Who Are the Wa?
By Bertil Lintner 1 March 2020
The United Wa State Army made headlines last week when it confirmed that it had purchased a helicopter, though it claimed the aircraft was purely for “leisure and personal” use. Already Myanmar’s largest rebel group with an estimated 30,000 soldiers and 20,000 auxiliary troops and a sophisticated arsenal of weapons, much of it purchased from China, the announcement renewed questions about how long the Myanmar government can tolerate a de facto independent state within its borders. The Irrawaddy revisits this 2017 article examining the history of the Wa region and what options Naypyitaw has for bringing it properly into the Union fold.
It seems very likely that the United Wa State Army (UWSA) will become the next target of the Myanmar government’s efforts to bring the country under its control. But that does not necessarily mean that the army will launch an all-out offensive against the country’s most heavily armed ethnic army. A more likely scenario, insiders say, would be for the Myanmar military to capitalize on internal divisions within the UWSA first, play one faction against another—and attack only when the group has been considerably weakened.
But would that work? And who, exactly, are the Wa? In the Myanmar media, they are often portrayed as some kind of Chinese group, and it has even been suggested that the UWSA may follow the secessionist example set by Crimea, which recently held a referendum and joined Russia. In a similar fashion, the UWSA could hold a referendum in the area under its control, and then decide to merge it with China.
This scenario is extremely unlikely, however, because China would never accept such a move, as it would antagonize the whole of Southeast Asia and most of the rest of the world. And, needless to say, the Wa are not a “Chinese people.” They are a Mon-Khmer-speaking tribe whose closest ethnic relatives in Myanmar would be the Palaung and, much more distantly, the Mon. (There are ethnic Wa across the border in China as well, where they number about 400, 000, but they are an ethnic minority in Yunnan and not related to the majority Han Chinese.)
‘We Are Very Wild People’
But one also has to remember that the Wa Hills of northeastern Shan State have never been ruled by any central Myanmar authority. What the Wa want their future to be is, therefore, a major concern that cannot be ignored.
Even during the British colonial era, governmental presence in the Wa Hills was limited to annual flag marches up to the Chinese border. The Wa were headhunters and feared by the plainspeople, and the British troops that carried their flag up to the border were always heavily armed.
The Wa Hills were first surveyed by outsiders in 1935-36, when the Iselin Commission began to more firmly demarcate the border between the Wa Hills and China, which was finally agreed upon by the British and the Chinese in 1941. Even so, the Wa Hills were never fully explored and were only nominally under British and later Myanmar sovereignty. The first road in the area was built in 1941, from Kunlong near the Thanlwin River and into the northern fringes of the Wa Hills.
The British-initiated Frontier Areas of Enquiry—set up to ascertain the views of Myanmar’s many minority peoples just before independence—reported in 1947 that the Wa Hills “pay no contribution to central revenue…there are no post offices…and the only medical facilities are those provided by the Frontier Constabulary outposts…and by [non-certified] Chinese practitioners.”
The Wa did, however, send three representatives from their “states,” as their fiefdoms were called, to the committee’s hearings in Pyin Oo Lwin—and those talks revealed the gap between the Wa way of looking at life and the committee’s perception of it:
Do you want any sort of association with other people?
Hkun Sai [for the Wa]: We do not want to join anybody because in the past we have been very independent.
Sao NawHseng [for the Wa]: Wa are Wa and Shans are Shans. We would not like to go into the Federated Shan States.
What do you want the future to be in the Wa states?
Sao Maha [for the Wa]: We have not thought about that because we are very wild people. We never thought of the administrative future. We think only about ourselves.
Don’t you want education, clothing, good food, good houses, hospitals?
Sao Maha: We are very wild people and don’t appreciate all these things.
In retrospect, this exchange of views may appear almost farcical, but it nevertheless shows that the Wa did not think of themselves as citizens of Myanmar—and that was not going to change after independence in 1948.
Kuomintang, then Communist, Control
In the 1950s, most of the Wa Hills were occupied by renegade Nationalist Chinese Kuomintang forces that retreated across the border into Myanmar following their defeat by Mao Zedong’s Communists in the Chinese civil war. The Kuomintang established bases in the Wa Hills and in the mountains north and south of Kengtung, from where they tried on no less than seven occasions between 1950 and 1952 to invade Yunnan, but were repeatedly driven back to the Myanmar side of the border. The parts of the Wa Hills where the Kuomintang was not present were controlled by various local warlords.
The Kuomintang’s presence in northeastern Myanmar was a major reason why China decided to support the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in the early 1960s. Myanmar Communists in exile in China began surveying the border as early as 1963 to identify possible infiltration routes. On Jan. 1, 1968, the CPB—and the Chinese—made their move. The old Kuomintang bases were some of the first targets. And while the political commissars were Myanmar Communists, the foot soldiers were almost exclusively “volunteers” from China.
It was only when the CPB had captured the Wa Hills in the early 1970s that its “people’s army” began to consist of recruits from Myanmar. Before long, the bulk of the CPB’s fighting force was predominantly Wa. But China was still supplying the CPB troops with all their weapons and other equipment, which made them the most formidable rebel army in Myanmar.
By the mid-1970s, the CPB had established control over more than 20,000 square kilometers of territory in northeastern and eastern Shan State. Myanmar’s central authorities were as remote and alien as they had always been in regards to the Wa Hills. But it was also clear that there were severe frictions between the CPB’s ageing Bamar leadership and its mostly hill-tribe troops, who had little or no sympathy for communist ideals.
Mutiny and Ceasefire
In 1989, the tribesmen rose in mutiny and drove the old leaders into exile in China. But there is every reason to believe that the Chinese had a hand in the mutiny as well. Just a few months before it broke out, the CPB’s politburo had held a meeting and the then-chairman Thakin Ba Thein Tin, read out a message from the Chinese authorities. The entire CPB leadership had been offered retirement in China. It was clear that China no longer was interested in exporting revolution to Myanmar, but wanted to open the border for trade and exploit the natural resources in the frontier areas.
Thakin Ba Thein Tin was furious. “We have no desire to become revisionists,” he said, indicating that he considered the post-Mao leadership in China to be revisionist—which was enough for the Chinese to encourage the rank-and-file of the CPB to rise up in mutiny.
And so the UWSA was born. Almost immediately, the newly formed group entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar government, which allowed it to retain control of its area and its weaponry in exchange for not fighting the government’s army.
This led to the formation of the UWSA’s current territory, which it claims consists of 13,514 square miles (35,000 square kilometers), including new areas along the Thai border that were captured in the early 1990s. With a population of 400,000 and its own local administration, schools, hospitals and even a bank, this “mini-state” is almost unique in recent Asian history. The closest comparison would be to the parts of Sri Lanka that were ruled by the Liberation Tigers of Tamil Eelam (LTTE) until it was wiped out by a massive government offensive in 2009.
The currency used in the UWSA’s area is the Chinese yuan, and mobile telephones are connected to Chinese networks. Chinese is much more widely spoken than Myanmar. With Chinese assistance, the UWSA has also managed to build up an army that is both stronger and better equipped than the CPB ever was. Its arsenal includes Man-portable air-defense systems (MANPADS), a wide range of mortars and rocket launchers, and even light tanks and a few helicopters.
Recently, a helipad has been constructed at the UWSA’s Panghsang headquarters, with a sign outside saying, in Chinese, feijichang, or airport. Even more worrying, on Oct. 30 of last year, the local Myanmar intelligence office in the garrison town of Tang-yan sent a message to the regional command headquarters in Lashio saying that the UWSA was constructing a “radar and missile base” in its area.
The first location was supposed to be Mong Mau in the northern Wa Hills, but when the government found out about it, U Thein Zaw, the vice chairman of the Union Peace Working Committee, was sent to Panghsang to tell the Wa not to go ahead with their missile project. The UWSA leaders said that they wouldn’t—and changed the location to Wing Gao, closer to Panghsang.
The new facility is going to be built in partnership with a Chinese company called Liao Lian and equipment will be bought from China, Taiwan and Pakistan, the report asserts. It is not clear, however, what kind of missile it is, but given the fact that radars will be installed at the base, it is plausible to assume that it would be something more powerful than what the UWSA has in its current arsenal. The Myanmar-language report uses the term taweipyetonggyi, or “long-distance missile.”
So it is abundantly clear that the Wa have no intention of submitting to the authority of a country that they feel that they have never been part of. The Wa Hills have gone from being ruled by nobody to being occupied by the Kuomintang and then the CPB, and are now administered by the UWSA.
But what are the Chinese up to and why are they making sure the UWSA is armed to the teeth? The simple answer is that China does not actually want the UWSA to fight the Myanmar army, but would like to see it strong enough to deter any attack against it.
For China, the UWSA is a useful bargaining chip when Beijing wants to put pressure on the Myanmar government not to stray too close to the West, or to protect Chinese investment in the country. The latter concern became especially important after President U Thein Sein’s government decided in September 2011 to suspend the US$3.6 billion Myitsone hydroelectric dam project in Kachin State. China also has to deal with ongoing protests against a copper mine project in Letpadaung, which is a joint venture between the Chinese Wanbao Mining Copper company and the Union of Myanmar Economic Holdings.
In other words, any military action against the UWSA would pit the Myanmar army against China. The Wa leaders are always accompanied by Chinese intelligence officers, and it is no exaggeration to say the UWSA is an extension of China’s People’s Liberation Army.
So would the Myanmar army risk a conflict with the UWSA? Sri Lanka’s offensive against the LTTE was successful because the Tamil militants had nowhere to retreat to when they came under attack, whereas an attack on the UWSA would force tens of thousands of refugees into China, causing further frictions between Myanmar and its powerful northern neighbor. The UWSA’s MANPADS would also enable it to shoot down airplanes and helicopters.
At the same time, however, no government in Myanmar can tolerate a continuation of the present situation in northeastern Shan State: a pocket-state with its own army. But if the present government wants to succeed where all its predecessors have failed—to convince the Wa that their hills are indeed part of Myanmar—a different approach than the military option may be needed.
A divide-and-rule scheme, which seems to be what is in the offing, may also cause resentment and divisions that could result in an even messier situation than what we have now.
But before the end of the year, some action is bound to take place in the Wa Hills. And whatever shape it takes, it will be a much more serious challenge than any of the other ethnic conflicts that have been plaguing Myanmar for decades. It will involve an area never before controlled by any Myanmar government—and China.
This article first appeared in the June 2014 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.
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