Taipei’s Little Burma and the Legacy of the KMT 'Jungle Generals'

 Taipei’s Little Burma and the Legacy of the KMT 'Jungle Generals'
Photo Credit:AP/達志影像

What you need to know

Burma-Taiwan ties enter a new phase.

The distinctive red and yellow paving of Huaxin Street has been uprooted since my last visit. It's one of those head-scratchers that define local government decision-making in Taiwan. “Why would they do that?” asks my younger son. Why, indeed? The design gave the road a pedestrian-friendly feel, a refreshing contrast with the rest of New Taipei City's Zhonghe District – one of the most densely populated areas on earth.

It gets worse: My favorite buffet joint is out of my favorite spicy, dried deer meat. A triple whammy: “No pink drink!” declares the elder lad in disgust. He's referring to this restaurant's version of Falooda – or Indian ice, as it's known in Chinese – gelatinous odds-and-ends swimming in a bright-pink, condensed-milk gloop. The grub is still decent, mind, if you can handle the oiliness of the curries; and the conversation alone is worth the trip from town.

Like most of the 40,000-plus residents of Little Burma, as the area is known, Audrey Chen ended up in Taiwan as part of the Nationalist government's drive to “repatriate” Chinese-Burmese, most of whom had never set foot in Taiwan before. “I came here as a student in the 1970s,” she says. “The ROC government paid for everything. I was actually born in Guangdong, but my family went to Burma during the Chinese Civil War. When I arrived in Taipei, I already spoke Cantonese, Burmese and some English, but not a word of Mandarin.”

Ms. Yang and her daughter.

It doesn't take a lot of cynicism to view the program of incentives that encouraged Chinese-Burmese to relocate to Taiwan as an attempt to bolster KMT support – kind of like a large-scale version of the voter bus-ins that political parties accuse each other of during elections. That this practice petered out at the tail-end of President Lee Teng-hui's (李登輝) presidency is unsurprising. The staunchly Nationalist bent of the Chinese-Burmese meant that the Chen Shui-bian's (陳水扁) Democratic Progressive Party administration, which came to power in 2000, was unlikely to continue bolstering a community that was ipso facto anathema to its very existence.

In Myanmar, recipients of KMT beneficence aren't hard to find. On a street corner in Maha Bandula Rd., at the heart of Chinese Burma, I meet Ms. Yang, an octogenarian street vendor whose family have been in the country for more than a century. A native Fujianese speaker, she can get by in strongly-accented Mandarin, whereas her daughter knows only Burmese. Her family has zero connection to the Republic of China, yet that didn't stop her granddaughter from attaining citizenship.

“She went there to study for free and when she was finished, she got a job,” says Yang, as she packs up a couple of fake Myanmar football kits for me. “Now she's a Taiwanese national.”

The origins of the KMT's open-door policy lie in a stand-off between the nascent Burmese government and KMT soldiers who had fled across the border from southern China into northeastern Burma toward the end of the Chinese Civil War. Now little more than a Cold War addendum, the Kuomintang crisis of 1952-4 was a bitter game of three-legged hopscotch at the time.

Initially United States agents on the ground and policymakers back home believed the KMT “jungle generals” as they came to be dubbed, were perfectly placed to conduct hit-and-run operations that would eventually morph into full-scale assaults on communist positions. To this end, the Americans began supplying them with materiel and personnel shipped from Taiwan and Okinawa not long after the first force of around 2,000 soldiers slipped across the border from Yunnan Province to Kengtung in 1949.

With Burma tottering from multiple ethnic insurgencies, British diplomats expressed concerns to their American counterparts as to the wisdom of these shenanigans. How long would these irregulars remain in Burma? What guarantees could be given to the Burmese that this was not to be an occupation or that it wouldn't lead to Communist retaliation as Chinese Foreign Minister Zhou Enlai (周恩来) had threatened.

These fears proved prescient. As early as June 1950, former Yunnan Governor Li Mi, who had become the commanding officer of the irregulars in Kengtung, made it clear that they were going nowhere, telling a press conference in Bangkok that they were there to “continue the struggle.”

Within a year, the KMT irregulars were no longer just a bunch of stragglers. By 1953, they had set up their own administration and were levying taxes. Co-opting locals into their racket, they had turned the region into one of the world's major sources of opium. They had become embroiled in Burma's complex internecine strife, briefly allying with Karen and Mon ethnic groups against the Tatmadaw, as the Burmese military is known. One Burmese journalist who witnessed their offensives against hill tribes in the Shan States was aghast as they “pillaged and plundered, slaughtered innocent people and committed atrocities.”

Despite American protestations of innocence in the face of British criticism, Operation Paper – the supposedly covert support for the jungle generals – was a badly kept secret. Through Chiang Kai-shek's (蔣介石) old pal Claire Chennault – who had commanded the famous Flying Tigers in the war against Japan – and his CIA-linked Civil Air Transport, weapons and personnel were smuggled from Japan and Taiwan to northern Thailand, where Thai military and police, who were also in on the drugs trade, moved them on to KMT forces.

By 1953, the Burmese government was diverting most of its resources into dealing with the mess the KMT was creating. In the wake of a joint offensive with the Karen National Union against the Tatmadaw in the city of Loikaw, a U.S. embassy report concluded that KMT's presence had so undermined Burmese Prime Minister U Nu's administration that “the advances in security which the Burmese government succeeded in making during its first five years of independence have been nullified.”

It soon became obvious, even to the staunchest KMT backers in Washington, that the whole operation was counter-productive. The half-hearted forays the KMT forces made across the border were easily repulsed and, finding their pleas for a resolution to the issue falling on deaf ears, the exasperated Burmese government was now threatening to sign a non-aggression pact with Beijing. While the United States Ambassador to Burma William J. Sebald read this as a desperate bluff, it was a measure of how serious things had become. With the Communist Party of Burma rabble-rousing off the back of public disdain for U Nu's failure to deal with the invaders, the tinderbox had been stuffed tight with fire lighters.

Realizing that the hoped for springboard to an invasion of China was not going to materialize, the Americans pressed Taipei to call the jungle generals to order. As was his wont through much of his political career, Chiang dissembled and prevaricated, now claiming he held no sway with Li Mi, now protesting that reining the irregulars in would run contrary to the “Free China” ideals that both the U.S. and the the Republic of China held as sacrosanct. Meeting with Chiang in Kaohsiung in February 1953, U.S. Chargé d'Affaires Karl Rankin called bullshit on this latter dodge, pointedly observing that the antics of the jungle generals were hardly conducive to fostering democracy in a post-colonial fledgling nation.

Having raised the prospect of taking the issue to the United Nations, U Nu made good on the threat in April 1953. Resolution 707 (VII) condemned “the hostile activities and depredations of foreign forces in the territory of the Union of Burma,” which it said was contrary to the U.N. charter and international law. The resolution called upon these forces to “submit to disarmament or internment” and warned all states “to refrain from furnishing any assistance to these forces which may enable them to remain in the territory.”

The following month, a Joint Military Committee for the Evacuation of Foreign Forces from Burma (JMC) was convened in Bangkok. Yet, the stalling continued, with the recalcitrance of Lieutenant General Li Tse-fen, Li Mi's deputy, being the biggest stumbling block. This particular individual had no interest in giving up the game and declared the U.N. resolution illegal, to which the Americans responded by pointing out that it had passed without any disagreement and that Taipei had agreed to cooperate.

A delegation was dispatched from Taipei, ostensibly to secure Li Tse-fen's cooperation, but it soon became apparent that this group had no real authority and, worse, was actively abetting the jungle generals in their stalling tactics. In July, the U.S. embassy in Bangkok told U.S. Secretary of State John Foster Dulles that Taipei and the jungle generals were “throwing [the] ball back and forth in [an] endeavor [to] postpone positive action.”

Meanwhile, the British now suspected there might be substance to Chiang's claims that the jungle generals were beyond his control, with the U.K.'s Ambassador to Thailand Gordon Whitteridge suggesting that opium trade may have given the jungle generals financial independence from Taipei. “We may be up against a lucrative racket in which the peddling of 'black gold' [opium] is the chief incentive, while military operations have been reduced to a sideline.”

Fang Hong-zhou in Yangon.

Eventually, continued pressure, including a heated U.N. confrontation between the Burmese and ROC representatives in October began to yield results. The first evacuation of around 2,000 soldiers and dependants occurred in late 1953, with almost 3,500 removed to Taipei between February and March of the following year. This came after haggling between Burma, the U.S. and Taiwan about how the bill for the evacuation was to be split and payments to the departing soldiers. By September almost 7,000 soldiers and dependants had been removed. Based on Burmese calculations, that still left around 5,000 irregulars, and these remnants continued to cause headaches for the Americans well into the next decade.

With Myanmar having finally slashed much of the red-tape that had hindered foreign trade and investment in recent years, new Taiwan connections have been forged. With his hands in several pies, Fang Hong-zhou (方宏洲) is typical of the current generation of Taiwanese entrepreneurs trying to make the most of openings there. “I had two years in Vietnam before I came here,” Fang says. “There are a lot of opportunities here. Plus fewer thieves.”

Fang runs an amusement arcade on Maha Bandula where locals spend hours playing outmoded video games imported from Taiwan. He is also a partner in a construction firm and, as we make our way to his ramshackle office, he points to a rundown building across the road. “That's getting knocked down, soon,” he says. “We're building a new apartment complex there.” Perhaps, I'm biased, but as dilapidated as it is, there's still some faded grandeur in the crumbling colonial facade. Fang looks at me like I'm off my rocker. “It's fucked,” he says.

Yangon is in desperate need of a facelift, and Taiwanese construction firms have been quick to take advantage. Yet, despite the lifting of restrictions on foreign investment, the construction laws remain a tangled mess. In February 2016, for example, the Myanmar Investment Commission (MIC) accused a local firm of flouting the regulations by failing to seek approval of a construction project that involved a Taiwanese partner. The firm countered that it had received permission from the Yangon City Development Committee, which was sufficient as the Taiwanese partner had participated in an “advisory” capacity only.

The MIC remained unconvinced and it will be interesting to see how future instances of overlap between the many regulatory bodies in Myanmar proceed. Fang, for his part, seems unperturbed. There are, he says, ways around most of these restrictions.

As he is a native of Miaoli County, where the Hakka population overwhelmingly votes KMT in elections, one might expect Fang to have Nationalist sympathies. But Fang is from Zhunan, which along with much of the coastal areas, is predominantly Hoklo and backs the DPP. With family members working in local government, he has no allegiances to the old pro-KMT contingent, but here in the heart of the Chinese community in Latha Township, downtown Yangon, Chinese of all stripes seem to get along fine. During a night of hotpot and poker at his apartment on 19th Street – one of Yangon's liveliest strips – China's state broadcaster CCTV is on in the background. One of the group, I discover, is from Beijing.

“We don't argue politics here,” says Fang. “Everyone here has the same aim: To make money!”

Editor: Edward White