By Aung Din
Editor’s Note: Key players will shape Burma in 2013, for better or worse. As a guest contributor to cogitASIA, Aung Din will examine their current role in Burma, and their potential impact in the coming year, in a short blog series, “The People to Watch in 2013.” Part IV examines the role the United Wa State Army and Party, and its impact on government relations with ethnic minorities, as well as its relations with other ethnic groups. See Part I, Part II, and Part III. The author has requested the use of Burma to refer to the country.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA) launched no significant military actions in 2012. However, the strongest ethnic army in Burma has been working quietly on the ground to expand its authority and areas of control. The UWSA, which emerged from the collapse of the Burma Communist Party (BCP) in 1989 and is notorious for its drug production and trafficking, is of concern to both the Burmese government and other ethnic groups.
The UWSA was a major ally of the Burmese military regime. It was the first ethnic armed group to establish a ceasefire agreement with the regime following the BCP collapse. Since then it has controlled territory in Shan State, known as Shan State (North) Special Region (2), and conducted business freely, with special privileges including in the drug trade. The UWSA’s business group, named Hong Pang Group, is one of the largest conglomerates in Burma and controls business in several sectors, including construction, gems and minerals, hotels, logging, petroleum, electronics and telecommunications, department stores, factories, banks, and a private airline.
The UWSA helped the Burmese military fight the Shan State Army in Southern Shan State in 1996-1997, which led to the surrender of the drug lord Khun San and his Mong Tai Army. It also participated in the regime’s national convention, the 14-year on-again-off-again process between 1993 and 2007 which produced the draft of the 2008 constitution, and in exchange for its loyalty the Burmese military regime created a “Wa Self-Administered Division,” with six townships in Northern Shan State in the 2008 constitution.
However, tension between the regime and the UWSA has increased since 2009. The UWSA refused to accept the regime’s plan to reduce its troops and transform them into Border Guard Forces under the command of the Burmese army.
The UWSA does not accept the status of the “Wa Self-Administered Division” and wants the status of “state” as well as more land area, including in Northern Shan State and three townships in Southern Shan State on the Thai-Burmese border, currently under the UWSA’s control. The UWSA declared its territory in Northern and Southern Shan State as the “Wa State Government Special Administrative Region” in 2009, making the Burmese government and Shan people nervous and concerned.
Burma’s Election Commission was unable to hold elections in these townships in the 2010 parliament elections and the 2012 by-elections, because the UWSA refused to contest in or allow the holding of elections in its controlled area.
It seems that the UWSA will not change its demands and abandon its areas of control. Its army has 30,000 permanent soldiers and 10,000 militias that are well equipped, experienced and disciplined, and have modern weapons, including armored vehicles and ground-to-surface missiles. Although it does not have good relations with the Burmese government at this time, UWSA did not join with other ethnic armed groups in forming the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) either.
Shan State is the largest state in Burma with more than 60,000 square miles and nearly five million people. Although the Shan are a major ethnic group, there are many other ethnic groups living in Shan State as well, and all of them want a piece of the state as their own territory with state-level status.
Except for the UWSA and its major ally, the Mong La Group , other ethnic armies in Shan State are members of UNFC, and find unacceptable the UWSA’s unilateral declaration of a “Wa State” over areas in Southern and Northern Shan State.
Meanwhile, one of the ethnic political parties in Burma, the Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD), led by prominent Shan leader and former political prisoner Hkun Htun Oo, is organizing an “All Shan State Conference,” scheduled for April 2013, with participation of all Shan state-based political parties, civil society organizations, and armed resistance groups. This planned conference is a follow up to a previous Shan conference held in Yangon on November 26-28, 2012, that reiterated the call for a genuinely federal union. The UWSA surely will be invited to the conference, but its participation is not yet certain.
Mr. Aung Din is a democracy and human rights activist and former political prisoner.