‘The Wa Region Really Looks Like Its Own Country’

By The Irrawaddy 16 May 2015

On this week’s edition of Dateline Irrawaddy, two of our journalists discuss their recent trip to the little-known Wa Special Region, where a dozen ethnic armed groups recently gathered to discuss ongoing peace negotiations with the government.

Kyaw Zwa Moe: A conference of ethnic armed groups was held in Panghsan, the capital of Wa Special Region, earlier this month. The Irrawaddy’s reporters Ko Lawi Weng and Ma Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint attended the conference. Today we’ll discuss how much things have changed in Wa, a region once known for head hunters, flesh-eating practices and bare-skinned people. I’m The Irrawaddy’s magazine editor Kyaw Zwa Moe.

Ma Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint, around 1937, Wa was an undeveloped place. There was virtually no administrative mechanism in Wa, even after the country regained independence in 1948. Then, around 20, 26 years ago, the Wa secured a ceasefire with the government. After 2008, they were designated as a self-administered division. What interesting things did you see in the Wa region and how does its development compare with other ethnic regions?

Nan Lwin Hnin Pwint: To draw a comparison, it is very different from Yangon. There is not even a single hut in villages, there are apartments there instead. Transportation is pretty good there and I saw them building drains systematically, which other ethnicities still can’t do. For example, in ethnic regions like Karen and Mon states, roads aren’t even paved smooth. There is a huge difference between Wa and them.

KZM: You made a comparison with Yangon. So what about the other things, like hospitals, there?

NLHP: In Wa, there is a government hospital as well as a hospital funded by the United Wa State Army [UWSA]. There is a big difference between the two hospitals. In the government hospital, there are only ordinary beds and perhaps general practitioners and basic drugs. The UWSA hospital, however, is a modern one. It has modern diagnostic equipment that was purchased from abroad.

KZM: Did you see anything interesting, Ko Lawi? You have been to various ethnic regions. What differences did you observe?

LW: I am particularly interested in the hotels. They are building up their town day and night. Hotels there are better than those in Mandalay. I stayed at one of the best hotels in Mandalay, which charges US$270 a night. But then, the hotel I stayed at in Wa is better than that hotel.

KZM: Were there many guests?

LW: Yes, Chinese men. There are lots of hotels and there were also many guests. But the hotels are really neat and tidy. These hotels were built under a really good system.

KZM: The Wa Army has around 30,000 troops and is the biggest among ethnic armed groups. What do its activities and deployment look like in Phanghsan?

LW: In Panghsan, I saw many uniformed UWSA soldiers going around the town or going to market by bike with their families. We media outlets frequently say that ‘Wa’ even has anti-aircraft weapons, but I did not see any specific anti-aircraft weapons there. I noted that I did not even see snipers. I saw AK-47s and M-16s. That’s all.

I think they practice conscription because the Wa region only has a population of around 600,000 people. Why do they have so many troops? I saw children ranging from 7 to 15 in military uniforms. But they are not given arms. That’s why I say conscription must be practiced there.

KZM: What did you observe in terms of the livelihoods of ordinary Wa people? I mean salary and working conditions.

NLHP: Some say that clothes can be used as a yardstick against which to measure living standards. The style of dress in Wa is completely different from that of Yangon. They dress completely neat and tidy. Yangon’s dressing style does not stand comparison with that of the Wa. Those who come to sell things at the market wear traditional clothes. Mostly, they wear traditional clothes. They wear top brands.

KZM: Most of them use Chinese-made goods since Wa is close to China, don’t they?

NLHP: It’s not like that. Wa people say that Chinese-made products are not of good quality. So, they don’t use them. At shops, I rarely saw Chinese-made foods, and instant noodles were the only Chinese-made food I saw. But even the noodles, they only sell well-known brands.

KZM: But across Myanmar, people eat and rely on China-made products and foods. What about the salary there?

NLHP: Unskilled workers, for example waiters and part-time waiters, say they earn around 1,000 to 1,500 yuan (US$160-$240). Those who work at rubber plantations earn around 1,500 to 3,000 yuan.

KZM: It is Chinese currency. How much is the Myanmar equivalent?

NLHP: 500 yuan equals to around 100,000 kyats [$85], so 1,500 yuan is around 300,000 kyats.

KZM: So, it is higher than the average salary in Yangon.

NLHP: There is a huge gap.

KZM: That’s why the living standard is different. What about the education and language there?

NLHP: They say they mainly go to Chinese schools. There are Burmese schools opened by the government, but they just learn enough Burmese for speaking. Some people can’t read. Mainly, they use the Wa and Chinese languages. What is noticeable in Wa is that I saw a library there. People can read there. In their monthly magazines, I saw the Chinese and Wa translation of current local issues like Daw Aung San Suu Kyi giving a speech, students staging protests and the president holding peace talks with the UWSA. Looking at this, we can see that they are monitoring politics and news and are informing people. That is really significant.

LW: They themselves are concerned about China’s influence. As far as I could tell, they do not use Chinese products although they live on the Chinese border. I don’t know where the pistols they use come from. But when I asked an official from Mon…

KZM: You mean military officers?

LW: I asked a major from the New Mon State Party if he knew where the pistols the Wa are carrying come from. He replied that they are from the US.

KZM: So, they use products from Western countries, even the weapons.

LW: China does not manufacture the M-16. M-16s come from Thailand. The latest products. … They mostly use such products. There are also Wa-made weapons. They are very distinct from other weapons.

KZM: Wa-made weapons are also popular?

LW: I noticed that AK-47s used by the Kokang and Palaung and Wa are completely identical in appearance. I noticed that both police and troops carry identical AK-47s.

KZM: Leaders of other ethnic armed groups such as the Kachin, Karen and Mon also went there. What was their view of Panghsan?

LW: At first I asked [ethnic Mon leader] Nai Hong Sar how he felt about Panghsan. He replied that the Wa have their own country while they [Mon] have got nothing. I asked other ethnic leaders and most other ethnic leaders shared his view.

KZM: ‘Country,’ what does that mean?

LW: Wa has seen development. It really looks like its own country. Hotels are big, there is 24-hour electricity and the roads are broad.

KZM: What is the major driving force behind it? Because [former senior junta leader] U Khin Nyunt, who once negotiated with the Wa, Kokang and KIA [Kachin Independence Army] for peace, wrote in his book that the Wa are really hard-working and honest. He described them as a hard-working people. He said the Wa had greatly developed just one year after making peace with him because of their hard work and honesty. What do you think? How is their living style and their culture?

LW: They say they are earnestly working day and night. They say, for example, that if they are to build a hotel, they hire Chinese engineers for designing the hotel’s architecture. They build it really well. They work together with Chinese engineers. Then, they stop hiring Chinese engineers, after they get techniques from them. They build it themselves. They have complete confidence in themselves. Again, I saw that they are building roads like in Thailand.

KZM: How is it different from Myanmar?

LW: The roads are really good; even and smooth and of a high standard. They are constructed by the UWSA.

KZM: I think it must have been around 1994 that the UWSA gave considerable support to government army troops in their fight against the drug lord Khun Sa. How is the existing relationship between government army and the UWSA?

LW: The UWSA leadership is concerned that fighting may recur and that it might damage their capital, which they are still building. They talked about northern Shan State and Kachin, where clashes are ongoing. They are very concerned that the progress of the region may be affected by the fighting because they are putting heart and soul into development works.

KZM: There are five self-administered zones and one self-administered division, according to the 2008 Constitution. Are the Wa not satisfied with their division status?

LW: Yes, they say they are satisfied. They have political awareness. They always read the news. They know the positions of news agencies. They said some news agencies were really critical, but now they aren’t anymore and they have become moderate now. They are studying everything even though their place is a remote region. They even talk about amending the 2008 Constitution.

KZM: Ko Lawi and Ma Nan Lwin, both of you were able to interview Wa leaders. You interviewed [UWSA chairman] Bao Youxiang. What did he say about the Constitution and politics?

NLHP: He mainly talked about the Constitution. He said that charter reform is a precondition for a [nationwide] ceasefire, and that all the ethnic armed groups will sign the ceasefire only after the Constitution is changed.

LW: I asked him if he saw any difference between U Than Shwe and reformist U Thein Sein and he immediately replied that there was no difference and that they are the same. But then, they are studying seriously what U Thein Sein is doing.

KZM: He means he still has his suspicions and he has not seen real changes.

LW: He said the 2008 Constitution must be amended. It is their main point.

KZM: Ko Lawi, Ma Nan Lwin, very interesting. Thanks you very much for your discussion.