United Wa State Army Denies Anti-Aircraft Purchase

By May Kha & Lawi Weng 20 November 2014

RANGOON — Burma’s largest ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), has denied reports that it recently acquired a “large number” of Chinese-manufactured anti-aircraft weapons.

A Nov. 18 report by Jane’s Defence Weekly stated that the UWSA had come into possession of the third-generation FN-6 shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile launchers.

“We are not people who wanted to go to war,” Aung Myint, a UWSA spokesperson told The Irrawaddy on Thursday. “But, this foreign media has reported several times about we bought anti-aircraft weapons and even that we bought aircraft. And so, many people in our country have exaggerated about our people, and say we are people who wanted to go war. Because of this, we have a big name in the country.”

“They [foreign media] need to make sure what we have when they report about it. Of course, we bought aircraft—and two submarines. But there are no engines inside them. We put those machines beside the road to grow gardens in them,” he said.

Aung Myint’s comments refer to the UWSA’s earlier denials about the extent of its military hardware.

In April 2013, Jane’s Information Group reported that the Burmese government and ethnic minority sources believed China had sold helicopter gunships to Wa rebels, a claim promptly denied by the UWSA and Beijing.

The following month, Burma’s state-run Myanma Ahlin newspaper revealed that the UWSA had purchased an unspecified “water craft”, a Fokker aircraft and a helicopter—all engineless—for the ostensible purpose of placing them in a Shan State national park to “raise general knowledge among local people.”

Despite the denials, in August 2013 an ethnic Kachin military leader reported seeing two helicopters at a UWSA base near the army’s headquarters in the Shan State town of Pangshang, a claim corroborated by several other sources and leaked documents. Aung Myint told media at the time that the claim was groundless, as no one in the UWSA was capable of flying a helicopter.

In February of this year, however, a senior officer of the Karen National Liberation Army told The Irrawaddy after a visit to Pangshang that UWSA officials had informed him of the selection of 30 soldiers to receive pilot training in China.

The UWSA remained steadfast in their denial of the Jane’s Defence Weekly report on Thursday.

“Some people talked about us, saying that we bought the best anti-aircraft weapons from China,” Aung Myint said. “But, if we bought it, where do we use it and for what? It is very surprising to hear the report from foreign media, but I have nothing to say. We have heard about aircraft, which fly in the sky, but we have not considered how to use them and get them to fly.”

The Jane’s Defence Weekly report was based on a “reliable military source in northeastern Shan State,” according to the publication.

The FN-6 surface-to-air missile launcher is effective at ranges of up to 3,500 metres (11,500 feet) and is primarily used against helicopters. According to Jane’s, the HN-6 constitutes a “significant improvement over the first-generation Chinese HN-5,” a weapon it says the UWSA has fielded since 2001.

The UWSA is the largest ethnic armed group in Burma, with an estimated 20,000 well-equipped fighters and an extensive cache of advanced weaponry. The group renewed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in 2012, after rejecting a proposal to serve as a border guard force under the command of the Burmese military.

The UWSA has asked the Burmese government several times to establish a Wa State out of a swathe of territory in north-eastern Shan State with a predominantly Wa population.

Currently, the military-backed 2008 Constitution allows the Wa to operate an autonomous zone comprising six townships between the Salween River and the Chinese border, substantially smaller than the proposed Wa State and the UWSA’s actual field of operations.

Additional reporting by Sean Gleeson.