Despite Denials, UWSA Owns Helicopters: Military, Business Sources

A Z-9G helicopter mounting the TY-90 lightweight air-to-air missile. (Photo:

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.

11 Responses to Despite Denials, UWSA Owns Helicopters: Military, Business Sources

  1. Very wise and powerful speech.

  2. Only ethnic Rohingya minority is left without arm that’s why today they are paying heavy price with unforgetable tragedy! Once they hold weapons , they will be recognised and regarded as human being!

  3. KIA should push back the Government troops to the 1994 ceasefire lines by the Help of Chinese. Present of the Government troops in the Ethnic areas will only enhance the preparation for wars among the ethnic groups including to own the most effective military appliances for defending their heads.

  4. “A chink in the armour” as the proverb goes!
    This is definitely a blatant violation of the sovereignty of the country.
    Where is Wirathu when he need him? He and his 969’rs should now be telling patriotic Burmese to boycott Chinese shops, stop buying anything made in China, stop smuggling jade, timber, cattle, snakes, tiger parts, dogs (even girls?) to China, stop the gas/oil pipeline, the copper mine, ….
    Enough is enough!

    • Remember Burman begged for Japan’s help to drive out the Brit. Then ran into the Brits open arms to drive out the Japanese. So, what’s wrong with the Wa going to the Chinese for help to drive out the Burman from their land?

  5. Chinese blood veins are flowing through Burmese body today. They will never let Burma escape from their control. They have invaded Myanmar with big population and big investment. Myanmar girls are brought into China to get married to Chinese as well in order to mix and spoil Burmese blood.

    Myanmar government is letting Chinese construct (and operate) a high speed train track between Kunming and Kyauk Phyu. Chinese troops can be deployed inside Myanmar within a few hours; unless otherwise Burmese army can destroy the track at the border very quickly.

    Our primary enemy is China, no one can refuse it.

    • While we are fighting within ourselves, China is making the most profit out of it. Either by selling arms to ethnics and doing illegal logging our precious timber to them. There are numerous evident about it. The president is well aware of the Chinese threat. That’s why he is trying to cool relations with the West. Only the presence of United States then we could balance the power. Since we can’t survive alone against either Chinese nor ethnics.
      Ethnics group like UWSA are traitors. Their leaders only interested in doing businesses. They don’t even speak Myanmar nor use Myanmar currency. We should never allow them for a separate state. I have sympathy for KIA and KNU though. They fight for the cause. Not for money.

  6. China to deploy their troops in Myanmar to protect their pipelines and hydro plants? Did I get it right? What is inside Myanmar is Myanmar affair, not Chinese, regardless of business commitments.
    Must the people pay heavily for the wrongs that the junta governments did in the past?
    Why can’t we settle our internal differences fast and good for all by ourselves? Why can’t the government keep its promises of cease-fire and advance the peace process further?
    Abandon the jungle law of might to be right. Finish all wars in Myanmar. Let us live peacefully, I mean without the ethnic conflicts sectarian violence!

  7. the Wa possessing fire arms does not mean they will use them to rob the weak like the Burman, but it only means that they will not be easily backed down like other ethnic minorities. Look at the plight of the Rohingya. They are like water in Burman’s palms that they can be thrown out or poured out at the Burman’s convenience. Well-armed militia of the Wa imparts fear in Burman, and thus can deal with the Burman on level ground while negotiating. On the other hand, look at the fate of Rohingya and Kachin, they are on the brink of losing their land and culture altogether.

  8. Great. Myanmar Army and Airforce always try to have upper hand by using Helicopters and heavy armored tanks against ethnics. All ethnics must be ready because the current regime is not willing to lead us into genuine democracy. 10% democracy will not satisfy us and war is imminent, I believe.

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