Ethnic Leaders Cite Wa Prosperity in Calls for Federalism

By Lawi Weng 11 May 2015

RANGOON — The Panghsang summit, held last week to discuss the terms of the draft nationwide ceasefire agreement, appears to have hardened the resolve of the nation’s ethnic leaders to pursue a federal political settlement with the government.

Conversations in Mongla on Friday revealed that ethnic leaders were impressed with the infrastructure and utilities in Panghsang, the headquarters of the United Wa State Army (UWSA). On the way back back to their respective homes after the summit concluded on May 6, those that traveled to Wa territory told The Irrawaddy that the town’s development showed the need for greater local autonomy.

“We should not let this government run our region anymore,” said Nai Hong Sar Bong Khaing, a central committee member of the New Mon State Party (NMSP), told The Irrawaddy. “They are not working to develop our region, they are destroying our region. If we look at the Wa, this is an indication of what we could achieve if we were able to run our region.”

The UWSA, arising from the remnants of the Communist Party of Burma, negotiated a ceasefire with the central government in 1989. A notoriously well-armed and secretive organization, many of the ethnic leaders who traveled to Panghsang at the beginning of May were visiting the area for the first time.

Ethnic leaders said that one goal of holding the ceasefire agreement summit in Panghsang was to encourage the UWSA and the nearby Mongla rebels to participate in the ethnic politics. The Mongla army, another beneficiary of a longstanding peace with the central government, controls territory that has also benefited from infrastructure development, while other ethnic regions in the country have languished in the wake of recurrent conflicts with the Burma Army.

The UWSA claims that it completely eradicated opium production in Wa territory back in June 2005. Its senior leaders are believed to still be involved in the production and trafficking of methamphetamines, and the UWSA remains subject to a 2003 decision by the US Drug Enforcement Agency to list it as a trafficking organization.

Whatever the provenance of the UWSA’s wealth, it is clear that the region has rapidly modernized since the 1989 accord.

“If you traveled along the street from Panghsang to Mong Mao in the past, you only heard the bells around the necks of oxen pulling carts, and the only homes you saw were small bamboo huts,” Aung Myint, a UWSA spokesman, told The Irrawaddy in Panghsang. “But nowadays we all have cars for traveling. The things you can buy in Rangoon, you also can buy here. There is no difference. Today, our region is developed.”

Around Panghsang itself, fields that once cultivated a vast opium crop these days host rubber, tea and fruit plantations—a total of 250,000 acres of farmland in use, according to the UWSA Agriculture Minister Tax Kat, and a stark contrast to the largely small-scale, subsistence farming operations of central and southern Burma.

The UWSA is now preparing to fully pave all roads in the 39,000 square kilometers (15,000 square miles) of territory under its administration, a milestone it hopes to reach in time for the 30-year anniversary of its ceasefire agreement in 2019. According to UWSA leadership, the region hosts 400 schools, three cement factories, and eight hydropower dams which provide 24-hour electricity to the local population—almost unheard of in the rest of the country.

Ethnic leaders believe that the relative prosperity of the Wa territory is primarily the result of the UWSA’s control, rather than a product of 26 years of peace or the armed group’s earlier reliance on trafficking.

Maj-Gen Tar Jode Ja, the vice-chairman of the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), said that ethnic Palaung people in Burma’s north, by contrast, had suffered continuously from the Union government’s attempts at political control. The answer, in his eyes and in those of other ethnic leaders, lies in charter reform to devolve political power to ethnic minority areas.

“They are a greedy government,” he told The Irrawaddy. “They want to control everything, including the area under our control. They used their armed forces to attack us. Many people have paid with their lives because of their greed.”