A leading military figure of Burma’s United Wa State Army (UWSA) died in January, Burma’s largest militia said on Thursday evening.
Li Wen was the deputy chief of staff of the so-called 171 Military Command, the UWSA’s southern region bordering Thailand. Li died at the age of 64 of “sudden heart disease” on Jan. 16, according to video footage of speeches given at a memorial held in the Wa capital Pangkham, in Shan State, on Jan. 31.
He last presided over the second round of talks between the UWSA and the Shan State Army-South in December, when the UWSA released three SSA-South soldiers. At a previous meeting in September, the UWSA released some thirty SSA-South soldiers captured in a military standoff six weeks earlier. The two militias fought a brief war in 2005.
Born in 1949 in Guilin in southern China, Li grew up in Taiwan, where he started his engagement with Chinese Republican troops in Burma. He was sent to Burma to assist the Republican troops which were then controlling large swaths of territory on the Sino-Burmese border with tacit Taiwanese support.
Li then joined the Wa National Council, which in 1989 merged with current chairman Bao Youxiang’s troops into the UWSA, according to Yin Hongwei, a long-time Chinese observer.
He joined what was once dubbed “the largest drug trafficking organization in Southeast Asia” by the US Department of Justice. In 2005, the Wa pledged to end its involvement in opium cultivation and Li seemed to have played a role in the effort.
“All the [opium] crop substitution efforts in the southern command were planned by him,” Bao Youyi, the chairman’s brother and deputy party secretary of the United Wa State Party, said at the funeral. He also said that Li led talks with China on drug eradication.
Bao Youxiang did not attend the funeral. His deputy, Xiao Mingliang and the UWSA’s strongman, Chief of Staff Zhao Zhongdan, attended. Chinese company representatives attended the funeral, according to a statement in the video footage.
His death comes amid increasing tensions between the militia and the Burmese armed forces. Two sources have told The Irrawaddy that the UWSA has heightened its vigilance and held their largest military exercise in their history in January amid concerns over the Tatmadaw’s ongoing offensive against the Kachin Independence Army.
In January, the UWSA’s administrative arm, the Special Region II, issued a joint statement along with Special Region III, controlled by the SSA-South, and Special Region IV, controlled by the National Democratic Alliance Army, calling for the Burmese government to end its siege of the KIA’s makeshift headquarters in Laiza and Lajayang in Kachin State.
Burma’s strongest and best-equipped militia, which signed a ceasefire agreement with Naypyidaw in 2011 after a previous truce broke down in 2009, warned in the statement that civil war could return to the country undergoing political reform.