How to Tell a Sensitive History: Interviews with Chinese International Communist Volunteers in Burma

Dr Ning Zhang is currently developing a book that provides a pioneer exploration of the experiences of Chinese volunteers in Burma from 1968 to 1989. These volunteers supported the Burmese Communist Party’s insurgency against the Burmese government. After China withdrew its official military presence in 1973, many volunteers returned home, facing the challenging process of reintegration into a society that was largely unaware of their contributions and sacrifices. Although Chinese participation in the Burmese Civil War is an open secret, it remains officially unacknowledged by the Chinese government till today. The volunteers’ expectations of being recognized as soldiers of the People’s Liberation Army of China were met with silence, and their experiences of political repression under the BCP remain a controversial subject in contemporary mainland China. As a result, telling this history, especially the darker aspects of it, brings this group of seniors over seventy emotional, political and moral challenges.

Drawing on 60 in-depth interviews and a rich collection of personal archives, Ning Zhang’s project sheds light on the obscure facets of ‘international communism’ and its impact in Southeast Asia. In this presentation, Ning Zhang will delve into the complex ways these historical participants remember and recount their contentious pasts. She will also address the ethical obligations historians face when presenting these narratives, ensuring they remain unbiased and faithful to the experiences of those who endured these tumultuous times.

Dr Ning Zhang is a Newton International Fellow in the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies at the University of Oxford.