Engaging the UWSA: Countering Myths, Building Ties

Wa flag flies outside school in Northern Wa Region (Image Credit: Andrew Ong)

Andrew Ong makes the case for the international community to reach out to the UWSA and build trust.

The carefully staged photos of tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing serving soup to United Wa State Army (UWSA) commander Bao Youyi, hospitalised after fatigue and hypertension at the Third Union Peace Conference (UPC) in July 2018, raised eyebrows across the country. The photo was posted to the former’s Facebook page and gestured towards bridge-building between the tatmadaw and the UWSA, the country’s strongest Ethnic Armed Organisation (EAO).

Building genuine trust however, will take far more than birds’ nest soup.

Not captured in the photograph were the UWSA’s demands for an official Wa State, amendments to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and the 2008 Constitution, and recognition of the Wa-controlled territory on the Thai border.

The UWSA had in September 2016 walked out of Aung San Suu Kyi’s landmark attempt to build peace with EAOs, the 21st Century Panglong Conference (now UPC). The formation of the UWSA-led coalition, the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) in April 2017, was a further blow to her NLD government’s hopes for significant progress in the peace process. The FPNCC submitted its demands at the Second UPC in May 2017, which were largely ignored. This Third UPC saw little concrete progress made, and now runs the risk of halting its momentum.

Perceptions and Myths of the UWSA

The UWSA was formed from the fracturing of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1989, its leaders quick to sign a ceasefire with the tatmadaw, one that has held to the present day. It controls fully two large swathes of territory along the Chinese and Thai borders, protected by an army of around 30,000.

Narratives about the UWSA have focused on secrecy and isolation, with sensationalised reporting about “an empire built on guns, drugs and blood”, or unverified allegations of the acquisition of helicopters and other weapons. The scant scholarly material centres on the political economy of opium and drugs, with book covers predominantly depicting soldiers in poppy fields.

In May 2015, the UWSA hosted the first EAOs summit at its headquarters in Pangkham, without the presence of Myanmar government representatives, and created the first opportunity for the press to visit Wa Region. Journalists were invited by the UWSA again in October 2016.

Paradoxically, while these visits gave a glimpse into life inside Wa Region, they also created distance – exaggerating the secrecy and remoteness of Wa Region, or its similarities to China. Across the media, representations of the UWSA invariably depict young soldiers marching, training, or guarding checkpoints, alongside charges of vice and lawlessness, and exotic visuals of the wildlife trade and casinos.

Little wonder then, that the UWSA remains “feared and poorly understood”, and few in Yangon can imagine ever engaging with the UWSA. Two serious misconceptions circulate in Yangon: first that the UWSA is a part or pawn of China, and second that they are mysterious, isolated and disengaged from Myanmar.

Pawns of China?

Suggestions of the UWSA being pawns of China are part of the tatmadaw’s allegations; the New Light of Myanmar accused the UWSA in 2015 of being ethnic Chinese posing as Wa “tribesmen” to further their secessionist and drug-running aims. Many Burmese people view the Wa as far closer to China than it actually is, wondering why they speak Chinese and not Burmese, and why travel there is so difficult – with perceptions that Burmese are unwelcome in Wa Region. But for the UWSA, historical affinity to China is simple and straightforward, not a sinister conspiracy – as Chairman Bao himself remarked, “in the past, when we needed help, no one else helped us but China.”

With telecommunications systems and somewhat a stable kyat only a relatively recent phenomena in Myanmar, the UWSA has for decades relied on Chinese currency and Chinese markets for its rubber and mining industries, construction technology, and communication networks. Yet since the 1990s, the UWSA has demonstrated a creativity and ability to navigate different routes, markets, and investments to buttress its self-reliance. Collaborations between Wa-owned companies and other Myanmar conglomerates point to strong business ties with elites in Yangon and Mandalay.

Other observers overstate the UWSA’s subordination to China, suggesting that China has advisors shadowing top UWSA leaders, vets visitors to Wa Region, and dictates the UWSA’s external relations. Rather, the relationship is more nuanced and based on mutual interest, respect, and norms of propriety. The inclusion of a clause to invite China as an observer to FPNCC negotiations, in the press release from the first FPNCC meeting of August 2017, seems an example of such face-giving and respect. As Yun Sun observes, China cannot force the UWSA to leave or join the peace process without creating resentment, and its interest is in maintaining good ties with the UWSA.

Both China and the UWSA have tried to dispel rumours about the nature of this relationship; China angrily dismissed suggestions that it had encouraged EAOs to reject the NCA. The UWSA is also quick to point out that China is invited as an observer only because of its status as a neighbour, although at other times it perhaps hides behind China’s “wishes” as an excuse for certain decisions it makes. The relationship is better described as the UWSA making its own autonomous decisions, while taking into account how China might view these actions.


The BBC’s analysis following its visit in 2016 wrote of the Wa: “detached from both national and international laws, they do exactly as they please. And they do not want to change.” This lazy and flippant mischaracterisation served only to portray the UWSA as removed, stubborn, and narrow-minded, lacking a political strategy.

The UWSA has always made the case for an autonomous Wa State, yet insists that it does not call for secession or independence. Mistranslations between Burmese, Chinese, and English have often led to misunderstandings around political terminology such as “autonomy”, “independence”, “state”, and “federalism”, causing uncertainty around motivations and intentions.

The UWSA’s engagement has been shaped by the uncertainties of its negotiating partners. It stayed out of peace negotiations prior to 2015 because it did not want to be used by the Myanmar government to pressure other smaller EAOs to the negotiating table. The policy was to let everyone make their minds up on their own. Premature rumours frequently circulate about the willingness of the UWSA to sign the NCA, creating confusion amongst its allies, and is part of the motivation to create a unified stance under the FPNCC.

The UWSA has long been seen as militarily strong yet politically unsophisticated and isolationist by its allies, but these perceptions are shifting as “admiration” builds for its ability to resist pressures from the Myanmar government. In reality, little has changed, and the UWSA’s stance towards the ceasefire has been consistent throughout – they frequently cite the fact that there is already a bilateral ceasefire in place, and hence further signings are meaningless. Yet they have shown a willingness to compromise under the right conditions, as they did in 2011 when they re-signed a ceasefire with the junta.

Reticence towards the peace process should not be interpreted as disinterest. Speaking about Min Aung Hlaing’s insistence on NCA acceptance, the UWSA’s External Relations Head replied: “It is not a problem. He has his own stand and we have our own stand. If we have the same stands, there won’t be conflicts. It is not strange. We will meet frequently and negotiate in the future to find an answer.” The UWSA refuses to be hurried into negotiations, and hence appears indifferent at times, but this does not mean an unwillingness to compromise, should the conditions be right.

UWSA Self-imaginaries

This behaviour is perfectly consistent with the self-imaginaries of the UWSA, which see itself as autonomous, self-reliant, resolute, and united. When asked about former Shan “druglord” Khun Sa in an interview with Phoenix News, Chairman Bao Youxiang of the UWSA replied that Khun Sa “was a businessman, like water he flowed wherever he flowed”. By contrast, he presented the UWSA as “a rock that cannot be moved”.

While contradictions exist within their self-portrayal, the UWSA insists that it will never fire the first shot; and leaders pride themselves on the value of their promises, exemplified by Chairman Bao’s once hyperbolic claim that he would “cut his head off” if opium was still grown in Wa Region after the ban. Yet it is precisely a pride in their promises that often keeps them out of agreements they fear they cannot fulfil. At such times they prefer to withdraw or remain silent.

Self-reliance is central to the UWSA imaginary, with its refusal to be coerced or threatened into signing agreements. The UWSA carefully protects its supply routes and key locations, safeguarding strategic interests. Disagreements and standoffs on the northern and southern boundaries of Wa Region have occurred from time to time, but without serious escalation. Threats to these corridors are the most likely to spark open conflict, conversely, avoiding them renders outbreaks of fighting highly unlikely.

The UWSA leadership recalls the deadlock and futility of warfare under the CPB during the 1970s and 80s, the casualties suffered fighting Khun Sa in the 1990s, and the difficulty of holding terrain. They have no wish to return to warfare nor to expand their territory.

The UWSA is also proud of unity within their ranks, and the avoidance of factionalism. This consistency of their stances is their pride – authoritative, unchanging, and straightforward – and while interpreted as intransigence by observers, the UWSA are perplexed and dismayed by factionalism and changing stances amongst other EAOs. On this basis, the UWSA originally proposed a top-down approach to peace negotiations, one that was roundly rejected in favour of a more acceptable bottom-up approach. Yet following the 3rd UPC, there appear to be calls for a return to narrower top-level discussions.

The logic of power in Wa Region also comes with an obligation for provision and generosity. For the UWSA to respect the government’s authority, the government must demonstrate a basic sincerity in providing for its subjects. Many requests are small, and failures to meet them all the more discouraging. For instance, the UWSA has a longstanding request that the government provide identity documents to people in Wa Region. Yet this has been inadequately met, on one occasion in 2015 a meagre 150 or so were issued by Myanmar Immigration. Such gestures of stinginess provoke only disdain amongst the UWSA.

Engaging the UWSA

As Yun Sun notes, key difficulties facing national reconciliation with the Myanmar government are the creation of a “Wa State” and the status of the UWSA’s territory on the Thailand border. With a supposed 30,000 soldiers, and as leaders of the FPNCC, the UWSA cannot be ignored in any political solution, nor will it cede any territory easily.

A first step would entail searching for avenues through which ties can be built across the Salween River. Here, the international community can and should play a serious part. The UWSA has constantly appealed for development aid and technical assistance. International organisations should seek engagement and development interventions in Wa Region if they take national reconciliation, peace-building, and conflict management seriously rather than paying lip service to it.

Development organisations worked in Wa Region from the late 1990s as part of opium substitution efforts. The UWSA banned opium growing in 2005, and international organisations provided food security and livelihood support. At its peak in 2010, nine organisations worked in Wa Region. But the Kokang crisis of 2009 and Border Guard Force demands of the tatmadaw, as well as shifting funding priorities, meant that all but three had withdrawn by 2012. For the UWSA, it seemed that appeals for aid had fallen on deaf ears: “just as we had begun to learn how to work with them, they have left.”

The World Food Programme has worked on food security in Wa Region since 2004, but its programs have been scaled down owing to a lack of funding and shifting priorities. From annual food distributions of thousands of tons, it now runs only school-cooked meals for nearly 130 out of the 400 schools across the region. Malteser International and Health Poverty Action still have a handful of clinics in Pangkham and activities across the region – one of the few remaining links to the UWSA. Since 2014, many others organised missions, data-gathering visits, and surveys, but having made overtures, collected information, and shaken hands, they never returned. The UWSA finds this mode of operating hard to comprehend.

People in Wa Region remain desperately poor. The absence of updated and reliable statistics is in itself an indicator of its marginalisation from development initiatives. Food security is between 6-9 months in many townships, and health and education indicators dismal. The attrition rate of students between Grade 1 and Grade 6 is 92%. Extrapolating from the 2014 Census report, literacy in all languages is at an appalling 22.5%.

Many in the development community see access to Wa Region as too dependent on security constraints, programs not cost-effective due to high terrain and transport costs, interventions not sufficiently “impactful” owing to the lack of partners for holistic and sustainable interventions, and the UWSA as too elementary and difficult to work with. But more importantly, they see it as too high a political risk. For these reasons, the EAO most central to the peace process has not been strategically engaged. This is a shame.

Engaging the UWSA requires trust-building, one that takes time and sustained presence, which NGOs and international organisations can provide through development assistance. While the tatmadaw might be keen to deprive the UWSA of any support, such an arrangement actually makes sense for it and the Myanmar government. By permitting or even facilitating international organisations to work in Wa Region, it will be seen as providing for its subjects, at no cost to itself. Any development assistance is in any case a fraction of other revenue in Wa Region. With about 30% of schools in Wa Region teaching Burmese language, and the possibility of scaling up, the prospect of a shared language for future generations is invaluable. Most importantly, sustained international presence in Wa Region provides a possible channel and more potential mediators, balancing the UWSA’s reliance on China as the middleman.

This too makes sense for China since its goals in the peace process cannot be easily achieved by working alone. China’s unilateral intentions and actions will always be regarded with suspicion as to its true motives. Working with the international community lends legitimacy to the valuable input and inroads it has already made. Nor is there any genuine chance of international actors supplanting its lead and favoured position with the UWSA.

Andrew Ong is a postdoctoral fellow at the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore. He holds a PhD in Anthropology from Harvard University.

Image Credit: Andrew Ong