held. The scheme, however, did not last long and relations soon collapsed (33).

After 1987, the CPB collaborated with Kuomintang forces in Burma led by infamous warlord and drug kingpin Khun Sha (34). Its single most important partner remains the Chinese Communist Party, especially owing to both parties' long historical relationship. However, after 1989, it is believed that the United Wa State Party became the most important Myanmar ally for the CCP (35), while formal relations with the military junta continue (36).

At the same time, images depicting CPB-PLA fighters during training have shown them armed primarily with weapons manufactured by the United Wa State Army (37) and the Kachin Independence Army (38), thus suggesting these to be its main current partners.

Works Cited (Chicago-style)

(1) - Cfr. Lintner, B. The Rise and Fall of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). Cornell University Press, 1990. Pp. 3-5.

(2) - Ibidem.

(3) - Ibidem, pp. 10-11.

(4) - Ibidem, pp. 14

(5) - Ibidem. Pp. 15

(6) - Ibidem.

(7) - Ibidem, pp. 15-17.

(8) - Ibidem, pp. 18.

(9) - Ibidem, pp. 21

(10) - Ibidem, pp. 25-26.

(11) - Ibidem, pp. 25-26.

(12) - Ibidem, pp. 28.

(13) - Ibidem, p. 30.

(14) - Ibidem.

(15) - Ibidem, p. 31.

(16) - Ibidem, pp. 37.

(17) - Ibidem, pp. 40.

(18) - Ibidem, pp. 43-44.

(19) - Ibidem, pp. 45-46.

(20) - A new stage of resistance: Burmese communists return to armed struggle. Morning Star.

(21) - The Revival of Burma Communist Party (CPB) in Myanmar Spring Revolution. October 22, 2022.

(22) - Ibidem, pp. 23-24.

(24) - Morning Star, cit.

(24) - Ibidem.

(25) - National Interests of Burma (A Proposal of the Communists). Communist Party of Burma. April 1, 2003.

(26) - Coyle, K. Burma’s Communists say military coup a symptom of Myanmar’s crony capitalism. People’s World, April 26, 2021.

(27) - The Revival of Burma Communist Party (CPB) in Myanmar Spring Revolution. October 22, 2022.

(28) - Ibidem, pp. 40.

(29) - Ibidem, pp. 41.

(30) - Cfr. Lintner, B. The Rise and Fall of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). Cit.

(31) - Ibidem, pp. 14

(32) - Ibidem, pp. 25-26.

(33) - Ibidem, pp. 29.

(34) - Ibidem, pp. 40.

(35) - Marston, H. Review: "The Wa of Myanmar and China's Quest for Global Dominance," by Bertil Lintner. Council on Foreign Relations. February 22, 2022.

(36) - Ibidem.

(37) - War Noir, Twitter. December 10, 2022.

(38) - War Noir, July 11, 2022.

Additional Resources

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