Producing Intransigence: (Mis) understanding the United Wa State Army in Myanmar.

AuthorOng, Andrew

On 1 September 2016, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the strongest of Myanmar's twenty or so Ethnic Armed Groups (EAGs), walked out of the "Twenty-first Century Panglong Conference", the country's most ambitious peace talks since armed insurgencies erupted across the country in the 1950s. The peace talks were meant to be a shining symbol of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi's new National League for Democracy (NLD) government's commitment to peace, inclusion and development. The walkout was a serious blow to the peace talks, as it now lacked the involvement of the largest EAG. In April 2017, the UWSA, together with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and five other groups, formed the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), which sought to negotiate with the Myanmar government as a bloc. While eight EAGs had signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government in October 2015, the FPNCC refused to endorse it and instead proposed their own version of the NCA. A new political coalition had now formed to challenge the "divide-and-rule" tactics that had thus far served the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) well.

The rise of the UWSA to the forefront of ethnic armed opposition in Myanmar in 2015 came as a surprise to many. Previously described by observers as "secretive" and "reclusive", the Wa Region (2)--located in the mountains on Myanmar's border with China--was known as a narcotics-producing area of the Golden Triangle, supposedly run by a ruthless and well-armed "Speed Tribe" (3) that made it onto the cover of Time magazine in December 2002. The UWSA was said to be solely interested in profit and autonomy. Yet in May and November 2015, a year prior to the Panglong Conference, it began forays into collective diplomacy, holding two EAG summits in Pangkham, the "capital" of the Wa Region. Fifteen and later 11 armed groups attended the "rebel" meetings, without any Myanmar government representatives present. (4)

Paradoxically, while rare media visits gave a glimpse into everyday happenings in the Wa Region, their reportage also served to estrange and exoticize. Sensationalist headlines abounded: '"Secret Garden' that 'Leaves Much to the Imagination'", "Wonders of the Wa: The Vibrant Culture of Burma's Mysterious Mountain Dwellers", or "Drugs, Money and Wildlife in Myanmar's Most Secret State". (5) Since 2015, media images and photographs have mainly shown armed UWSA soldiers (some female, some children) marching, training, or manning checkpoints, and different types of military weaponry. (6) Attempts to bridge boundaries ultimately created distance and alienation. Scholarly writing on the UWSA was more balanced, focusing on the drug economy in the 2000s and its relation to conflict, or the history of its establishment and governing apparatus, (7) but offered less social insight into contemporary political culture and the self-image of the UWSA, the mindset and norms which govern decision-making and political practice. (8) Little surprise then that the prevailing sentiment among policymakers, researchers, NGO staff and journalists in Yangon in 2018 seemed to be that the UWSA were distant, not open to discussions, rigid in their stance on the peace process and unyieldingly dictating the terms of negotiations as they mustered alliances with other EAGs.

This article examines the casting of the UWSA as an intransigent and obstructionist actor in the Myanmar peace process. It analyses the way journalistic and research reports on the Wa Region and the UWSA express two simultaneous yet opposite qualities: rigidity and fluidity. In these narratives, fluidity evidences the untrustworthiness of the UWSA and the danger it poses, given its supposed access to illegible shadow networks and resources; while rigidity is read as an uncompromising and hostile stance towards the peace negotiations. Both narratives frame interpretations of UWSA political practice and statements, and produce an image of UWSA intransigence that is widely accepted. This article argues that rigidity has been accentuated in political analysis of the UWSA at the expense of fluidity, foreclosing attempts at compromise and engagement. Yet though the UWSA appears unwavering in its rhetoric and stances, maintaining an image of autonomy, self-reliance and unity, it is in practice pragmatic and flexible through fluid connections and networks. Understanding the political culture of the UWSA contextualizes its actions and offers possibilities for engagement; one that requires careful and sustained relationship-building through presence, goodwill, compromises and reciprocity.

The analysis in this article is based on data and participant observation from sustained interactions with Wa officials and civilians during 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork conducted in the Wa Region from 2014-15, where the author worked with the United Nations World Food Programme (WFP) on food security and community development programmes. The analysis is focused on political practice, governance and the political culture of the UWSA and its officials, including their relations with the Myanmar government and China. The author regularly met with UWSA leaders and officials at all levels--central, district and township--and travelled extensively across the region, following the work of other UN staffers. (9) Relationships cultivated over this extended period enabled the author to vet and corroborate information and views without taking official statements and interviews at face value. During this fieldwork, the UWSA organized the first two EAGs summits in Pangkham, which were attended by the leaders and delegations from many EAGs. The author combines this data with analyses of narratives and discourses produced in the media, research reports and commentaries by scholars, as well as conversations with officials from international organizations based in Yangon.

The Wa Region in Myanmar

The UWSA controls two territories on the Chinese and Thai borders with a population of approximately 450,000 people, of which an estimated 75 per cent are ethnic Wa. (10) With a well-equipped army of 30,000, it is by far the most powerful EAG in Myanmar, with de facto sovereignty and self-governance of its territory. Formed in 1989 when the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) splintered into several EAGs, the UWSA was quick to sign a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw, one which has held until the present day. The northern territory of the Wa Region is currently recognized as the "Wa Self-Administered Division" under the 2008 Myanmar Constitution, although these boundaries do not correspond entirely with the de facto area held by the UWSA. (11) The southern territory on the Thai border, known as the "171 Military Region", is not contiguous with the north and unrecognized by the Myanmar government. Yet unlike many de facto sovereign territories around the world, the UWSA has no secessionist claims, and pledges to remain in the Union of Myanmar.

The 1990s was a period of development for the UWSA, during which strong ties were built with Myanmar's Military Intelligence (MI) Chief Khin Nyunt, who allowed armed groups to engage in commerce across the country as long as they observed the ceasefire. Travel and trade were facilitated by MI officers as both sides consolidated their economies and militaries. (12) International organizations led by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) supported the eradication of opium growing in the Wa Region in 2005, and at its peak in 2008-11 there were nine organizations working in the Wa Region. However, narco-trafficking continued, and was the main source of most wealth in the borderlands. Observers suggested that the post-opium shift to methamphetamines production ensured a continued supply of money for development and arms. (13)

The fall of Khin Nyunt in 2004, and the loss of this relationship, the indictment of eight top UWSA leaders for drug trafficking by a US district court in 2005, the 2009 fall of Kokang to the Tatmadaw, and the subsequent demand by the armed forces that all EAGs convert into government-aligned Border Guard Forces (BGF), all paved the way for mistrust, escalating tensions and the scaling up of the UWSA's military capabilities. The UWSA stayed away from most peace talks between 2011 and 2015, arguing that they had already signed a ceasefire in 1989 and renewed it in 2011, rendering further signings "meaningless". (14) The UWSA was not a member of the United Nationalities Federal Council (UNFC) nor did it participate in the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), or negotiations for drafting the NCA. Sporadic bilateral visits by Tatmadaw commanders and negotiators were entertained out of politeness, but its stance was unwavering. The UWSA refused to allow the government to use the UWSA name to pressure smaller EAGs into attending peace negotiations or signing deals. (15) The UWSA's increasingly secure military position, strategic considerations and the renewal of fighting between the Tatmadaw and the Kokang group (MNDAA), an old ally of the UWSA, led it to step forward into the political frontline in 2015, organizing EAG summits, forming and leading the FPNCC to include three previously banned groups, and insisting on attending and negotiating as a bloc.

The UWSA runs a governing apparatus with seven departments ranging from finance to political works, overseen by a politburo and central committee headed by Chairman Bao Youxiang who is also the UWSA's commander-in-chief. China has strong influence in the Wa Region--Chinese is the main administrative language, China's yuan is the main currency, and Chinese architecture and aesthetics characterize its main towns. The Wa Region relies heavily on markets in China for the sale of its rubber, tin ore and sugarcane, while Chinese consumer products, construction materials and expertise flow in from across the border.

The UWSA calls for a "Wa State" at the...

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