In the wake of senior delegations from the Wa Self-Administered Division and the Mongla group completing their trip to Naypyidaw to meet with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and Snr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing in late July, it looks increasingly likely that the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Mongla will participate in and support the 21st Century Panglong Conference scheduled for late August.
As the strongest ethnic armed group in the country, the UWSA is an inescapable issue in Burma’s peace process. Without the UWSA, any peace agreement the government can achieve will be incomplete and unsustainable. Compared to other ethnic armed groups, such as the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), the UWSA’s position is less known to the outside world. This is not only because of its isolated nature but also because of its notoriety for drug-trafficking and associated US sanctions. Nevertheless, an accurate understanding of the UWSA’s positions and aspirations is indispensable for the success of the Panglong Conference and peace process.
The most striking feature of the UWSA’s relations with Burma is that the armed group never has and does not currently seek independence. In meetings with government officials and in private policy discussions, the UWSA always sees itself as part of the nation and hopes to remain so. This is fundamentally different from some other groups’ long-standing aspirations for independence. On the other side of the same coin, however, is that the level of autonomy that the UWSA seeks from the central government is exceedingly high. In the UWSA’s view, unlike in Kachin State, Burma’s central government has never exercised effective control of the Wa region throughout the past four decades and the region has always administered itself politically, economically and militarily. The UWSA boasts better economic and infrastructure development in the region than the rest of the country—a status and authority that the UWSA has no intention of relinquishing to the government.
The UWSA seeks statehood—an upgrade from its current status of a Self-Administered Division to an ethnic state—that is believed to convey a greater sense of political legitimacy, autonomy and economic rights. It would also be a political symbol of the central government’s recognition of the unique status of the UWSA and of a much coveted leadership status among other ethnic armed groups. However, from the UWSA’s perspective, “statehood” is desirable but not indispensable. It would like to have the issue up for negotiation but it is unlikely to be a deal-breaker.
For the Wa, however, statehood is closely linked with something that is a deal-breaker, and that is the issue of territory. The UWSA currently holds two pieces of territory. One is centered on its capital Panghsang, its traditional northern base adjacent to China. The second is its 171 Military Region bordering Thailand, which the UWSA has only occupied since the mid-1990s after it defeated the Shan-Chinese drug kingpin Khun Sa in cooperation with the Burma Army.
The 2008 military-drafted Constitution stipulates that the Wa Self-Administered Division consists only of six townships in the north, leaving the status of the 171 Military Region open to question. The UWSA views its southern base as compensation by the military government for its bloodshed and hard-fought battles against Khun Sa, although such an arrangement does not explicitly exist in writing and has been challenged by the Burmese military in recent years. From the UWSA’s perspective, one possibility is that the southern base could become the special region of a new Wa State. Otherwise, unless the government generously compensates the UWSA with a new chunk of territory in the north, it will not willingly give up the southern base.
The UWSA did not sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) under former President U Thein Sein’s government in 2015. Despite rampant suspicion about its intentions, the UWSA’s logic is in fact quite simple: in its view, there has never been a conflict between the government and the UWSA since 1989. Since there has been no “fire”, why would they need a “ceasefire”? The UWSA believes the term “ceasefire agreement” conveys a grave mischaracterization of the relationship between the UWSA and the government and would feel more comfortable with the term “peace”.
The UWSA’s lack of enthusiasm about the NCA is also due to a perception of fickleness and inconsistency on the part of Burma’s government. The UWSA emphasizes the three-level peace agreement it had been negotiating with the previous government before the NCA was proposed. Since it had completed the first two levels of peace agreements (state and union), the UWSA believes that joining a ceasefire dialogue represents a regression. For the hardliners within the UWSA, because the government quietly abandoned the three-level peace framework without tying up loose ends or offering a proper explanation, it could also abandon any future agreement it negotiates. Whether Suu Kyi adopts the same terminology of “nationwide ceasefire” will greatly affect UWSA’s participation in the Panglong conference.
Needless to say, the UWSA acknowledges that Suu Kyi and her National League for Democracy (NLD) represent a victory for democracy and a greater hope that the government will be just, fair and equal toward ethnic minorities. However, whether the military will fully cooperate with her on the issue of peace remains to be seen, especially given its likely impact on the military’s political capital and legitimacy. The UWSA, however, is also not alone in harboring doubts about Suu Kyi’s fairness toward ethnic minorities, as she herself is an ethnic Burman.
The UWSA enjoys a tacit leadership status among ethnic armed groups in northern Burma. It has maintained a traditional, de facto alliance with the Mongla due to geographical proximity and historical affinity. The two closely coordinate their positions on many issues, including the peace process. Both have supported the armed groups that were excluded from signing the NCA with the previous administration: the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army and Arakan Army. By hosting two summits in Panghsang in 2015, the UWSA rallied some support and consolidated its authority among the ethnic groups. The KIA is perhaps the only group that sees the UWSA as a peer. Although neither acknowledges it publicly, they do see each other both as partners and competitors. While the UWSA sometimes criticizes certain factions inside the KIA as too compromising, some in the KIA regard the UWSA as too content with the status quo and lacking a strategic vision for the future.
Does the UWSA have a vision for the future? It does, although the vision hinges more on the status quo. More than anything, the UWSA aims to maintain what it currently enjoys: a high degree of autonomy. It wishes to obtain statehood, but will not go to war if that wish is denied. However, any expectation for the UWSA to give up its current territory or territorial authority without a fight is delusional.
The UWSA’s economic future appears limited: its territory does not produce jade or much timber. Plummeting international commodity prices has discouraged the relatively nascent mining industry. Most of the group’s economic ties are with neighboring China and Thailand. There are plenty of illicit economic activities going on, including drug-trafficking and casinos, although the locals don’t seem to hold as high a moral standard as outsiders. The UWSA leaders seek ways to develop and diversify their economy, although compromise with the government on the peace process does not appear to be a likely choice.
Much of the group’s economic development and trade relations are fueled by China. Among the ethnic groups in Burma, the UWSA appears to enjoy the closest ties and most sympathy from China. Some of the UWSA’s leaders were young intellectuals from China who joined the Burmese Communist Party during the Cultural Revolution and fought the war to establish the Wa state. The Chinese border port of Meng’a (across the river from Panghsang) remains highly active as a trading center between Yunnan and the Wa region. Chinese crop substitution programs are also rather prevalent in UWSA-controlled territories.
China does not wish to see a conflict between the UWSA and the government, and will put pressure on both sides to refrain from such a disastrous scenario. However, the historical, emotional and substantive ties between China and the UWSA will form the foundation of any assessment about the UWSA’s positions and strategies. China will not push the UWSA against the peace process, but China will not push it to embrace any settlement it is unwilling to accept either. In the views of both China and UWSA, such a settlement would be fragile, unsustainable and plant the seeds for future instability.
Yun Sun is a senior associate at Henry L. Stimson Center, a global security think tank based in Washington DC, and a nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution. She has been working on Myanmar since 2008.
This is an updated version of this article, first published on August 10, 2016.