The Long War Pt.6; The United Wa State Army (UWSA)

May 13, 2024

In this part of the Long War series let’s look at one of the most powerful, controversial and mysterious of the Ethnic Armed Organisations (EAO’s) involved in the long running Myanmar Civil War; the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

The Wa people’s origins are as murky as their current situation. Very little exists about them in the historical record, with most references being in scant writings left by other ethnic groups of the area, the Imperial Chinese and in verbal legends. But there is evidence that the Wa once inhabited a large area of southeast Asia, stretching from current day Myanmar, up to China and then east through northern Thailand.

The Wa were displaced by new people coming into the area over the last thousand years, until eventually they were limited to a small fragment of rugged country on what is now the Myanmar/Chinese border. This was such a backwater that the British, who notionally ruled the place from the 19th century, didn’t even bother to survey it or pay any attention to a people who were practically little more than an extended mountain tribe. Indeed, it almost looked for a time that they might be swallowed up by the other ethnicities of the region, or even subsumed by Chinese Muslim immigrants fleeing persecution in Imperial China.

But the Wa persisted in their remote enclave, at best overlooked but more generally unknown, with the exception of the odd Christian missionary who braved the wild hill country and from whom we have the first proper anthropological observations of the Wa, though most of these focused on the bloody rituals of animal sacrifice that the Wa practiced, as well as their head hunting of the neighbours.

But lurid stories of their cultural habits aside the Wa largely continued to be ignored by the outside world throughout the 20th Century, though the creation of the modern states of Burma and China saw their population now spread across the borders of both these new nations. The turmoil that was to beset both these countries from the mid-20th Century was to both bring the Wa to the outside world’s attention and then set them to become arguably the most powerful non-state actor in the world today.

The collapse of the Nationalist Chinese in 1949 saw essentially an entire army flee across the borders into neighbouring countries, causing huge disruption and strife to those living there. This went hand in hand with a boom in opium production and the creation of the infamous Golden Triangle which would be the world’s biggest producer of heroin for fifty years. This all led to the Wa forming their own militias to defend their lands and their stake in the heroin trade, but it wasn’t until the 1960s that things really started to get organized.

The Communist Party of Burma, fleeing attacks from the ruthless new Burmese military government, fled into the remote hinterlands and settled amongst a number of the ethnic minorities living along the Chinese border, including the Wa. The Wa became important recruits for the BCP, providing a lot of the manpower to their field forces, and in return got, essentially for the first time, modern governance and political structures.

The Communist Party essentially ran an independent state for twenty years on the border, but the old party ideologues gradually wore out their welcome and in 1989 the Wa led a revolt and kicked out the BCP, an action promptly copied by the other ethnic groups that had supported the communists, and they all largely went their own way.

The Wa set up their own essentially independent single-party state huddled on the Myanmar-China border, along with a large and efficient military to protect it; the United Wa State Army.

Oh, and if anyone out there is thinking that maybe the Chinese were upset about the deposal of their former clients in the BCP, far from it. In fact, it is generally thought that the Wa and the other ethnic forces that broke from the BCP, essentially finishing it, were encouraged into it by Beijing. The likely thought reason for this was because the old communists who ran the BCP were, rather unfashionably, dedicated believers, and thus an impediment to doing business.

And the Wa are all about business. And business was good.

With the BCP out of the way the Wa were free to really establish themselves in the heroin trade, becoming one of the foremost growers of opium poppies and a global powerhouse for drug production. For all the news and history written on the South American and Mexican drug cartels, I’ll be frank, compared to the Wa, they’re like messy amateurs. Because the Wa have been extremely clever in securing their own position and evolving with changing times and pressures, while also managing to stay clear of the vicious fighting that has embroiled Burma for generations.

The first action on declaring the Wa as an independent polity and the founding of the UWSA was to make peace with the Myanmar military, which was achieved in about three weeks. The second was to launch full scale war in 1996 against their principle business rivals; the powerful Mong Tai Army.

Seven years of conflict occurred which resulted in the defeat of the Mong Tai and the UWSA now occupying a substantial piece of territory much further south than their home area, a region that runs along the Thai border and which gave the Wa access to new markets.

If it seems that I am really emphasising the Wa and their interest in business, whatever business that may be, well, that’s because I think that is their leaders primary motivation – doing business. Because the Wa areas have shown a remarkable adaptability to opening markets and staying ahead of the competition.

The Wa were one of the first to really grasp the possibilities of methamphetamine as the illicit substance of the future; easier to produce and transport than heroin, meth became a trademark of the Wa. Literally.

I recall getting a briefing in 2013 that said the Wa were upset because at that point they had actually got out of making meth because of the international scrutiny it was bringing upon them. Unfortunately some unprincipled swine amongst one of the rival EAO’s was producing meth tablets with the “W” stamp on them that had been the Wa’s quality assurance “trademark”, for want of a better word. Naturally, the Wa were annoyed that they were now getting all the heat but none of the profit.

Now, I can’t say for certain that the Wa have actually fully quit the drug trade, though they say they have. But to be honest, it is a possibility because the Wa are, as said, all about doing business and they have diversified their portfolio.

Pangkham, the unofficial capital of the Wa that sits just across the border from China, is a modern city very much, understandably, in the Chinese model, with hotels, restaurants and casinos. The Wa have grasped the opportunities that the burgeoning Chinese economy has meant for them, and they now cater to the whims of Chinese tourists en masse, allowing them to indulge in the vices not available to them in their homeland just across the border. A number of other EAO’s have also done this, but none as successfully as the Wa.

What they have been able to do, despite the decades of conflict that has wracked Myanmar, is offer stability, much of it thanks to the formidable size and reputation of the UWSA and the protection that their Chinese allies give them. This security is guaranteed because the UWSA is by far the best equipped of the EAO’s.

While other groups, even long-and-well established ones like the Kachin and Karen may be able to field at best a handful of advanced weapons such as Man Portable Air Defence Systems (MANPADS), the Wa are not shy of demonstrating that they have not just got anti-aircraft missiles, but even armoured vehicles and, according to Jane’s, 122mm howitzers and modern anti-tank systems. There were even stories not long ago that the Wa had helicopters available to them, though they did deny this.

Be in no doubt, the UWSA, of all of Myanmar’s myriad of EAO’s, is a proper state-based military. The Wa even produce their own weapons, and their home made rifle, based on the Chinese Type 81, is now popping up all over Myanmar as deals are done with some EAO’s to supply them.

And again, it’s about business, not them taking a side, something they have carefully avoided doing. Because for all the conflict engulfing the country since the coup, the Wa have managed to weather the storm just as they always have, not participating except to sell commodities to those who can afford them.

As they have always done, they state publicly that they wish to see Myanmar retain its territorial integrity, while making it plain that anyone trying to encroach on their turf will be dealt with harshly. One suspects that the reason that the Wa never really got into the notion of independence for themselves was because, well, they are effectively independent, just without the bother and aggravation that would entail if it was official.

For all that, though the Wa have little fear of any other armed force in Myanmar currently, including the military, they are sensible in keeping the peace with their primary client and supporter, the People’s Republic of China. In 2023 two senior Wa officials were arrested and handed over to China for their roles in online scam networks run out of Wa State that targeted Chinese citizens.

And why should you, dear reader, care about some obscure group in some obscure corner of the world? Because the Wa aren’t just allegedly involved in narcotics, human trafficking, the arms trade and online scamming.

They also control the third largest tin mine in the world.

Throughout part of 2023 and into 2024 this, and other critical tin mines in Wa State, were largely closed as the Wa government made changes to its investment rules for those involved in the industry. Now I have no idea what the real story and reasons are for whatever machinations were going on here, but I do know that it caused the international metal trade to get rather twitchy, enough that the affair was being reported on in the international business press.

But why does that affect you? Well, see that computer or phone or television that you are reading this on? Guess what is an absolutely critical component in its manufacture? Yep. Tin.

So, keep an eye out for the Wa and the United Wa State Army in the future, no matter what happens in the ongoing war in Burma. Because you might not hear so much about them, but they are very much moving around in the background, making money, and influencing things on a global scale.


The Long War Pt. 1; Background to the Burma/Myanmar Civil War and the EAOs

The Long War Pt. 2; The Arakan Army

The Long War Pt. 3; The Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA)

The Long War Pt. 4; The Kachin Independence Army (KIA)

The Long War Pt.5; The Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army

Ashley South; Myanmar – Past, Present and Future

Ashley South; Myanmar – Past, Present and Future

Was privileged to be able to have a conversation with Ashley South, who has been involved in events in Myanmar as an observer and participant in events for nearly thirty years. Links:

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