UWSA special force snipers participate in a military parade in the Wa State's Panghsang, April 17, 2019. Photo: AFP / Ye Aung Thu

BANGKOK – The anniversary of the Myanmar military’s February 2021 coup has briefly refocused the fickle attentions of the international media with a flurry of “one year on” reporting on popular resistance and its prospects for success or failure.

Overshadowed by this central drama, meanwhile, another major power shift has been unfolding in the remote hills of northeastern Shan state with repercussions that may prove to be no less profound.

With the military, or Tatmadaw, distracted and overstretched by spreading revolt in the national heartland, Myanmar’s largest and best organized ethnic armed force, the China-leaning United Wa State Army (UWSA), has been moving decisively to outmaneuver and marginalize the ethnic Shan Restoration Council of Shan State (RCSS), a would-be contender for supremacy in the state’s tangled skein of insurgent politics.

Following a series of defeats inflicted on the RCSS, the UWSA now appears set to project growing military and political influence towards central Myanmar, consolidate an already dominant role in the region’s booming narcotics industry, and is potentially well-placed to establish control over a new, geographically contiguous “Wa state.” 

The geopolitical implications of a finally united Wa-ruled region would be tectonic. Most immediately it would bring Chinese influence and transport connectivity directly to the border of Thailand.

No less consequentially, it would also act to stake out a looser confederal rather than federal future for Myanmar as newly empowered ethnic power blocs seek to retain or assert comprehensive autonomy over their internal affairs.

Rise and rise of the UWSA

Since the 1960s, Shan state has sunk slowly into anarchy as a shifting kaleidoscope of ethnic insurgent forces has jostled both with each other and the national military for control of territory, trade routes and a traffic in illicit narcotics that fuels military power and political influence.

The past decade, however, has seen the emergence of two contending trajectories in the region’s power dynamics injecting a measure of coherence into a chaotic mix.

The more important trend has turned on the UWSA.  Sheltered by a ceasefire with the Tatmadaw dating from 1989 when the group emerged from the collapse of an ideologically bankrupt communist party, the Wa – hill-people who number no more than 700,000 of a state-wide population of over six million — have built up secure base areas in two self-ruling zones.

The two self-ruling zones controlled by the UWSA indicated in orange. Image: Twitter

An officially recognized Special Autonomous Division (SAD) covering a rugged swath of territory along the Chinese border east of the Salween River is the larger. Some 200 kilometers further south on the border with Thailand is a smaller zone colonized two decades ago by Wa soldiers and civilian settlers from the north.

Financial flows from a sprawling commercial empire founded on heroin and methamphetamine production have underpinned both economic development and military might.

With munitions from the People’s Republic of China, by around 2014 the Wa had established effective military deterrence against rising Tatmadaw ambitions to roll back once-convenient ceasefire arrangements and subordinate all armed ethnic groups to its central command.

A modernized and re-equipped UWSA, fielding some 30,000 well-trained regulars equipped with a panoply of modern Chinese hardware, also sought to keep the Tatmadaw at bay with a policy of “forward defense” – providing munitions and training on a not-so-deniable basis to friendly ethnic forces in active hostilities that tied down the Tatmadaw west of the SAD’s Salween River borders.

In 2021, following the Tatmadaw’s disastrously ill-judged coup, “forward defense” has shifted increasingly to “forward offense.”

Three key allies

In recent months, three key Wa allies, fueled by logistics lines from the SAD, have stepped up military operations against the Tatmadaw.

Near the Kokang region in the far northeastern corner of the state, the Myanmar Nationalities Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA) has been locked in fierce and persistent clashes with Tatmadaw forces struggling to prevent the ethnic Chinese group — like the Wa, another splinter from the 1989 implosion of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) – from re-establishing control over its Kokang homeland.

Even more important in the Wa-led alliance system are two groups which were not formerly part of the CPB but whose ambitions today range far wider than those of the Kokang-Chinese MNDAA: the Shan State Progress Party (SSPP) and the Ta’ang National Liberation Front (TNLF), both with scores to settle with the RCSS.

Operating in the center and northwest of Shan state, the SSPP is an ethnic Shan force and old CPB ally with links to the Wa that go back to the 1970s when Wa tribal troops formed the sharp end of communist power. Today, a much-reduced SSPP has looked to the Wa to help it retain its bases on the west bank of the Salween and stave off the advances first of the Tatmadaw and then of the rival Shan RCSS.

The Ta’ang – hill people with much in common with the Wa linguistically and culturally – rank as more recent confederates in the alliance. 

Founded in 2009, the TNLA first emerged in the tea-growing hills of northwestern Shan state with backing from the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), then under heavy Tatmadaw attack in northern Myanmar. But as logistics assistance and training from the Wa has grown, so too has Ta’ang strength – to at least 8,000 troops – operating today across much of the north.

An ambitious warlord

The state’s second major power dynamic has turned on Shan nationalism and RCSS leader Yawd Serk’s ambition to harness it.

Part warlord, part businessman, Yawd Serk rose to power amid the chaos that swept the south of the state in the late 1990s as the Wa descended from their northern redoubt and the army of narco-baron Khun Sa disintegrated under the pressure.

From a mountaintop headquarters on the border of Thailand’s Mae Hong Son province, Yawd Serk has since sought to establish his RCSS as the standard-bearer of a reinvigorated nationalism among the state’s largest ethnic community.

Yawd Serk is losing ground to the UWSA. Image: Twitter

With the older SSPP weakened by defections and surrenders, he turned his gaze to the north, a region offering a potentially receptive Shan population, a pocket of armed support and not least the economic and commercial attractions of gestating Chinese plans for the China-Myanmar Economic Corridor, a strategic spoke in Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.  

Yawd Serk’s powerplay, a bid to project military power from the Thai border into townships close to the Chinese border some 350 kilometers away, was always a long shot.

Nor were his forces moving into a vacuum: the north of the state was already a pit of anarchy crowded with entrenched ethnic forces – Ta’ang, Kachin, Shan, and Kokang-Chinese – not to mention a national military struggling to hold sway over its own local militias.

Nevertheless, having signed up to a Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with Naypyidaw in October 2015, the Shan warlord evidently wagered that his northern campaign would enjoy at least the acquiescence of Tatmadaw commanders for whom RCSS fighters were an attractively cheaper option for countering rising TNLA power than risking their own troops.

That calculation was sound. But the expectation that any local disputes could be resolved by a mix of firepower and a supportive Shan population proved to be a massive miscalculation on the part of a self-made “general” whose commercial instincts and political ambitions far outweighed his strategic acumen.

The first RCSS troops trucked north in November 2015 triggering immediate clashes with the TNLA. Between 2016 and 2018, as hundreds and then thousands of RCSS fighters spread out across the northwest, skirmishes escalated into a war that further destabilized the entire region while demanding a growing commitment of RCSS manpower and munitions.

Conventional assessments have often credited the RCSS with a strength of some 10,000 combatants. And the image of military prowess was certainly one Yawd Serk sought to foster, inviting Western diplomats and luminaries from across the state to grandiose Shan national day parades of crisply turned-out troops at his Loi Tai Laeng headquarters

The ceremonial parades masked a problem though. Yawd Serk was aggressively pushing young recruits through basic training courses but sourcing weapons to arm them in an era of chummy ties between generals in Bangkok and Naypyidaw had become a critical issue.

According to one insider’s estimate, the number of trained and armed RCSS combatants may never have exceeded 5,000 – a small number for a general with big ambitions across Myanmar’s largest state.

As dangerously, the RCSS’s sudden lunge north rang alarm bells in China. Chinese security analysts have long been inclined to see the Shan group as a proxy of the Thai military and as enjoying murky links to the United States, whose Cold War support for Chinese nationalist KMT forces in Shan state remains fresh in Beijing’s collective memory.

There is no evidence to suggest the RCSS has ever served as a stalking horse for US interests, let alone as a potential Shan reincarnation of the KMT. Links with the Thai military had though been close in the early 2000s when newly arrived Wa soldier-settlers began setting up meth labs virtually within sight of the kingdom’s northern border, causing consternation and anger in Bangkok.

But by 2015, those ties had atrophied to the point of irrelevance: in the struggle for Shan state, Yawd Serk – unlike the Wa – was going to war with no Big Brother behind him.

A bitter guerrilla conflict in the north first pitted the RCSS expeditionary contingent and its local recruits against the TNLA, before widening to involve the SSPP, which still claimed to represent local Shan interests in Kyaukme, Nawngkhio and Hsipaw townships where it retained residual pockets of support.

Finally, it cemented an improbable TNLA-SSPP alliance that straddled the ancient ethnic animosities between Ta’ang hill-people and valley-dwelling Shan. The new entente was almost certainly brokered by the UWSA and sweetened by growing shipments of Wa munitions, including heavy weapons such as 120mm mortars, to both its local allies.

Fall of a rebel army

A disastrous exercise in military overreach, the RCSS campaign slowly bogged down in the hills of northwest Shan state. Outgunned, outnumbered and at the end of long supply lines, Yawd Serk’s forces suffered a string of local setbacks that Tatmadaw distractions in 2021 only served to accelerate.

The decline was underscored by a demoralizing massacre in Kyaukme township on February 15 where 18 soldiers from a logistics unit surrendered to a larger TNLA force and were summarily executed.  

This picture taken on January 12, 2014 shows women watching as soldiers from the Taaung National Liberation Army (TNLA), a Palaung ethnic armed group, parade to mark the 51st anniversary of the Taaung National Resistance Day at Homain, Nansan township in Myanmar's northern Shan state.  The TNLA is one of a host of armed ethnic minority groups that have long fought the countryís military for greater autonomy. Myanmarís reformist government has signed peace deals with most major rebel groups since coming to power nearly three years ago, but conflicts continue to flare in some areas.   AFP PHOTO/Ye Aung THU / AFP PHOTO / Ye Aung Thu
Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA) members parade to mark the 51st anniversary of the Ta’ang National Resistance Day at Homain, Nansan township in Myanmar’s northern Shan state. Photo: AFP / Ye Aung Thu

In October, the Shan lost their northern headquarters at Hu Hsun village in Kyaukme township to TNLA forces after weeks of fighting. Even before that, however, direct intervention by UWSA units in the center of the state suggested that the Wa-led alliance had reached a strategic decision to neutralize the RCSS while the Tatmadaw was otherwise engaged.

In June and July, according to local reports, hundreds of UWSA troops supported SSPP efforts in Keythi township to eject the RCSS from strategic heights at Loi Hung dominating the SSPP’s Wanhai headquarters – something the SSPP alone had been unable to achieve since the RCSS moved onto the area in 2017.  

The RCSS house of cards finally collapsed in January as Yawd Serk’s forces agreed to complete withdraw from the north to a line south of the Namtu River which flows roughly parallel to the main highway between Mandalay, Lashio and the Chinese border.

Any residual hopes the RCSS might have had that they could retain positions in the center of the state were promptly dashed. In late January, a tripartite UWSA-SSPP-TNLA task force supported by 120mm mortars had seized control of strategic heights of Loi Sang in Mong Kung township dominating north-south communications in the west of the state – and then pushed on south.

And on February 8, an RCSS convoy retreating from the north with a large number of arms was cut off by SSPP forces at Kyauk Gu in Lawk Sawk township on the road south. Despite Tatmadaw airstrikes apparently to support them, Yawd Serk’s forces surrendered after sustained clashes.

On the Thai border, meanwhile, the UWSA had moved towards checkmate. Between January 19 and 22, troops from the Wa’s southern enclave – so-called Military Region 171, which fields five of the UWSA’s nine brigades – began the largest mobilization they had ever undertaken, an exercise given extensive publicity on Wa-run television and over social media.

Ostensibly in response to RCSS threats to attack MR 171, several thousand troops from two Wa brigades backed by ubiquitous 120mm mortars moved into combat-ready positions immediately opposite the RCSS Loi Tai Laeng redoubt further west on the border.  

Whether an eyeball-to-eyeball confrontation on the Thai border erupts in all-out war in the coming weeks remains unclear. In the last major conflict at the same spot in 2005, Wa forces using human-wave tactics suffered several hundred casualties in failed attempts to storm the Shan-held heights.

Sixteen years on in an era when the UWSA is far better equipped and tactically savvier, the outcome may not be the same. Standoff bombardments using heavy mortars the Wa did not deploy in 2005 could provide devastating preparatory fire for a successful assault on the Shan headquarters.

An alternative Wa strategy might be to cut off a cornered enemy from interior supply lines and taxation streams and wait out the departure of Yawd Serk, now 65, to a comfortable retirement in the northern Thai city of Chiang Mai. Short of intervention by the Thai military to resupply his forces – a vanishingly slight prospect – the Shan warlord appears to have run out of options.

Towards a Wa state

Either way, as thin-spread Tatmadaw forces contend with country-wide resistance, the dry season of 2022 has apparently confirmed the UWSA as the dominant actor across Myanmar’s northeast. Given the support of smaller allies reliant on Wa-supplied munitions, this suzerainty will have consequences.

First, it will enable the Wa to consolidate influence over a billion-dollar narcotics industry based on their production of high-purity crystal meth and sophisticated synthetic precursor chemicals at the top end of the market.

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, June 26, 2017. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Production of cheap ya-ba tablets, since May 2021 flooding into Thailand and Laos in what the United Nations Office for Drugs and Crime (UNODC) describes as unprecedented volumes, will remain the province of small-time insurgent and militia groups reliant on major players, not least the Wa, for raw materials.  

Second, hegemony in Shan state will enable the UWSA to extend political and military influence beyond the state towards central Myanmar, a process that has already begun. Replicating the Shan state model, since mid-2021 the UWSA has shipped consignments of weaponry to anti-Tatmadaw resistance forces in neighboring Kayah state.

Intelligence sources note that the primary beneficiary has been the Karenni National People’s Liberation Front (KNPLF), former communists with historical links to the CPB (and thus the Wa), known across the border in Thailand as “Dao Daeng” (Red Star). In 2009 the KNPLF opted to become a Tatmadaw-sanctioned Border Guard Force, but since the coup has again turned its guns on the Myanmar military.

UWSA munitions reaching “Dao Daeng” and allied Karenni factions have included at least light automatic weapons, rocket-propelled grenades (RPG) and, unmistakably, 1980s vintage Chinese steel helmets used by the UWSA.

This modern hardware appears to have underpinned the striking effectiveness of resistance in Kayah state and the sharp losses inflicted on the Tatmadaw that in January required airstrikes on parts of the state capital, Loikaw.

Third and not least, strategic ascendency across Shan state brings the Wa closer to realizing a longstanding but hitherto unattainable objective: the amalgamation of the northern SAD with southern MR 171 in a single, contiguous “Wa state.”

Advanced by the vulnerability of isolated Tatmadaw garrisons in eastern Shan state, the formation of such a bloc would imply Wa rule over Myanmar east of the Salween. Smaller satraps, notably the Kokang-based MNDAA in the north, and the National Democratic Alliance Army or “Mongla Group” on the border with Laos, could be expected to fall into line.

Any such development would undoubtedly underpin the security of Chinese infrastructure projects in Shan state and facilitate overland connectivity between China and Thailand across the new Wa entity.

But it also raises a more ominous question: is Thailand adequately prepared to deal with the corrosive repercussions on its commerce, politics and law enforcement of a newly confident, cash-flush narco-state on its northern border?

United Wa State Army (UWSA) soldiers march during a media display in Pansang, Wa territory in northeast Myanmar October 4, 2016. Picture taken on October 4, 2016. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun - RTX2WSCA
United Wa State Army soldiers march during a media display in Pansang, Wa territory in northeast Myanmar, October 4, 2016. Photo: Agencies

Finally, and no less consequentially, Wa consolidation would also act to propel Myanmar towards a looser confederal rather than federal structure as newly empowered ethnic blocs look to the Wa model as a template for sweeping autonomy over their internal affairs.

Developments in Rakhine state on Myanmar’s western seaboard, where the leader of the powerful Arakan Army has already expressed his preference for full Wa-style self-rule, point in this direction.

And were that process to descend into acrimony, the balkanization of an already fragile state might not be far behind.