on the World today
OF ALL the confused situations in the tangled affairs of Southeast Asia, the confusion in Burma looks from the outside like the worst. Of the country’s 127 identifiable racial, tribal, and ethnic groups, nearly half are engaging to some degree in rebellions. Three separate Communist parties — one Stalinist, one Trotskyite, and one without international affiliations are in open revolt. Aside from the racial and political rebels, a sizable number of discontented citizens have taken up the ancient sport of banditry fora living.
With the sudden deterioration of the world rice market, the Burmese economic outlook has changed from good to bad, with worse ahead. Economic planners, most of them Americans under contract to the Burmese government, have made ambitious blueprints for the country ‘s future. At the moment, however, they can’t do much to translate plans into action. Engineers suspect, for instance, that a canyon near Mandalay would make an excellent site for a dam to supply that city with electric power it badly needs. Unfortunately, one of the varieties of insurgents has its jungle stronghold in the hills above the site. The engineers don’t dare venture near enough to make a survey.
The “KMT question”
Despite the country’s appearance of coming apart at the seams, the Burmese government today would be in an excellent position if it weren’t for the so-called “KMT question.” KMT refers to Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang. Burmese invariably use the term to mean the Nationalist Chinese occupying part of their country.
The Chinese in Burma are basically composed of Nationalist troops who fled from their homeland in 1949 when the Communists took over. Their original number of about 2000 has been augmented in two ways. Since 1949 some thousands of other refugees from the Reds, soldiers and civilians, have crossed the border from Yunnan, southwestern province of China. The Chinese in Burma have also recruited into their forces an unknown number of Shan tribesmen.
The total number of the Chinese forces by now, even allowing for those evacuated during the winter, may be as many as 10,000. How many of these consider themselves under the discipline of General Li Mi. Nationalist commander of the forces in Burma, is a point of dispute.
The situation is complicated by the terrain, the ethnology , and the economy of the region in question. The northeastern section of Burma — on a map the bulge eastward lying between the 20th parallel and the Tropic of Cancer — is known as the Shan States. It is a mountainous region which has traditionally been controlled by the rulers of Burma, but administered separately from Burma proper. It grows barely enough food to support its population.
In the largest, the hilliest, and the most remote of the Shan States, Kengtung, the Chinese refugees have made their hide-out. To the west is the deep gorge of the Salween River, a natural defense line against an attack from Burma. To the southeast lie Thailand and Laos. To the northeast is Yunnan. Neither the ethnology nor the geography of the region changes at the frontiers. The mountains remain just as wild beyond the borders, and the people are interrelated. It is a region no section of which has been under the complete control of the country nominally owning it. Roads and communications are almost nonexistent. It is, in short, an ideal area for a refugee group like the Chinese to occupy without interference from the outside.
The opium traffic
For a livelihood they have had two main sources — opium and banditry. Opium poppies are the most common crop in the Shan hills east of the Salween. Opium smoking is legal and the opium traffic is licensed throughout ho Shan States. The poppy growers are the hill tribesmen. Even before the refugees appeared on the scene, Chinese had handled the opium trade, mostly by smuggling. The refugee forces promptly took over a trade monopoly. When necessary they used force on the hill people to get control of their opium crops.
The regular smuggling route has been across the border into Thailand, through the northern Thai communications center of Chiengmai, and down the Menam River system to Bangkok, where opium brings a good price on the illegal world market.
There is no doubt that many of the Chinese refugees have turned to a vicious sort of terrorism to keep themselves alive. With their arms it has been easy for them to raid a village, steal food and money, and kidnap women to keep or prosperous villagers for ransom. They haven’t stopped with robbery. The cases of murder and rape are too well documented to admit denial.
Last fall a group of newspapermen traveling from Rangoon to the Thai border to cover the first evacuation of Chinese troops stopped in a village in which the headman was missing. His assistant apologized for his absence. He said a band of Chinese had appeared a few days before, demanding money. The headman had pleaded poverty. The Chinese laid him on the floor and pounded a tenpenny nail into his skull until he confessed where some money was hidden.
Supplies from Formosa
One source of supplies has undoubtedly been Formosa. It is difficult to say just how great a factor this has been. The Chinese on Formosa grudgingly admit that a plane or so a month “used to” visit the airstrip at Mawchi, Li Mi’s headquarters in Kengtung. To listen to a Burmese, one would think that a steady parade of Chinese planes was flying over Burmese territory.
Burmese observers have reported actually seeing planes marked with the star of t the Chinese Republic and with the “CAT” of Civil Air Transport. CAT is the airline of General Claire Chennault, operating out of Taipeh. It got its start after World War II. flying charter flights for the Chinese government.
It was CAT that evacuated Chinese soldiers from cities about to fall to the Reds in 1948-49.
CAT pilots are Americans, many of them veterans of those hectic early days. There is no reason to doubt that they have often performed the daring feat of flying supplies all the way from Formosa to the Shan Slates, possibly returning to Bangkok to refuel. Most neutral observers, however, believe that the number of flights has been cut down to practically none* in recent months.
The Chinese strengthen their lines
Despite the presence of the refugees in the Kengtung area, and despite their terrorism, there has been an armed truce between the Chinese and the Burmese army. The Burmese were busy with their own insurgents right in the neighborhood of Rangoon and the “rice bowl” of the Irrawaddy delta.
Late in 1952 the Chinesc forces turned more aggressive and attacked army posts. The Burmese responded in two ways. They launched an assault against the Kengtung hide-out, anti they appealed to the United Nations for help. Their firmed attack was a failure; the Chinese threw back their army with heavy losses. Their appeal to the UN had more success.
The United States, Burma, Nationalist China, and Thailand formed a committee which met last summer in Bangkok. Even after Burma walked out of the conference in a huff, the other three nations worked out a scheme to evacuate 2000 soldiers of the “foreign forces” in Burma. Beyond that figure the Chinese representatives would not assume responsibility for the refugees. They said even in order to get out 2000 they would have to use persuasion rather than direct orders.
After backing and tilling, Burma agreed to a truce to permit the evacuation to lake place. If began on November 8, with CAT planes flying the evacuees from northern Thailand direct to Formosa. In five weeks nearly 2400 Chinese wore removed from Burma. About 200 of them were women. Twice thiit many were boys between 12 and 16, although these were classed by the Chinese as fighting men. The 2000-odd soldiers deposited at the border a total of only 150 weapons, most of them old and unserviceable.
At the present stage of events, Burma feels cheated. The official Burmese view is that the KMT took advantage both of the evacuation itself and of the truce that went along with it. According to this theory, the Chinese were merely stripping the decks for action by sending home the sick, the old, the women, and the children. The children are to be trained in Formosa and then brought back. The Burmese were especially incensed when the Chinese produced Shan tribesmen, born in Burma, for evacuation. The truce team agreed with Burmese protests, and the Shans were sent back to their hills.
While the truce was going on, as the Burmese see it, the KMT were consolidating, new positions. Not only did they strengthen themselves in Kengtung; they also sent fresh troops down the Salween to take up positions along the Thai border in the Tennsserim peninsula, which stretches south toward Malaya.
This move reached directly into the heart of Burmese internal affairs, because it affected the Karen and Mon rebels. The most serious rebellion against the government is that of the Karens. They are a prosperous race who occupy a large part of Burma east of Rangoon, including the rich delta lands in the lower reaches of the Salween, Many of them are Christians, converted by American Baptist missionaries. I he Karen National Defense Organization, fighting for a separate Karen state, has complete control over a large territory south of the Shan States.
The Chinese detachments avoid direct contact with the Burmese army. Evidence indicates that they are supplying the Karens and other rebel groups with arms in exchange for food. The Burmese charge that the arms being traded are those that the evacuees failed so conspicuously to produce at the border.
The basic Burmese theory, held in varying degrees by the government, the newspapers, and the man in the street, is that the wicked Chinese on Formosa are planning every outrage committed by their representatives in Burma. The Burmese believe that the Chinese not only hope to use Burma as a base for an attack against Red China, but are also plotting to take over Burma.
Burmese spokesmen delve into history to cite Chinese invaders of their country through the years who have claimed Burma as a tribute-paying part of the old Chinese empire. They accuse Chiang Kai-shek, in particular, of having wanted Burma as an outlet on the Indian Ocean when he sent his troops to the aid of the British against the Japanese in 1942. They go on to relate the difficulty which the British and the Americans had in 1945 in persuading the Chinese forces occupying northern Burma to return to their own country. The present outrages, they say, are merely a continuation of a trend.
Flaws in the Burmese theory
The Burmese point of view toward the KMT question wouldn’t be so important for Americans to understand if it didn’t directly influence Burma’s outlook on the United States. Most Burmese with any awareness of foreign affairs are convinced that the American government could, if it chose, “call off its dogs.” They believe that Chiang Kai-shek is nothing more than an agent of Washington. They believe that the presence of the Nationalist Chinese in Burma is part of American global strategy to preserve a base on the mainland. They are certain that American arms sent to Formosa are, with the connivance of the United States, reshipped to the Chinese forces in Burma.
There are two chief weaknesses in the Burmese theory. First, as any American who follows the Washington political scene knows, the United States does not call the tune for Chiang Kai-shek to play. Washington can suggest to him, urge him, and even press him to cease and desist from sending arms to the Chinese in Burma. It cannot order him.
Secondly, there is a grave question just how much control the Nationalist government, exerts over the Chinese still left in Burma, and how much contact there is between Kengtung and Formosa. Many neutral observers in Burma and in northern Thailand believe that Chiang Kai-shek’s control over his forces in Burma is only nominal, and that he has sent in practically no supplies since the end of the evacuation in December.
Whether they are dastardly international agents or simply a new type of bandit, the Chinese Nationalists are having a tremendous impact on life in Burma. Before the KMT became aggressive a year ago, the well-trained 60,000-man Burmese army was winning its battle against the multifarious insurgents. The future looked bright.
But now the army is fighting a twofront war and it cannot win a decisive victory over both the insurgents and the Chinese. If Formosa should offer to evacuate more troops, the Burmese might not be willing to grant them a truce. On the other hand, the Burmese army isn’t eager to try another attack into Kengtung, At the moment the situation is in an extremely unstable balance.
As far as foreign policy is concerned, the key men in the government are aware of the effort made by American diplomats to arrange a genuine evacuation. But the antiAmerican pressure from the newspapers, the parties of the left, and the semi-informed public is powerful.
It was largely because of this pressure that Burma withdrew from the Point Four plan last spring. The pressure groups kept insisting that America was an enemy, and officials finally fell they could not force their complaint in the UN while accepting American aid. It was with great sadness that they cut off the flow of goods, for they are aware of the crying need of their country for technical assistance, and they recognize the American good will behind the TCA aid they wore renouncing.
Some members of the cabinet have been significantly impressed by Soviet accomplishments in industrialization and in mechanization of agriculture. But there is little danger of their being seduced into Communism. Despite the irritation of the Burmese with Formosa, no voices except those of the Communists have suggested calling on Red China for aid. With its fight against the Communist insurgents on the one hand and against the KMT on the other, Burma isn’t likely to stray far in foreign policy from the neutralist path.