Wa State emblem

Most of the opium and heroin and amphetamines produced in Myanmar is now controlled the Wa, a fiercely independent Myanmar ethic group. The Wa traditionally have grown opium in their homeland near the Chinese border. The also processed opium grown by other people in the Golden Triangle area. The Kokang Chinese who occupy an area near Wa territory are also heavily involved in the drug trade.

The Wa have also played a big role in heroin production. Their share of the opium and heroin market increased dramatically in 1990s when they signed a peace treaty with the Myanmar military government. After that they began moving into territory controlled by the drug lord Khun Sa.

In 1996, before Khun Sa retired, Wa farmers produced about 80 percent of opium raised in Myanmar but sold much of their crop to Khun Sa. Later they opened their own laboratories (with chemicals supplied from China) developed their smuggling routes and contacts and were able to muscle in on Khun Sa's drug trading activities, which played a part in his retirement.

Increasingly the Wa have moved from opium and heroin into amphetamines, which is easier to make and more profitable than opium or heroin and is more popular in Asia and arguably has more negative social consequences.

Thomas Fuller wrote in the New York Times, “In recent years the Wa have been concerned about their international image, especially in light of an indictment of eight Wa leaders by a United States court four years ago that described the Wa army as “a criminal narcotics trafficking organization.” Under pressure from China, the Wa forbade farmers in their territory to cultivate opium.” [Source: Thomas Fuller, New York Times, September 30, 2009]

Leaders of the Wa Drug Operation

In the 1990s the Wa drug operation was believed to be under the control of three brothers—Wei Hsueh-Kang, Wei Hsueh-yin and Wei Hsuehlong—who cut their teeth in the drug business working as spies for the Kuomintang and as lieutenants for Khun Sa. At that time they controlled most of the poppy cultivation in Myanmar, and had large refining complexes along the Myanmar-China border. [Source: U.S. News and World Report, October 3, 1994]

The Wei brothers helped Khun Sa set up relationships with drug buyers in Hong Kong, Taiwan and elsewhere. When the Kuomintang left Wa territory the Wei brothers returned to their homeland and set up their own drug empire there. When Khun Sa “retired” they moved into his territory.

The Wei brothers financed the United Wa State Army, which is believed to have between 20,000 and 35,000 soldiers. The United States has reportedly offered $2 million for the capture of Wei Huseuh Kang

Big Brother P, an ethnic Chinese entrepreneur and one the largest opium traffickers in Mae Sai, a town along the Burmese border, told Time, “I know all the top police officers here. They come to my house for dinner.”

Wa Drug Operation

Those that entered Wa-controlled areas in the 1990s saw opium grown quite openly with women with babies on their backs tending the crop. At that time large numbers of Wa were uprooted and moved from near the Chinese border to near the Thai border.

The movement of the Wa from near the Chinese border to the Thai border helped their drug operations immensely by providing new places to grow opium and produce amphetamines and providing more smuggling routes into Thailand. See United Wa State Army, Myanmar Government and the Shan State Army, Myanmar

The United Wa State Army pledged to end opium production in 2005, a promise believed to have been made to the Chinese government rather the Myanmar government in return for a stake in money made from Chinese tourists and gamblers. At that time the Wa were more interested in amphetamines than opium and heroin.

Wa Drug Operation Economics

Money made from drugs in Wa territory has been used to build roads, a hydroelectric power station, hospitals, schools and irrigation system and has helped launch and prop up many legitimate businesses and established a booming economy. Sometimes the opium harvest have been low due to heavy rains and cold winters in the area. In addition, Chinese authorities tried to crack down on the drug production along China’s border.

Wa boom towns have new schools, hospitals, restaurants and shops with lots of goods, bamboo “casinos” and karaokes with girls imported from China. The capital of the Wa state, Pangkhan, even has streetlights like those found in cities on its dirt main road and an eight-lane bowling alley.

One of the biggest drug boom towns near the Thai border in Myanmar is Mong Yawn, a major stronghold for the United Wa State Army. When Khun Sa dominated the area the town was in a buffer zone between Thai and Myanmar armies and a major gateway way for heroin and opium on its way from Myanmar to Thailand.

The money from the drug trade doesn’t trickle down to the opium farmers though. Most of the farmers only earn $200 or so a year and suffer from a number of health problems. Diseases like malaria and tuberculosis are rampant. Curable disease like pink eye causes blindness. Villages have becoming addicted using opium to treat their illnesses.

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, the Chinese and Myanmar’s Illegal Drugs

Documentary film maker Mitchell Koss, who visited Wa area in Myanmar, wrote in the Los Angeles Times: “From the Chinese the Wa have also learned about development. The Wa don't seem to have much in common with the Burmese majority far away in the rest of Myanmar. They don't love the ruling generals. They don't love Suu Kyi. They love China and everything Chinese. In remote areas of Special Region #2 you can see Chinese road builders camped in tents made of plastic sheeting, a sight evocative of images of Chinese building the American railroads 150 years ago. Chinese trucks ply these new — albeit dirt — roads. Chinese merchants operate the small shops in the villages. In one village of dirt streets and thatch-roofed structures, we saw dozens and dozens of large new electric streetlight poles, suitable for the downtown of a city. We were told that the town chief had admired similar light poles in China, and a willing Chinese salesperson had then obliged. And behind the scenes, the Chinese government presumably pressures the Wa leadership to abandon opium, just as Chinese intelligence officers quietly track drug traffickers across the Wa region. [Source: Mitchell Koss, Los Angeles Times, August 10, 2003 |||]

“On the journey back out of Special Region #2, we stopped for the night in the city of Mong Lar, in the adjoining Special Region #4. Compared to where we'd just been, Mong Lar looked like a metropolis. It has eliminated opium production. Taking advantage of the nearness to China, Mong Lar has switched from opium to large casinos. Unlike the makeshift Wa casinos, Mong Lar's gambling palaces light up the night sky and draw thousands of Chinese visitors. Around the casinos are streets of brothels staffed by young women from all over China. Suddenly, it all clicked. We understood why the Wa leaders had taken us to those would-be casinos and karaoke bars — they were showing how they planned to get rid of opium. They want to go into the tourism business.” |||

Thailand and the Wa Drug Operation

The United Wa State Army has foot soldiers patrolling the Thai border region. When you enter this part of Myanmar you deal with them not Myanmar authorities. The soldiers have fought with the Thai army and been linked to the killing of villagers. They sometimes wander into Thai territory.

Firefights have broken out between Thai soldiers and drug runners and Wa soldiers. In April 2001, a large fight occurred after a Thai soldiers intercepted a drug caravan with six million amphetamines pills, escorted by 30 gunmen. Another clash left two Wa soldiers dead and resulted in the capture of 16 kilograms of heroin, amphetamines tablets and five AK-47s.

Thai soldiers reportedly have shoot to kill orders and occasionally make incursions into Myanmar territory to close laboratories and root out United Wa State Army strongholds. The Thais do much of their dirty work through the Shan State Army. See Ethnic Insurgencies, Myanmar.

Wa, Drugs and the Myanmar Generals

The Myanmar military regime and United Wa State Army are close and believed to be working together in the drug trade. The Wa is believed to have made deals with the generals, some of whom have investments in the drug trade. At one point it was said the Myanmar generals have authorized the Myanmar army to attack Thai army positions in Thailand to protect Wa drug laboratories in Myanmar.

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.

Wa Move from Heroin to Amphetamines

Reuters reported: The Wa proved as adaptable to their new surroundings as to the changes in taste of Asia's drug users. When Washington labelled the UWSA a narcotics-trafficking organisation in 2003 with a $2 million bounty on the head of its leader, Wei Hsueh-Kang, the Wa had already begun a switch from opium and heroin to chemicals. [Source: Reuters, September 10, 2007]

Records of official seizures compiled by the United Nations suggest that in 2006 Myanmar was the source of half of Asia's methamphetamine, or yaba, as it is known in Thailand. Most of the drug labs are under Wa control, experts believe."Methamphetamine production is booming on the Thai border," said Bertil Lintner, a leading expert on Myanmar's opium trade and ethnic conflicts. "The factories have been there for a long time, but have become more secure since the Wa took the area."

The question now is whether Yangon's generals allow the Wa to pump out the pills without paying the price. "The Wa are the strongest private army in Burma, but if they're not willing to fight the Shan any more, what's the point in letting them stay on the Thai border?" Lintner said.

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.

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 September 2022

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