Dateline Irrawaddy: ‘The Burma Army Doesn’t Underestimate the Wa’

By The Irrawaddy 29 October 2016

Kyaw Kha: Welcome to Dateline Irrawaddy! This week we’ll discuss the three-way military tensions between Burma’s largest ethnic armed group the United Wa State Army [UWSA], its brotherly ally the Mongla Group [National Democratic Alliance Army, or NDAA], and the Burma Army. I’m Irrawaddy’s reporter Kyaw Kha, and our news crew reporters for ethnic affairs Ko Lawi Weng and Ma Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint will join me for the discussion.

On Sept. 28, around 600 troops of the UWSA raided and occupied some bases in the area controlled by the Mongla Group [near the Chinese border in eastern Shan State]. We heard that the UWSA has since continuously brought in reinforcements and that around 800 troops have been deployed there. Burma’s military then sent an ultimatum to the UWSA to withdraw its troops by Oct. 24. We heard that fears have mounted and roads have been blocked. Ma Nan Lwin, what are the latest developments?

Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint: Mongla Group leaders said it was the UWSA’s fault, and that they want the UWSA to withdraw from their area as demanded by the Burma Army. But the UWSA said that it won’t withdraw, and it has since deployed even more forces. Because both [groups] are holding peace talks with the government, Dr. Tin Myo Win of the [government’s] National Reconciliation and Peace Centre [NRPC] has asked to mediate between the two [groups]. The Mongla Group accepted the proposal, but the UWSA hasn’t. And locals said [on Tuesday] that they had seen [planes] flying over the area of Mongla. So they’re afraid, and some of them [locals] have started to flee from Mongla, I’ve heard.

KK: Given their actions, it appears that Wa is desperately trying to defend those places. And we heard that Wa has systematically monitored military activities of Burma’s military and made necessary counter-actions. Why has Wa occupied those bases, and how much do they mean to them, Ko Lawi?

Lawi Weng: I would like to raise two points—one military and the other political. Politically, Wa is concerned that Mongla may sign the NCA [Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement] since it seems that Mongla supports the ongoing peace process with the government. Wa is worried that Mongla will be influenced by Burma’s military if it signs the NCA. If Burma’s military took over the mountain bases in the Mongla area, it could easily attack the Wa. So on Sept. 28, the Wa took preemptive actions and raided Mongla posts unexpectedly. According to some sources close to Mongla, before this [incident], some officers of Sai Lin [a Mongla Group chairman] held talks with the government, mainly because Mongla does not want to be under the control of Wa and wants to compromise with the government. The UWSA raided Mongla bases after they heard this news. They then summoned Sai Lin to discuss the issue.

According to Kyi Myint [a leader within the NDAA], the Wa has occupied almost all of the hills and only keeps the routes open for the Mongla Group. Those hills are strategic for the Mongla Group for fighting Burma’s military if it approaches. While we were visiting Wa [territory], Sai Mauk told us that there is a port on the Mekong River in the area that is crucial for the UWSA, and which is jointly controlled by the Mongla [Group] and the Wa. And Burma Army troops are also deployed not very far from there. It is the only navigable water route for the Wa to transport its products, including perhaps weapons, to Laos and Thailand and other foreign countries. The Wa [imports] mainly through this port. So those hills and that port are critically important for the Wa, both militarily and economically. The Wa are concerned that Sai Lin might take the side of the government, so it carried out a sudden raid.

KK: The Mekong River is crucial for the Wa to purchase weapons via Laos. It is also economically important for the Wa. The Wa have occupied those Mongla bases because of the fear that it might lose contact with its southern headquarters along the Thai-Burma border.

LW: [The Wa] will lose its exit route if the military occupies that area. Now, the Kokang [self-administered zone in northern Shan State] is essentially held by the Burmese military. Previously, the Wa had access to Kokang areas before the fighting erupted between the Kokang [Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, or MNDAA] and the Burma Army.

KK: A few days ago we heard that the Burmese military launched offensives on some important bases belonging to the Shan State Progressive Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N), a close ally of the UWSA. Ma Nan Lwin, you have been reporting about it. How important are those bases to the Burma Army for attacking the Wa?

NLHP: Currently, Burma Army troops are deployed in SSPP’s Loilem mountain ridges to the west of the Salween River [in central Shan State]. The Wa headquarters of Panghsang and its mountain bases lie to the east of Loilem. Since the mountains in the Wa-controlled area are lower than those in the SSPP-controlled area, if the Burmese military occupy those mountains, it would pose a grave threat to the Wa. […] [because] the Wa may not be able to withstand an attack from the Burma Army from a higher vantage point.

Also, if the Burmese military could take control of the Loilem mountain ridge, they would have access to the routes through which the TNLA [Ta’ang National Liberation Army], the Kachin Independence Army [KIA] Brigade No. 4, and the Kokang (MNDAA) receive military assistance, including weapons, from the Wa via Mong Hsu, Kyethi, Mongyai, and Kyaukme townships. The military could occupy those routes once they occupy the Loilem mountain ridge. Since the Wa [UWSA] is the largest ethnic armed group, Burma’s military is not only preparing militarily; it is also making other moves.

KK: What will happen if conflict breaks out, Ko Lawi?

LW: If conflict breaks out, it would spread to many places. The Wa have three bases: Tangyan, Chin Shwe Haw, and Loi Tak, and each of those places would experience clashes. The TNLA and the Kokang [MNDAA] are Wa allies, and even the AA [Arakan Army, also present in Shan State] would help them in the event of an attack from the Burma Army. Then the SSPP would also have to join the fight. So if conflict breaks out [between the Burma Army and the UWSA], it would spread to other areas along the Chinese border, and many civilians would be displaced. In the case of Kokang [where intense fighting erupted in early 2015], the fighting left many people displaced. If conflict breaks out along that area, there would be many more displaced persons. It is a cause for serious concern.

NLHP: Some local residents have started to flee the Mongla area. And there are previous examples in Karen and Kachin states. Displaced persons still can’t go back to their homes [in those states]. Their lives were ruined. Many things they had built were ruined. In the Laukkai [Kokang] fighting in 2015, the [local] economy collapsed. Women and children also had to flee. If war broke out there [Loilem], it would force women and children into camps and destroy businesses. What’s worse is it will affect schooling and ultimately the future of the children who are displaced. Children will have to pass their days at displaced persons’ camps.

KK: Yes, there were serious negative impacts on businesses and transportation in Kokang. The Wa always monitors the activities of Burma’s military and is continually preparing [for fighting]. Is the Burmese military also making preparations?

NLHP: Since the Wa [UWSA] are the largest ethnic armed group [in Burma], the Burma Army does not underestimate them. They have placed units of Triangle Command, headquartered in Kengtung [in eastern Shan State], in the vicinity of major mountain bases held by the UWSA and the SSPP, as well as units of Eastern and Eastern-Central commands on the other side of the Salween River. In addition, the Burma Army has established an artillery base to the west of Kunhing, while maintaining a strong force in Lashio [where North-Eastern Command is based, in northern Shan State]. It seems that the Burmese military has adopted particular strategies to deal with the Wa.

KK: They have made preparations already?

NLHP: Yes. They do not underestimate the Wa.

LW: Actually, the Burmese military already wants to launch offensives in places like Tangyan. Now it seems that they also want to occupy the SSPP-controlled area [in central Shan State].

NLHP: The Burma Army has made certain preparations. They have plans.

KK: So if the Burmese military were to attack the Wa, they would have to confront the SSPP because they lie in between them and the Wa.

LW: Yes, the SSPP knows that. The Burma Army would have to attack places like Tangyan to occupy the [Loilem] ridge before attacking the Wa. But the SSPP wouldn’t just give in to them. There would be clashes for sure.

KK: China plays an important role in the Wa and Mongla issue, I think. How could China help defuse this situation?

LW: China always says positive things about Burma’s peace process and has said that it would support it. But we don’t know the real changes taking place along the border. When we last went to Mai Ja Yang [a KIA-held area in Kachin State on the Chinese border, which hosted an ethnic armed group summit in July], we could cross the border [without undue restriction] at certain places.

Ethnic armed groups active along the border say that China is playing a greater role these days [in the peace process]. Previously, China placed some travel restrictions [on ethnic armed group members]; China now seems to be easing up in this regard. But we don’t know what agreements the Wa and China have reached.

KK: We will have to wait and see whether China, our superpower neighbor, and the international community steps in to help, applying pressure to avert the worst possible scenario. Ko Lawi and Ma Nan Lwin, thank you for your contributions.