Myanmar’s Wa Rebels Procure a Helicopter: What’s Next?  

By Aung Zaw 28 February 2020

Myanmar’s rebel Wa Army this week confirmed it has purchased a civilian helicopter, making the militarily powerful ethnic insurgent group based near the Chinese border the first rebel group in the country to possess one. So what’s next?

Senior officials of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) said the helicopter arrived via the Mekong River and has been flying since December.

Wa leaders have been tight-lipped about where they bought the helicopter, but news reports indicate it was purchased from China.

One seasoned observer evaded the question when asked whether China was the most likely source of the helicopter, given that the country is the main supplier of the Wa’s weapons and ammunition. “It could be from Laos or elsewhere—or even from the Thai market,” he answered. Well, who would buy this rubbish? The source is obvious.

The United Wa State Army displays its weaponry at a parade to mark the 30th anniversary of the group’s founding, in Panghsang in April 2019. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

 As soon as it arrived, Wa officers began flying the helicopter between the group’s headquarters in Wa Region’s Panghsang, and Mong Pauk located to the south. The helicopter also transports Wa leaders between China and the Wa headquarters. The light, four-seater civilian helicopter will greatly reduce travel time in the Wa region, which is the size of Belgium. Panghsang reportedly has three helipads.

In 2014, The Irrawaddy broke the news that the UWSA had sent 30 officers to receive aviation and pilot training in China amid speculation that the Wa army had acquired military helicopters. So it is safe to say that this new helicopter was ordered and delivered from China.

 U Nyi Rang, the UWSA’s liaison officer, confirmed that the Wa acquired a four-seater helicopter, adding that it was purchased late last year and already in use. He denied speculation that the group’s latest acquisition would be used for military purposes, insisting it was bought for “personal and leisure use.” We know Wa leaders are wealthy—one Wa leader keeps several dozen boxes stuffed with US currency in one of his mansions in Panghsang, according to visiting guests to whom he showed it off. “There are more,” he reportedly boasted in Chinese.

 It seems the Wa leaders will be leaving their cherished SUVs in their garages, now that they can simply hop in a helicopter and take in Panghsang’s rising skyline from above.

All of which begs the question… What do Myanmar’s military leaders have to say about all of this?

Tea plantations in Mong Mao Township in the Wa Self-Administered Zone / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

It is believed that military leaders are aware of the arrival of the helicopter in the Wa territory. The news no doubt irritates them, but they have limited power to intervene in the acquisition. And after all, the Wa have described it as a “civilian helicopter”.

The Myanmar military has been upgrading its air defenses since the early 2000s, adding early warning, radar and anti-aircraft systems throughout the country, and is known to be updating its defenses in the northeast.

 High-ranking military officers told this publication last year that if any unauthorized and unregistered aircraft enter Myanmar’s airspace, the military has the capacity to shoot it down. So is this particular helicopter registered in Myanmar? And if not, then where?

 Where are the helicopter gunships?

Certainly, it has been reported in the past—both by intelligence monitor Jane’s Information Group as well as The Irrawaddy—that parties in China (not necessarily the central government in Beijing) have allegedly sold helicopter gunships to the Wa rebels.

“If you buy missiles, you can hide them, but if you buy helicopters or aircraft, you have to fly them—you can’t hide them,” an observer familiar with Wa region and warfare there noted, adding that previous reports of helicopter purchases were pure speculation, and likely fantasy.

 U Nyi Rang said this is the first time the UWSA has bought a private helicopter, contradicting the previous reports. As early as 2013, Jane’s Information Group claimed that China delivered several Mil Mi-17 “Hip” medium-transport helicopters armed with TY-90 air-to-air missiles to the Wa insurgents.

 Quoting a Wa rebel source, the Jane’s report said “the Mi-17s reached the Wa-administered area by flying across the Mekong River from Lao rather than direct from China.” But if this is true, why didn’t the Myanmar military shoot them down once they reached Myanmar’s airspace?

United Wa State Army troops at a parade to mark the 30th anniversary of the group’s founding, in Panghsang in April 2019. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

In 2015, U Aung Myint, then UWSA spokesman, lashed out at foreign media, challenging journalists “to make sure what we have” before reporting on it.

Adopting a sarcastic tone, he told an Irrawaddy reporter visiting Panghsang, “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.”

It was a museum, insisted Wa tribesmen—who were once known as headhunters—claiming they bought broken-down helicopters and even a ship, “So we could build a museum to show to our Wa kids.”

Bemused reporters were allowed to visit the open-air site near the Mong Pauk Valley to see the run-down relics—the place has become a popular destination for families out on weekend trips with their children. It was a clever strategy to counter the media reports of the purchase of helicopter gunships.

But in the years since then, who knew the Wa were still planning to purchase a helicopter?

 Small airfields 

Since last year, intelligence reports have suggested the Wa are building a small airfield between Mong Mao and Panghsang. Mong Mao is the second-largest city in Wa territory. This project is believed to be ongoing and few visitors are allowed to see it.

It is also believed that a small airfield has been built in the southern Wa region near the BP-1 (Boundary Pillar #1) checkpoint on the Thai border opposite Chiang Mai’s Chiangdao district.

However, last year visitors were alarmed to see heavy earth-moving machinery and a long flattened dirt road. Wa officials told visitors this was for a housing project.

Learning of the project, Myanmar military officers went to meet Wa leaders and requested they stop the work. In the past, any suspicions that the Wa might be building an airfield in their region would prompt immediate requests from the Myanmar army and officials involved in peace talks that the work be halted.

The UWSA has 30,000 soldiers and 20,000 auxiliary troops, making it one of the strongest ethnic armies in Myanmar. Wa leaders, who previously ran one of the largest narcotics and methamphetamine trafficking businesses in Southeast Asia, are not short of cash.

Wa leaders want to equip their forces with even more sophisticated weapons. And they also benefit from supplying the domestic arms market, which is thriving as Myanmar slips into more intense armed conflict and chaos in the ethnic regions.

Several ethnic groups buy arms and ammunition from the Wa.

A view of downtown Panghsang, the Wa capital, in April 2019. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

A veteran ethnic leader who controls a sizable army of his own told me that the Wa’s annual show of force and military parade at their headquarters in Panghsang—which in the past has included missiles, drones and several other types of sophisticated weaponry—are “not only to show off, but also to market weapons to the domestic market.”

“Missiles, drones and sniper [rifles]—we all want to buy them,” he said. And besides, he added, “We can buy them on credit.”

“The more conflict we have, the greater the fortune they can make,” he said with a grin.

 Chinese technicians welcome!

 Last year, when journalists and visitors traveled to Wa headquarters, they were not allowed to visit military camps and bases in the Wa region. Requests to see such sites were denied. But we saw several Chinese technicians and military advisers. This is nothing new. In the 1970s, China sent military advisers to work with the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) along the border to topple Myanmar’s socialist government.

 The CPB set up its headquarters in the Wa Hills in the early 1970s and recruited ethnic Wa, who became the bulk of the CPB’s fighting force. Following a mutiny in 1989, the Wa tribesmen became masters of their own territory.

The CPB is gone but the Chinese remain, looking to strengthen their friendship and cooperation with the Wa.

Now, Chinese technicians have been invited to provide advanced training in the production of artillery and other weapons. They have also hired Chinese military drone specialists. Now the Wa will need aviation specialists from China.

In recent years, as the region’s prosperity grew, the Wa leaders began to think about acquiring sophisticated military drones and helicopters. It appears they have done just that.

According to Asia Times, the UWSA’s arsenal includes new batches of basic infantry systems first fielded in the CPB era: light and heavy machine guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars, and recoilless rifles. But there are other entirely new systems and these include more modern Chinese infantry weapons such as the QBZ-95 assault rifle, which was only adopted in bulk by the People’s Liberation Army in the early 2000s. The new QBZ-95 has been acquired to supplement locally produced Wa copies of the Chinese T-81 assault rifle. Modern Chinese CS/LS06 9mm sub-machine guns and M-99 12.7mm anti-materiel rifles also mark new additions to the Wa arsenal, Asia Times reported. The Wa also produce 122-mm howitzers in their own factories.

Facebook user Yex Nang Song Nyi Nyi offers a glimpse into a mysterious park in Wa Special Region, where children can explore retired aircraft. / Yex Nang Song Nyi Nyi / Facebook

 The UWSA has also installed an air defense system, which incorporates radar stations and MANPADS (man-portable air-defense systems), and has bought anti-tank missiles. According to an Asia Times article published last year, “The acquisition of new tactical trucks and, more strikingly, China’s Xinxing (New Star) wheeled armored personnel carriers (APCs) have given a new boost to infantry mobility.”

 Indeed, the UWSA now routinely hires Chinese military advisers, many of them retired defense industry employees. There is no shortage of Chinese investors flocking into Wa territory.

As for the Myanmar military, it has said it tolerates the Wa’s muscle-flexing for the sake of peace

 It is believed that some former Chinese officials who fled Chinese President Xi Jinping’s anti-corruption crackdown have taken refuge in Wa territory. They have reportedly set up new businesses and forged business ties with local Wa and Chinese businessmen. Informed sources say Russian arms dealers make frequent visits to Wa territory.

With the arrival of a new toy in Panghsang—whether it’s for leisure or personal transport purposes—Wa senior leaders’ schedules will be full, and they will have an opportunity to get their SUVs serviced.

Other ethnic armed groups will look on—in admiration or envy—as the Wa leaders fly around the Wa Self-Administered Region in their four-seater civilian helicopter. Myanmar’s generals will also be watching.

 Aung Zaw is the founding editor-in-chief of The Irrawaddy.

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