China has allegedly sold helicopter gunships to ethnic Wa rebels who occupy areas of Shan State in eastern Burma, intelligence monitor Jane’s Information Group reported on Monday.
The report claimed 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, according to both Myanmar ethnic minority and Myanmar government sources.”
Bertil Lintner, an expert on Burma and author of Great Game East: India, China and the Struggle for Asia’s Most Volatile Frontier, confirmed the accuracy of the Jane’s report.
Lintner said the Burmese government was moving to gain control of the Shan State Army-North’s mountainous bases on the western bank of the Salween River, for an eventual offensive against the Wa rebels.
“Since the Burmese government signed a ceasefire with the Shan, they haven’t withdrawn any troops, but rather they have reinforced their troops,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, an analyst based on the China-Burma border. “That is not a good sign. So, the Wa wants to prepare [for a possible war].”
The purchase of the gunships is part of Wa moves to make the Wa region more like an independent state, able to project force if necessary.
The United Wa State Army is the largest ethnic armed group in Burma, with an estimated 20,000 well-equipped fighters, and advanced weaponry including surface-to-air missiles.
The Burmese government has carried out an offensive against the SSA-North and Kachin rebels in northern Shan State since mid-April, calling up troops from as far away as Karenni State to back up their forces in Shan State, according to Aung Kyaw Zaw.
Quoting a Wa rebel source, the Jane’s report said “the Mi-17s reached the Wa-administered area by flying across the Mekong River from Lao rather than direct from China.”
Jane’s said five helicopters had been bought, but the Burmese government, which confirmed the deal, said only two aircraft had so far been delivered.
The UWSA headquarters is in Panghsang, northeastern Shan State on the China border, but it has a secondary stronghold in southern Shan State on the border with Thailand.
Burma and the United States have long said the UWSA funds its activities through heroin and methamphetamine production, earning large sums of money through illegal activities.
If the government launches an attack on the Wa, it would be a big war, according to analysts. There have been unconfirmed reports in recent weeks that the Wa have been digging in for a protracted ground war, hollowing out tunnels and constructing fortified positions, according to the sources.
The Burmese government recently bought a number of Mi-24P ‘Hind’ gunships from Russia. The reported sale of the Mi-17s to the Wa, armed with TY-90 short-range air-to-air missiles, would provide a strong deterrent to Naypyidaw moving against the Wa.