All Quiet on the Wa Front?

By Seamus Martov 19 July 2013

Although open conflict between Myanmar’s central government and the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the country’s largest ethnic armed group, appears unlikely in the immediate future, Naypyitaw and the UWSA may be on a collision course over the latter’s push for a separate and autonomous (but not independent) state.

That demand, stemming from unhappiness over the fact that large parts of UWSA territory are not recognized as such under Myanmar’s 2008 Constitution, is just the latest source of tension between Naypyitaw and the Wa, who worry that they could be next in line for a Tatmadaw offensive, amid ongoing clashes between Myanmar’s armed forces and other armed ethnic groups in the region.

“The relationship between the UWSA and the central government is not what it used to be,” says veteran journalist Bertil Lintner, author of several books on Myanmar, referring to the cordial relations that existed between the UWSA and Myanmar’s former military rulers in the wake of the collapse of the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) in 1989.

A mutiny that year by the BCP’s rank-and-file — mostly ethnic Wa — against their predominantly Burman leaders resulted in the formation of the UWSA, which soon signed a ceasefire that granted it a high degree of autonomy. That agreement — which freed the Tatmadaw to concentrate its energies on containing insurgencies elsewhere — faced few serious strains until junta intelligence chief Gen Khin Nyunt was purged in 2004.

Relations have not really recovered since then, and have only deteriorated further in the two years since Myanmar made the transition to quasi-civilian rule, as a series of army offensives in the northern part of the country have brought renewed conflict to areas where, for most of the past two decades, an uneasy peace prevailed.

Although the fighting has so far most directly affected the Kachin and the Shan insurgent armies operating to the north and west of the UWSA’s main territory, centered at Panghsang on Myanmar’s border with China, clashes have come precariously close to the UWSA’s doorstep. That, says Lintner, is probably why the UWSA came to the aid of the Shan State Army-North several months ago to defend Loi Lan, a mountain that overlooks an important ferry crossing on the Thanlwin River seen as the “gateway to Panghsang.”

For the most part, however, the UWSA has avoided direct confrontation with Myanmar’s army. Even the 2009 Tatmadaw offensive against the Myanmar National Democracy Alliance Army (MNDAA) only briefly drew in the UWSA, despite the close ties between the two former BCP factions.

If the UWSA has been reluctant to go head-to-head with the Tatmadaw, it isn’t because it fears it can’t hold its own on the battlefield. As the largest group to emerge from the ashes of the BCP, it inherited most of the former communist army’s military hardware, including heavy artillery and gun factories. It is also estimated to have at least 20,000 troops, giving it a standing army larger than that of some European countries.

Where the UWSA is vulnerable, however, is in its relations with the world beyond Myanmar’s borders. Of all the country’s ethnic insurgent armies, the UWSA is the one most closely associated with the international drug trade. In January 2005, for instance, a grand jury in Brooklyn, New York, indicted eight of the UWSA’s top leaders, including its chief Bao Youxiang, on charges of heroin and amphetamine trafficking. The US government has also made no secret of its desire to prosecute Wa leaders for their involvement in one of the world’s most notorious narcotics operations.

Human rights groups have also had the UWSA in their sights for its forced mass relocation, between 1999 and 2002, of some 120,000 ethnic Wa villagers to an area along the Thai-Myanmar border — a process that also saw tens of thousands of Shan, Akha and Lahu pushed into northern Thailand to make way for the new arrivals. According to a 2005 report by New York-based Human Rights Watch, many died of hunger and other hardships because of the move. More recent reports by aid workers who have made clandestine visits to the area suggest that not much has improved in the decade since the move was completed.

It’s unclear exactly why the UWSA inflicted this ordeal on its own people, although it’s known that Myanmar’s former military regime encouraged the move as a way to counter the Shan State Army-South, then a non-ceasefire group that also fought the UWSA as recently as 2005. An even stronger motivating factor, however, may have been the UWSA’s desire to gain better access to its chief export market for methamphetamines, Thailand.

These days, however, the group adamantly denies that it is still in the drug business. “We, the UWSA, are wholeheartedly engaged in the fight against drug-dealing,” the group’s spokesperson, Aung Myint, recently told The Irrawaddy. “For seven years since 2005, there have been no poppy fields and no poppy plants in our region. This has finished. That’s why the world should recognize us,” he added.

But while much of the world continues to vilify the UWSA, the group is not completely without friends in foreign lands. In recent months, China has stepped up its efforts to reach out to the Wa leadership, even—if a report published by Jane’s Defence Weekly in late April is correct — adding substantially to the UWSA’s arsenal with the delivery earlier this year of several medium-transport helicopters armed with air-to-air missiles.

Although the UWSA and the Chinese embassy in Yangon both deny that the UWSA has received weapons from China, there is little doubt that Beijing —which once backed the BCP’s struggle against Myanmar’s central government — is keen to put its relationship with the UWSA on a firmer footing, for complex reasons.

One is that China has a strong interest in maintaining the status quo. “The Chinese don’t want another war on its borders,” says Lintner, noting that previous Tatmadaw offensives — against the MNDAA in 2009 and the Kachin Independence Army since June 2011 — sent thousands of refugees fleeing across the border into Yunnan Province.

Adding to Beijing’s nervousness about border stability is the poor health of UWSA leader Bao Youxiang, who has reportedly been suffering for years from a neurological illness related to eating uncooked meat. His death and the inevitable change in leadership will likely have a significant impact on how the group responds to pressure from Myanmar’s government.

But Beijing may also have other reasons for cozying up to the Wa. According to Lintner, “China, by arming the UWSA, is sending a strong message to Naypyitaw: ‘We are here, we are your neighbors, and we have the means to put pressure on you — so don’t play footsies with the Americans.’”

Lintner doubts, however, that China is interested in girding the UWSA for battle against the Tatmadaw — something that would not serve Beijing’s strategic interests in the country. “The arms shipments are meant as a deterrent, a show of force, not to be used in combat with the [Myanmar] army,” says Lintner.

While the UWSA leadership is undeniably close to China, however, those who know the Wa say they remain staunchly independent in their outlook. Aung Kyaw Zaw, the son of the late general turned BCP politburo member Kyaw Zaw, stayed with his Wa comrades for two years after his father and other Myanmar communist leaders fled into exile in China, giving him a unique insight into the thinking of the reclusive UWSA leadership.

Chinese may be the most prevalent language now spoken in the UWSA-administered area, and local rubber plantations and mining concessions may be run by Chinese businessmen, but the Wa do not see themselves as being beholden to the Chinese, says Aung Kyaw Zaw.

Instead, the Wa seem more determined than ever to stake a permanent claim to their own homeland. “We have our own people, language, traditions, culture and region. That’s why we don’t want to stay under Shan State,” says Aung Myint.

After more than two decades of de facto self-determination, the UWSA may feel that it’s ready for the real thing. Whether Naypyitaw agrees, however, is another matter. And if the Tatmadaw (which still has the ultimate say in these matters) decides it’s time to settle the issue once and for all, the UWSA may finally have a chance to put its much talked about, but rarely seen, arsenal to the test.

This story first appeared in the July 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.