Myanmar’s Most Powerful Ethnic Army Reshuffles Leadership: What Does it Mean?

By The Irrawaddy 31 August 2022

The United Wa State Army (UWSA), Myanmar’s largest ethnic armed organization (EAO), has replaced its senior leadership in a surprise reshuffle. The UWSA controls its own territory – known as Wa State – in northern and southern Shan State and has an estimated 30,000 soldiers and a sophisticated arsenal of weapons, as well as maintaining close ties with China.

UWSA liaison officer Nyi Rang based in Shan State’s Lashio confirmed the shakeup of the leadership to The Irrawaddy.

“Many of the new leadership are middle-aged men,” he said, without providing further details.

The UWSA holds a parade in April 2019 to mark the 30th anniversary of its ceasefire with the Myanmar government. / The Irrawaddy

New leadership

The Irrawaddy has learned that 14 senior figures from the UWSA and its political wing the United Wa State Party (UWSP), who make up the government of Wa State, were replaced with middle-aged men in their 40s and 50s.

Bao Ai Kham, a son of long-time UWSP chairman and UWSA commander-in-chief Bao Youxiang, was promoted to become the UWSP’s deputy general secretary, succeeding his uncle Bao Youyi. Meanwhile, Bao Youxiang’s nephew Bao Ai Chan has been promoted to deputy commander-in-chief of the UWSA.

A source said: “According to the structure of the UWSA, the commander-in-chief is the highest position and that is held by Bao Youxiang. His deputy is Zhao Zhongtang, who has six or seven deputy chief of staffs under him, including Bao Ai Chan. But Bao Youxiang and Zhao Zhongtang are in their 70s. So Bao Ai Chan, a younger man, was promoted to be a deputy commander-in-chief of the UWSA alongside Zhao Zhongtang.”

Also in the reshuffle, Zhao Ai Nap Lai, a son of Zhao Nyi-Lai, the first general secretary of the UWSP, became the head of the politburo.

Bao Youyi, the elder brother of Bao Youxiang, has stepped down as the deputy general secretary of the UWSP. In 2018, during the third session of the Union Peace Conference in Naypyitaw, Bao Youyi fainted and was hospitalized. Myanmar military chief Senior-General Min Aung Hlaing visited him in hospital and personally served him a bowl of birds nest soup.

Most of the new leaders are well-educated with experience in military and administrative affairs, and can speak fluent Burmese as well as Mandarin, according to sources. Previous leaders only spoke Mandarin, as the UWSA’s territory in northern Shan State borders China.

One Myanmar political observer who wished to remain anonymous said: “The older people were replaced to pave the way for the younger generation to take over the leadership.”

Political analyst U Ye Htun from Shan State shares the same view. “When they [the senior UWSA leadership] were in the Communist Party of Burma, they saw the consequences of old leaders refusing to hand over power to the younger generation. Perhaps they have also taken a cue from Chinese leaders. Bao Youxiang and the others have been the leaders of the UWSA since they split from the Communist Party of Burma. So now they are making way for the younger generation.”

The UWSA and UWSP were established after ethnic Wa soldiers split from the Communist Party of Burma on April 17, 1989 and signed a ceasefire with the then military regime.

Since then, the UWSA has become the most powerful EAO in Myanmar. While it has maintained the ceasefire with successive governments, the UWSA refused to sign the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.

Wa State is officially classified in the 2008 military-drafted constitution as the Wa Self-Administered Region, also known as ‘Special Region 2’. Its capital is Panghsan, also known as Pangkham, and the region is made up of Mongmao, Monglin and Mongpauk districts and Pangkham Special Township, an area covering around 1,500 square kilometers that the UWSA refers to as northern Wa State.

During the 1990s, the UWSA expanded its territory to include Monghsat District on the border with Thailand in southern Shan State, with the agreement of the then junta, and around 80,000 to 100,000 ethnic Wa resettled there.

Now the district is designated as southern Wa State, known to the UWSA as Military Region 171, and some 9,000 UWSA fighters are stationed there.

However, the 2008 Constitution does not recognize the area as being part of the official Wa Self-Administered Region, although the UWSA wants the southern Shan State territory to be combined with the northern areas and recognized officially as Wa State. The UWSP refers to itself as the ‘Wa State Government’.

How will the reshuffle affect the UWSA?

Despite the shakeup, the UWSA’s policies will not change much, said a Myanmar political observer, citing the fact that many senior Wa leaders including Bao Youxiang, Zhao Zhongtang, UWSP vice chairmen Xiao Mingliang and Zhao Guo An and Wai Xiaokan, the commander of Military Region 171, are staying in their positions.

“As they are remaining in their positions, there won’t be immediate policy changes. But there might be some changes in the way the UWSA engages with other EAOs,” he said.

The current junta has agreed in principle to the UWSP’s demand that the Wa region be upgraded to a “self-administered state”.

UWSA leaders are likely to stick to the line they announced in a statement on May 31 after they met junta chief Min Aung Hlaing, in which they described the post-coup crisis as an internal issue of the Bamar ethnic people, the majority ethnic group in Myanmar, and said it would not take sides as it does not want to see its involvement causing further conflict.

The UWSA holds a parade in April 2019 to mark the 30th anniversary of its ceasefire with the Myanmar government. / The Irrawaddy

The military regime had feared that the UWSA would join forces with the parallel National Unity Government, like other powerful EAOs such as the Kachin Independence Army and the Karen National Liberation Army have done.

UWSA leaders said also that Wa State will not secede from the Union, but the UWSA will manage their state independently except for national defense and diplomatic relations.

An ethnic Wa man who lives outside Wa State said that what kind of leadership is provided is more important than who is in charge.

“From a political perspective, the UWSA leadership still lack political policies that can widen the horizons of Wa people, and contribute more to intellectual and ideological development rather than material development. Much remains to be done in terms of the economy. All the large businesses in Wa State are linked with UWSA leaders. Ordinary Wa people can only engage in small-scale businesses,” he said.