PANGHSANG, Wa Special Region — A few decades back, Tun Kyi was a different man: a loyal and disciplined medic who treated Thakin Ba Thein Tin, chairman of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), and his comrades. The party, which had long been engaged in armed struggle against the Burmese government, built its headquarters here in Panghsang in the early 1970s.
Tun Kyi guided us through the rugged former CPB stronghold, showing us the room where he used to sleep, revisiting with each step the early days of the resistance. What made the visit so surreal was that just two days had gone by since the start of an historic summit in the town, which drew leaders from 12 of Burma’s ethnic armed groups to discuss the prospect of a nationwide peace accord that could end decades of civil war.
We went to Thakin Ba Thein Tin’s modest room, and that of Col. Kyaw Zwa. “These people lived in very poor conditions at the time,” Tun Kyi recalled, “but this was the main base from which they gave commands all over the country.”
The CPB eventually fell apart, its membership fracturing into a number of other armed resistance groups such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which later evolved into Burma’s biggest and most formidable internal enemy. After a long struggle against the dictatorial Ne Win regime, Wa rebels reached a ceasefire agreement with the government in 1989, paving the way for both development and what would prove to be a devastatingly pervasive drug trade.
But time seems to have stood still here in the run-down communist control center, where we could still see remnants of the party’s past. The building has a storage room once filled with CPB documents. A few wooden tables and chairs, broken and weather-worn, remain scattered throughout the dilapidated grounds. Tun Kyi explained that the UWSA planned to renovate the site and turn it into a museum, but the project never got off the ground.
The remote and enigmatic Wa Special Region, a semi-autonomous zone comprising two territories along Burma’s borders with China and Thailand, has long captivated intrepid historians, academics and the like, but receives few foreign visitors. It is hard to imagine a day when the regional government will commit to turning this bizarre relic into anything more than the overgrown ghost town we see today.
Nearby, however, there has been a world of change; new high-rise developments are springing up throughout the town, and improved health facilities, the likes of which are practically unparalleled in Burma, were erected in the years since the Wa struck a deal with the Burmese government. Tun Kyi now works as a health administrator in the region’s main hospital, which sits in the center of the town amid a sea of scaffolding.
From where we stood on the hilltop station, he pointed out the distant hospital, which employs about 60 medics, including six who were educated in neighboring China. The five-storey facility is equipped with an MRI machine and X-ray technology, and offers free health services to all low-income residents. Because the Panghsang hospital is among the finest in Burma, Tun Kyi said that many people, including ethnic Burmese construction workers, favor the Wa hospital over those that are run by the government.
May Nu, a 62-year-old doctor in Panghsang, said education opportunities and medical services in the Wa region have improved immensely since the CPB era. She herself, an ethnic Pa-O woman from Taunggyi, studied in China because the educational system had stymied under communist rule.
“You had to study in China if you wanted a better education,” she recalled. “There was no proper education in this region at that time.” May Nu predicted that ethnic unity and a genuine peace accord will bring about rapid and much needed development in Burma’s hinterlands.
Lessons Learned About Peace and Development
But Wa leaders said they are worried that ongoing conflict could threaten the peace process, which has been several years in the making, and ultimately stall development all over the country.
Tax Ai Kap, deputy officer of the regional construction department, told reporters here on Monday that local leadership was “not happy” to hear of fighting between the Burma Army and other ethnic armed groups because it created “a bad atmosphere” that is not conducive to peace and trust building.
From the Wa perspective, he said, peace has to happen for development to proceed. Tax Ai Kap explained that since the UWSA achieved peace with the government, the region enjoyed rapid development of all sorts of necessary infrastructure. An ambitious road-building project is now underway throughout the territories, which is expected to be complete in 2019, just before a major ceremony commemorating the 30th anniversary of the ceasefire.
Tax Sai Pang, who works for the Ministry of Construction, offered a glowing review of the regional government’s post-ceasefire development works, claiming that the United Wa State Party (UWSP, the political arm of the UWSA) was truly representative of the will of its people. He said the regional government has worked wonders to facilitate growth by luring foreign experts and engineers. Officials said the region now operates some 400 schools, three cement factories and eight hydropower dams, which supply 24-hour electrical access throughout the region.
“We welcomed anyone who wanted to invest in our region, because we wanted this region to be developed,” Tax Sai Pang said, explaining that the group’s agenda prioritized infrastructural development and drug eradication in efforts to improve the UWSA’s reputation as a narcotic trafficking organization in the region, which is the world’s second largest source of heroin after Afghanistan.
Following decades of largely drug-funded development, the UWSA began an aggressive initiative in 2005 to reduce the production of opiates, focusing on crop substitution and, in some cases, relocating entire villages to poppy free land. Now, according to Tax Kat of the Ministry of Agriculture and Irrigation, Wa farmers are cultivating a range of crops including rubber, tea and fruits.
“We no longer grow opium,” Tax Kat said. Those who are found growing the illicit crop will be subject to strict legal action under the hard-line policy, which he said has effectively eradicated the crop in the entire region. A rapid assessment by the United Nations’ drug agency, UNODC, conducted in February 2014, found “no evidence of opium poppy cultivation in this region,” though other researchers have pointed out that opium bans in Wa and Kokang territories did little to curb production, but rather shifted it to areas further south in Shan State.
Despite the unique nature of the Wa Special Region and its people, the region never achieved the level of autonomy it wanted from a ceasefire. While it does maintain a certain level of self-governance, the Union government still does not recognize Wa as a state, instead viewing it as a zone within the jurisdiction of Shan State.
During the opening remarks of the ethnic summit on Friday, a UWSA spokesperson reiterated calls for support among the nation’s other armed rebel groups for the government’s recognition of a self-governing Wa State. Aung Myint, a spokesman representing the UWSA at the Panghsang conference, said that despite the progress of ceasefire negotiations and the prospect of meaningful political dialogue, “the government has not replied” to the group’s insistent calls for recognition.
The unprecedented summit, which brought together some of the most high-level ethnic representatives from around the country, is set to continue until Wednesday, with discussions geared toward achieving a lasting peace accord inclusive of all ethnic armed groups nationwide. During its opening remarks, the UWSA affirmed its solidarity with three rebel groups that are still currently in active conflict with the Burma Army.
Other ethnic representatives responded in kind, showing their support for a government-recognized Wa State independent of Shan authority.
“We are ethnic people,” said Nai Hong Sar, joint chairman of the New Mon State Party and chief negotiator for the nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team, a 16-member organization representing ethnic interests during peace negotiations with the government. “They have their own specially controlled area. We recognize their self-control.”