Guest Column

Silence on Coup Makes Strategic Sense for Myanmar’s Wa

By Bertil Lintner 12 July 2021

While the whole country has risen in revolt against the Feb. 1 coup—at first peacefully and then more violently when the military began to open fire on the protesters—there is one part of Myanmar that appears to be unaffected by the nationwide turmoil: the Wa Hills of northeastern Shan State. Ethnic groups like the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) have provided shelter to activists who have fled urban areas and even trained some of them in guerrilla warfare. Other ethnic rebels have at least issued statements condemning Senior General Min Aung Hlaing’s power grab, often working together with civil society organizations. Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic army, the 20,000-30,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA), on the other hand, has remained conspicuously silent since the coup.

But that doesn’t mean that all Wa agree with the stance that the UWSA and its political wing, the United Wa State Party (UWSP), have taken. On March 25, 10 Wa civil society organizations, among them the Tang-yan Wa Youth Network, university students from the Wa Christian Fellowship and the Wa Women’s Network, sent an open letter to the UWSP/UWSA leadership urging them to say something about the killings and to publicize their stand on the movement for federal democracy. That hasn’t happened, though, and the issue at stake is the UWSA’s close relationship with the security services across the border in China. Those agencies do not want to get involved with any movement that wants to overthrow the coup-installed government in Naypyitaw—and the UWSA is an ally in China’s geostrategic quest for dominance in Myanmar and beyond. Put in plain words, China’s support for the UWSA gives Beijing leverage inside Myanmar, the only neighboring country that provides China with easy and convenient access to the Indian Ocean.

When Aung Min, then president’s office minister in the Thein Sein administration, visited Monywa, a town northwest of Mandalay, in November 2012 to meet local people protesting a controversial Chinese-backed copper mining project in the area, he openly admitted: “We are afraid of China…we don’t dare to have a row with [them]. If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume support to the communists, the economy in the border areas would backslide. So you’d better think seriously.” By “the communists” he clearly meant the UWSA and its allies, offshoots of the once China-supported Communist Party of Burma’s (CPB) powerful army, which collapsed after a mutiny among its hilltribe—mainly Wa—rank-and-file in 1989. And he was right. In fact, the UWSA, which like the old CPB is supported by China, has become even stronger and better equipped than the old party ever was.

The UWSA’s strength—and the scope of its arsenal—was demonstrated on April 17, 2019, when it celebrated the 30th anniversary of the mutiny against the elderly, orthodox Marxist-Leninist and mainly Burman leadership of the CPB. The CPB with its increasingly anachronistic policies had lost its importance to the Chinese, who are now more interested in exporting consumer goods than Maoist-style revolutions. The old CPB leaders were allowed to retire in China, and the UWSA and three other components of the erstwhile CPB were born. Those four former CPB forces also entered into ceasefire agreements with the then junta, the State Law and Order Restoration Council, which suited China’s interests as well.

On that day, a bit over two years ago, thousands of Wa soldiers in impeccable uniforms goose-stepped in perfect formation past the grandstand where their leaders stood at attention. Then came an impressive display of surface-to-air missiles, heavy artillery, mortars, rocket launchers, machine guns, assault rifles, armored personnel carriers and even a weaponized drone. Columns of civilians, mostly Wa tribesmen but also people from other ethnic groups from the over 30,000-square-km area that the UWSA controls along the Chinese border and in the south near Thailand, made their way to the parade grounds. Spectacular fireworks lit up the sky after dark and people cheered and danced through the night.

Needless to say, China’s security services do not want to see a war like the one the CPB once fought from the same areas. Such hostilities would mean instability in the border areas, a flood of refugees into China and a disruption of trade between the two countries. But China, almost the sole supplier of weaponry to the UWSA, wants it to be strong enough to deter the Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, from even trying to bring its base area under central control. As Aung Min inadvertently admitted, the UWSA has become exactly what the Chinese want: a useful bargaining chip when they want to put pressure on the Myanmar government to get economic concessions. Moreover, before the coup, China was also eager to prevent Myanmar from straying too close to the West. But that is hardly an issue today as the West has condemned the coup and imposed sanctions on the Tatmadaw and affiliated entities.

Today, after the coup, China wants to be seen as a moderating voice that, as Foreign Minister Wang Yi said at the opening of the 9th World Peace Forum in Beijing on July 3, is opposed to sanctions and other punitive measures and wants to see a solution to Myanmar’s current crisis “through internal dialogue and reconciliation.” Russia, the other main power that has come out against Western condemnation and sanctions in the wake of the coup, has adopted a similar view. Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov stated during a visit to Jakarta on July 6 that his country supported ASEAN’s five-point proposal for restoring “normalcy” to Myanmar, which includes “a constructive dialogue to find a peaceful solution” to the upheaval.

But Wang is not so naïve as to believe that such a dialogue leading to reconciliation is possible, and Lavrov, an experienced diplomat, must realize that ASEAN’s five-point proposal is a nonstarter. Support for ASEAN’s “peace plan”, however, serves as a convenient cover for protecting other interests and opposition to the West’s sanctions policy. For the Russians, it is a question of protecting lucrative arms sales to Myanmar and other economic interests, as well as gaining a new ally in a region where Moscow’s influence has waned since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. China’s long-term objectives go way beyond Russia’s, and access to the Indian Ocean is only one aspect of Beijing’s massive, all-encompassing and ultimately global Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) infrastructure project, which President Xi Jinping launched in 2013. Myanmar’s strategically important location between South and Southeast Asia is of utmost importance to China.

There is no doubt that the Wa’s dependence on China is real and overwhelming, militarily as well as economically. Apart from being equipped with Chinese-made weaponry, the Chinese yuan, not the Myanmar kyat, is the preferred currency in the area under UWSA control. People are connected to Chinese mobile phone and internet providers, and petrol and diesel come from China, as do medical supplies and most of the food. Furthermore—and this has escaped the attention of the outside world—the UWSA-controlled area is the only part of Myanmar where nearly everyone has been vaccinated against COVID-19. Supplies and even many of the medics administering the vaccine came from Yunnan, across the border.

Nonetheless, it would be a serious mistake to believe that the Wa are hapless Chinese minions and compliant pawns in Beijing’s quest for regional and ultimately global dominance. Many Wa I have met are aware that the Chinese feel superior to them and, in many instances, refer to them as erstwhile headhunters and therefore uncivilized savages. There could be as many as 600,000 Wa in Myanmar—no one knows for sure—and another 400,000 in China, where they are also recognized as an ethnic minority. But what little most Chinese outside Yunnan know about the Wa comes from a series of music videos in which young girls, accompanied by young men beating drums, shake their long hair back and forth. The girls are dressed in red woven skirts with some kind of pattern that looks like it could be of hilltribe origin, and the young men are bare-chested. The problem is that those skirts are much shorter than the sarongs Wa girls would normally wear, and no female living in the hills, where water is scarce, would have hair that long because it would be impossible to keep it clean. Besides, young Wa men these days would not go around dressed in little more than a loincloth, even when taking part in cultural events in their home villages.

Tellingly, these dances are not performed in a rural Wa setting but in purpose-built theaters in front of big audiences. The famous “Wa hair dancers” are, in fact, the daughters of city cadres who are of Wa, Chinese, or mixed Wa-Chinese ancestry. According to Swedish anthropologist and Wa expert Magnus Fiskesjö, the Chinese have created “an official socialist-era image of the Wa as a member of the happy family of nationalities within the Chinese nation: as exotic dancers full of primitive energy, now sanitized and harnessed under Communist Party guidance—the socialist-era version of Wa primitivity.”

In line with this thinking, ethnic theme parks have been established in several Chinese cities where one of the main attractions is “real Wa headhunters” performing exotic dances. Young Wa, because of their dark complexion, are hired to perform not only as wild Wa but, according to Fiskesjö, as Africans, New Zealand Maori and American Indians.

These performers are Wa from Yunnan or Myanmar who have migrated to Chinese cities to find work in factories, and take part in such spectacles to earn some extra money. But it is easy to imagine what the Wa dancers themselves think about their ethnicity and culture being exploited and, in effect, humiliated in this way.

No central or local Chinese authority ever controlled, or even showed interest in, the Wa-inhabited areas of southern Yunnan—not until the communist takeover in 1949. Remnants of the defeated Kuomintang (KMT), who had not been able to flee to Taiwan along with their supreme leader Chiang Kai-shek, retreated into those areas and, more importantly, the Wa Hills of Myanmar. Those hills were only nominally part of Myanmar; at that time, headhunting was part of the way of life there, along with local wars and feuds between different tribes and clans.

In the early 1950s, the communist Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) entered southern Yunnan to prevent the KMT from trying to achieve their stated objective, to “reconquer the Chinese mainland”. Hardly any Chinese had been there before, and the PLA as well as the KMT were seen as foreign forces, so people did not know what to expect and were afraid of them. But the PLA, which needed local support and knowledge of the terrain to be able to push the KMT back into Myanmar, treated the Wa rather leniently. The KMT, on the other hand, could be very rough in its behavior towards the Wa and other tribes in the frontier areas.

After a few years of tolerance—and as soon as the KMT threat had been eliminated—the Chinese authorities brought in an entirely new oppressive system aimed at “uprooting feudal superstition”, as the Chinese communist jargon went. Weapons in the possession of Wa tribesmen, who were used to being armed because they depended on hunting, were confiscated and, according to Fiskesjö, all headhunting paraphernalia was destroyed. Social institutions that were important in Wa society were disbanded. Drum-houses, the main meeting place in every Wa village, were torn down and the Wa’s log drums were thrown out or burned. Only a few survive in a few faraway museums, such as those on display at the Yunnan Nationalities University in Kunming, Yunnan’s provincial capital.

According to Fiskesjö: “Roadside a nog [head-container posts planted along the approach to a village] were destroyed or abandoned; the fortifications protecting villages were broken up and demolished. The major rituals of the past were abandoned. Chief ritualists and other community leaders were demoted, marginalized, or even persecuted.” Wa elders Fiskesjö spoke to during his research in the area in the 1990s regarded 1958 as the key watershed: “Since in that year the Chinese shifted policy from reconciliation to enforcement.” Even the Wa had to become Chinese communists and were herded into people’s communes.

Although this happened in the Wa-inhabited areas of Yunnan, the bitterness based on memories of that repression is deep on both sides of the border. That resentment, and unhappiness with the disgraceful way in which the Wa are being treated in China today, are consequences of a long-standing, strained relationship between these proud tribesmen—regardless of where they live—and the Han Chinese.

Since the 1989 mutiny, the UWSA has built up what amounts to a well-organized, de facto self-governing state between Myanmar and China with its own administrative offices, courts, hospitals and schools. It may be argued that a lot of the wealth that has made this possible comes from the trade in narcotics—first opium and heroin and then methamphetamine—and that is something the Wa leadership cannot hide or escape from. Today, other sources of income exist, such as tin and rare earth metals.

But the way forward, for the Wa and the rest of Myanmar, would have to take into account the unique history of the Wa, and the fact that they have never been ruled by any central authority. Before independence, colonial presence in the area was limited to occasional flag marches up to what the British perceived as the border with China. Then, in the 1950s and well into the 1960s, KMT warlords and local chieftains ruled the Wa Hills. That was the case until the early 1970s, when the CPB took over the entire border area, including the Wa Hills. And after the 1989 mutiny, of course, the UWSP/UWSA became the new governing body.

An enlightened and democratic Myanmar government could through wiser policies than those of the past integrate the Wa Hills with the rest of the country. But the possibility of that happening seems remote: the military, with its chauvinistic approach to ethnic minorities, remains in power in Naypyitaw, and the Chinese are not likely to abandon their strategically important grip over the UWSP/UWSA any time soon. Sadly, the Wa issue is more likely to continue to exist as one of many sources of despair in the seemingly never-ending Myanmar tragedy. But, at least, it deserves a better understanding than what has so far been the case both in Myanmar and internationally. The Wa may be Chinese puppets, but they are no Chinese stooges.

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