By Will Waghorne
Numbering about 30,000 active-duty soldiers, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) is indisputably the largest non-state armed group among the myriad combatants in Myanmar’s ongoing civil war. As an isolated, self-governing region along Myanmar’s border with China, it continues to project Beijing’s influence in a nation shaken by perpetual internal conflict and military rule.
Despite its communist heritage, Wa State’s leadership is distinctly centered on the family of Bao Youxiang, pursuing Wa’s ethnic interests and even engaging in ethnic cleansing in conquered territories.
Founded in 1989, after ethnic Wa cadres overthrew the leadership of the Chinese-backed Maoist insurgency in Myanmar’s north, the newly-formed Wa State, led by the United Wa State (UWSA) Party, began to play a dominant role in the region’s heroin trade, using it to finance the institutions of the burgeoning state.
The UWSA has received criticism for its role in the global heroin trade. Still, in recent years, this criticism has been secondary to the benefits the UWSA receives from illicit methamphetamine production in Wa State’s southern region, leading to record-breaking drug seizures. Notably, the UWSA has recently taken a harsher stance against the drug trade, officially denying any role in it, despite evidence suggesting otherwise. Experts have argued that the UWSA tolerates the activity at some level to take a cut of the lucrative market.
China’s Role in Myanmar
Since Myanmar’s independence from British colonial rule in 1948, China has been involved in Myanmar politics. The initial Chinese presence was in the later stages of the Chinese Civil War when Kuomintang forces entered Myanmar and used it as a base to launch cross-border raids into Yunnan. Joint Sino-Burmese military operations eventually cleared Kuomintang forces out of Wa areas in the 1950s.
Out of a need to finance their operations, Kuomintang forces in Myanmar ultimately turned to opium cultivation, refining large amounts of heroin for export. This decision kickstarted the narcotics trade in the Golden Triangle, a mountainous region centered on the porous tripoint border between Laos, Thailand, and Myanmar, infamous for its role in the heroin trade. Chinese-backed Communist insurgents dominated Wa territories until 1988, when ethnic Wa cadres overthrew the Communist Old Guard to establish the United Wa State Army, signing a preferential peace treaty with the central government quickly after that.
China’s modern aims in Myanmar lean into the ongoing and recent Belt and Road initiative. However, current economic ties between China and Myanmar date back to 1989, when a new generation of military leadership began liberalizing Myanmar’s trade laws to take advantage of global trade. The disastrous international standing of the incumbent junta left it with few options outside of China, which followed a similar track of economic liberalization while retaining strict authoritarian control, arguably with a more significant measure of success.
China’s policy requires Myanmar to be relatively stable, as internal conflict may jeopardize unpopular projects such as the Myitsone Dam. Nevertheless, opportunities to open up to the West ultimately helped the government suspend the project in 2011, effectively killing it.
Wa State Promotes China’s Interest
Due to the Myanmar government’s refusal to negotiate on both the Myitsone Dam and other developments in the Myanmar peace process, the UWSA repeatedly sabotaged negotiations for the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement. Notably, the UWSA walked out of talks in the 2010s to pressure the civilian government on Wa’s demands for special treatment, despite already having both constitutional and de-facto self-government. Due to its military strength and negotiating position, the Wa State has proven to be able to freeze the Myanmar peace process to further China’s aims.
Although recent escalations over the past year and a half have brought some international attention to Myanmar’s internal conflict, and speculation over Wa State’s demise has been going on for years, it is unlikely for Wa State’s strategic position to significantly shift, as long as Myanmar remains at war with itself.
As current efforts by the Association of South-East Asian Nations (ASEAN) to reconcile with the military junta and exiled civilian government have failed to achieve meaningful results, armed groups in Myanmar will continue to operate, including the UWSA, which protects China’s strategic interests.
Will Waghorne is a freshman undergraduate at student at Syracuse University, majoring in economics. He is a member of Syracuse’s chapter of the John Quincy Adams Society.