The Cards are in the Wa Army’s Hands

By Lawi Weng 10 April 2019

If you were to ask what a fruitful ceasefire agreement in Myanmar could lead to, the government would point to the Wa Special Region 2, a part of northern Shan State which has seen rapid development under the control of the United Wa State Army (UWSA). But though the region’s development may make the central government look good, the large arsenal of modern, sophisticated weaponry which the UWSA holds remains an ever-looming threat for Naypyitaw.

Next Wednesday, the UWSA will celebrate the success of a 30-year ceasefire at Panghsang, the capital of Wa Special Region, with an event which will be attended by key ethnic armed leaders from across the country and to which top representatives of the Myanmar government and military, or Tatmadaw, have been invited. It’s likely the government and military representatives will be squirming in their seats during the UWSA’s military parade which will make up an important feature at the event.

A pre-event promotional video shared by the UWSA on their official social media page on Saturday, shows a large army with plenty of heavy weaponry, including anti-aircraft weapons. Nyi Rang, the UWSA spokesperson based in Lashio in northern Shan State, told The Irrawaddy that all celebration attendees will be shown a display of the UWSA’s different types of weapons during the military parade.

The UWSA signed a ceasefire with the central government in 1989 after splitting from the Burma Communist Party. The Wa region is a good example of an area which has developed more than other ethnic areas under ceasefire conditions. Throughout the 30-years of peace, no bouts of conflict have broken out there and this stands out from other areas ruled by ethnic armed groups where ceasefires have failed time and time again, marring development and bringing only poverty and grief to the locals.

The government’s ceasefire with the powerful Kachin Independence Army (KIA) collapsed after 17 years, leading to fighting which forced 100,000 locals to flee their homes. Why, then, has the military resolutely held fire from the UWSA for 30 years?

The UWSA is the largest ethnic armed force in Myanmar, with an estimated headcount of more than 30,000 troops. The UWSA has enough manpower and weapons to shake peace right across northern Shan State if the Myanmar military ever decided to stoke tensions with them. The Myanmar army knows this. The first reason why government troops never attack the UWSA but rather treat them with so much respect is because of their strong army of troops and the large supply of sophisticated weapons at their fingertips.

The UWSA is the one of only two ethnic armed groups to produce arms and they sell them to other ethnic rebel groups which are in conflict with the Myanmar military. Importantly, the group has different types of anti-aircraft weapons, including the FN-6 shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile launcher. Though they have never revealed where they buy the missiles, they likely buy them from China to defend their territory in the case of an attack by the military’s air force. While attacks on rebel groups by Myanmar’s air force were uncommon prior to the political reforms rolled out since 2010, their strategies have since changed. Ethnic rebels have never been afraid to confront the military’s ground forces, but they have never had a means of defending themselves against attacks from the air.

The military usually launches attacks from the air when their ground troops have suffered high causalities. Last year, for example, the KIA lost 15 bases when the military launched a major offensive in their territory in Kachin State. Only after one month of fighting, when they brought in the air force, did it manage to take the key strategic hill post of Gideon.

The UWSA doesn’t sell anti-aircraft weapons to other ethnic armed groups and this is another key reason why the military steers clear of them.

Several sources from different ethnic armed groups said that their rebel groups, including the KIA, have requested to buy anti-aircraft from the UWSA. Those leaders believe that the day they have their anti-aircraft weapons will be the day the Myanmar military loses their power.

In a photo posted on his Facebook page last year, Brig-Gen Nyo Tun Aung, who is the Arakan Army’s (AA’s) deputy chief-of-staff, was seen with an FN-6 shoulder-mounted surface-to-air missile launcher. Since the photo was posted, many are surprised that the AA hasn’t used anti-aircraft weapons and probably doesn’t own any either. The UWSA’s spokesperson Nyi Rang said that it is his group’s policy not to sell anti-aircraft weaponry to other ethnic armed groups, although it is not unusual for them to see the weapons.

The Wa capital, a model city

For almost one year, the UWSA has been carrying out preparations for the 30-year celebration and military parade, including the construction of a high-quality concrete road throughout the region to improve access for event attendees.

In 2015 I visited Panghsang near the China-Myanmar border where the UWSA have their headquarters, and saw the ongoing road construction project. The Wa leaders vowed to me that it would be finished in time for the celebration. Now, Panghsang resembles Chinese towns on the other side of the border.

So how can the UWSA’s region manage to be more advanced in development without the help of the central government? The UWSA give security guarantees to Chinese companies wanting to invest there. And as a peaceful region, investors are more keen to set up their businesses in the area.

When fighting escalated in 2017 and 2018 in the KIA-controlled border towns of Laiza and Maijayang, for example, the many Chinese businesses operating there packed up and left.

Money and guns used as a buffer to war

UWSA leaders have expressed concern over the military attacks on other ethnic regions and rebel-controlled areas. They worry that the military will one day come for them, erasing decades of efforts in development. As much as the military knows a war with the UWSA would require major efforts to counteract their huge numbers and sophisticated weaponry, the rebel group too makes every effort to avoid outbreaks of conflict with government troops. These are major reasons for 30 years of peace found in the Wa region.

Though the UWSA has never publicly announced that they provide finance to other ethnic rebel armed groups, the Myanmar government has accused the UWSA of helping Kokang rebels attack Luakai in 2015. Many believe the UWSA also provides finance to the Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) and the AA. When I spoke to TNLA chairperson Tar Aike Phone in 2014, he told me that his organization gets income from six organizations though he refused to reveal who they are.

The UWSA has very close relationships with the most recently formed armed groups, the TNLA, the AA, and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) which is an alliance of armed groups. No one knows what was discussed when they held closed-door meetings with the three groups during a 2015 ethnic summit in Panghsang. Bao Youxiang, the UWSA chairperson has described the Myanmar military as a wild tiger which tries to kill others. He said his organization does not accept their actions and said they should end ongoing conflict with the other ethnic armed groups.

The UWSA leads the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), a seven-member alliance of ethnic armed groups which acts as a representative body for political negotiations with the central government. The UWSA must be upset by attacks on the AA which is a member of the FPNCC. Perhaps AA leaders, along with those from other rebel groups, are waiting for the day the UWSA decides to start selling modern anti-aircraft weapons to them with a view to taking down the mighty military.