Why Thakin Soe matters?

Thakin Soe Quote

The distinctions between Thakin Soe and the other communist leaders of his era will be addressed in the article in context of various political issues. This essay will critically evaluate Thakin Soe and his politics from non-dogmatic, materialistic, rationalistic, and unbiased perspectives despite the fact that Thakin Soe is a significant Marxist in Myanmar's left-wing politics.

Submitted by heinhtetkyaw on January 1, 2023

Thakin Soe was a radical who joined the nationalist Dobama Asiayone ("Our Burma" Association) in the 1930s. Thakin Soe is one of the most influential communist leaders in Myanmar and also one of the founders of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). Later, he founded the Red Flag Communist Party (Burma) as a radical breakaway from the CPB. Thakin Soe, as an intellectually gifted individual and a radical far-left influenced communist, distinguished himself from the reformist social democrats, left opportunist Stalinists, and radical red fascist Maoists. 
Thakin Soe is mostly misunderstood as a Trotskyist by the international community due to the lack of information they have about him. The leadership of the Communist Party of Burma accused Thakin Soe of being a Trotskyite and denounced his politics since Trotskyism was seriously attacked by the Third Comintern and its Stalinist policies. However, Thakin Soe is different from Trotskyists in many ways. Here, let me discuss some of the most important political values of Thakin Soe in order to correctly point out which tendency he would belong to.

Communist Party of Burma
Thakin Soe and his radical left-wing fellows founded the Communist Party of Burma in 1939. The list of the founders is as follows:

  • Thakin Aung San who is also known as the "Father of the Nation," He is the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Burma. He is also the founder of the All Burma Student Union (later known as the All Burma Federation of Student Unions).
  • Hamendrnath Goshal (Bengali name) who is also known as Thakin Ba Tin in Burmese name. He was a trade union leader in Burma and an important communist activist in Bengal Province. Goshal played an important role as a liaison between the Burmese party and the Communist Party of India (through its Bengal Provincial Committee). With his connections to the Communist Party of India, CPB managed to register for the third international.
  • Major Let Ya was one of the founders of CPB, yet he is not popular for his communist activism. He is a member of the legendary Thirty Comrades who fought for Burma's independence from Britain, along with Thakin Aung San.
  • Amar Nag (Bengali name) is also known in Burmese as Comrade Tun Maung or U Hla. He was involved with the Bengali revolutionary groups active in Burma before CPB was founded. He is a medical practitioner.
  • Thakin Ba Hein was the President of the All-Burma Students' Union in 1935. He was popular for organising the oil workers in Yenengyaung. He also served as the president of the All-Burma Trade Union Congress in 1945. He is well-known in Burma for his efforts to foster leftist unity.
  • Thakin Bo was not influential enough to establish a legacy among leftists in Burma.

Organic Local Marxist analysis on Burma
Thakin Soe was the first communist in Myanmar to analyse Burma's socioeconomic conditions without the influence of foreign theorists. Hamendrnath Goshal and Thakin Thein Pe were the main theorists of the CPB at that time, and they were influenced by the Communist Party of India. On the other hand, Thakin Ba Hein and Thakin Aung San were naive enough to call for left-wing unity despite contradictory political insights among the communist leaders. Thakin Than Tun was not even a communist yet at the time, even though he was actively participating in labour movements.
In 1939, Thakin Soe published a book called "The Burmese Revolution." The book touched on several topics using his local organic knowledge without any foreign hegemony. The topics included were as follows:

  • How Burma was colonised by the British

    • The first conflict between the British and Burmese
    • The second battle between the British and Burmese
    • The third war between Britain and Burma
    • The political agenda for Burma
  • Burmese peasants and their interests
    • The revolutionary spirit of Burmese peasants
    • The conflicts between Burmese and Indians (Kalar)
    • The condition of the global peasantry
    • The economic face of global colonialism
    • Anti-colonialism
  • The radical development of a country
    • Reflecting the past
    • How Burma fell into the debt crisis
    • The country's prosperous reforms
    • What is to be done?

Among all these topics that Thakin Soe discussed in the book, he discussed them from the dialectic materialistic perspective, where the class struggle, the accumulation of capital, and revolutionary organisation are taken into consideration. When it comes to discussions about British colonialization of Burma, Thakin Soe correctly pointed out how colonialism is based on the accumulation of capital and labour exploitation, in contrast with the popular anti-white and anti-Indian narrative of the Burmese population. Similarly, when Thakin Soe discussed the conflicts between Burmese and Indians (Kalar), he correctly pointed out how the socio-economic conditions of both lower middle-class Burmese and Indians (Kalar) are similarly exploited by the upper capitalist class of both Burmese and Indian races.

Mass party or Vanguard
In one of his books, "Dominion," which was released in 1946, he started the book by quoting Lenin.
Those who had to think for several years in order to see reality are not the leaders of the masses. Those who can manage to point out the "dangers" since its birth are the leaders of the masses. (Due to the translation, it's still hard to find the original reference to this quote.)
Moreover, he also quoted Lenin to make his points clear about the role of the party.

  • A party is the vanguard of a class, and its duty is to lead the masses and not merely reflect the average political level of the masses. (This quote can be found in Lenin's "Speech on the Agrarian Question," November 14, 1917.)

After quoting these words of Lenin, Thakin Soe wrote as follows:

  • Those who think that a nation can be fully liberated from the colonial British without fighting opportunism are the idealistic dreamers. Those who believe that pushing back the narrative of opportunists within the party by maintaining left unity among its members are useful idiots of colonialism and opportunism. They are either incorrect or they might be those who are lucky enough to escape from the mental asylum.

These writings of Thakin Soe reflect how he wanted his party to be a vanguard and a platform where most of the members had to agree on certain matters or political values just like Bolsheviks.

The fight against Dominion status of British colonialism (or) Anti-colonialism
When the colonial British government offered Dominion status to Burma, most of the communist leaders from the Communist Party of Burma were satisfied. Thakin Than Tun, one of the leaders of the Communist Party of Burma, wrote that suspending the Dominion's advocacy for Burma means neglecting the desire of the population. Furthermore, he stated that Dominion status for Burma is possible in the near future. In this way, Thakin Than Tun wrote that the party should welcome the dominion status for Burma.
On the other hand, Thakin Thein Pe Myint, a political leader from the Communist Party of Burma, also wrote that the British community and the Burmese community should mutually help each other to attain equality under the Dominion status.
Thakin Soe was one of the leaders who was vehemently opposed to the Dominion status. He claimed that the Dominion status is an extension of British colonialism with some reforms. According to Thakin Soe, the Dominion status occurred when the capitalists and the colonialists formed an alliance to oppress the proletariat and the peasant class. Instead of dominion status, Thakin Soe was demanding a democratic nation where the proletariat and the peasant class could be prosperous.
The Communist Party of Burma's leadership can be divided into three groups regarding this dominion question. The first group is what could be called "populist leftists," a fraction led by Thakin Than Tun. The second group is what is called the "reformists," a fraction that wanted to work closely with British colonisers in order to achieve dominion status. Such a fraction is led by Thakin Thein Pe Myint, who was influenced by the Indian Communist Party and its leadership. The last tendency could be that of Thakin Soe, a radical communist tendency that demanded a democratic nation where the proletariat and the peasant class could be prosperous.
This incident could be perceived from multiple perspectives. Those with proper Marxist knowledge will see Thakin Soe as an orthodox radical Marxist who represents Bolshevik political views. Thakin Soe was not satisfied with Dominion status, just as the Bolsheviks were not satisfied with the Duma. Thakin Thein Pe Myint and his tendency could be equated with Mensheviks since they advocated for participation in the government under Dominion status just as Mensheviks decided to participate under the Duma. Thakin Than Tun and his faction are populist in nature, as he simply followed popular opinion rather than guiding the working-class.

Second World War and colonised world Marxism
During the Second World War, there were a lot of anti-war communists in the west. There were some left-wing activists who were in favour of their ruling class and their nationalist interests. As a result, there were generally three schools of thought in far-left circles about how the Second World War was perceived.

  • There were pro-Soviet communists who were in favour of the Soviet Union over the Western Alliance and the Fascist Alliance. Such a tendency can be found in every part of the world.
  • There were anti-war communists who advocated for revolutionary defeatism when it came to the colonial attempts of the Fascist Alliance or Soviet Union. Such a tendency is more apparent in the Eastern Bloc.
  • There were nationalist communists who gave their lives to protect their motherland or their families from the colonial attempts of Axis Alliance, western alliance and Soviet Union.

These tendencies are more likely to be seen in western politics and among western communists. Similarly, most Burmese communists in Burma during the Second World War were in favour of the Soviet Union over the Axis Alliance and the Western Alliance. In global politics, the Soviet Union was regarded as a member of the Allies. However, in Burma, British colonialism was the one that exploited and oppressed Burmese people in the region for several decades. Thus, anti-colonialism can be equated with anti-British (colonialism). In this manner, General Aung San and some radical Burmese revolutionaries attempted to reach China for potential assistence. However, they ended up being helped by the Imperial Japanese Empire. Thus, the whole Burmese population cheerfully welcomed the Imperial Japanese Empire as their saviour.
However, Thakin Soe had a different analysis from the other political leaders. Thakin Soe co-authored the Insein Manifesto, which, against the prevailing opinion in the Dobama movement, identified world fascism as the main enemy in the coming war and called for temporary cooperation with the British in a broad allied coalition that should include the Soviet Union.

Progressivism versus communist morality
Thakin had several personal love affairs. Having a lot of love affairs shouldn’t be a problem in a progressive society such as a communist or socialist one. However, Burmese society was a conservative society, and even self-proclaimed communists of that time were too influenced by the conservative values of the nuclear family and conservative moral values. Thakin Soe had to lose his position as general secretary of the party partly because of a love affair he had. Overvaluing monogamy and the nuclear family among this generation of Burmese communists revealed a fact about their ignorance of the writings of Engels and Rosa Luxemburg. However, Thakin Soe seems to be aware of the connections between capitalism and monogamy as well as the nuclear family.
Ironically, those self-claiming communists who failed to read and comprehend Engels regarding monogamy and the nuclear family thought of critising monogamy and the nuclear family as bourgeoisie. Thakin Than Tun who became the party leader in 1950s was the best example. During the cultural revolution, Thakin Than Tun and his fraction killed several communist students for following this tradition of criticizing monogamy and nuclear family.

Pioneer of Leninism in Burma
Thakin Soe is arguably the first Leninist in Myanmar. The Communist Party of Burma was influenced by Browderism (the communism of Earl Browder). Browderism was introduced to the CPB by the Communist Party of India since its inception.The two most popular theoreticians of CPB’s Browderism were Thakin Thein Pe Myint and Hamendrnath Goshal (Thakin Ba Tin). Even when the CPB was influenced by Browderism, Thakin Soe was critical of the CPB for being too moderate and pacific for following Browderism.
Thakin Soe was the first communist leader to advocate for the study of Marxism-Leninism. Even though the CPB had to acknowledge their moderate and pacific approach that was influenced by Browderism and the Communist Party of India, most of its leaders acted in a defensive manner.

Pioneer of Maoism in Burma
In 1946, Thakin Soe had a major theoretical conflict with the leadership of the CPB. The intra-party conflict erupted after a speech by AFPFL leader Ba Pe in January 1946. Ba Pe had denounced the political system in the Soviet Union. In response, Thakin Soe labelled Ba Pe as a tool of the imperialists. Weary of the risk to the unity of the AFPFL, the party leadership initiated a disciplinary process against Thakin Soe. Thakin Soe argued against the party leadership for being conservative and too moderate. He thus demanded that control over the Central Committee be handed over to him and his associates.
Thakin Than Tun and Thein Pe did commit self-criticism and temporarily resign from their posts, but they did not agree to Thakin Soe's demand to make him the party leader. Later, Thakin Soe was removed from the Central Committee. The leadership of the CPB wanted to maintain its movements within the legal system, such as electoral politics and strikes. However, Thakin Soe wanted to end the entryism of CPB towards AFPFL and start the Maoist guerrilla-styled armed struggle. The new CPB leadership which later adopted Maoism over the Browderism chose not maintain the entryism and wanted to keep their movements within the legal framework. As a result, Thakin Soe split from the CPB and founded his own party, the Red Flag Communist Party.
Ironically, the mainstream communists from the CPB and communist party sympathisers in Burma accused Thakin Soe and his RFCP of being Trotskyists. Such accusations themselves explain how naive and ignorant these people are. Indeed, Thakin Soe represented a lot of Maoist elements in that debate. By accusing Thakin Soe of being a Trotskyist, the CPB and its sympathisers tried to claim Marxism-Leninism as their revolutionary theory. However, all of their activities and writings revealed their inclination towards Browder’s communism, which is different from Marxism-Leninism in that era.
That kind of split is similar to the split between the Communist Party of India (Marxist) and the Communist Party of India (Maoist). The Red Flag Communist Party has been engaged in a protracted armed insurgency since February 1946, first against British rule and then against the Burmese government been engaged in a protracted armed insurgency since February 1946, first against British rule and then against the Burmese government. Meanwhile, the Communist Party of Burma was busy with its internal theoretical conflicts between Browderists and Marxist-Leninists. The CPB had abandoned its Browderist line by mid-1946, ending its electoral politics and entryism. The CPB had become worse after endorsing Maoism. Thein Pe and Thakin Ba Tin who are intelligent and rational had lost their influences in the party and populist communists such as Thakin Than Tun and Thakin Zin who knew nothing about Marxism rose into power within the party.

Minority politics and self-determinism
The communist party of Burma was forced to conduct an armed struggle against the AFPFL government. The CPB analysed Burma as semi-colonial and semi-feudal. Thus, they also ended up endorsing Maoism by establishing guerrilla bases among the peasants in the countryside.
The communist party of Burma looked up to the autonomous regions of China. Instead of accepting the ethnic groups' demand for "independent people's republics," the CPB endorsed regional autonomy for Burma's ethnic minorities within a unitary state (similar to what the military junta supports in the twenty-first century).As a result, the CPB didn’t get along with the ethnic liberation movements and ethnic armed organisations (Smith, 1991).
However, Thakin Soe and his red flag communists advocated the establishment of "independent people's republics" for each ethnic group within a federal union and the right for each ethnic group to secede from such a union (similar to what the Burmese progressives and ethnic liberation movements in Burma are calling for in the 21st century) (Smith, 1991).

Burmese chauvinism and Burmese communists
The Burmese communist party and its sympathisers opposed the formation of different communist parties among ethnic groups. Even though the CPB allowed the ethnic groups to create affiliated party branches in their regions, the CPB was hostile towards the establishment of independent communist parties in the ethnic regions.
On the other hand, Thakin Soe and his red-flag communists helped establish independent communist groups in ethnic regions such as the Communist Party of Arakan and the Karen New Land Party and maintained a horizontal peer-to-peer relationship with them.

Late Thakin Soe
Thakin Soe was captured by government forces in November 1970 near the Arakan Yoma but released in a 1980 amnesty. After nationwide demonstrations against Ne Win's government in 1988, Soe re-entered politics in August 1988 and became the patron of the Unity and Peace Party in September 1988, which he hoped would contest the 1990 elections (Lintner, 1999).

From Lenin to Kautsky
Thakin Soe was earlier than the CPB to endorse Marxism-Leninism and Maoism, even though the CPB and its sympathisers did their best not to acknowledge it. Thakin Soe's advocacy of federalism was followed in the twenty-first century by progressive left-wing activists, whereas the CPB's regional autonomy within a unitary state was adopted by the military junta. However, Thakin Soe’s beliefs on armed struggle seemed to be lost after his Red Flag Communist Party was crushed by several reactionary nationalist ethnic armed organisations and the military governments of Burma.
He used to believe that the democratic workers' nation will succeed despite the fact that Burma was a colonised country (similar to Leon Trotsky's Permanent Revolution). He used to have the conclusion that state capitalism enriches a nation through its vanguard party (an ideology that was endorsed by Lenin, Stalin, and Mao Zedong). However, it’s reported that Thakin Soe invested a lot of his time reading Karl Kautsky after he was released via amnesty. He began endorsing the classical Marxist analysis of a two-stage revolution for Burma, a third-world country with poor economic prosperity. He became an advocate for the economic prosperity for Burma by strengthening capitalism first in order to move on to the socialist mode of production. His analysis became similar to that of Deng Xiaoping, Liu Shaoqi, and Zhou Enlai when compared to Chinese politics. His analysis became similar to that of Julius Martov and Georgi Plekhanov when compared to Russian politics during the October Revolution.
Such a radical change in his beliefs was somewhat attributed to General Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Program Party. Thakin Soe saw General Ne Win as someone who tried and failed to implement the state capitalism (a system that he and his fellow communists used to believe) in Myanmar. Thus, having seen the downfall of the ideal state that he used to believe in, Thakin Soe had to search for other alternatives. Unlike other dogmatic communists and apologists in Burma, Thakin Soe never tried to illogically differentiate the state-capitalism of General Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party from Marxism-Leninism. Besides, Thakin Soe never ceased to regard military regimes as the enemy of the Burmese proletariats and the peasant class. Theoritically, even though General Ne Win’s state capitalism was somehow different from Stalin’s state capitalism, the authoritarian nature, its anti-imperialist mindset of isolationism, anti-capitalist rhetoric, and the establishment of new classes are characteristics that can be seen in both ideologies. Even though the Communist Party of Burma denied accepting this conclusion, they failed to rationalise their political insights in differentiating their state capitalism from General Ne Win’s state capitalism. After all, most of the reactionary characteristics such as Burmese chauvinism, nationalism, anti-federalism, an anti-western mindset, and authoritarian administrations can be seen in both the Communist Party of Burma and General Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party. Thus, the battles between the Communist Party of Burma and General Ne Win’s Burma Socialist Programme Party can be perceived as attempts to seize power over each other but nothing else.

In summary, Thakin Soe stands for a lot of progressive values when it comes to the politics of Burma. A lot of the political values he advocated in the 20th century have proven to be correct and progressive even in 21st-century Burma. His advocacy of federalism, under which the establishment of "independent people's republics" for each ethnic group within a federal union and the right for each ethnic group to secede from such a union are allowed, is one of the main slogans for the Spring Revolution of Burma in the 21st century. His warning against the Myanmar military, which has its roots in the Imperial Japanese Military, has proven to be correct as the Myanmar military has committed several crimes against humanity in Myanmar. His late advocacy of economic prosperity with democracy over state-capitalist dictatorship is proven right by the downfall of Stalinist regimes all over the world. Thus, it can be concluded that even though the politics of Thakin Soe are far from perfect, he indeed is a great revolutionary who managed to foresee the socioeconomic and political demands that are compatible with Burma.

Burmese Books written by Thakin Soe and that were used as references

  • The solidarity between Karen and Burmese
  • The dangers of Dominio
  • On today’s socio-economic structure of People’s Republic of China
  • The autobiography of Thakin Soe
  • The Burmese Revolution
  • The world of workers
  • The working class or proletariats
  • The only way out of crisis
  • Solving the world's economic problems
  • Looking for ways to improve the motherland
  • The Anti-Fascist Waters of the Working Class by George de Mitros

Burmese books that were used to as references (written by others)

  • The record of Thakin Soe's trial (written by Anawar Tin Tun)
  • Meeting with the Red Flag Communist Party Central Committee member, Ny Kyaw Win (written by Kyaw Swar)
  • Rebel activities within the law (Red Flag comrade San Nyunt)
  • The red flag in Myanmar's political history (မြန်မာသံတော်ဆင့်အယ်ဒီတာအဖွဲ့)

International Publications

  • Lintner, B. (1999). Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency.
  • Lintner, B. (n.d.). The Rise and Fall of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB).
  • Smith, M. (1991). Burma: Insurgency and the politics of ethnicity.
  • Trager, F. N. (n.d.). Marxism in Southeast Asia: A Study of Four Countries, Volume 7.