Wa Rebels Caught Up in Regional Chess Match

By Daniel Pye & Saw Yan Naing 2 May 2013

RANGOON — China did not sell helicopter gunships to ethnic Wa paramilitaries in eastern Burma, Wa sources speaking to The Irrawaddy claimed this week.

The alleged deal was reported by Jane’s Intelligence Review on Monday, citing Burmese government and Wa sources.

But as the Burmese military steps up its offensive against ethnic rebels in Shan State, it looks increasingly likely that the relationship between Beijing and Naypyidaw will be put to the test in a battle for control of trade routes and resources in the Golden Triangle.

Jane’s on Monday reported that China gave the Wa several Mil Mi-17 “Hip” medium-transport helicopters armed with TY-90 air-to-air missiles in late February and early March. The report claimed the gunships would act as a deterrent against Burmese military action against the United Wa State Army (UWSA) — the most powerful ethnic army in Burma, with an estimated 20,000 well-equipped fighters.

But two Wa sources on Tuesday denied any knowledge of the sale of Chinese hardware.

“We are assuming the report is incorrect, that it is just made up,” Aung Myint, a spokesman for the UWSA, told The Irrawaddy by phone from a UWSA stronghold on the China-Burma border. “Who among us has the capability to pilot these helicopters?”

A senior UWSA officer in Shan State also denied that the Chinese had supplied the helicopters.

On Tuesday, the Chinese Embassy in Rangoon also refuted the Jane’s report. The embassy posted: “As a responsible country and a permanent member of the UN Security Council, China unswervingly complies with the relevant UN legislations on weapons sales and imposes very strict regulations on the trade.

“As a good neighbor and true friend to Myanmar, China would never seek to establish any kind of illegal relations with any parties or organizations in Myanmar,” the embassy said.

Renewed fighting in eastern Burma could give the government full control of the region’s strategic resources and pave the way for future assaults on the Wa.

The UWSA’s Aung Myint said it was a bad omen that there had been renewed fighting in Shan State, while the government has been attempting to enter into peace negotiations and maintain ceasefire agreements with ethnic rebels.

“It is not good to see this fighting reported in the wake of the peace deals,” he said.

The UWSA signed a peace accord with the Burmese government in 1989, but in recent months peace agreements with the neighboring Shan and Kachin rebels have broken down into open conflict.

Despite the denials, Burma expert Bertil Lintner said on Tuesday that the helicopter deal had gone ahead. The Burmese government is moving to gain control of the Shan State Army-North’s mountainous bases on the western bank of the Salween River, he said, for an eventual offensive against the Wa rebels.

Other experts agreed, saying the Burmese military intended to position its forces against the Wa.

“Since the Burmese government signed a ceasefire with the Shan, they haven’t withdrawn any troops, but rather they have reinforced their troops,” said Aung Kyaw Zaw, an analyst based on the China-Burma border. “That is not a good sign. So, the Wa want to prepare [for a possible war].”

As Lintner wrote in a March Yale Global article, “China does not want another war. By letting the UWSA acquire heavy weaponry, China sends a strong message to Naypyidaw: Don’t mess with us.”

Throughout April, Burmese military forces have fought pitched battles with an alliance of ethnic rebels in northern Shan State, on the western bank of the strategically vital Salween River, which runs from the Tibetan Plateau to the Andaman Sea. The UWSA controls positions on the eastern side of the river in Shan State.

The Burmese military in early April gave the rebels an ultimatum: move out of the area or face consequences. Shan forces rejected the ultimatum and fighting ensued.

Last week, Burmese government troops reinforced their positions at bases in Shan State, including in Lashio, the largest town in the northern part of the state. Tensions remain high, according to sources in the area, who asked to remain anonymous, as military supplies and armor have been brought in to back up light infantry units on the frontline.

Several analysts contacted by The Irrawaddy, who all wished to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the situation, said Burmese government troops wanted to capture four strategic bases on the western bank of the Salween River. The bases are seen as key to keeping open lines of communication for the UWSA.

The battle for control of the Salween in Shan State has drawn in allied fighters from the Shan State Army-North (SSA-North), Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, all members of the United Nationalities Federation Council (UNFC).

The UNFC alliance holds territory on the western bank of the Salween, while the Wa control significant territory on the eastern bank. Capturing SSA-North bases by the river would give the military staging posts for attacks into Wa territory, while also offering protection to strategically important oil pipelines running from Arakan State into China, and Chinese-backed hydropower projects planned for the Salween. China has a lot at stake in this fight.

The UWSA “might not use the helicopters, as often fighting has only broken out because of misunderstandings,” said Duu Gya, a former KIA leader. “Burmese military commanders have a great interest in dialogue with ethnic groups and securing peace.”

Last year, a report by Janes Intelligence Review also accused China of selling or delivering weapons, including ground-to-air missiles and 12 tank destroyers, to the UWSA. China also denied it in January.

The Janes Intelligence report at the time said China had made a transfer of Chinese-made PTL02 wheeled tank destroyers in mid-2012.

Observers believe that fighting is also expected to break out again in Tangyan Township, where clashes between the SSA-North and Burmese army troops disrupted the shaky ceasefire agreement in early April.

Fighting is reportedly escalating, with clashes between troops from the KIA’s fourth and eighth brigades and Burmese government forces common, sources in Shan State told The Irrawaddy.

Sources on the ground in Shan State said there were ongoing concerns for the safety of civilians displaced by the violence.

More than 1,000 people have reportedly been displaced since early April, but only a few dozen men have returned to their villages. Relief workers and Shan journalists in the area said villagers returning home were risking their lives to farm and work on their plantations.

Peace negotiations between Naypyidaw and the Kachin rebels were expected this month, but the China-backed peace talks between the Burmese government and the Kachin could be some way off. A dispute over whether international observers should be allowed to attend the meeting has put the rebels and the Burmese government at odds with China

The Burmese government’s chief negotiator, Aung Min, and his team of internationally trained advisers at the Myanmar Peace Center (MPC), have made little progress in more than a dozen rounds of talks since the Kachin-Burma ceasefire broke down in June 2011.

“The Kachin are waiting for Aung Min to determine a new round of peace talks, but we will probably not hear anything until the end of the month,” the former KIA leader Duu Gya said. “It all depends on the Chinese. The Kachin want foreign observers at the next round of peace talks, so they can negotiate properly. But China is blocking this.

“It is still very difficult to trust the [Burmese government] based on their actions in the past, although the peace committee headed by Aung Min has agreed that there should be international observers there.

“I am hopeful for the peace talks, so that in the future we can step up political dialogue between the Kachin and the government.”

Despite the Aung Min-led delegation’s ostensible work to achieve a lasting peace with ethnic armed groups, what is happening on the ground between government troops and ethnic rebels tells a different story, observers said.

Aung Kyaw Zaw claims to have obtained a leaked military document that outlines the military’s top priority as the elimination of the ethnic armed groups.

Military sources from Naypyidaw also reported that the newly appointed Sr-Gen Min Aung Hlaing, the chief of the Burmese armed forces, has a plan to wipe out all ethnic armed groups including the UWSA in order to control all of Burma’s frontier territories.