The Wa control a large amount of mountainous terrain in Myanmar. Photo: iStock

Myanmar’s largest armed ethnic faction, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), will be throwing a party next week to celebrate the 30th anniversary of its founding. With festivities reverberating across the Wa Hills of eastern Shan State and down on Wa-run territory along the border with Thailand, it promises to be a big bash with some big political implications.

The centerpiece events will be held in the Wa capital of Panghsang on the Chinese border. A remote village 30 years ago when Wa tribal mutineers kicked out their ideologiocaly bankrupt communist leaders and set up the UWSA, Panghsang today is a thriving city.

On a parade ground on its outskirts, Wa supremo Chairman Bao Youxiang will preside over a very public display of pride in the economic development, political cohesion and military muscle the UWSA has built beyond central rule from Naypyidaw.

As the Wa are well aware and the military parade will certainly highlight, the three decades of autonomy and the “peaceful construction” that will be the leitmotif of the celebrations have not been the result of good luck or goodwill. They have hinged critically on blunt military power in a notoriously rough neighborhood.

From behind the shield of a bilateral ceasefire deal agreed with the military, the Tatmadaw, in May 1989, the Wa army – then an exhausted force of illiterate hill-tribe levies – has quietly grown into the largest non-state military actor in Asia.

With a standing army of about 25,000 well-equipped and increasingly mobile regulars backed by a well-organized militia that in an emergency could add a further trained 15,000 reserves, the UWSA ranks globally with the Lebanese Hezbollah and the Armed Forces of Novorossiya in eastern Ukraine.

Map-Myanmar-Shan State-United Wa State Army-MNDAA-JPEG
The Wa-controlled territory in Myanmar. Photo: Supplied

The celebration of these achievements will be worth watching closely for several reasons. Not least is the guest list and seeing who actually shows up.

It’s a given that senior figures from many of Myanmar’s other ethnic armed groups will be on the reviewing stands – both those who have signed the National Ceasefire Agreement being tirelessly pushed by the government and others like the Wa who have rejected it.

China’s Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang has been invited and promised to attend. Luminaries from the provincial government of Yunnan across the border can also be expected to show.

More interesting, though, will be seeing who turns up from Naypyidaw. Invitations have reportedly been sent to State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi, armed forces commander-in-chief Senior General Min Aung Hlaing and some retired army chiefs including Than Swe.

Whether “the Lady” attends or passes the buck to functionaries from the National Reconciliation and Peace Center, tasked with negotiating with the ethnic forces, will be revealing.

So too will be Min Aung Hlaing’s response. Back in the early days of the ceasefire, the Tatmadaw top brass might actually have come to Wa festivities. Lieutenant General Khin Nyunt, the architect of the 1989 ceasefire program initiated with the former communist factions, later visited Panghsang on several occasions: giant posters of Khin Nyunt and Chairman Bao arm-in-arm once adorned the streets of the Wa capital.

Two armed Wa soldiers from the United Wa State Army ride in the back of a pickup truck about three kilometers from the Thai border. Photo: AFP/Emmanuel Dunand

Mood has soured

But since the 2004 purge of Khin Nyunt and the rise of hardline generals unsympathetic to the ethnic armies, the mood has soured. In 2009 mounting pressure to bring the ceasefire groups to heel as army-run Border Guard Forces prompted the Tatmadaw to invade the Kokang region, breaking the ceasefire and driving out an ex-communist ceasefire group closely allied to the UWSA.

Two years later, military efforts to rein in the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) triggered the collapse of another ceasefire and war in Kachin State.

Since then, fighting with NCA rejectionists allied to the UWSA flared again in Kokang in 2015, spread across most of northern Shan State in 2016 and most recently erupted in western Rakhine State. The NCA-centered “peace process” is mostly comatose.

Against this chaotic backdrop, the Panghsang celebrations will be an uncomfortable reminder to Min Aung Hlaing not only of UWSA muscle, but also of the political message the Wa example of far-reaching and apparently successful autonomy is sending to the nation’s other armed ethnic factions.

Most are demanding real federal autonomy beyond the reach of Tatmadaw “clearance operations.” The Arakan Army (AA), now spearheading attacks on the military in Rakhine State, has gone further, proposing a “confederal” relationship with Naypyidaw that actually better reflects the near-total independence enjoyed by the constitutionally-recognized Wa “Special Administrative Division.”

Under these circumstances, it is difficult to see Min Aung Hlaing swallowing his pride and standing alongside Bao Youxiang to review the UWSA strutting their stuff. A rather more likely Tatmadaw representative would be the Northeastern Regional commander whose troops sit across the Salween River from the Wa and who would probably be focused on another key issue – watching whether the Wa use the opportunity to showcase any new weaponry or wheel out equipment such as heavy artillery and surface-to-air missiles known to be in their inventory but not yet widely advertised.

The display of hardware will certainly send a political message, but it won’t change the basic military realities: following a major expansion and modernization program carried out between 2010 and 2013, the UWSA is already more or less where it needs to be. Next week’s parade will merely confirm this.

Pushed through largely under the radar, the force build-up was rapid, comprehensive and driven by the sharp deterioration in the strategic environment as a more assertive Tatmadaw – armed with its new 2008 constitution – ramped up pressure on ethnic ceasefire groups to fall into line.

In the wake of the sudden 2009 attack on Kokang – a coup which caused near-panic in Panhgsang – the UWSA scrambled to bolster its defenses, and in 2010 added an additional brigade of about 3,000 troops – the 618th based on Nawngkhet in the central Wa Hills – to the three already based in its northern heartland.

Then, in 2012, following the outbreak of conflict in Kachin state, an unprecedented resupply operation reportedly involving several shipments of munitions, each in scores of containers, prepared the UWSA to face what looked like impending war.

The reinforcement was on a scale that went far beyond the capacity of any black market deals and could not have taken place without the active cooperation of China’s military intelligence. Given the umbilical relationship between Beijing and the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) from which the UWSA emerged 30 years ago, cross-border military support was rooted in recent history.

Bao You Yi (C) of the United Wa State Party and the United Wa State Army arrives for the Panglong Peace Conference in Naypyidaw on July 10, 2018. Photo: AFP/Thet Aung

Prospect of further chaos

What was new though was the level of alarm in Beijing over the prospect of further chaos along the border and Myanmar’s rapid embrace of the United States, a perceived betrayal of Chinese friendship made all the more painful by the Thein Sein government’s overnight cancellation of China’s billion-dollar Myitsone dam project in September 2011.

There was apparently little stinting on the hardware that began flowing into UWSA arsenals, much of which later became public knowledge as a result of UWSA training exercises and images in Chinese online media. Some shipments involved new batches of basic infantry systems fielded in the CPB era: light and heavy machine-guns, rocket-propelled grenades and mortars and recoilless rifles.

Other systems were entirely new. These included more modern Chinese infantry weaponry such as the QBZ-95 assault rifle only inducted in bulk into the People’s Liberation Army in the early 2000s. The new QBZ-95 went to supplement locally-produced Wa copies of the Chinese T-81 assault rifle. Modern Chinese CS/LS06 9mm sub-machine guns and M-99 12.7mm anti-materiel rifles also marked new additions to the Wa arsenal.

At the same time, heavier and more sophisticated Chinese systems also provided a qualitative boost to UWSA capabilities. The FN-6 man-portable air defense system (MANPADS) went to upgrade first-generation Chinese missiles already in the UWSA inventory. The HJ-8 Red Arrow wire-guided anti-tank missiles also constituted a marked improvement on a Wa anti-armor capability that had earlier relied on rocket-propelled grenades and recoilless rifles.

Artillery capability was enhanced with larger jeep-mounted 105mm recoilless guns and additional NORINCO 122mm howitzers and quantities of 107mm surface-to-surface free-flight missiles. The acquisition of new tactical trucks and, more strikingly, China’s Xinxing (New Star) wheeled armored personnel carriers (APC) gave a new boost to infantry mobility.

Whatever weaponry is wheeled out next week, the military bottom-line is entirely clear: the UWSA has already established a convincing level of deterrence that guarantees its own “peaceful construction” and also permits the Wa to extend support to its ethnic allies in other parts of the country.

As Tatmadaw planners are fully aware, any campaign against the Wa would trigger a war across much of Shan State with social, economic, political and diplomatic repercussions that would set the development of Myanmar back by a decade or more.

Generational change

The celebrations will also throw a probably welcome spotlight on an issue hardly less important than military deterrence: generational change that is already impacting the Wa leadership and post-Bao succession plans.

After three decades of remarkable leadership stability and political continuity, men born in the late 1940s and early 1950s who founded the UWSA in their thirties are now advancing into their late 60s and 70s. In a social climate where drinking is taken seriously and longevity tends to be rare, many leaders are reportedly suffering from various illnesses. Some have already retired or died.

Bao is now about 71 and following run-ins earlier in his career with trichinosis is evidently not in robust good health. According to Reuters reports in early 2017 quoting Wa officials, he was then unable to travel and not attending regular meetings of the politburo standing committee of the ruling United Wa State Party (UWSP).

Whether he undertakes a Xi Jinping-style review of the troops on the back of a jeep next week and how he holds up more generally will be a focus of attention, and for good reason: even before the supreme leader across the border, Bao successfully concentrated all power in the Wa mini-state in his own person.

He stands as commander-in-chief of the army, secretary-general of the UWSP and chairman of the government of the Wa Special Division. And lest there be any doubt, in January 2018 a plenum of the UWSP central committee confirmed him in those positions for life.

Under these circumstances, it seems unlikely that the issue of Bao’s mortality will be addressed in any public manner during the celebrations. But the spectacle of a visibly frail leader presiding over the events will inevitably fan speculation over succession plans that are anything but clear.

Beneath Bao, there are eight others in the nine-man politiburo standing committee where Wa power is located. And what is close to certain is that the second best-known figure in the line-up is the least likely to take over. This is Wei Xuegang, an ethnic Han Chinese who, along with his two brothers, Xuelong and Xueyun, has been in the top leadership since the early 1990s.

With a family background in the Chinese nationalist KMT and a power base in the southern wing of the Wa territory on the Thai border, Wei has been the UWSA’s commercial brains and the driving force behind many of its wide-ranging business interests. Not least of these has been a deep involvement in the heroin and methamphetamine trade, which will not be the subject of polite conversation at receptions in Panghsang.

A member of the United Wa State Army shows Ya Ba pills before they are set on fire during a drug burning ceremony to mark the UN’s world anti-drugs day in Poung Par Khem, near the Thai and Myanmar border on June 26, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Facing a string of indictments on narcotics charges in US courts, Wei is a poster boy for everything the UWSA would prefer swept under the mat – or would be if anyone knew what he looked like. A deputy army commander-in-chief who operates from a heavily defended complex at Na Lawt not far from Panghsang, he is the UWSA’s “invisible man” – rarely seen in public and never photographed.

It is also safe to say that notwithstanding the family ties, Bao Youxiang’s two brothers on the committee are also unlikely to take up his mantle. Neither Bao Youyu, a party deputy secretary-general and No 4 in the line-up, nor Bao Youliang, who runs the finance department, has the political profile or, crucially, the backing of the army to move into the top position.

That leaves one of two likely candidates to fill the top slot. Significantly, neither is directly tainted by the whiff of methamphetamine that clings to both the Bao and Wei clans.

One well-placed Chinese source who spoke to Asia Times argued that on Bao’s passing, the leadership would likely pass to Zhao Zhong-dan, a powerful figure who as a deputy army commander-in-chief and chief-of-staff, runs the military on a day-to-day basis.

Importantly, Zhao is understood to command the respect of “Young Turk” northern brigade commanders whose influence in the coming years will be decisive.

The second is Xiao Mingliang, who as deputy party boss and deputy government chairman, ranks No 2 in the standing committee. Xiao has long served as the technocratic civilian face of the Wa mini-state, but has no real support in the military. Under these circumstances, some form of military-civilian division of labor that leaves real power in Zhao’s hands is entirely possible.

But however the succession unfolds, it’s also a safe bet that from China’s perspective, any instability in the Wa-run border buffer state that dilutes Chinese influence or invites Tatmadaw meddling is unacceptable. And Beijing’s intelligence services have been watching what happens in Wa-land long enough and closely enough to ensure that what is unacceptable will almost certainly never happen.

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