By WAI MOE
The largest armed cease-fire group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), will hold what it calls its 20th Anniversary of “peace building” on April 17.
As an indication of what might be meant by “peace building,” since late 2008, the UWSA has begun using the term “government” in many of its communications. For instance, in the invitations sent out for its 20th anniversary, the Wa refer to themselves as the “Wa State Government, Burma’s Special Region 2.”
In the 2008 Constitution, endorsed by the Burmese junta, certain UWSA controlled areas were given the status of an autonomous region.
However, observers note that the UWSA has not yet declared its position in the 2010 election. When high-ranking Burmese officials visit the Wa region to discuss the election, Wa leaders reportedly call for a review of the constitution, according to sources.
Ahead of the 2010 election, like other ethnic ceasefire groups, the UWSA has been under pressure by the junta to join the election under the new constitution which calls for the disarmament of ceasefire groups following the election.
The UWSA has an estimated 20,000 troops based in northern and southern Shan State led by Bao You-Xiang, the former commander of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) 683 Brigade. The Wa army is largest armed group among ethnic non-ceasefire and ceasefire groups.
The UWSA was a part of the CPB forces before it split from the Burmese Communists Party in April 1989. The UWSA and its political wing, the United Wa State Party, were officially formed in November 1989.
One month later, Kokang troops separated from the CPB on March 11 1989. Wa troops overthrew the CPB, which was dominated by Burmans, on April 17, 1989.
In 1989, the UWSA signed a cease-fire agreement with the Burmese military junta under then Secretary 1 Brig-Gen Khin Nyunt, who offered business concession deals and autonomy for the armed groups.
Analysts say ceasefire agreements with insurgent groups could be dangerous for the junta in the future because they are mostly based on the junta’s urgency to minimize internal security threats rather than involve long-term political negotiations and underlying solutions to the ethnic conflicts in Burma.
“Such groups pose a future threat to [Burma’s] national security and sovereignty, not least because they could still muster considerable fire-power to protect their ‘business interests,’” said the International Crisis Group in a report.
Geopolitics played a significant role in the defection of the Wa and Kokang from the CPB. The beginning of the end of the CPB armed struggle in Burma began in the late 1970s when the late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping decided to establish government-to-government relations between the two countries and subsequently reduced Chinese assistance to the CPB, starting in 1978. In the early 1980s, Beijing told the CPB that it must survive or fall on its own initiative.
Aung Kyaw Zaw, a former member of the CPB and a political analyst on the Sino-Burma border, said that there were two reasons behind the Wa and Kokang overthrow of the CPB: China’s policy shift and a leadership crisis within the CPB.
Following the Wa and Kokang ceasefires with the junta, more than a dozen other armed groups followed. From 1989 to 1995, 17 insurgent groups signed ceasefires with the ruling generals, according to official Burmese reports.
“Before the Wa and Kokang ceasefires, the Burmese army used five light infantry divisions to control the CPB troops in northeastern Burma,” Aung Kyaw Zaw recalled. “But after the ceasefire, four light infantry divisions were withdrawn from the area and sent to other parts of the country to battle with other armed groups.”
The Wa, which has bases mainly along the Sino-Burma border, still prefers to use the Chinese currency, the yuan, rather than the Burmese kyat, in their areas.
China and the UWSA are also connected through the arms trade. According to the Jane’s Intelligence Review of May 2008, the UWSA acts as the “middleman” between Chinese arms manufacturers and insurgent groups seeking independence in northeast India
“The case of the UWSA in Myanmar[Burma] appears to afford strong evidence, albeit circumstantial, of the overlap between small arms sales to a non-state actor and China’s ‘second track’ foreign policy goals in a country of crucial strategic importance,” according to Jane’s Intelligence Review.
Burma’s ceasefire agreements have also produced some of biggest drug lords in the world. According to reports by the US State Department, the UWSA remains “the dominant heroin trafficking group in Southeast Asia, and possibly worldwide.”
The US offers a US $2 million reward for Wei Hsueh-Kang, a UWSA leader, for information leading to his arrest or conviction in the US.
In an academic paper, David Arnott, a scholar on Burma affairs, wrote: “The [ceasefire] terms amounted to freedom for the groups to produce and traffic in opiates in exchange for a cease-fire with Rangoon and an agreement not to form alliances with other insurgencies opposed to Rangoon.”
Analysts say opium production is a traditional business for various ethnic groups, including the Wa and Kokang in Shan State, where other commercial crops are difficult to cultivate successfully. In the late 1960s, the CPB conducted an anti-opium campaign in its controlled areas which caused a famine in many areas. Later, the CPB stopped the Chinese-backed anti-opium campaign.
By 1982, the CPB depended on the opium trade for its survival and when defecting units of Wa troops overthrew the CPB, the opium trade passed into the hands of powerful Wa warlords who saw an opportunity to take control of the operations.
Wa leaders have consistently maintained that they are working for Wa autonomy and economic development in Wa areas, especially since the signing of the cease-fire agreement with the junta.
Aung Kyaw Zaw, who has observed the Wa since the 1960s, noted: “During nearly 20 years of ceasefire, the Wa leaders have done community development, such as opening school for Wa children.”
“The most important thing the Wa leaders have done in two decades is foster Wa nationalism. Now Wa young people identify with the idea of a Wa state and Wa autonomy,” he said.
The Wa ambition for an autonomous Wa state in Shan State could be the spark of potential conflict in the future, observers say, especially in light of the majority Shan ethnic group in the state.
Currently, in return for the ceasefire agreement, which has allowed the Wa commanders to profit from the narcotics trade, the UWSA also acts as a strategic proxy force against other rebel groups such as the Shan State Army-South, noted Jane’s Intelligence Review.