RANGOON — A representative of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), Burma’s most powerful ethnic armed group, on Friday denied allegations made by the Burma Army that the UWSA is involved in the ongoing Kokang conflict in northern Shan State.
The Wa officer also urged the army to end speculation over the involvement of Chinese nationals in the fighting, saying that it risked misrepresenting the Wa and Kokang as tied to China, while they are in fact ethnic minorities of Burma.
Aung Myint, a spokesperson of UWSA, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the group sent a letter to President Thein Sein on Thursday informing him that the Wa were in no way supporting the Kokang rebels, while also calling for a meeting with the president.
Aung Myint said since the start of the conflict the government appeared to be playing nationalist politics by associating the Wa with the Kokang and China. “They tried to involve our name in the fighting, but they do not have any evidence for it. We found that this case is used in current politics; they wanted to divert public attention in the country by doing this,” he said.
On Feb. 21, during a press conference in Naypyidaw, Lt-Gen. Mya Tun Oo of the Burma Army’s Office of the Commander-in-Chief said Kokang rebels fighting under the banner of the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) were using “Chinese mercenaries,” along with soldiers from other ethnic armed rebel groups in Burma, including the Wa and Mongla groups, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Arakan Army, the Kachin Independence Amry and the Shan State Army-North.
Aung Myint said the army was trying to cast the fighting as a Chinese-backed attempt at taking Burmese sovereign territory in northern Shan State. “They said… they found some soldiers spoke the Chinese language during the fighting, but Kokang soldiers speak Chinese. There are no Chinese soldiers there,” he said.
Chinese state media have ran articles stating that Beijing was not supporting ethnic rebels in northern Burma.
The Chinese minority Kokang and the Wa and Mongla groups live in a mountainous region on the Burma-China border and have strong cultural and business links with China. The Chinese yuan is the de facto currency in the regions.
Their armed groups used to make up the bulk of the powerful China-backed Communist Party of Burma. In 1989, the party collapsed and splintered into ethnic armies that cut ceasefire deals with the then-military regime which granted them a degree of autonomy.
The groups have long been recognized minorities in Burma, but their association with the Chinese-backed communist insurgency has installed a suspicion against the groups among the Burmese public, which is weary of the giant neighbor to the north.
Reports in state media and remarks by army and government officials suggesting Chinese involvement in Kokang in recent weeks have successfully swayed opinion among the Burmese-majority public in favor of the army, which loathed by most following decades of military rule.
Aung Myint, the UWSA officer, said, “For us, we wanted to see peace, but it depend on them [the army] whether they want peace. They accuse all well-known armed groups based in Shan State, including us [of supporting the Kokang]. On this issue, we don’t know how peace could proceed. People in the country could analyze this.”
“We found that there are some Burmese people who support this fighting, but there are also some Burmese who have good analysis about this fighting,” he added.
Burma’s nationwide ceasefire process involving the government and an alliance of 16 ethnic groups came to a halt in September, as differences over key political issues, such as federalism, could not be bridged. Since then, fighting in northern Burma has escalated.
The Wa, which have long been accused of large-scale illegal drug trade and gun-running, have emerged as the most powerful rebel army in Burma with an estimated 20,000 fighters and sophisticated Chinese weaponry, including armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missiles and possibly helicopters.
The UWSA has had a ceasefire with the government in past decades, but the issue of autonomy for the Wa region has yet be resolved.
The Kokang ceasefire lasted from 1989 until August 2009, when a Burma Army offensive took the Kokang region without firing a shot and raided the properties of MNDAA leader Peng Jiasheng, replacing him with his Kokang rival Bai Souqian. At the time, Peng Jiasheng was believed to have fled to Wa territory with several hundred men.