Reuters reported: “For the last 60 years, the Wa have been mired in the myriad ethnic guerrilla conflicts, fueled by a heady mix of communism and narcotics, that have plagued post-independence Myanmar. When remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalists fled the 1949 communist revolution, the Wa took up arms and in 1968 became the backbone of the Communist Party of Burma's militia, with opium sales paying for a steady supply of Chinese arms. Their struggle lasted until 1989, when they finally brokered a deal with the ethnic Burmese generals who had seized power 25 years earlier. [Source: Reuters, September 10, 2007]

The Wa were originally used as foot soldiers by the Burmese Communist, which had ties to Kuomintang (Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalists). The Communist Party of Burma financed their revolution with money from the opium and heroin trade and headquartered their operation in Wa territory. Wa rebels fought against the Burmese military government.

United Wa State Army

The United Wa State Army is one of the world’s largest and most powerful drug militias. According to Jane’s Defense Weekly the United Wa State Army has 20,000 troops and is heavily armed with surface-to-air missiles. They have traditionally been based in Pang Hsang, Myanmar. The group is also considered the region's largest drug-dealing organization.

The United Wa State Army (UWSA) is probably Myanmar’s largest non-state armed group, with troop numbers often estimated at 20,000. It has operated under a ceasefire with the government since 1989, and is based in two main areas in northeastern and southern Shan state. The UWSA has three regiments along the Thai border with over 100,000 villagers living in their territory.

Some analysts estimate the UWSA is made up of 30,000 full and part-time fighters. UWSA chairman Bao Yu-xiang operates out of the UWSA headquarters in Panghsang in Shan State in northern Myanmar. The US State Department has called the UWSA the world's largest drug-trafficking army.

History of the United Wa State Army

The UWSA was formed in 1989 out of the break-up of the Communist Party of Burma, in which the ethnic Wa made up the largest armed faction. Shortly afterwards the newly created group entered into a cease-fire agreement with the military government of Burma in return for limited self-rule in their autonomous region in northern Shan State. [Source: The Nation, March 10, 2003]

When the Communist Party of Burma disintegrated in 1989 the Wa threw the communists out of their territory and many Wa guerrillas who fought for the communists were recruited to from the United Wa State Army (UWSA). The UWSA took over the drug trade controlled by the Communists and set about strengthening their army and expanding the opium-growing areas under their control.

Myanmar signed a cease-fire with the Wa in 1990 that gave the Wa a large amount of autonomy and allowed them to govern their own territory in northeastern Shan state in return for ending their fight against the government. The Wa turned this territory into one of Asia's largest opium, heroin and methamphetamine production bases. Splitting up drug money is also believed to be have been part of the deal. The Myanmar government ceded control of Wa territory, called Special Region No. 2, to the Wa. This area produces a fifth of the region’s opium.

Since the surrender of Khun Sa and the disappearance of his Mong Tai Army from its Thai-Burmese border area in early 1996, the Wa army has been carrying out forced relocation of people living in the UWSA-controlled area in the north to areas opposite Mae Hong Son, Chiang Mai and Chiang Rai.

Myanmar Military and United Wa State Army

The commander of the UWSA, Pao Yu-Chang, was born near the Chinese border, and his chief aid, Li Zuru, was born in China's Yunnan province, where he served as a member of Mao's Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution. Both men have used their connections in China to set up drug smuggling routes between Myanmar and China. The Wa are believed to have excellent connection within the Chinese Communist party as well as with Chinese police and local administration officials. Chao Nyi-Lai, another important military-political Wa leader who was elected to his position, and Pao Yu-Chiang may be trying to break the dependence of the Wa people on opium.

The Myanmar military regime generals have allowed the Was to pretty much do as they please in running their "nation" in return for recognition of the Myanmar government and Wa support in the fight against Khun Sa and later the Shan State Army. The Myanmar generals allowed the Wa to use regime-controlled roads to move on Khun Sa. It is believed that Khun Sa "surrendered" to the Myanmar government to keep the Wa army from overrunning his Doilang Mountain operation on the Thai border and take over his smuggling routes into Thailand.

United Wa State Army, Myanmar Government and the Shan State Army

United Wa State Army has allied itself with the Myanmar government and helped them fight against the Shan State Army. The United Wa State Army and the Shan State Army have traditionally battled one another over control of the Myanmar opium and heroin market. The Shan State Army is allied with the Thai government.

After Khun Sa retired the Myanmar government encouraged the United Wa State Army to go after the Shan State Army, telling them “you fight for the land and you’ll get it.” After Khun Sa surrendered the Wa asked for and received two township sections north of the Thai border — Mong Hsat and Mon Ton. Between late 1999 and early 2001, over 150,000 Wa moved from their homeland into these areas. An additional 150,000 moved after that. Some moved on to empty land, others paid former owners for their homes, others still siezed homes at gunpoint.

Wa as Proxy Fighters

In 1999, the Wa were drafted by the former Burma's military junta to wage a proxy guerrilla war against ethnic Shan rebels on the Thai border. Reuters reported: The conflict, in which shots are fired only every few years, is one of many rumbling away in Myanmar's hinterlands between the Burmese-dominated junta and ethnic militias struggling for autonomy, independence -- and control of the drug trade.

The Wa saw peace with the Burmese as an opportunity to challenge "Opium King" warlord Khun Sa for control of Myanmar's multi-billion dollar heroin trade, more than half of world output throughout the 1990s. Four years after Khun Sa cut a deal with the Burmese and switched sides, the heads of the UWSA -- by now one of the world's biggest narco-armies with up to 10,000 men under arms -- saw a chance to secure a route south into Thailand.

The years of fighting have come at a terrible price. According to a report by the Thailand-based Lahu National Development Organisation (LNDO), the ratio of men to women in a population of only 500,000 had sunk to 1:3.

United Wa State Army, Thailand and the Thai Army

According to the Nation: The Thai Army sees the Wa's growing newly-built towns near the Thai border as a national security threat. It was engaged in major armed clashes with the Wa militia in May, 2002. Rangoon issued a harshly worded protest, accusing Thai troops of violating Burmese sovereignty by crossing over the border to wipe out Wa positions. [Source: Don Pathan, The Nation, March 10, 2003]

Over the years, the Myanmar junta has used the UWSA to offset the influence of the Thai security forces along the border. The UWSA, it seems, has outlived its usefulness, as the security apparatus in the country seeks to take fuller control of their country's border. Moreover, with three UWSA regiments on the Thai border, as well as hundreds of thousands of villagers living in Wa-controlled areas, one can be sure that Thailand, once again, will be on the receiving end if and when an all-out offensive between the UWSA and the Myanmar government erupted. [Source: The Nation, April 14, 2013]

United Wa State Army, Child Soldiers and Hit Men

In 2002 Human Rights Watch interviewed witnesses and a former UWSA soldier who testified that the UWSA requires each family in their areas of operation to provide one son to the army, and that they also conduct recruiting sweeps on villages in which they take boys as young as 12. Young boys are then put through military education and training and become soldiers at a very young age, leading to a high proportion of child soldiers within the UWSA. Since then, occasional witness reports suggest that the situation has changed little if at all, though Human Rights Watch was unable to gather detailed information on the current status of the UWSA for this report. People from southern Shan state recently reported that the SPDC has now ordered UWSA units in southern Shan state to withdraw to the UWSA headquarters area in northeastern Shan state. Instead of moving, the five UWSA bases affected are reportedly strengthening their defenses and reinforcing their troop numbers for a possible confrontation with the Tatmadaw. To support these efforts the UWSA is reportedly recruiting heavily in some areas, which could involve child recruitment. [Source: Human Rights Watch, Sold to Be Soldiers, October 31, 2007]

In 2003 The Nation reported: UWSA chairman Bao Yu-xiang Bao denies reports that he and his deputy took out a contract to have Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra eliminated for his war on drugs. In a telephone interview Bao Yu-xiang dismissed the charges as "groundless rumours". "Our group does not have the capacity to carry out such an operation," Bao said through his official interpreter. Thaksin said that a "foreign element" had put a price on his head because his all-out assault on the illicit drug trade had stanched its business. National Police chief General Sant Sarutanond was less guarded, saying specifically that it was the Wa who were plotting the assassination of the premier. The local press, meanwhile, claimed that up to Bt80 million was offered to the hired killer to take out Thaksin. [Source: The Nation, March 10, 2003]

Wa Losing Their Will to Fight

Reuters reported: These days, however, the "Wild Wa" of eastern Myanmar's Shan State, a rag-tag militia of former communist and narco-army guerrillas, are going out of their way to avoid a fight. The Wa have instead acquired a taste for the good life in the heart of the "Golden Triangle", Shan sources say. "Sometimes they are only fighting for show," said one man in Kyaing Tong, a sleepy Shan town 150 km (90 miles) north of the Thai border and the murky front lines between the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Shan State Army South (SSA). [Source: Reuters, September 10, 2007]

The Wa seem to have struck a gentleman's agreement with the Shan not to fight. They realise they are all from the same nation, and that if they fight, the Burmese government will be clapping," the Kyaing Tong resident said. According to the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News, a Wa War Council decided last month to resist pressure from Yangon to fight, and even turned their defences around in case the Burmese army decided to attack from the rear. "In the past, all their 11 fire bases were placing their mortars and machine guns against us," Lieutenant-Colonel Gawnzeun, commander of a Shan base, was quoted as saying. "Now, all of them are facing in the opposite direction."

Wa Move South

In the late 2000s many Wa were forced to move south. Reuters reported: Up to 120,000 are thought to have moved from their homelands 500 km (310 miles) to the north. Eight years on, their tea and macadamia nut plantations -- not to mention drug labs and opium fields -- are bearing fruit.The Wa are in no mood to move. Ironically, the pretext for moving entire Wa villages was opium eradication. The junta just wanted the Wa to squeeze the remnants of Khun Sa's Shan army and end its decades-long struggle for self-rule. [Source: Reuters, September 10, 2007]

"Most were herded into trucks to travel south, but many were forced to walk through the mountains taking over two months. Some died en route," the LNDO said in its report on the Wa migration. Unused to the new terrain and diseases, especially malaria, up to 4,000 people are thought to have died in the first year. "They tried to cure themselves with magic and traditional medicines," one tribesman was quoted as saying. "They offered chickens, pigs, dogs and buffalo to the spirits, but they did not get better."

Wa Army Fighting .

In 2010, The Guardian spoke to Wa soldiers just over the border, in Burma, about halfway between the Thai army border camp and Wa camp. "Burmese Army bad. They come shoot, shoot," one soldier said through an interpreter, mimicking machine gun fire.[Source: Ben Doherty, The Guardian, June 21, 2010]

The Thai army has mobilized thousands of troops and hundred of tanks and artillery pieces along the Thai-Myanmar border to fight the Wa United State Army. At one point it looked as if they might launch a major assault. The government blames the Wa United State Army for supplying the amphetamines which have greatly disrupted Thai society. According to The Irrawaddy in 2013 , observers speculate that the Myanmar government wants to use the contested geographical area currently occupied by the Shan rebels to prepare a military offensive against the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA). [Source: The Nation, April 14, 2013]

Shan Versus Wa Fighting in 2005

In May 2005, from Doi Tailang, Myanmar, Reuters reported: “Lau Wee feels lucky to be alive after a bloody month of clashes in Myanmar's long-running ethnic wars. The 26-year-old soldier in the Shan State Army was caught in a barrage of mortars fired by troops of the Wa army, a rival ethnic group allied to the military junta in Yangon. "They bombarded us with lots of mortars, but I was lucky to survive," Lau Wee told Reuters as he rested at the SSA's remote headquarters on the Thai-Myanmar border. [Source: Reuters, May 24, 2005


“But Lau Wee, dressed in plain plants and a shirt, hardly looks the guerrilla fighter who left Bangkok two years ago to join Myanmar's ethnic Tai in their five-decade struggle for an independent Shan State. "I heard the news on TV that our Tai soldiers were fighting the Burmese, so I left my factory job in Bangkok and joined the SSA," Lau Wee said with a broad smile. He and other young Tai men say they joined up after hearing of the brutality of Yangon's troops against their people.

Most left behind families or jobs in Thai border towns or travelled from remote corners of Shan State, home to the country's biggest ethnic minority. Pran Prai, 23, joined the SSA after he watched Burmese soldiers torture his relatives. "I don't care about money, I do it out of revenge," said Pran Prai, whose on-the-job training began four years ago when he ambushed government troops guarding a roadworks crew. "We had seven and they had 150, but I killed three of them," said Pran Prai, who now works as a psychological warfare officer, broadcasting Shan independence messages over the radio.

Shan leaders expect more Wa attacks after the SSA and Shan State National Army (SSNA) formed an alliance. "We expect another major offensive operation soon," SSA leader Yod Suk told reporters after showing off an arms cache seized from the Wa during their last offensive in April. Entrenched in hilltop positions, Yok Sud said his men had killed 337 Wa soldiers and wounded 332 during three major attacks the previous month. Six SSA men were killed, he said. "We didn't want to fight the Wa, whom we consider our brothers in the Shan State. But they attacked us because they believe we ambushed their bases and give drug tipoffs to Thai and American drug agencies," Yod Suk said.

The Wa troops -- led by Chinese drug lord Wei Hsueh-kang, with a $2 million U.S. bounty on his head -- operate in what is know as the Southern Military Region of Shan State. Thai security officials say Yangon pressed Wei into action as part of its stepped-up campaign against Shan separatists. The drug lord was also an ally of former prime minister Khin Nyunt, who had negotiated ceasefires with several ethnic rebel groups before he was purged last October. "Yangon has ordered Wei Hsueh-kang and his troops to fight the SSA or be handed over to the United States," a Thai security official told Reuters. Thai and U.S. anti-drug agencies say the SSA are also involved in narcotics. But Yod Suk insists their war is financed by taxes on logging, the cattle trade and movement of vehicles.

The military government has reached ceasefire agreements with 17 major ethnic rebel groups since 1988, allowing most of them to keep their weapons in exchange for stopping hostilities. But the SSNA says the regime is now putting pressure on ethnic rebel groups to surrender unconditionally and disarm. Myanmar's state media have paid particular attention to Shan separatists in recent weeks, including denouncing a prominent exiled Shan leader who issued a "declaration of independence" for Shan State last month. Tensions had risen in February when 10 Shan political leaders were arrested, prompting some Shan groups to pull out of the junta's constitution-drafting National Convention.

Wa and China

The Chinese have reportedly provided the Wa with military training and with sophisticated weapons such as surface-to-air missiles in exchange for help in building a network of roads in the region they control;. These roads, the Chinese hope will help provide a link for its navy and commercial enterprises to the Indian Ocean.

The Wa are more closely related to the Chinese ethnically and culturally than to the Burmese. They two groups seem to be quite close. There are many Wa in China. Trade is brisk between China and the Wa-controlled areas and there are lots of Chinese goods in the Wa-controlled areas. Chinese merchant operates in shops and Chinese crews are building roads in Wa-controlled areas of Myanmar.

The Chinese are believed to be carefully monitoring drug activity in the Wa-controlled areas and doing more to halt it than the Myanmar government.

China Quietly Supports Wa Rebels

In January 2013, Daniel Schearf of Voice of America wrote: “While Burma's military steps up battles against Kachin rebels along the border with China, security analysts say Beijing has been quietly selling advanced weapons to another insurgent group on its border, the United Wa State Army. In a December report, IHS Jane's Intelligence Review says China last year provided the Wa with advanced weapons to build up their defenses. The transfers included surface to air missiles and, for the first time, at least 12 armored vehicles the report refers to as "tank destroyers." Daniel Schearf, VOA, January 25, 2013]

Thailand-based security analyst and author of the report, Anthony Davis, said Beijing is trying to balance historic camaraderie with the Wa and its relations with Burmese authorities. "The Chinese cannot afford to ignore the ethnic forces along their border, nor at the same time can they afford to ignore the central government," Davis said. "Is that to say that China is directly supplying that equipment? No, it's not. Clearly the supplier of that equipment is known to senior elements in the government, but that is not to say that they are directly involved in financing. They need to maintain a degree of deniability here," he said.

The Wa were one of several ethnic militias that formed after the 1989 breakup of the Burmese Communist Party. Beijing directly supported the communists and maintained relations with the newly formed rebel groups. Yale University Ph. D. candidate Josh Gordon said China has been particularly close with the Wa, who speak Chinese. The Wa are more or less a proxy of China, said Gordon. "You'll use Chinese money, Chinese cell phones, Chinese electricity for in large part, where there is electricity in the urban areas, and have connection to the Chinese Internet," he said.

Despite the recent escalation in Chinese weapons transfers to the Wa, Davis said Beijing is not trying to destabilize the border area. Instead, China is sending a message to Burmese authorities not to even think about attempting in Wa territory what they are doing in Kachin state where local groups are fighting Burmese forces, he said. "The Chinese are not stoking fires in Northern Burma. By reinforcing the Wa they are reinforcing a military deterrent. If you like, they are reinforcing peace and stability which has existed for the last 20 years in a manner that's been favorable to China."

During past decades of military rule and western sanctions, China held great sway over Burma and its natural resources. But since Burma's reform-minded President Thein Sein took office, and sanctions were suspended, China's influence is being thrown off balance. Davis said the weapons tranfers to the Wa appear to be China responding to its political reversals.

Myanmar Signs Trust-Building Pact with Wa Rebels

In July 2013, Associated Press reported: “Myanmar's government has signed an agreement with a major ethnic rebel group to build mutual trust in an effort to defuse recent tensions between the armies from the two sides, state-run media reported Saturday. The Kyemon daily said the five-point agreement signed between a government peace delegation and the ethnic Wa rebel group includes clauses calling for prompt meetings between the two armies whenever military issues arise and committing the rebel United Wa State Army not to secede. [Source: Associated Press, July 13, 2013]

The government is seeking comprehensive peace agreements with all of the country's ethnic rebel groups and has reached new cease-fire agreements with many of them, but it continues to have armed confrontations with some of the major ones. The move represents a step forward in the government's peace efforts.

The Wa, in the country's north, are believed to have the biggest of the ethnic guerrilla armies, with as many as 30,000 men. Tensions have risen recently in the Wa region after government troops asked the guerrillas in June 2013 to abandon some territory it controls. The Wa refused to abandon their positions, and government troops surrounded them.

The Wa, who once served as a major fighting force for the now defunct Burmese Communist Party, reached a peace agreement with Myanmar's former military regime in 1989. It allowed the ethnic group to exercise a measure of autonomy in its region and even maintain a powerful armed force. The United Wa State Army had been accused by the United States and Thailand of involvement in the illicit drug trade, but the Wa denied the charges and have declared their region an "opium cultivation-free zone" since 2005. The agreement between also called for cooperation between the government and the UWSA for regional development and drug eradication efforts.

United Wa State Army and Drugs

Wei Hsueh-Kang is a notorious drug baron who commands a faction of the Wa army. In 2011, the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency put most-wanted pictures of Wei Hsueh Kang in Thailand's entertainment venues.

In 2003 The Nation reported: UWSA chairman Bao Yu-xiang Bao said that his military is not engaged in illicit drug production or distribution and only makes some money from opium cultivation in the form of taxes, which account for a mere four per cent of its total income. Drug smuggling into Thailand was the "act of individual traffickers", not the work of the UWSA, he said. Bao's deputy, Wei Hseuh-kang, who commands UWSA's Brigade 171 near the border, has been accused of being the main force behind the millions of methamphetamine pills flooding Thailand on a weekly basis. [Source: The Nation, March 10, 2003 ///]

A US federal court has convicted Wei, along with other Burmese warlords, including Khun Sa, of trafficking in heroin. Bao vowed to keep his pledge of turning his autonomous region, properly called Special Region No 2, into a drug-free zone by 2005, or, in his own words, "you can come back and chop my head off". ///

One Wa soldier told The Guardian: "Our life here is hard … we always need to make money some way, any way to feed our people. We need to survive."

Colonel Peeranate Gatetem, head of the Thai army's anti-drug Pha Muang task force, told The Guardian that with the money it is making the Wa was arming with surface-to-air missiles bought from China, and AK-47 assault rifles. "They are preparing for war. " The Burmese government wants the Wa to disarm, come under government control and become a border guard force. But the Wa will not ever agree to do that, so they are preparing for the government troops to move in on them. are getting ready to fight. They are selling more and more drugs so they can buy weapons to fight the government." [Source: Ben Doherty, The Guardian, June 21, 2010]

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, The Irrawaddy, Myanmar Travel Information Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Global Viewpoint (Christian Science Monitor), Foreign Policy, burmalibrary.org, burmanet.org, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, NBC News, Fox News and various books and other publications.

Last updated May 2014

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