Wa State Flag

The Wa have carved out a virtual independent nation for itself in eastern Myanmar called the Wa State and have the largest nonstate army in Asia. For centuries, they resisted rule by outsiders, including the Chinese and the British, and and have continued to do so against the Myanmar government, whether it be democratically elected or a military junta. As of the early 2020s, when the as Myanmar's military government was fighting a brutal civil war and waging brutal campaigns against a number of armed ethnic and Burman opponents, the Wa were relatively secure in the rugged hills bordering China, expanding their influence over Shan State, Myanmar's biggest region, largely financed with money from the drug trade.. Wa State has been headed since 1995 by Bao Youxiang, chairman of the ruling United Wa State Party (UWSP) and a veteran of guerrilla warfare and opium smuggling. [Source: Denis D. Gray, Nikkei, August 12, 2022]

Wa State is an autonomous self-governing polity. It has its own political system, administrative divisions and army. However, the Wa State government recognises Myanmar's sovereignty over all of its territory, and the Burmese government does not consider Wa State's political institutions to be legitimate. The 2008 Constitution of Myanmar officially recognises the northern part of Wa State as the Wa Self-Administered Division of Shan State. The Wa State is a a one-party socialist state ruled by UWSP, which split from the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1989, Wa State is divided into three counties, two special districts, and one economic development zone. The administrative capital is Pangkham, formerly known as Pangsang. [Source: Wikipedia]

The Wa State embraces an area of about 35,000 square kilometers, roughly equal to the size of the Netherlands. The Wa population in the two areas of Wa State are estimated to be 400,000 to 500,000. Denis D. Gray wrote: Although the global community -- with China a notable exception -- has shunned the Wa for their decades-long involvement in trading illegal drugs, the self-named Wa State is not a narco-state of cash-rich drug lords. The United Wa State Army marshals up to 30,000 well-trained troops, equipped with Chinese-made heavy artillery, surface-to-air missiles and weaponized drones, and will be a critical military and political player no matter how Myanmar's current chaos ends.

Since the February 2021 overthrow of a democratically elected government by a clique of generals, more than 1 million people have been driven from their homes across Myanmar, their villages burned and thousands killed in air and ground attacks, according to the United Nations. But the regime's forces, known as the Tatmadaw, have suffered serious casualties and loss of territory. Having ruled the country for most of the past 60 years, the military's downfall now would trigger a seismic yet unforeseeable shift in Myanmar's destiny, with the Wa in a key role.

Bertil Lintner, a Swedish author who is a leading authority on Myanmar, said Wa leaders have made no new political demands since the military seized control in Naypyitaw, such as a push for formal independence. An informal peace agreement between the Wa and the central government has lasted since 1989, giving the Wa self-government in return for recognition of Myanmar sovereignty. "The Wa are happy with what they have and want to protect it," Lintner told Nikkei Asia. But they are not idle, forging alliances, funneling weapons to the regime's opponents and enlarging some of their own territory. "The Wa people are masters of their own destiny," said Bao Youxiang, chairman of the ruling United Wa State Party during the 30th anniversary celebrations of Wa autonomy in 2019. A veteran of guerrilla warfare and opium smuggling, Bao has headed the one-party state since 1995.

United Wa State Army

United Wa State Army Flag

The Wa State is backed by United Wa State Army (UWSA), the largest nonstate army in Asia and arguably the world’s largest and most powerful drug militias (if you exclude the Taliban). According to Jane’s Defense Weekly the United Wa State Army has 20,000-30,000 troops, about twice the size of Ireland’s armed forces, 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 is comprised of well-trained troops, equipped with Chinese-made heavy artillery and weaponized drones. 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. It could turn out to be a critical military and political player in Myanmar's current chaotic state. .

The UWSA has full time 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.

Development in Wa State in Myanmar

Panghsang, capital of Wa State

Denis D. Gray wrote: In "The Wa of Myanmar and China's Quest for Global Dominance," (2021) Lintner says the once-wild Wa hills are regulated by a dozen Wa government bureaus, including institutions with responsibility for issues such as education, agriculture, public relations and women's affairs. Before 1989, Wa officials told Lintner, only 20 schools with 480 students and 100 teachers existed. By 2019 that had grown to 409 schools, 60,000 pupils and 2,400 teachers. The number of hospitals increased over the same period from four to 26, staffed by doctors and nurses trained in China. [Source: Denis D. Gray, Nikkei, August 12, 2022]

Although these statistics cannot be independently verified, Lintner has said he has witnessed remarkable changes since he first came into close contact with the Wa in 1986, during an epic 18-month trek across Myanmar with his wife and newly born daughter. Panghsang, now the Wa capital, was then a collection of mud-bricked houses, decrepit Chinese-made vehicles and threadbare markets where plastic flip-flops, torches and Western T-shirts were regarded as luxury items.

On his last visit, in 2019, Lintner was surprised by Panghsang's transformation into a modern, sophisticated city. Multistory buildings, hotels and well-stocked supermarkets flanked wide streets lit by solar power. Residents were transported free in electric vehicles. A Buddhist pagoda, Christian churches and a Muslim mosque reflected the city's diversity. Panghsang cannot be mistaken for a Burman city. Chinese is more widely spoken than the Burmese language, China's yuan is the currency of choice, rather than Myanmar's kyat, and internet and mobile telephone connections are provided by Chinese servers. The Wa state television station broadcasts in the Wa language and Mandarin Chinese.

Wa and China

Denis D. Gray wrote: China and the Wa have been inextricably linked since the 1960s when Beijing supported the Denis D. Gray wrote: Communist Party of Burma (as Myanmar was then known) in its fight against the central government. Defeated in the heartland, the CPB retreated into the Wa hills, where its Burman leaders recruited the Wa as front-line fighters until, Lintner writes, they realized they were "little more than cannon fodder for fulfilling the dream of a group of Burmese communists whose language they do not even speak." [Source: Denis D. Gray, Nikkei, August 12, 2022]

In 1989, Wa troops entered Panghsang, destroyed portraits of Chinese leader Mao Zedong and sent the communist leaders fleeing into China. "We, the people of the Wa region, never kowtow before an aggressor army whether it be local or foreign," the mutineers announced. "Although we may be backward in terms of culture and literature, we are very strong in our determination." The Wa may not be pleased with their current dependence on China, its vital weapons provider and chief economic driver, but they have few options. "The Chinese are using them, and the Wa know they are being used, but what can they do?" Lintner said. Chinese support for the Wa gives Beijing leverage inside Myanmar, which provides China with access to the Indian Ocean from its southern province of Yunnan. The Wa have also become what Lintner describes as "a useful bargaining chip," helping Beijing to put pressure on the Myanmar government not to move closer to the West. The Wa's banishment from the world community has further intensified their dependence.

Massage parlor that caters to Chinese

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.

According to IHS Jane's Intelligence Review in 2013 China provided the Wa with advanced weapons to build up their defenses. The transfers included surface to air missiles, at least 12 armored vehicles and "tank destroyers." 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." 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. [Source: Daniel Schearf, VOA, January 25, 2013]

Economy and Isolation of the Wa State

Denis D. Gray wrote: Historically, the only significant outsiders in the hills were Western missionaries who arrived in the 1930s. They devised a written script for the Wa language, but had minimal success in weaning the population from animism -- in sharp contrast to the wholesale Christian conversions of other Myanmar ethnic minorities such as the Karen, Chin and Kachin. [Source: Denis D. Gray, Nikkei, August 12, 2022]

The continuing isolation of the Wa is largely a consequence of the U.S. dismissal of the group in 2005 as "one of the largest heroin producing and trafficking groups in the world." Drug trafficking still thrives, with opium, heroin and a tide of methamphetamines flooding Thailand and other nearby countries. But Lintner said most of this activity is now confined to a swath of territory bordering Thailand.

In the Wa heartland, eradication of opium met with some success, and Lintner writes that the once drug-dependent economy has been diversified into mining for tin and lucrative rare earths, tea and rubber plantations, light industry, and a casino catering to Chinese gamblers. The Wa territory is also one of the world’s hot spots for wildlife trafficking. Chinese, Vietnamese and some Thai syndicates have long operated with impunity, smuggling ivory, rhino horn and a range of wildlife, mainly to buyers in China and Vietnam.

Wa-Controlled Territory in 2009

In 2009 the New York Times reported from War territory in Myanmar: Few outsiders visit the areas under Wa control, except Chinese businessmen, drug traffickers and the occasional official from the United Nations...Here in Mong Hpen, a stronghold of the United Wa State Army, Wa children play games at a downtown Internet cafe close to the market, which is dominated by Chinese merchants. Like many other ethnic groups, the Wa have their own schools, hospitals, electricity grid and phone services. The Internet here is fast and free of censorship by the Myanmar government. [Source: New York Times, November 5, 2009]

“The northern reaches of Myanmar are playgrounds of vice for Chinese tourists and businessmen who stream across the border. The territory of Mong La is run by Lin Mingxian, a former Red Guard during China’s Cultural Revolution who today has a private army of about 3,000 men, separate from but allied with the Wa forces. During daylight hours the town appears sleepy. But when night falls hundreds of prostitutes line up in orderly queues waiting for patrons who arrive in taxis. More entrepreneurial prostitutes hand out calling cards at outdoor restaurants. Hotels charge by the hour. Casinos in the nearby town of Mong Ma lure Chinese gamblers. At a morning market hawkers sell exotic animals from inland jungles both live and skinned.

“The steep hills in northern Myanmar are lined with rubber plantations that feed Chinese factories’ demand for latex. There is extreme poverty thatch huts and farmers tending fields with buffalo but also much unexplained wealth: modern, walled compounds and the frequent passage of Mitsubishi Pajeros and Toyota Prado Land Cruisers, vehicles that cost well upward of $100,000 in southern Myanmar because of onerous import duties. (Residents of rebel-held areas in northern Myanmar avoid the taxes because cars are imported through Laos or China and bear license plates issued either by the Wa or Mong La governments.)

“United States and Thai counternarcotic officials believe that most of the Wa wealth comes from selling methamphetamine and heroin, both of which have been pouring across the border with Thailand in recent months in unusually large quantities as the Wa and other groups seek cash to buy weapons. The kingpin of the Wa drug operations is Wei Hsueh-kang, according to the United States Drug Enforcement Administration. He is one of 19 Wa leaders sought by the American authorities. The United States is offering $2 million to anyone who helps arrest Mr. Wei, who was born in China but has held leadership positions in the Wa government over the past decade.

“The handful of foreign analysts who have studied the Wa, some of whom cannot be identified because of the sensitivity of their work with foreign militaries or law enforcement agencies, say the Wa are a disciplined and militaristic society. Those who do not fall into line are severely dealt with. Municipal work in Mong Hpen is partly carried out by chain gangs: prisoners in clanking leg irons hack away at the embankment of the main road near the local jail.

Wa Insurgency

Since the British quit Burma in 1948, the Wa have been caught up in numerous ethnic guerrilla conflict, fueled by communism and narcotics. 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.

The commander of the UWSA for many years, 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 Verus the the Shan State Army

Bao Youxiang, the Wa State leader

United Wa State Army biggest rival was the the Shan State Army, the drug-financed army of the famous drug lord Khun Sa, the source of the China White heroin that brought so much pain to the Weast in the 1970s and 80s. The United Wa State Army and the Shan State Army have traditionally battled one another over control of the Myanmar opium and heroin market and territory with the Shan State. The Shan State Army has been allied with the Thai government while the United Wa State Army has been allied with the Myanmar government .

Shan forces fought off and on with Wa forces. In May 2005, Reuters reported from Doi Tailang, Myanmar: “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 (SSA) 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]

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.

In the early 2010s, the Wa forces, Shan forces, the Myanmar army and the Thai army were all involved in the fighting. In 2010, The Guardian spoke to Wa soldiers just over the border, in Myanmar 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]

Over the years various Shan armed forces and militias had fought against one another and formed alliances and fought against Wa forces, largely out of view of the media and the West, and it has been hard to keep track of it all. At times it seemed as if the Wa and Shan had struck gentleman's agreements not to fight. Sometimes a few shots were fired every few months and soldiers were high on opium and meth, Other times the fighting could be quite fierce. As of the early 2020s, the United Wa State Army was still fighting Shan forces for territory in Shan State. By that time the Wa were the dominate player in the global illegal drug trade and the Shan were not and the main objective of the Wa army was to claim territory in Shan State that would allow the Wa to unite the two geographically separate areas of their territory: the one abutting the Thai border and the other abutting the Chinese border.

United Wa State Army and the Myanmar Government

United Wa State Army has allied itself with the Myanmar government and helped them fight against the Shan State Army. After Khun Sa retired in 1996 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.”

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.

In July 2013, the Myanmar's government signed an agreement with the United Wa State Army in which the Myanmar government more or less said would help stop the fighting between the United Wa State Army and the Shan State Army and seek peace withe the United Wa State Army if the the United Wa State Army agreed to some government terms and promised not to secede from Myanmar. Tensions had risen in the Wa region after government troops asked the Wa guerrillas in June 2013 to abandon some territory it controls. The Wa refused to abandon their positions, and government troops surrounded them. [Source: Associated Press, July 13, 2013]

Wa Claim Territory Near the Thailand Border

The Wa-controlled region of southern Shan State, along the frontier with Thailand, was seized by the Wa State after 1989. The Wa ruthlessly expelled tens of thousands of residents from other ethnic minorities, replacing them with Wa settlers and increasing the total territory controlled by Panghsang to 35,000 square kilometers, roughly equal to the land area of the Netherlands. The Wa population in the two areas is estimated at 400,000 to 500,000, with another 250,000 in China.[Source: Denis D. Gray, Nikkei, August 12, 2022]

After Khun Sa surrendered in 1996 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.

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."

Thailand saw the United Wa State Army as a threat. According to the Nation in 2003: 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]

In 2013, the Thai 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 Thai government blamed 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]

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]

United Wa State Army and Drugs

Wei Hsueh-Kang was a notorious drug baron who commanded 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. 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". [Source: The Nation, March 10, 2003 ///]

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.

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." 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." [Source: Ben Doherty, The Guardian, June 21, 2010]

Efforts by the Wa to Expand Their Territory

Denis D. Gray wrote: Some analysts think the Wa State wants to expand its territory further. In fierce clashes in 2021 and 2022, , the Wa army moved to eliminate the Restoration Council of Shan State, an ethnic Shan group active along the Thai frontier whose removal would allow the Wa to unite the geographically separate area of their territory. That would give the Wa control of all the land east of the Salween River, also known as the Thalyin River, and the Thai border -- a region accounting for roughly a third of Shan State and bordering China, Laos and Thailand. [Source: Denis D. Gray, Nikkei, August 12, 2022]

However, Lintner said the Wa would find it difficult to subdue the Shan, Myanmar's largest ethnic minority, in spite of the repopulation of much of the area along the Thai frontier with ethnic Wa settlers. Like the Wa, the Shan have a strong independent streak and a history of fighting outsiders.

The Wa State has forged alliances with several ethnic groups, including the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army, the Shan State Progressive Party and the Ta'ang National Liberation Front, and has provided them with weapons to fight the central government. But the Wa's long-term strategy, according to Lintner, focuses not so much on overthrowing the Myanmar regime but on creating a buffer zone and deterring attacks on their territory.

Efforts by the Wa to End Their Isolation

Denis D. Gray wrote: How the Wa State evolves may depend on the younger generation as old warlords like the ailing, 72-year-old Bao, leave the scene. Wa youths are studying in Thailand and elsewhere in the region, and are connected to social and other modern media. "The young generation have a different world outlook and are more eager to reach out to the West, to establish links with the outer world if they can," Lintner said. [Source: Denis D. Gray, Nikkei, August 12, 2022]

One indication of this change of mood is the permission granted to Australian wildlife conservationist Adam Oswell to establish a Wa task force, trained by experts from Africa, to combat wildlife trafficking. Oswell, who accompanied Lintner to Panghsang in 2019, said that while foreign agencies have assisted other military regimes in conservation, none has worked in the Wa region even though it has been identified as one of the hot spots of global wildlife trafficking. "We should absolutely engage. It's an issue that transcends politics," said Oswell, whose Wa Wildlife Conservation Initiative is set to launch when COVID-19 restrictions imposed by the Wa are lifted.

Both Lintner and Oswell believe that U.S.-driven attempts to ostracize the Wa are a mistake. "The Wa are a proud people and they want to be recognized for what they are. It is easy to just dismiss them are gangsters and drug runners," Lintner said. "They are more than that. It would just be wrong to dismiss and isolate them."

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons

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 September 2022

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