Myo Min Soe / The Irrawaddy

Life in Panghsang, a Chinese Enclave in Wa Region

Myo Min Soe The Irrawaddy

Nestled in the hills of eastern Shan State near the China-Myanmar border, Panghsang is the capital of the Wa Region, a self-administered area approved by Myanmar’s Constitution. It is home to Myanmar’s largest and best-equipped ethnic armed group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), with an estimated 30,000 troops and 10,000 auxiliary members, according to Myanmar Peace Monitor.

In April, the army celebrated the 30th anniversary of its foundation in Panghsang in grand scale, with columns of troops paraded in the city square. Founded in 1989, the UWSA signed a ceasefire with Myanmar’s then-military government—the State Law and Order Restoration Council—in the same year after splitting from the Communist Party of Burma. It also founded the United Wa State Party and the Wa State People’s Government while pressing the Union government to recognize their region as a state of Myanmar.

Despite its location on the Myanmar side of the border, on a stroll around the town you could believe you’re in China.  On the streets of Panghsang, most people communicate in Mandarin. Chinese characters, along with Myanmar and Wa translations are emblazoned on shopfronts. Yuan is the currency of choice here. For a good cell phone signal, you’d better connect with a Chinese network. Street signs are written in Myanmar and Chinese. Stores are stocked with goods imported from China.

The most palpable thing about Panghsang, however, is its development. Contrary to its surrounding rugged mountainous areas, the SUVs whoosh past on wide and well-paved roads. The electricity supply is uninterrupted and high-rise constructions are mushrooming. Police vans do occasional patrols. For all their reliance on the opium crop in the past, Wa leadership is trying to shed the bitter, bygone days, claiming that drug elimination is now their priority and they are working with opium-substitute crops like rubber and tea. All outsiders need approval from both Myanmar and Wa authorities to visit the region.