793.551/9–352: Despatch

No. 23
The Ambassador in Burma (Sebald) to the Department of State

No. 206


  • The problem of Chinese Nationalist troops in Burma


For the past three years the continued existence of bands of KMT 1 troops in Burma’s northeast frontier area has been an increasing problem to the Burmese Government. For two years, at least, the conviction has been growing that the United States could and should contribute to the solution of this problem. This conviction developed into a series of charges, supported by apparently strong circumstantial evidence, that the United States was directly involved in aiding these troops on the Burma border.

The natural trade routes supplying the Shan States where the KMT troops have been based run southward into Thailand. The Shan States have traditionally been a source of opium. The KMT commanders soon become involved in the opium trade with Thailand as a source of funds. Movement of opium into Thailand, and of supplies north from Thailand has proceeded with apparent tacit approval of the Thai authorities, probably also with their connivance and to their profit. Involvement of Thai authorities, and the activities of officials of the Chinese Embassy in Bangkok on behalf of the KMT troops in Burma are common gossip in Bangkok. The visibility in Bangkok of the Taiwan connection with the KMT’s in Upper Burma led Burmese authorities repeatedly to approach the United States Government with requests that pressure be brought on Taiwan to remove the KMT troops.

Any thought that the KMT troops might prove a valuable protection against possible Chinese Communist invasion through Yunnan was eliminated when, in the Spring of 1951, a force of KMT’s made an excursion into Yunnan and was effectively routed, retreating again into Burma. Evidence of poor discipline, banditry, and division of loyalties among various commanders have further reduced the apparent military value of the troops and enhanced resentment against those responsible for the problem.

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While evidence of direct United States involvement in supporting the KMT troops in Upper Burma remained circumstantial, it was generally accepted to the extent that denials by the American Secretary of State, the United States delegation to the United Nations, and by the Charge d’Affaires of this Embassy, while courteously received, were not believed. Observed air-drops of supplies from four-motored planes, the rumored involvement of an American company in Bangkok, a whiskey bottle discarded in Kengtung stamped “Clark Field”, and persistent stories of a “Major Stewart” and another American in Monghsat were added to the conviction, general in Southeast Asia, that American policy is paramount in the decisions of the Chinese Nationalist Government. Burmese approaches to the United States Government in search of a solution were coupled with a scrupulous avoidance of public statements or action which might adversely affect United States prestige.

The opinion, generally held in Burma, that the KMT troops will be able to remain in Upper Burma only as long as the United States so desires, is an adverse factor in United States-Burmese relations which tends to undermine and lessen the favorable impact of United States policies and programs in Burma. It would appear essential that increasingly cordial and friendly relations between the United States and Burma be developed, especially as Burma is rapidly becoming a healthy member of the Asian community. A solution of the KMT problem would therefore remove one of the obstacles to this friendship.

It is known that Defense Minister U Ba Swe is presently contemplating a large-scale evacuation of the KMT’s through the port of Rangoon. There are difficulties in this procedure which might prove insurmountable. An alternative would be the removal of the officer groups, following which, those remaining would, in part, be absorbed into the communities of the area which is ethnically not alien to them. A portion might continue operating as smugglers or armed bandits, in which event they would at a proper time be dealt with in a police action mopping up internal lawlessness rather than by a military campaign against Chinese nationalist troops directed and supplied from outside Burma.

While unable at this time to formulate detailed steps for solution of this problem, this Embassy suggests a number of criteria as a basis for detailed planning. In any event, it is all too apparent that American interests and prestige have been seriously affected by the presence of the KMT troops in Burma. In furtherance of United States policy in Burma and Southeast Asia, it is clear that urgent consideration of the problem is essential in order that a solution might be speedily found. End of summary.

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[Here follows detailed discussion of the Embassy’s information concerning the activities of the Nationalist troops in Burma; allegations and rumors connecting them with the Governments of the Republic of China, Thailand, and the United States; the impact of the situation on United States relations with Burma; and the possibility of a solution of the problem.]

Conclusions and recommendations

From the above, it will be apparent that in the Burmese mind a considerable amount of blame for the presence of the KMT troops in Burma attaches to the United States. It is also evident that denials by American Government representatives have to some extent had the opposite of the intended effect, and that only a complete liquidation of the problem will rid this Embassy and other American representatives in Southeast Asia and elsewhere of a serious liability in their work of carrying out American foreign policy in this part of the world.

Any solution of this problem in the implementation of which the United States might take part, however, calls for extremely deft handling to minimize the chances of our calling down upon ourselves the propaganda wrath of our evil-wishers in the event that the attempted solution should go awry. Insofar as our position in Burma is concerned, it would appear preferable to leave the problem alone rather than attempt its solution by inept measures.

Notwithstanding considerable thought which has been given to this problem, the Embassy is unable at this time to formulate detailed recommendations and steps which it feels would effectively solve the problem. It is hoped, however, that the Department will find useful the following suggested criteria and limitations within which detailed planning might be worked out:

In all approaches to the Government of Burma, it must be clearly understood that the problem is one for solution by the GUB. On the other hand, the US Government stands ready to lend such sympathetic assistance as might be helpful to the GUB.
The US Government stands ready to use its good offices with the Chinese Government to advise that Government of the GUB’s suggested steps for solution of the problem.
In discussions with the Chinese Government, the Department might suggest, as a maximum, the repatriation with arms of all the KMT’s; as a minimum, the repatriation of all the officers and as many men as possible, with arms. Repatriation to take place through the port of Rangoon or such other port as may be practicable.
The US Government stands ready to assist the GUB as may be necessary to implement any repatriation plan agreed upon, e.g., by releasing sufficient aviation gasoline to undertake an internal airlift.
It appears essential that the Chinese Government be made aware of the embarrassment caused to the United States by this problem; stern measures should be taken by that government against the KMT leaders in Burma. It would be a positive evidence of good faith and a distinct contribution to this Embassy’s relations with the Burmese Foreign Office if we could inform them that the US Government, unsolicited, by further representations to Taipei, had achieved the removal of Dr. Ting Tso-shao2 from Monghsat to Taiwan.
Every endeavor should be made to keep publicity concerning this problem or any measures taken towards its solution, to an absolute minimum. In any event, the United States’ role should not be presented beyond that of being helpful to the GUB in the solution of a difficult problem which is essentially its own.

It should be abundantly clear that American prestige in Burma is vitally affected at every turn to a greater or lesser degree by this problem. It is the belief of this Embassy, a belief reinforced by the developments here in the last six months, that Burma is one of the bright spots in Southeast Asia. Despite statements of neutrality by Burmese leaders, their actions to a growing degree have indicated that Burma is on the side of the free world. We therefore believe that the United States should attempt by every possible means to develop a positive policy to aid Burma to maintain its independence and to achieve its political and economic potentialities. In many ways American programs are helping toward these goals, but as long as American words are disbelieved and American motives are suspect, our programs can never approach full effectiveness.

It being avowed American policy to aid Burma to become politically and economically independent and strong, we feel that every effort must be made to find a positive solution to the KMT problem which, more than any other, impedes our endeavors in Burma.

Action requested: Please send copies of this despatch to London, Bangkok, Saigon, Hongkong, and Taipei.3

W. J. Sebald
  1. In the interest of brevity, the term KMT in this despatch is used to mean the Chinese Nationalist Government troops presently located in Burma. These are generally referred to as “KMT troops” throughout Burma and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. [Footnote in the source text.]
  2. Dr. Ting Tso-shao is described in an unprinted portion of this despatch as a Chinese civilian interned by the Burmese who had been released in August 1951 after the U.S. Embassy, at the request of the Chinese Nationalist Government, intervened in his behalf. At the time of his release, both the Embassy and the Burmese authorities understood that he would return immediately to Taiwan, but he remained in Rangoon for several months openly engaging in “pro-KMT activities” to such an extent that he was twice warned by the Burmese authorities to leave the country. At the time this despatch was written, he was in Mong Hsat.
  3. Copies were sent as requested.