After the Fanfare, Back to Basics—The UWSA and Ceasefire Realities
By Andrew Ong 13 May 2019
As the dust settles from the marching soldiers and dancing students at the United Wa State Army’s (UWSA’S) 30th anniversary peace celebrations in Panghsang, capital of the Wa Self-Administered Zone in eastern Shan State, images of wealth and might have spread across the country. Weapons and ethnic garb were paraded, speeches made, troops inspected and representatives from the government and other ethnic armed groups showed up to celebrate. The fireworks and festivities did not mask the fact that this was a show of strength and autonomy, reminding us that nothing has changed in the peace process.
Events like these, in Wa political culture, are a moment for building ties and demonstrating solidarity, creating circles of mutual obligation and respect. The Myanmar government was represented by U Thein Zaw of the Peace Commission and Union Minister U Thein Swe, a cordial gesture, though no significant commanders of the Myanmar military, or Tatmadaw, joined. While some reported “quiet complaints” or “disappointment” by UWSA officials about the “low-level” attendees, top UWSA leaders will be unsurprised by their counterparts’ staying away; they understand the optics of attendance. Chinese envoy Sun Guoxiang’s appearance was an important reassurance.
The rumour mill was also at it again, listing and relisting the UWSA’s supposed arsenal by make and model—missiles, helicopters, armoured vehicles, artillery, and small arms—not helped by the UWSA’s decision to parade a set of unmanned drones. While some commentators have finally dropped the allegations of armed UWSA helicopters, others continue to rehash the same rumour. These lists of weaponry give the appearance of understanding, yet are filled with misinformation on UWSA internal politics and succession. Another report, perhaps misled by the jingoistic slogans and banners, wrongly branded the UWSA “communist.”
To be sure, development has been grand and rapid, even from three years ago. The Wa have rebuilt a striking conference hall, a stadium refurbished with running track and grandstand, constructed new hotels, and repaved and painted roads through the entire town—a calibrated demonstration showcasing what autonomy and revenue can provide. Former Communist Party of Burma (CPB) comrades have been impressed. Arakan Army commander Tun Mrat Naing took the opportunity to validate this armed autonomy as a model for other ethnic armed groups.
There are constant questions about what they want, but UWSA leaders have been consistent in their overall stance: they have rejected any calls for independence and secession from the very beginning; they reiterate that the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) is meaningless because they already have a ceasefire; they were not involved in the initial drafting of the NCA and cannot now sign it in its present form; they seek an autonomous Wa State and political dialogue; they do not trust the Myanmar military and its “contradictions” with the NLD government; they do not wish to fight, but will maintain the “armed self-defence” status quo.
None of their positions have substantially changed over the last 30 years, only new mechanisms (the NCA), actors (the National League for Democracy), and alliances like the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) have been introduced.
In interviews the UWSA are always polite and diplomatic, proffering niceties about their openness to discussions with Myanmar counterparts (even if they ultimately send low-ranking officials), and sympathy for Daw Aung San Suu Kyi’s circumstances, occasionally adding harsher statements. Like parades, interviews and speeches can be rigid and staged. Formalities obscure “true” intentions, and sometimes more careful reading between the lines is required.
The 2017 Documents
It’s instructive to revisit the three documents the UWSA released back in April 2017 when they formed the FPNCC with six other ethnic armed groups. These details and specific political demands, a rare public dissemination of information by the UWSA, are often glossed over by observers analysing the feasibility of larger calls for autonomy or a state. But these documents offer instead a careful insight into some of the UWSA’s specific concerns, and a possible way to sequence them.
The three documents were the FPNCC’s “General Principles,” an amended NCA, and a document detailing the “Process of Negotiations.” They were drafted in Chinese, translated into Burmese and then into English, giving much room for imprecision. The “General Principles” made demands for constitutional change, stripping away the military’s parliamentary seats, the creation of autonomous ethnic “regions,” “prefectures,” and “states” based on population, and an almost implausibly “high degree of autonomy” in legislation, economy, natural resources, border and customs, currency, and even foreign relations. Some demands were so unreasonable that they were probably just attempts to establish a strong starting position.
The “Process of Negotiations” recounted being “humiliated” by the military, which allegedly went back on promises to consider the proposal. Private negotiations were rejected publicly without first informing the UWSA, leading them to declare: “the government of Myanmar has always shown no respect to ethnic minorities. This mentality has been vividly and thoroughly presented through this event.”
The most revealing document was the UWSA’s proposed amendments to the NCA. It stated that “political content was unduly emphasised in the original NCA,” with little substantive detail as to how it would be enforced. It proposed a proper mapping out of ceasefire boundaries with landmarks, no fortifications and artillery to be deployed within a stipulated range of this boundary. It insisted on more freedom of movement—no illegal checkpoints or taxation—and restrictions on movement, with troops required to issue notification about traveling through designated areas.
It also proposed the Myanmar government remove designations of “terrorist group” from signatories, refrain from prosecuting members of ethnic armed groups retroactively, and make requests that foreign countries revoke sanctions on UWSA leaders. It specifically called for Chinese and UN ceasefire monitors, and stipulated that transgressing the ceasefire boundaries trigger immediate termination. It added that non-government organizations (NGOs) and humanitarian aid should be allowed into areas controlled by ethnic armed groups. Most importantly, it set out terms for political dialogue and stipulated that a failure to hold political dialogue within 90 days would immediately void the agreement. These were all additions to the original NCA text.
The documents reveal at least four key insights. First, that if any ceasefire is to be considered, the Wa want specific mechanisms to enforce it and terminate it when it fails, setting out clear boundaries within which the build-up of weapons is prohibited. These are the proposals of a group that has fought wars and maintained truces, insisting on the details of on-the-ground enforcement. They want accountability and consequences for military actions on both sides.
Second, they want meaningful international involvement in NCA implementation, with monitoring access and humanitarian aid, not for the material benefits it brings, but for the witness role of an external audience, and the connections it enables.
Third, the UWSA wants a ceasefire with momentum leading to political dialogue—not a mere symbol of peace trotted out for the international community to applaud. The UWSA was willing in 2017, at least on paper, to engage the terms of the NCA, but with a promise for political dialogue within 90 days. Now, however, sentiment appears to have hardened in the opposite direction—political dialogue first, then a signed agreement.
Finally, they want the easing of legal and physical obstacles to their participation in the national economy and beyond. The UWSA has asked for identity cards to be issued to their people, less checkpoints and taxes on the flow of goods. At present, all minerals and rubber produced in the Wa region are sold to China, construction materials and household products come from across the border. These gestures will be taken as a test of the government’s sincerity in integrating them into the Union.
Astute commentators have suggested different possible paths for the UWSA: waiting for the constitutional amendment process of the NLD to unfold, going along slowly with the NCA process, gradually developingbetter ties between the UWSA and the military (which is not impossible), or insisting on elaborate and specific political dialogue before any agreement. There are obvious problems—while narcotics trafficking and the status of South Wa are clear difficulties going forward, another issue is that the six townships and two sub-townships demarcated as Wa Self-Administered Division under the 2008 Constitution are not the same as the areas de facto controlled by the UWSA. UWSA-controlled areas include Mong Pawk and exclude Hopang, requiring constitutional amendment to reflect ground realities.
Developing better ties is surely the place to start. This may take the form of informal government visits to build relationships and not to make demands, but demonstrate a genuine desire to understand and govern its border areas. Some observers, overly dramatic about the UWSA being “protected” by China or being its proxy, ignore the basic fact that the Myanmar government and military has done little to bring them into the Union, aside from personal business collaborations between leaders. The recent introduction of Mytel mobile network coverage in the Wa region is one way in which infrastructural connections can draw an autonomous region closer into the fold. Government support for Myanmar language education in the Wa region is another avenue the UWSA has previously shown interest in. Easing movement through checkpoints, facilitating private bus and taxi companies travelling across the Salween (or Thanlwin) River, are all moves that the UWSA leadership notices.
Alternative pathways should be opened and brokers sought, aware of the sensitivities on both sides. While the UWSA invited foreign journalists, ambassadors, and development officials to the anniversary celebrations, the government refused to grant travel permission. This policy of isolating the UWSA from the international community has not worked for decades, it only strengthens UWSA reliance on shadowy routes into Laos, Thailand and China. Assistance provided by the international community during the period of opium substitution pales in comparison to other UWSA sources of income, its denial does not weaken them. Cutting off the UWSA is counter-productive for Myanmar and the US, as Bertil Lintner argues also in a new USIP report. Isolation denies UWSA exposure to alternative (non-Chinese) perspectives on politics and peace, weakening the prospects of broadening perspectives and finding common ground.
Developing the political capacities of the UWSA would be an important outcome of such exposure. These are central to peace negotiations, as the incongruence of the NCA amendments have shown. The Myanmar government’s and military’s strategy of urging the UWSA to sign the ceasefire without first supporting, or allowing others to support capacity building, is simply self-defeating. Few of the top politburo leaders speak Burmese, let alone are able to hold technical discussions about political arrangements and sector working groups. To eventually be able to integrate the Wa region into the Union, their administration would also have to match up with the rest of the country. At present, the UWSA certainly could not run a state-level parliament or draft legislation compatible with Union-level laws. They would hardly be able to host elections, foster meaningful alternative voices from civil society, or align customs regulations with Myanmar immigration. For entities like the Joint Peace Fund to support NCA signatories more than non-signatories, excluding groups that make up 80 percent of ethnic armed group strength, is a serious oversight.
It’s clear that the status quo suits the UWSA for now, even if they are constantly concerned about the nature of their relationship with China. Attempts to isolate the UWSA has not worked for three decades, and appealing to them now to sign the NCA, without any other trust-building gestures, will not work. Progress will require studying up on UWSA specific local level demands, its capacities, and political culture, and gradually building integrative ties through mutual demonstrations of sincerity. Failing which, parades of drones and menacing sniper platoons will continue for years to come.
Andrew Ong is a postdoctoral fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from Harvard University.
You may also like these stories: