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MYANMAR: United Wa State Army

Paper No. 5612                                        Dated 27-Nov-2013

By C. S. Kuppuswamy

“The Wa have proven adept, in the past, at garnering the concessions they need. Moreover, given they run what often feels like an independent borderland fief, it is logical that the Wa leadership would be the first to test a new style of decentralisation. It (Wa region) is a borderland defined by its entanglements and ambiguities, with the Chinese playing an inevitable role in what they consider as their own backyard”—Nicholas Farrelly of the Australian National University as told to AFP (Mizzima News-28 May 2013)


The United Wa State Army (UWSA) was in the news recently because of its conspicuous absence in the meeting of the major ethnic groups of Myanmar sponsored by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and held at its HQ Laiza from 30 October to 02 November 2013.  The meeting was convened to discuss a government proposal for a Nationwide Ceasefire Conference (which will presumably not include the UWSA).  Early this year also, the local and international media had focussed on the UWSA, on reported supply of PTL 02 wheeled Tank Destroyers and armed helicopters by China to this armed group.  In many ways this non-state armed group is different from the other groups and the Myanmar Government is also adopting a different approach in dealing with this group, perhaps because of China’s influence over this group.

Historical Background

The United Wa State Army (UWSA) is the Myanmar’s largest non-state armed group with a reported strength of 20,000-30,000 troops with another 10,000 auxiliary members.  The UWSA is the military wing of the political party called the United Wa State Party (UWSP). Most reports indicate that this armed group was formed in 1989 after the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) disintegrated while some portals like the Burma News International (BNI) indicate that the UWSA was formed in 1964.

The UWSA is a well equipped and organised non-state armed group.  This armed group is deployed in two parts, reportedly with 5 divisions with along the Thai Myanmar border and three divisions along the China-Myanmar border.

Since the signing of the ceasefire agreement with the Government in 1989, the Government has recognised the territory held by this group in the northern Shan State with its headquarters at Pangshang.  However the UWSA is claiming a larger area to be carved out as an autonomous Wa State (instead of the present region) which is its ultimate goal (See map attached as PDF file).

The Wa is an ethnic Chinese mountain tribe.  Their main religion is animist.  The Wa is one of the 135 officially recognised ethnic groups of Myanmar.  The Wa population is located in two parts, the North Wa part in the north-east of Myanmar near the China border where the majority live and the South Wa part near the Thai-Myanmar border. The Wa tribe is also present in China and Thailand though in lesser numbers.  The total population of ethnic Wa in Myanmar is estimated about 800,000 people of various ethnic groups.  The working language of UWSA is Chinese.  The Chinese influence in trade, industrial establishments, currency, culture, telephone network, administration as well in other fields is predominant.

The UWSA is known internationally more for its drug trade, in opium, heroin and amphetamines.  It is the main supplier of drugs to China, Thailand & NE India.  The US Government named the UWSA as a narcotic traffic organisation in May 2013.  The UWSA has also been indentified as the conduit for supply for arms from the grey market in China to the insurgent groups of North East India.

The UWSA was one of the ethnic groups that had participated in the National Convention held by the government for drafting the 2008 Constitution with high hopes only to be disappointed. However the 2008 Constitution granted them the Wa Self-administered Division consisting of six townships.

 Like most of the other ethnic groups, the UWSA also refused to be transformed into Border Guards (under the control of Myanmar Army) in 2009.  However, there was a solitary media report in July 2012 to indicate that this group was toying with the idea of becoming a People’s Militia Force (commanded and run by native officers).

The UWSA has declined to join the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC), an umbrella body of the ethnic groups founded in 2011.  This could not have been done without Chinese acquiescence.

Myanmar Government and the UWSA/UWSP

The Myanmar Government has dealt with this non-state armed group totally on a different footing as compared to other groups.  It is pertinent to note that there have been no major clashes with this group since the 1989 ceasefire.  In the early 90s, the Tatmadaw, in a strategic move had joined hands with this group to liquidate the Mong Tai Army, though it resulted in the expansion of the UWSA and its control over a larger area in the Shan state.

The UWSA rejected the government proposal to transform into Border Guards and the ceasefire broke in 2009.  The UWSA was one of the first few groups to sign the second ceasefire with the Thein Sein led nominal Civil Government in September 2011.  The government was also shrewd in co-opting the UWSA in its counter insurgency strategy against some other minor groups in the Shan State.

The Myanmar Government in the 2008 Constitution authorised the establishment of Wa Self-Administered Division consisting of six townships.  However, the government has not accepted the UWSA pronouncement of this region (in January 2009) as Wa State Government Special Administrative Region.

As part of the ongoing peace process, the Myanmar Government has had three rounds of peace talks with this group since October 2011.  In the last round held on 12 July 2013 at the Triangle Region Command HQ at Kengtung, both parties signed a 5-point peace agreement for further cooperation through constructive discussion and development of this region.

The Government’s current strategy in dealing with this powerful armed group has been aptly described by Stratfor in the article titled “Myanmar: The United Wa State Army’s Uncertain Future” dated 22 July 2013.

“The central government has followed a three-part strategy to contain the Wa: First, the government has attempted to sever lines of communication between Wa's northern and southern military commands in order to cut off the Wa's major source of financing and its supply lines to Thailand. The second part of the strategy is to divide Wa forces and their allied ethnic rebels in Shan State in order to gradually encircle the Wa. The third involves expanding the government's territorial control -- either by military or peaceful means -- to advance the Tatmadaw's presence to the eastern bank of Salween River.”

While the first part appears realistic and doable, it is doubtful whether Naypyidaw can go ahead with the other two, when the Chinese factor has to be considered.

The Chinese Connection

China has been a long time patron of the UWSA and considers the UWSA as its key ally in its relations with the Myanmar Government.  It has been supporting the UWSA both economically and militarily as a pressure tactic against the Myanmar government.

China had its first setback in August 2009 when the Kokang Militia (a close ally of the UWSA) was attacked resulting a large influx of refugees into China.  The second was the suspension of the Myitsone Dam in September 2011, which China believes, had the tacit support of the US.  More than these, the US pivot in South East Asia, the fast improving relations with US and other western nations and large scale investment by these nations in Myanmar, have made China re-orient its relations with Myanmar.  This is all the more reason that China will not loosen its grip on the Wa.

Early this year (2013), China had reportedly supplied PTL 02 wheeled Tank destroyers and armed helicopters to the UWSA.  In this connection Anthony Davis, a Thailand based analyst of James Intelligence Review in an interview to Democratic voice of Burma said

 “China is not prepared to put up with a whole string of Myitsone dam situations that could result in the cancellation of major projects and a loss of years of investments. The markers they’re using [to signal this] are very clear and subtle: they’re not supplying a group that is at war with the government, but are supporting a deterrent – the Wa are in an umbilical relationship with China, and supporting the Wa effectively reinforces the status quo and stability along the border”.

However, the Chinese Embassy described this report as “ill founded” and “misguided” noting that “The Chinese government holds a clear and consistent policy of respecting the sovereignty and territorial integrity of Myanmar” – Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies Analysis Paper No. 7 of May 2013.

In its Myanmar policy China has introduced some additional measures, such as posting a new ambassador, strengthening their strategic partnership, visits by senior party and PLA officials and some public relations exercises in its commercial ventures.  China’s main concerns continue to be its border security and its commercial ventures especially the twin oil and gas pipelines.  For the first time China was seen taking the initiative in hosting the peace talks in its territory (Ruili in Yunnan) between the Kachins and the Myanmar Government during this year.  Chinese observers were present at the peace talks.

However, in the case of Wa, China is definitely playing a double game by arming the UWSA as more of a deterrent while professing to respect the sovereignty of Myanmar in encouraging the peace efforts of the government.


The Myanmar Government is most unlikely to accede to the request for establishing a separate Wa State, as some other major ethnic groups may also come up with such a demand.

The UWSA/UWSP is not planning to participate in the nationwide ceasefire, as it does not want to be bound by the present proposal, which will entail disarming and deny the prospects of a separate Wa State.  It perhaps wants to wait and watch the reactions of other armed groups.

The Myanmar Government is not also insisting on the participation of the UWSA/UWSP in the nationwide ceasefire because it does not want the other groups to be influenced by the UWSA and also because of the UWSA-China nexus.

As and when a settlement is reached with the other groups, Myanmar government will have two options.  To exercise the military option or to negotiate with the UWSA for an amicable settlement.  The former can be ruled out for the present or as long as the Chinese support continues.

China, more for its commercial interests and border security is using the UWSA as leverage and at the same time maintaining good relations with Myanmar. Myanmar does understand this position.


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