Commentary

Shadowy Drug Lord Wei Hsueh-kang’s Influence Still Felt in Myanmar’s Wa Region and Beyond

By Aung Zaw 9 March 2020

His Burmese name is U Sein Win, though he doesn’t speak Burmese. His primary language is Chinese—a colloquial, unpolished variety of the Yunnan dialect.

One of Southeast Asia’s most notorious drug lords, he has spent the past decade lying low somewhere along the Myanmar-China border. And he recently held a meeting with Myanmar officials in Kunming, China.

Wei Hsueh-kang (as he is more commonly referred to), now in his 70s, may be shadowy, but he is far from unknown to the powers that be in Myanmar and elsewhere in Southeast Asia. Speaking through an interpreter, the fugitive drug lord, who presides over a vast business empire, asked Myanmar peace officials in December to convey to State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi an invitation to visit Panghsang, the headquarters of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in the Wa Self-Administered Zone in northern Shan State.

He also promised the Myanmar delegates that a peace deal could be agreed between the central government and the Wa leaders if the State Counselor accepted the invitation and visited the Wa region. Surprised to see him sitting in the room together with the other top Wa leaders, the Myanmar peace negotiators said his unexpected presence made for an awkward meeting, adding that his authority could clearly be felt in the room. They noticed that Bao Youyi, the No. 2 in the UWSA leadership, politely prepared a chair for Wei, a sign of his influence and status as a member of the UWSA’s politburo.

Leaders of the United Wa State Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army-NDAA (Mongla) with State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Naypyitaw in July 2016. / Myanmar News Agency

Recalling the conversation and the body language of those in the room, one of the officials from Naypyitaw later noted, “Wei Hsueh-kang holds the key [in Wa region].” Moreover, the Myanmar delegates learned that Wei likes to stay up-to-date on economic issues—he raised the subject of Myanmar’s currency crisis last year—as well as developments in the peace process.

Before the Myanmar officials left the room, Wei made sure that his invitation to Daw Aung San Suu Kyi was understood, and promised that a peace deal could be reached.

Commenting on Wei’s influence over the UWSA, one seasoned Shan observer remarked with a chuckle, “He has a remote control.”

It has been speculated that the Wa want to strike their own bilateral peace deal with the government and military in Naypyitaw, a thought that leaves many groups on the northern border with China—the Wa’s allies and rivals alike—anxious.

The Wa and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) are the most powerful armed groups in the north, and key players in the peace process, but regard each other with suspicion.

If the Wa were to enter a peace deal with the Myanmar government, the ethnic coalition in the north could collapse. The Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) comprises seven members: the UWSA, KIA, National Democratic Alliance Army, Shan State Progressive Party, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army and Arakan Army. The Wa is the most powerful among them.

The US State Department’s announcement in 2009 of a reward for information leading to Wei Hsueh-kang’s arrest.

The Wei brothers 

Wei is the most prominent of three brothers. The eldest, Hsueh-long, is believed to have retired, leaving only Hsueh-kang and Hsueh-yin still active.

According to veteran journalist Bertil Lintner, who has written several books on Myanmar and the illicit trade in Shan State, the Wei brothers “were engaged in both espionage and opium trading.”

The Wei brothers were connected with the Kuomintang-CIA spy network along the Yunnan frontier until the Burmese communists drove them out in the 1970s, Lintner notes in his book “Burma In Revolt: Opium and Insurgency Since 1948.”

Wei Hsueh-kang subsequently joined the late drug lord Khun Sa’s Mong Tai Army (MTA), and apparently became treasurer to Khun Sa, who would later briefly detain Wei.

After being released by Khun Sa, Wei fled to Thailand and later traveled to Taiwan. In Thailand, after splitting with Khun Sa, he and his brothers set up a heroin empire along the Thai border with Myanmar and made a fortune. He was also allegedly involved in killing some of Khun Sa’s men in a revenge hit in northern Thailand.

In 1986, Wei was arrested and detained in Thailand. He was sentenced to death but managed to escape and never returned to the country. In Thai he is known as Prasit Chiwinnitipanya, but his Thai nationality was eventually revoked. Since 1993, the US has offered a US$2 million (2.7 billion kyats, at today’s rate) bounty for information leading to his capture or death, as a heroin trafficker.

In 1989, when the Wa rebels reached a ceasefire deal with the Myanmar junta, then known as the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC), Wei returned to Panghsang. He bankrolled the Wa leadership, who at that time were cash-strapped and looking for assistance to rebuild the Wa region and their army, to the tune of several million dollars.

Indeed, Wei was one of the founders of the UWSA and became one of its most prominent politburo members. One seasoned observer described him as the Wa’s “ATM machine”.

At one time, Wei served as a commander in the UWSA and helped Myanmar troops to attack the stronghold of Khun Sa, who finally surrendered to the junta in 1996. Wei was allowed to take control of that MTA area.

In any case, the truce with the regime gave the Wa and other ethnic militias operating in the area, including Kokang insurgents, the opportunity to develop one of the largest drug-running operations in Southeast Asia.

The Myanmar military’s spy intelligence agency issued ID cards for Wa leaders but also provided protection for drug lords. “It is clear that the drug lords in the northeast are enjoying protection from the highest level of Burma’s military establishment, and not just from some corrupt local commanders,” Lintner wrote.

The UWSA’s 30th anniversary parade in Panghsan. / Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

Business empire

In 1998, nine years after the Wa leaders signed a truce with the SLORC, Wei founded the Hong Pang Group based in Panghsang with revenues from the drug trade.

The company invested in construction, agriculture, gems and minerals, petroleum, electronics and communications, distilleries and department stores. Hong Pang Group opened offices in Yangon, Mandalay, Lashio, Tachilek and Mawlamyine. Hong Pang in fact served as the UWSA’s commercial wing, growing into not only one of the biggest conglomerates in Myanmar, but also one of the biggest money-laundering operations in Southeast Asia.

Hong Pang’s numerous subsidiaries run gem, jewelry and mining companies in Shan and Kachin states, as well as overseas, particularly in Hong Kong. The Hong Pang mining company is still listed on the US Treasury Department’s list of Specially Designated Narcotics Traffickers.

In 2012, the group was renamed Thawda Win Co. Ltd, and it remains involved in several projects in Myanmar. The company’s income also supports the UWSA’s operations in Panghsang. One of the projects currently being undertaken by the company is the Taung Gyi-Meikktila-Tachilek Highway.

Other businesses run by Wa leaders and tycoons include banks and airlines. The US Treasury designated Myanmar May Flower Bank, founded in 1994, as a primary money-laundering concern and government authorities revoked the bank’s license in 2005 following a laundering probe. Drug traffickers close to the UWSA also acquired Yangon Airways. The carrier was placed on the Specially Designated Nationals and Blocked Persons list compiled by the US Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control

A Global Witness investigative report published in 2015 revealed how the families of notorious figures including former dictators and ministers in the former government are major players in the jade trade.

According to the Global Witness report, “US-sanctioned drug lord Wei Hsueh Kang plays a dominant role through a web of front companies, while Myanmar’s army is helping itself to a gigantic slice of the pie via its own conglomerates and an elaborate extortion racket run by officers in Kachin State.”

Global Witness put the value of Myanmar’s jade production as high as US$31 billion in 2014 alone. This figure equates to nearly half of the entire country’s GDP, and over 46 times national spending on health, yet the local population sees little benefit.

It said, “Wei is the architect of a methamphetamine epidemic that has ripped through Southeast Asia, and is the subject of sanctions and a US$2 million bounty from the US government.”

Knowing that he is wanted by the US and Thailand, Wei spends most of his time in China and along the Myanmar border. He doesn’t allow his photos to be published; books published last year to commemorate the Wa’s 30th anniversary do not contain any images of him. 

Top Wa leaders including UWSA chairman Bao Youxiang maintain warm relations with Wei, but Wa commanders in the north are known to dislike him. That may be the reason he doesn’t spend much time at Wa headquarters.

His influence stretches beyond Panghsang; Wei has set up businesses in China and has some political sway in Beijing. Wa sources in Panghsang told The Irrawaddy that Wei has strong connections with a number of senior Chinese officials; among those with whom has been linked in the past are Zhou Yongkang, a former senior leader of the Communist Party of China who in 2015 was sacked and convicted of a series of corruption charges including bribery and abuse of power, and sentenced to death. Zhou also served as head of China’s security services including police, paramilitary and intelligence organs known to Wei.

During his heyday, Wei managed to buy weapons and ammunition from his friendly Chinese source. Informed sources said that until five years ago, when Zhou was removed from office, the Wa had received over 2,000 truckloads of military hardware and ammunition from China.

While it is anyone’s guess precisely how much wealth Wei has amassed from illicit and other businesses, he is unquestionably a member of Southeast Asia’s club of undeclared billionaire drug lord/tycoons.

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