Bangkok Wants Wa Army Bases Withdrawn From Thai Territory

By Saw Yan Naing 31 May 2016

Thai military officials have asked their Burma Army counterparts to help in convincing a powerful ethnic Wa armed group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), to withdraw its bases on the Thai-Burma border, where some are on Thai territory.

The Thai authorities made the appeal during a meeting between Thai and Burmese border security officials held in the Thai border town of Mae Sai, which sits adjacent Burma’s Tachileik town, on Monday, according to sources close to both the Thai and Burmese militaries.

The request comes just a few days after the Burma Army chief, Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, visited the Thai capital of Bangkok on Thursday, when he met with top-ranking Thai military brass including junta leader Gen. Prayuth Chan-Ocha, who is also the country’s prime minister.

During a meeting with the Thai prime minister, Min Aung Hlaing said: “Illicit drug trafficking can affect all the countries in the region; cooperation is necessary to ensure that the armed groups relying on such drug trafficking do not exist.”

Prayuth agreed to working together on this point.

Min Aung Hlaing, however, did not mention the UWSA, which reportedly relies heavily on drug trafficking and the border trade for funding. The UWSA is estimated to have up to 30,000 armed soldiers, approximately 10,000 of whom are based in southern Shan State along the border with Chiang Mai province in northern Thailand.  Formed of remnants of the defunct Communist Party of Burma (CPB), the UWSA and Burma’s former junta government reached a ceasefire agreement in 1989 that has held strong since.

The Burma military representatives told the delegation from the Thai military in Mae Sai that they would report the proposal to higher officials, according to Burmese media outlet Network Media Group, quoting Thai intelligence sources in Mae Sai.

The UWSA bases that the Thai delegation wants removed are in Chiang Dao district in Chiang Mai province and in Pai district in Mae Hong Son province, both in northern Thailand, according to the Thai military sources.

More than a dozen UWSA bases are in southern Shan State near or across the Thai border. Other UWSA bases are also reportedly on Thai soil in Mae Hong Son province as well as Mae Sai and Mae Ai districts in Chiang Mai province.

However, a military source who is close to both Burmese authorities and the UWSA in Mae Sai told The Irrawaddy that he did not think the UWSA would voluntarily withdraw their bases on the Thai border, something the Burma Army has requested that they do several times in the past to no avail.

“They [UWSA] were asked [by the Burma Army] to withdraw their bases in the past. But they didn’t care and nothing happened to them,” said the source, who spoke on condition of anonymity for security reasons.

However, he said Burma Army units in Mongton and Mongsat regions in southern Shan State had been bolstering their military installations in the days since Min Aung Hlaing returned from his recent visit to Thailand.

“[The Burma Army] has been fortifying their bases as if they are preparing for war. They’ve built walls and fenced in their outposts with barbed wire. They have deployed more troops and ammunition. This started just after Min Aung Hlaing’s visit [to Thailand],” said the source.

“I think they would like to cut off communications between the UWSA’s northern and southern units,” he added.

The Wa control two noncontiguous territories in Shan State, the other being the Wa Special Region bordering China and comprising the townships of Hopang, Mongma, Panwai, Panghsang, Narphan and Metman.

The border security meeting in Mae Sai was attended by 25 members of the Burmese military, led by Lt-Col Aung Myint Oo, and 47 members of the Thai military, led by Col. Prapat Found Suwan.