The Much Misunderstood Wa of Myanmar and China

By Bertil Lintner 7 December 2021

Stories from an Ancient Land: Perspectives on Wa History and Culture

By Magnus Fiskesjö

Berghahn, New York and Oxford, 2021, 314 pages. US$145 (hardcover), US$33.03 (Kindle)

The Wa, who live on both sides of the Myanmar-China border, are probably Southeast Asia’s most misunderstood—and often maligned—ethnic minority. Over the years, they have been described as wild headhunters, communist rebels, drug traffickers and puppets of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA). In Myanmar, many people seem to believe that they are a kind of Chinese when they are, in fact, a Mon-Khmer tribe related to the Palaung of northern and eastern Shan State.

This book by US-based Swedish anthropologist Magnus Fiskesjö, therefore, is a very welcome contribution to a better understanding of the Wa. Although his field work was done almost exclusively on the Chinese side of the border, his accounts of Wa culture and history, and the group’s troubled relationship with the Chinese state, should be essential reading for anyone interested in peace along the common border. And that is especially important now, given the United Wa State Army (UWSA)’s position as the strongest and best-equipped ethnic armed group in the country at a time when Myanmar is descending into chaos. They have not, so far, played any direct role in domestic politics and they are not fighting the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw. But several groups that are, among them the Kokang-based Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, the Palaung Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Shan State Army of the Shan State Progress Party, the Arakan Army, and to a lesser extent the Kachin Independence Army, have benefited from arms, ammunition and other equipment supplied by the UWSA.

The Wa in Myanmar have never been controlled by any central authority. During the British time, colonial presence consisted of little more than a few field officers on the outskirts of the hills, and occasional flag-marches up to the border to show the Chinese where their designated territory supposedly ended. After independence, the Wa Hills were ruled by local chieftains and warlords, and, in some parts, remnants of Nationalist Chinese, Kuomintang, forces that had retreated across the border after being defeated by Mao Zedong’s communists during the Chinese Civil War, which ended in 1949.

Then, in the early 1970s, the Wa Hills were taken over by the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), which established a base area covering most of the border mountains. In 1989, the rank-and-file of the CPB’s army, which included thousands of Wa fighters, mutinied against the ageing, staunchly Maoist leadership of the party, drove them into exile in China, and established their own army, the UWSA. Today, the 20,000-30,000-strong UWSA and its political wing, the United Wa State Party, rules the Wa Hills without any central government interference. Their area is, in effect, a wholly autonomous buffer state between Myanmar and China with its own administration, schools, hospitals, courts and trading companies.

On the Chinese side, the situation has historically been equally complex. The emperors in Beijing had no jurisdiction over the Chinese Wa Hills, and contacts with the Wa were limited to some merchants who had dealings with them in opium, silver and salt. That changed after 1949, when the PLA moved into the Wa Hills to counter the Kuomintang’s attempts to reenter southern China from their clandestine bases in northeastern Shan State. As Fiskesjö explains, many Wa, who feared the Chinese, then fled into the Myanmar Wa Hills. But, by and large, the PLA treated the local population relatively well because they needed the Wa’s knowledge of terrain in order to secure the border areas, and depended on them for intelligence, even across the border into the Wa Hills of Myanmar, where the Kuomintang had bases.

After a few years of comparative leniency, and as soon as the Kuomintang threat had been eliminated, the Chinese introduced a new, and unwelcome, social and political order. Weapons in the possession of Wa villagers, who were used to being armed because they depended on hunting, were confiscated and according to Fiskesjö all paraphernalia associated with head-hunting were destroyed. Drum houses, the main social institution in any Wa village, were torn down, their log drums were thrown out or burned and “the major rituals of the past were abandoned. Chief ritualists and other leaders were demoted, marginalized, or even prosecuted.” Wa elders Fiskesjö spoke to regarded 1958 as the key watershed, “since in that year the Chinese policy shifted from reconciliation to enforcement.” Even the Wa had to become Chinese communists and were herded into people’s communes.

But what about head-hunting and opium? According to Fiskesjö, head-hunting as well as poppy appeared “in the Wa lands relatively recently.” Opium, Fiskesjö writes, “was seized upon as a new source of wealth…as a profitable but illicit crop, it could be grown with impunity only in these mountains, well away from the interference of states.” And that happened in the late 19th and early 20th century, presumably because there was then a huge demand for the drug in China. As for head-hunting, in the past bodies of dead tigers were placed outside villages to scare away potential enemies; but “after the wars of the mid-19th century, and with the spread of modern firearms [tigers] have now become scarce…[and] in a way humans replaced tigers as the most dangerous adversary of the land.” Long lines of posts, or a nog in Wa, with dry, whitened skulls on display lined the paths leading into villages and “served as a key Wa weapon of deterrence, legible as such by alien soldier-observers like the British and the Chinese.”

The only place where Fiskesjö’s analysis goes astray is when he describes the arrival of the CPB in the Myanmar Wa Hills. He writes that “the Chinese-supported [CPB], equipped with modern weaponry, moved from central Burma into Wa country in the late 1960s.” In fact, the CPB takeover of the border areas came after more than a hundred Myanmar communists, who had been living in exile in China since the early 1950s, came across the border on January 1, 1968 accompanied by a few hundred Kachin, followers of the early rebel leader Naw Seng, who had retreated independently into China at about the same time—and thousands of heavily armed Red Guard volunteers from China who were sent to fight alongside their Myanmar comrades.

The first incursion took place at Möng Ko in the north, far from the Wa Hills, and it was not until the early 1970s that the CPB, with Chinese assistance, took over the Wa Hills. The plan was to establish a “liberated area” along the border and from there push down to the Myanmar heartland, where poorly equipped CPB units were still holding out in places like the Pegu Yoma north of Yangon, and pockets in Sagaing Division, the Arakan Hills and Tenasserim (now Tanintharyi).

That plan failed as the Tatmadaw realized that it could only contain, not defeat, the “new” CPB forces on the Chinese border—of whom the vast majority soon consisted of Wa conscripts—and, therefore, concentrated its efforts on wiping out the old strongholds in central Myanmar. That strategy proved to be successful and the last of the old major bases, those in the Pegu Yoma, were overrun in 1975. The number of Pegu Yoma survivors who made it to the new, northeastern base area was minimal. When I was at the then CPB headquarters at Panghsang in the Wa Hills in 1986-1987, I was able to meet only two such veterans.

But Fiskesjö is correct in saying that the imposition of CPB rule over the Wa Hills led to the annihilation of “the long-standing Wa autonomy, or, more precisely, what remained of Wa autonomy after World War II, when parts of the Wa lands became the battleground of Chinese Kuomintang forces on the run from the lost cause of their civil war in China.” Fiskesjö goes on to explain how “the broad assault on Wa cultural and political traditions under the [CPB] in some ways was even more drastic than what occurred in Chinese-annexed Wa territory.”

Indeed, the “new” CPB treated the Wa as little more than cannon fodder in their struggle to reach central Myanmar, where the party’s future, if any, would have lied. It is significant that the CPB chairman Thakin Ba Thein Tin left his headquarters at Panghsang only to go to China, and, on a few occasions, to Möng Ko. He never even once visited a Wa village inside the CPB-controlled base area to talk to the people there.

The outcome of the CPB’s failure to reach the Myanmar heartland was that it became isolated in a remote mountain area where they did not belong and had never intended to stay. That, in turn, led to the 1989 mutiny, in which the CPB’s Wa troops stormed Panghsang and the Myanmar communists, once again, had to seek refuge in China. But this time, China had changed its policy. Unlike in the 1950s and 1960s, the Myanmar communists were not allowed to engage in any kind of politics, and had to survive on pensions provided to them by Chinese authorities.

In one of the most powerful chapters in the book, Fiskesjö describes how commercial entrepreneurs in modern times have built theme parks where supposed head-hunting paraphernalia are on display, and visitors can stay in newly-built huts and watch “wild Wa tribesmen” perform “exotic” dances which have no resemblance to Wa traditions. The much-promoted Wa “hair dance”, where young Wa women toss their long hair back and forth, is one such invention. One of those “China Folk Cultural Villages” in Shenzhen opposite Hong Kong is called “Windows of the World, where young Wa dancers also work — but they perform there as Africans, New Zealand Maoris, and American Indians.”

It is no wonder many Wa feel exploited and resent being looked down upon by the Chinese—and that strained relationship, as well as the past Wa history of being oppressed by the Chinese Communist Party, is something most foreign observers have overlooked. The UWSA today may be heavily dependent on the Chinese for trade, and its vast and sophisticated arsenal made up almost entirely of weapons procured in China. But that does not mean that relations between China and the Wa in Myanmar are as smooth as people think.

And drugs? Fiskesjö outlines the history of poppy cultivation in the Wa Hills but, as an anthropologist, does not dwell on today’s trade in narcotics. There is no doubt that the UWSA built up its now well-developed, autonomous area in Myanmar with profits from the trade in opium and heroin, and, more recently, methamphetamines. But it would also be fair to say that the organization’s relative wealth today is based on a number of other sources of income as well. Tin mining and the extraction of rare earth metals are believed to be more lucrative than the trade in narcotics.

The price of the book, US$145, may make most people interested in the topic reluctant to buy it, but there is also a more affordable Kindle version of this groundbreaking study. Read it—it is well worth it.

Bertil Lintner is a Swedish journalist, author and strategic consultant who has been writing about Asia for nearly four decades.

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