The Rule of the Wa

By Lawi Weng 2 March 2017

RANGOON — The United Wa State Army (UWSA) is leading the call to shun the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) after hosting a three-day meeting of seven ethnic armed groups in Panghsang, capital of the Wa region in eastern Shan State, to discuss the peace process.

The UWSA has put itself forward to head a political team tasked with negotiating with the central government.

But observers of ethnic politics in Burma worry about the precariousness of the UWSA’s position; they fear that opposition to the NCA could plunge Shan State into conflict with the Burma Army and force the usually peaceful UWSA onto the frontline.

The National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA) attended the summit in Panghsang.

Many of the groups, as NCA non-signatories, have no chance to participate in the government’s Union Peace Conference slated to take place later this month.

These ethnic armed groups, at the head of which are the Wa, feel they should establish a new political ground and refuse to accept the current framework of the NCA.

In the past, the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) —comprised of non-signatories of the NCA—has always been the main ethnic armed bloc to engage in political dialogue with the government, but within the NCA framework.

Based on the Chinese border in eastern Shan State, the UWSA and their political arm, the United Wa State Party (UWSP), is Burma’s largest non-state military group.

The Wa successfully built their own “statelet” of businesses and institutions and enjoy an unparalleled independence from the central government.

The UWSA refused to sign the NCA, arguing that they already held a bipartisan ceasefire agreement with the government and had not clashed in decades.

The neighboring NDAA also refused to sign the NCA and the pair of armed groups formed an alliance—sharing both a border and the same political strategy of non-interference.

The Wa usually steer clear of ethnic politics. But sources say that the UWSA fear a Burma Army invasion of their enclave as the government launches ever more aggressive attacks on other ethnic areas of Shan State.

Some sources suggest that the UWSA are preparing their 30,000 troops for action.

New Alliances

Although it was the third summit organized by the UWSA since 2015, last week’s announcement was the first major takeaway—seven armed groups agreed to move away from the NCA and toward other forms of political dialogue.

The UWSA has always been a strong armed force but not a strong political force. Leaders have wanted an ethnic alliance, but it seems, not the responsibility of leading that alliance.

The UWSA has its roots in the Communist Party of Burma, so the KIA and other ethnic armed groups have been known to distance themselves from what they see as a communist organization.

In 2014, the UNFC moved to form a federal army, but the bloc could not obtain funding despite attempts to tap the US and Japan. Some member groups suggested getting the budget from the UWSA.

The UWSA wanted to act as chairman of the army in return for funding. Members of the bloc, particularly the KIA, could not accept the “communist” UWSA heading the army so the plan fell through.

Since the National League for Democracy took power after elections last year, the Burma Army has launched a string of offensives against ethnic armed groups in Kachin and Shan states. Fighting has been particularly intense in Shan State near the Chinese border.

This has led ethnic armed groups, and in particular the KIA, to feel that they should rely on each other more to combat Burma Army offensives. Perhaps the Shan ethnic armed groups could come together as one powerful group under the Wa.

Groups neighboring the Wa include the NDAA, SSPP, TNLA, KIA, and the MNDAA. The UWSA must understand that with the support of all these neighbors, the enclave’s trade routes would be more diverse and they could move away from their much noted reliance on China.