At last week’s press conference, Myanmar’s junta spokesman Major General Zaw Min Tun said the regime agrees in principle to United Wa State Party (UWSP) demands that the Wa region be upgraded to a “self-administered state”.
“In principle, we have a general policy to grant higher status regarding the Wa. We have also agreed in principle to grant greater autonomy in other regions and states,” he told the junta-controlled media.
The spokesman said every step possible will be taken to meet the demand of the Wa within the framework for the establishment of a multiparty federal democracy after a parliamentary election next year.
It was unclear if this meant the junta agreed to allow the Wa to create an “autonomous state”.
The Wa hills in northern Shan State were never ruled by any central authority. Even during the British colonial era, the government’s presence in the Wa hills was very limited.
On April 17, 1989, ethnic Wa soldiers split from the Communist Party of Burma and established the United Wa State Army and UWSP and signed a ceasefire with the then military regime.
The UWSA has since become the most powerful ethnic armed group in Myanmar. It signed a ceasefire with the then regime but it refused to sign the 2015 Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement.
The UWSA is headquartered in Panghsan, also known as Pangkham, and is made up of Mongmao, Monglin and Mongpauk districts and Pangkham special township — areas which the UWSA refers to as northern Wa State covering around 1,500 square kilometers.
The military-drafted 2008 Constitution officially classifies Wa state as the Wa Self-Administered Division.
The UWSA later expanded to Monghsat District on the Thai border in the 1990s with the agreement of the military’s State Law and Order Restoration Council, allowing around 80,000 to 100,000 ethnic Wa to be resettled there.
The area is referred to as southern Wa State, designated by the UWSA as the Military Region 171 where some 9,000 Wa soldiers are stationed. But the 2008 Constitution does not recognize the area as part of the official Wa Self-Administered Division.
The UWSA wants its northern and southern states to be combined and recognized officially as Wa State. In its statement, it calls itself the Wa State Government.
The Irrawaddy was unable to contact the UWSA office in Lashio for a comment.
Human rights lawyer U Aung Htoo, the founder of the Legal Aid Network, said: “The UWSA is demanding statehood to gain legitimacy. Statehood would contribute to its external relations, including with China.”
Shan ethnic political observer Khun Sai said the Wa’s demand for statehood is fine as long as it complies with human rights and democratic norms.
“It is reasonable that every ethnic group would want a self-administered state. I have no objection to the Wa achieving statehood while it follows human and democratic rights,” he said.
It is, however, unlikely that the Wa will achieve statehood with ease, he said. “There is still no democratically elected government in place yet. Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun’s statement that the regime agrees in principle to grant statehood to the Wa is similar to what I say. I also agree it in principle. But observers think statehood will not be easy to achieve because the military will follow the 2008 Constitution,” he added.
An ethnic affairs analyst said it is difficult for the Wa to gain statehood under the 2008 Constitution.
Article 53 states that the delineation of territorial boundary must be approved by more than half of an area’s electorate, more than 75 percent of state parliamentarians, the Union parliament and president.
“The Wa will face problems if they are to be granted statehood under the 2008 Constitution. A majority will be needed in a referendum across Shan State. The Wa already have autonomy and the military has no authority there. But under the 2008 Constitution, it will be difficult for Wa to achieve statehood,” said an analyst.
U Aung Htoo said the regime promised future statehood for Wa to appease the UWSP, which is enduring a political crisis.
“Maj-Gen Zaw Min Tun said discussions will follow an election next year. A new parliament will reactivate the 2008 Constitution and it is unlikely autonomous statehood can be established under the current constitution.”
Zaw Min Tun promised that agreements reached with the regime now will be implemented when a new parliament is elected.
“The prime minister, the State Administration Council chairman and the commander-in-chief are the same person [Min Aung Hlaing]. Agreements with him will be respected. The military has already agreed the rights of ethnic minorities at the next parliament. It will grant those rights,” he said, adding that new lawmakers are unlikely to object.
Any agreement reached with the regime is invalid under international law, said human rights lawyer U Aung Htoo.
“A UN fact-finding mission found strong evidence that the military has committed war crimes and the military is facing lawsuits at international courts. Any agreement made with a criminal regime is not legal,” he said.
After the talks with Min Aung Hlaing, the UWSP said it will not leave Myanmar but retain autonomy in all areas, except national defense and diplomatic affairs.
An ethnic affairs analyst in Myanmar said: “They know Myanmar’s military cannot fulfill its promises. So the statement says the Wa will maintain the status quo to prevent things from getting worse. That means they will not fight if the regime does not attack them.”