Wa Rebels Defy Govt Order, Reopen Drug-Linked Trade Hub in Shan State

By Saw Yan Naing 6 January 2015

CHIANG MAI, Thailand — The United Wa State Army (UWSA), Burma’s biggest ethnic rebel group, has recently reopened Popakyen trading hub in Mong Hsat Township, located in southeastern Shan State close to the Burma-Thai border, local sources have said.

Burmese authorities ordered the shutdown of the trade station in October after a large drug haul was seized nearby, but the heavily-armed rebels now appear to be defying the order and have deployed troops in the area since late December to assert control, according to residents.

“They [the UWSA] sort of challenged the Burmese authorities. They ignored the order and reopened the base. They deployed their troops for security. They want to show that no one can influence the businesses that belong to them,” said a Shan businessman based in Tachilek, a border town located across from Mae Sai, a border crossing in northern Thailand.

“They [Wa soldiers] seem they are ready to fight if the Burmese army start it. It is like they want to test the Burmese army,” said the man, who requested anonymity due to sensitivity of discussing the UWSA’s dealings.

Popakyen is a trade station located some 73 km (44 miles) northwest of Tachilek and functions as a hub for cross-border trade controlled by the UWSA. Goods going to and coming from Thailand are traded in the small town, which has road links to Tachilek and Mae Sai.

Tachilek is one of Burma’s largest border trade crossings. Illicit trade coming from Shan State is rampant and murders, arrests and drug seizures are a common occurrence. In July last year, Burmese police seized more than US$2.3 million worth of opium and several automatic weapons in Tachileik.

The businessman said the Wa rebels were aggressively asserting their control over the area in Mong Hsat Township, adding that they also grabbed land for the trade area from local residents and killed a man in December who claimed to own land that the rebels had seized.

“They shot dead the man in a restaurant in the center of Tachilek in public, but nobody dared to say a word,” he said. “All incidents such as the death … and land confiscation by the UWSA troops were reported to respective local authorities. But no actions are taken. We can’t rely on them [authorities].”

Local residents confirmed they reported the incidents to the police and local lawmakers, including those belonging to the opposition parties of the National League for Democracy (NLD) and the Shan Nationalities Development Party (SNDP).

Thar Gyi, a SNDP lawmaker in the Shan State legislature who is based in Tachilek, declined to confirm the incidents had been reported to lawmakers when contacted by The Irrawaddy.

Another lawmaker, who declined to be named or have his party identified, said he recently visited the Popakyen trading post area and saw the UWSA preparing for a resumption of trade.

“There are no big trading activities there yet, but I saw some Wa soldiers repairing and rebuilding their shops and buildings,” he said.

For many years, the UWSA has been linked to rampant opium, heroin and methamphetamine trade that flourishes in Shan State. The illicit drugs are trafficked into China and northern Thailand, from where they are distributed to the rest of the region.

The UWSA were allowed to operate the Popakyen trading area after renewing a bilateral ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in December 2011. Much of Mong Hsat Township is controlled by the Burma Army and the UWSA opened a liaison office in Mong Hsat town following the ceasefire.

Following the seizure in Mong Hsat of a large drug haul hidden in a 10-wheel trick in October, authorities and the Burma Army enforced a crackdown on the rebels’ activities and Popakyen was shut down.

The UWSA is the largest ethnic rebel army in Burma with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 fighters. The group has acquired heavy Chinese weaponry and is believed to be in the possession of surface-to-air missiles, armed personnel carriers and possibly helicopters.

The group controls a large zone called Special Region 2 along the border with China and gains funding from operating casinos, rubber plantations, cross-border trade and, most importantly, large-scale illicit drug trafficking.