'MASTERS OF OUR DESTINY' Myan­mar's Wa rebels in show of force

Mizzima Business Weekly - - CONTENTS -

It has a stand­ing army of 25,000, man­u­fac­tures its own guns and con­scripts at least one mem­ber of each house­hold - meet the United Wa State Army: Com­mu­nist, reclu­sive, China-backed rebels de­ter­mined to pro­tect their supremacy over Myan­mar's bad­land bor­der zone.

Thou­sands of sol­diers, in­clud­ing a com­pany of women and a sniper pla­toon in com­bat web­bing, marched early in the morning of 17 April along­side ar­moured ve­hi­cles in Pangh­sang, cap­i­tal of the eth­nic Wa, which borders China's Yun­nan prov­ince.

It was a show of force mark­ing 30 years since Com­mu­nist Wa rebels ne­go­ti­ated a cease­fire with Myan­mar lead­ing to the es­tab­lish­ment of spe­cial, semi-au­ton­o­mous zone, mar­shalled by Bao Youx­i­ang, chief of one of the world's largest non-state armies.

Last week the nor­mally in­scrutable Wa ex­tended a rare in­vite to for­eign me­dia to their iso­lated ter­ri­tory to show off their mil­i­tary prow­ess and de­liver a defiant mes­sage of self-suf­fi­ciency within Myan­mar's borders.

"The Wa peo­ple are masters of their own destiny," Bao, flanked by se­nior Chi­nese of­fi­cials, de­clared in an ad­dress to the thou­sands gath­ered for the pa­rade.

He vowed his 600,000 "war-tested" peo­ple will never be pawns in proxy wars and pro­claimed the "builders and de­fend­ers of Wa" as "one of the best groups in hu­man so­ci­ety."

Fed by a ready sup­ply of con­scripts - some barely in their teens - China-armed and trained, the UWSA bears com­par­i­son to Le­banese Hezbol­lah in size.

Also like Hezbol­lah they are clients of a larger state ac­tor, who pulls strings for strate­gic ends.

But the UWSA also taps a deep seam of lo­cal pride and en­mity to­wards the cen­tral state, which is dom­i­nated by the Ba­mar eth­nic group.

Es­ti­mates vary, but ex­perts put the UWSA strength at 25-30,000 reg­u­lars, backed up by a large, well-trained re­serve.

Wa forces dwarf the col­lage of other eth­nic rebel groups oper­at­ing across Myan­mar, pos­ing a de­ter­rent to the coun­try's Tat­madaw army and gift­ing Bei­jing a use­ful bridge­head into its re­source-rich neigh­bour.

"We haven't suf­fered fight­ing in decades and have de­vel­oped over these 30 years," a UWSA of­fi­cer told AFP, re­quest­ing anonymity.

"But we need to be ready. Our leader's motto is 'Sweat­ing a lot leads to a lit­tle blood.' So one or two peo­ple from each house­hold must serve in the Wa Army."

Head­hunters, drugs and tin

Once a Chi­nese en­clave, the Wa be­came known by Bri­tish colonis­ers as the "wild Wa" for their fear­some rep­u­ta­tion for head­hunt­ing.

Since be­com­ing a spe­cial re­gion, the zone has un­der­gone an eco­nomic boom of sorts.

It is home to one of the world's largest tin mines and mas­sive rub­ber plan­ta­tions.

Re­gional drug cops say it plays a cen­tral role in the "Golden Tri­an­gle" nar­cotics trade, forged over decades of opium pro­duc­tion.

The Wa have long been ac­cused of run­ning a narco-state pep­pered with meth labs across their self-po­liced lands - claims Wa lead­ers ve­he­mently deny. "Poppy cul­ti­va­tion will never ap­pear again," said Bao cit­ing its erad

"The Wa peo­ple are masters of their own destiny," Bao, flanked by se­nior Chi­nese of­fi­cials, de­clared in an ad­dress to the thou­sands gath­ered for the pa­rade.

ica­tion as one of his state's "proud­est achieve­ments" and vow­ing to com­bat all drug pro­duc­tion. But in­de­pen­dent analysis is im­pos­si­ble.

Wa re­mains vir­tu­ally locked-off, re­sis­tant to out­side vis­i­tors, ringed by check­points and tight in­ter­nal con­trols.

Chair­man Bao

The pub­lic­ity-shy sep­tu­a­ge­nar­ian Bao has helmed the re­gion for decades.

An unas­sail­able, au­thor­i­tar­ian fig­ure­head, he pre­sides over a po­lit­i­cal hi­er­ar­chy that shad­ows the struc­tures of big neigh­bour China and a tightly-con­trolled so­ci­ety.

"In the mould of Xi Jin­ping, Bao is the head of the army, party and govern­ment and has been con­firmed in those positions for life," Bangkok-based se­cu­rity an­a­lyst An­thony Davis told AFP.

Zhao Guo An, a se­nior UWSA leader, lauded the re­la­tion­ship with China, telling re­porters it was "very old, we're brothers," adding Bei­jing "is very im­por­tant" for his forces, but de­clin­ing to give fur­ther de­tails.

As a trad­ing gate­way to China the yuan is the Wa cur­rency - the zone pro­vides a point of lever­age for Bei­jing against Myan­mar and any po­ten­tial re­sis­tance to its grand in­fra­struc­ture and pipe­line plans for the coun­try.

The Wa have at­tended peace talks in a coun­try lac­er­ated by eth­nic con­flicts, but so far re­main out­side a na­tion­wide cease­fire deal -- an agree­ment keenly sought by Aung San Suu Kyi's civil­ian govern­ment.

In­tense violence be­tween Myan­mar's army and Rakhine rebels on the other side of the coun­try has un­der­cut prospects of a bind­ing peace deal any time soon.

"The UWSA is the largest non-state mil­i­tary ac­tor in East Asia," Davis said, adding it "has un­ques­tion­ably been armed by China" de­spite pro­duc­ing its own China-de­signed ri­fles.

A bar­rage of colour­ful flares ended the pa­rade as thou­sands of peo­ple in eth­nic clothes joined the ranks of mil­i­tary in the sports ground a show of loy­alty in a highly mil­i­tarised area.

"I be­came a Wa soldier when I was about 13 years old. My younger brother is also a soldier," a 32-year-old UWSA re­cruit told AFP, also re­quest­ing not to be named. "As a Wa, you have to serve the army."

Fe­male sol­diers on pa­rade. Photo: EPA

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