BOOK PROJECT: “YOUNG TIGERS: CHAO TZANG YAWNGHWE AND THE SHAN REBELLION IN BURMA”
The 2021 coup in Burma is the latest resurgence of violence in what has become the world’s longest ongoing civil war. The military remains unwilling to offer any compromise that could bring the wars to an end, or even engage in a meaningful dialogue with the country’s many autonomy-seeking ethnic minorities. The resistance, on the other hand, has been very unclear when it comes to defining what kind of federal system they want.
One of few ethnic leaders with a vision for Burma’s future was Chao Tzang Yawnghwe (1939-2004). The son of the country’s first president Sao Shwe Thaik, Chao Tzang became a leading theoretician behind the Shan State Army (SSA), a resistance army he helped establish in 1964, and its Shan State Progress Party. But he left Southeast Asia for Canada in 1985, when the situation became too dangerous. While continuing his involvement in finding a political solution to Burma’s deadly imbroglio, he completed a Ph.D. in Political Science from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
I first met Chao Tzang in Chiang Mai in 1980. We regularly spent hours discussing what a functioning federal system would look like. While he passed away in 2005, his numerous writings about the Shans, their history, and Burmese politics survive.
My aim is to write a biography of Chao Tzang. The book moves beyond a personal portrait by using Chao Tzang’s story to tell the history of the Shan political movement and the quest for federalism. While the book will be about the Shans, it will not be Shan centric in that I will also draw on my own vast experience with other ethnic groups in northern Burma, among them the Kachins and the Was. My belief is that a better understanding of Chao Tzang and his participation in the struggles to gain peace and security for Burma offers insights into addressing the current situation.
My narrative approach begins with him and his family (his father led a federal movement in the 1950s and his mother, Nang Hearn Hkam, was an MP and later the chairperson of the SSA’s War Council) at the center of the story. Their experiences highlight the shortcomings and mistakes of the early ethnic (and democratic) opposition and offer lessons for achieving a democratic, federal, united, and more prosperous Burma. The book traces the historical coming together of Burma from the piecemeal British conquests that delineated the country’s current borders to a description of life in the early independence period before the military takeover in 1962, and the political debate at that time. In particular, I will explore the role Chao Tzang’s parents played in the first attempts to find a lasting solution to Burma’s ethnic conflicts. In subsequent chapters, I consider several historical developments. These include why Chao Tzang decided to go underground after the 1962 coup, the booming trade in opium and heroin that emerged as a result of the civil war, and the inability of ethnic armies (Shan, Karen, Karenni, Kachin, Mon, Palaung, Arakanese and others) — and the democratic Burman opposition — to forge a lasting political and military alliance.
Chao Tzang’s story provides an avenue to explore a broad range of experiences and facets of political movements in Shan State and Burma lacking in academic studies of armed conflicts and social movements. After more than 70 years of civil war, I am convinced this lack of a sustained pan-ethnic and democratic cooperation is the most important issue facing Burma and it needs a thorough analysis if a solution to the conflicts is to be found. My forty years plus experience covering Burma’s civil wars and Burmese politics make me uniquely qualified for this project. I have written hundreds of articles, including many for the now defunct Far Eastern Economic Review, as well as more than 20 books about Asian politics, organized crime, and regional security issues. Several of my books on Burma, such as “Outrage: Burma’s Struggle for Democracy”, “Burma in Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948”, “Land of Jade: A Journey from India through Northern Burma to China”, “The Rise and Fall of the Communist Party of Burma”, “The Kachin: Lords of Burma’s Northern Frontier”, and “The Wa of Myanmar and China’s Quest for Global Dominance” involve path-breaking research on Burma’s history. My article “The Shans and the Shan State of Burma” (1984), published in Contemporary Southeast Asia, was one of the first works to analyze Shan political history. Several of my books have been translated into Burmese and become bestsellers in Burma.
My project draws on unique sources that include thousands of pages from notes and interviews with Chao Tzang and other ethnic leaders, many of whom are dead, as well as original copies of internal documents from the Shan and other ethnic movements. Many of these rare materials were either unavailable or ignored by other researchers. Unlike most other researchers and authors, I have spent an unusually long time on the ground in Burma’s ethnic conflict zones, In 1985-87, my wife (who is Shan) and I spent a year and a half trekking more than 2,200 kilometers through rebel-held areas in the Naga Hills of Sagaing Division, Kachin State, and Shan State. Before that, I had — with the help of Chao Tzang — trekked into Shan State and spent a long period of time with the SSA, meeting and interviewing resistance leaders, ordinary soldiers, and villagers living in the war zones. This experience and my field notes provide a perspective of daily life in conflict zones absent from most conflict analysis.
Chao Tzang is a well-placed individual on whom to center my narrative. He belonged to the generation of students from Shan State that played an instrumental role in the Shan movement and, sadly, many of these people — like Chao Tzang — have passed away. Therefore, drawing on the material I have collected, my extensive first-hand accounts and planned interviews with the few remaining participants and people with knowledge is critical. Chao Tzang’s own book, “The Shan of Burma: Memoirs of a Shan Exile”, ends in the late 1980s. My book builds on this by updating it and expanding on major issues such as the federal debate and the struggle for democracy. Driving this project is my main concern that given the passing of the generation of participants in those movements, if I don’t do it — and do it now — then the history of this period will be written by people who have to rely on secondary sources. This approach is further complicated by the paucity of archival sources dealing with these issues.
My decision to crowd-source funds for this project reflects the changing landscape of grants and publishing. I wrote three books with financial support from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, but they no longer give book grants. Publishing firms are unwilling to provide advances to cover expenses for books like this one, even with my proven track record of sales and well-received reviews of my books. Moreover, the limited royalties for books of this genre are minimal.
To support the cost for producing this book, I am turning to you. My funding target is SEK 300,000 or US$30,000. The funds will cover living expenses for twelve months, augmented by some freelance writing, plus travels from Thailand to Canada, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, where Chao Tzang’s remaining relatives live.