Guest Column

The UWSA and the Risks Within Burma’s Political Landscape

By Joe Kumbun 30 May 2017

The United Wa State Army (UWSA) plays a significant role in the political spectrum in Burma, highlighted by pressure placed on the group’s delegates not to sign the nationwide ceasefire agreement (NCA) in the 21st Century Panglong peace conference, and the recent series of ethnic conferences led by the UWSA in its enclave of Panghsang. The group and its alliance were invited to participate in the opening of the second session of the Union Peace Conference, demonstrating that State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi wanted to portray an atmosphere of all-inclusiveness at the event.

In fact, the recent involvement of the UWSA in Burma’s peace process can be understood skeptically as being a calculated decision. If the government and military cannot pave the way toward fruitful and timely negotiations, the UWSA could potentially induce unprecedented political risk in the country through the intensified pursuit of the following courses of action.

Claiming Territory as a State

The UWSA has claimed it officially recognizes its territory as a state since former President U Thein Sein’s tenure. It has controlled the territories referred to by the government as “Special Region No. 2 in Shan State,” while the UWSA refers to the area as Wa State. On January 1, 2009, the UWSA announced its territory as the Wa State Government Special Administrative Region. Yet the 2008 Constitution officially classifies this territory as the Wa Self-Administered Division.

Sam Khun, a spokesperson for the UWSA’s political wing, the United Wa State Party, emphasized to The Irrawaddy in 2013 that the group was asking for state autonomy, though the government had given them a Wa-run administrative region. Many said that the UWSA initially brought their proposal to address the issue in the first-round of the 21st Century Panglong peace conference held in 2016. However, before addressing the proposal, they walked out of the conference, citing government mismanagement.

The UWSA’s claim may bring about grievances from the government, military and other ethnic armed groups with which they are not currently allied.

Rejection of the NCA

The UWSA have indicated that they believe the peace process with which the government, military and other ethnic armed groups deal will be stalled and prolonged. They also have been excluded from the political talks, particularly in the initial stages of the NCA process.

In February, the UWSA hosted representatives of six other ethnic armed groups in its Panghsang headquarters for a meeting on the peace process. After the meeting, the gathering rejected the NCA and called for a new peace process arbitrated by China. Government spokesperson U Zaw Htay said that the UWSA-led demands could complicate some issues but would not derail the NCA process.

The UWSA released a statement on September 2, 2016 in which they condemned the government and its military for what they described as poor management and discrimination against ethnic minorities during the first session of the 21st Century Panglong peace conference. The UWSA’s rejection the NCA remains a major challenge for the government and the military.

Alliances With Other Ethnic Armed Organizations

The UWSA’s alliances with other ethnic armed organizations challenge the supremacy of the government and military’s peace process. The current alliances were the result of the three-day ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) summit in Panghsang, and include the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army-North (SSPP/SSA-N), Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), the ethnic Kokang Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) and the Arakan Army (AA). Their common agreement is to stand together and assist one another when or if any member is under attack. Perhaps to fortify its position as a leader in this process, the UWSA hosted another ethnic conference from April 15-19, and even formed the “Federation of Ethnic Nationalities.”

The government and its military see this alliance as a hurdle to its own ongoing peace process, centered on the signing of the NCA. Questions arise on how they will confront this challenge: will they accept the new peace trajectory brought by the UWSA-led coalition? Or, through military means, will they force the alliance to sign the NCA?

Strengthening of the Military

The strengthening of the UWSA’s own military puts a burden on the Burmese army as the latter attempts to weaken and disarm the country’s ethnic armed groups in order to reach its aim of serving as the country’s single armed force.

The UWSA has been building its military for decades with the support of China. It has an estimated 30,000 active military personnel who are believed to be highly trained. The UWSA produce ammunition and possess sophisticated weaponry such as tanks, snipers, anti-tank artillery, and helicopters from China, reportedly complete with TY-90 air-to-air missiles, according to sources close to the Wa army, as well as leaked documents.

The UWSA is also believed to serve as a prominent arms dealer for other ethnic armed groups, including the MNDAA, KIA, AA, and TNLA. The Burma Army faces the dilemma of how to address the UWSA’s military clout without such a confrontation escalating into large-scale conflict.

A Scenario for a Peace Deal

The uncertainties outlined here—regarding Wa statehood, the NCA, new alliances, and a fortified Wa army—must be addressed in negotiations; in peace talks, the UWSA cannot be excluded. Without Wa participation—a major linchpin for a peace deal in Burma—the peace process will be meaningless, as it will not have the backing of the largest and strongest ethnic military power in the region.

The new Federation of Ethnic Nationalities recently showed up at the second session of the 21st Century Panglong peace conference in Naypyidaw, but the alliance’s delegates were excluded from participation in the event. Instead, they were appeased with separate meetings with the State Counselor Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and left the administrative capital without having made any tangible headway.

If Daw Aung San Suu Kyi and her team neglect the UWSA in a peace deal, it could end up being a significant mistake. The government and Burma Army must pave the way for negotiations with the UWSA, lest a resolution be stalled indefinitely. Otherwise, the risk of non-inclusiveness could be an environment of even greater insecurity and instability.

Joe Kumbun is the pseudonym of a Kachin State-based analyst.