CHIANG MAI, Thailand – Jane’s Intelligence Review earlier disclosed that Burma’s largest ethnic rebel group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), received five helicopters from China. Both Beijing and the Wa rebels have dismissed this claim in recent months.
However, according to several informed sources and leaked documents, it seems that the UWSA owns at least two helicopters. An ethnic Kachin military leader in the north Thai city of Chiang Mai told The Irrawaddy that he had seen two helicopters—but not helicopter gunships—at a UWSA base near UWSA headquarters in the Shan State town of Panghsang.
“They are simple helicopters,” said the military official. “They [the UWSA] will likely use them for transportation, as their southern unit [in south Shan State] is far away from their headquarters.”
He said the helicopters would likely be operated by China-trained Wa pilots who were sponsored by the UWSA to study at Chinese universities. Some media reports say the helicopters will be operated with help from individual Chinese operators from China’s People’s Liberation Army.
Aung Myint, a spokesman for the UWSA in Rangoon, earlier told media that the claim by Jane’s was groundless. He said no one in the UWSA could operate the helicopters.
Quoting ethnic sources and government officials, the Jane’s report said China “delivered several Mil Mi-17 ‘Hip’ medium- transport helicopters armed with TY-90 air-to-air missiles to the Wa in late February and early March.”
Another well-informed source who runs a business in China—and is close to the Chinese business circle—told The Irrawaddy that the UWSA was capable of operating the helicopters because it had young officers who studied in China. He said the UWSA would never admit to owning the helicopters but wanted to be prepared for any potential attack by the Burmese government, which he said disproved of the rebel group’s calls for an autonomous state.
The UWSA reportedly has an estimated 20,000 well-equipped fighters and recruits modern weapons, including air-to-air and air-to-surface missiles as well as armored vehicles and tanks.
Bertil Lintner, a Thailand-based Swedish veteran journalist who is familiar with UWSA affairs, said, “Two helicopters are supposed to be at a base near Pangwai [near Panghsang], and two are believed to be in Mong Pauk. Light tanks or armored vehicles are stored in Mong Pauk.”
The UWSA, which has some support from China, was shocked when the Burmese government launched air strikes near the Sino-Burma border against the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), an ethnic Kachin rebel group with which the UWSA has an informal alliance. Diplomatic sources said the offensive displeased Beijing because it pushed Kachin refugees into Chinese territory and disturbed border trade.
As the Kyaukpyu pipeline from west Burma’s Arakan State transports gas into China, concern has grown among Chinese authorities over instability between the Burmese government and ethnic armed groups. A Kachin rebel leader said Chinese authorities told him that they wanted to deploy troops to Kachin and Shan states to secure the gas pipeline as well as multi-million dollar hydropower plant projects.
Due to instability on the Sino-Burma border, China has taken the unprecedented step of getting involved in several peace deals between the Burmese government and KIO leaders. Observers say China has acted like a double agent, dealing with the government and ethnic groups on the Sino-Burma border—and providing military hardware to both parties.
The UWSA, which mainly relies on funding from the illicit drug trade, formerly sought military resources from Thailand. Due to financial connections with UWSA commander Wei Hsueh-kang, a drug kingpin, 11 individuals and 16 companies in Thailand were labeled as “specially designated nationals” and “blocked persons” by the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in November 2005.
Some observers say the UWSA likely continues to receive military hardware from Thailand but that the group’s main partner is China, which is less likely to be influenced by the United States.
Another foreign journalist who made his latest trip to the UWSA region in Shan State in 2010 said the Wa rebels were influenced by China. He referred to a “business faction” of Chinese-speaking Wa leaders who were interested in making money. The expatriate said that another faction, which he termed the “patriotic faction,” wanted to open the Wa region and invite journalists for a media briefing, but that the business faction opposed this idea.
Several representatives from the UWSA joined a recent conference of ethnic minority leaders in Chiang Mai, where they urged an ethnic alliance group known as the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) to support their call for an autonomous state. The UWSA signed a ceasefire agreement with the former military regime in 1989 and renewed the agreement in late 2011.