MANGPAN, MYANMAR – Myanmar’s most heavily armed and powerful rebel group has said it is looking to carve out a legitimate state, as experts say it is flexing its muscles amid tense relations with the government.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA), which commands an estimated 30,000 troops, holds sway over a remote mountainous area on the northeast border with China that is believed to be awash with drugs and has long been aloof from the control of authorities in central Myanmar.
Shielded from the reach of the previous junta regime by its close links to Beijing and formidable military might, observers say the group is using political openings under the country’s new reformist government to push for greater official acknowledgement.
The Wa-administered region consists of six townships in the rugged borderlands of Shan state, but UWSA spokesman Tone Sann said the current arrangement was “not enough.”
“We want them (the townships) to be acknowledged as a state,” he said on the sidelines of a religious ceremony in northern Shan, in a rare public appearance by an official from the rebel group.
The UWSA has upheld a cease-fire agreement with the government since 1989, one of the longest such deals in a country that has been riven by pockets of ethnic rebellion since its 1948 independence.
A raft of tentative new peace deals have been inked by the new quasi-civilian government that replaced the generals two years ago as part of reforms that have raised hopes of greater federalism in a nation long gripped by junta insistence on unity and conformism.
“The Wa have proven adept, in the past, at garnering the concessions they need,” Nicholas Farrelly of the Australian National University said, adding the group’s military, economic and political resources makes them a “force to reckon with.”
“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 decentralization,” Farrelly said.
Ethnic Wa make up around 1 percent of Myanmar’s population of 60 million, with about 800,000 people of various ethnic groups living in the self-administered region, according to Tone Sann.
He said the UWSA made an official request for the region to be upgraded to “Wa state” in talks with a government peace team last month, adding they received assurances it would be considered in Parliament.
Myanmar has seven ethnic minority states and seven regions, mainly of the majority Burman ethnicity.
Tone Sann said the Wa want their region to be recognized as a state to take advantage of regional development, as resource-rich and strategically located Myanmar looks to reap the rewards of ending decades of isolation.
Sai Pao Nap, an upper house member of Parliament from the Wa Democratic Party said the group is also keen to deal directly with the central government, rather than the current arrangement of communicating through authorities in Shan state.
“I do not think their demand to be a state can cause any complication,” said the politician, who is also a chairman of the legislature’s National Races Affairs Committee.
A recent report by analysts IHS Jane’s said the UWSA cease-fire was “fragile” and suggested the group had purchased armed helicopters from China as part “a program of rapid rearmament” — a claim denied by both Beijing and the Wa.
Tone Sann said some aircraft had been bought as “samples” to put on display to the public.
“These are not real ones and cannot be used. We just wanted to attract more people to visit our museum. It is not true that we bought helicopters from China,” he said, also rejecting persistent claims of widespread opium and methamphetamine production in Wa territory as “just accusations.”
Farrelly said China was the “sponsor and facilitator of Wa success,” a situation the Myanmar government may “resent” but would have little opportunity to counter.
“It is a borderland defined by its entanglements and ambiguities, with the Chinese playing an inevitable role in what they consider their own backyard,” he said.