Twenty Years on, the Wa-Burmese Cease-fire looks shakier

24 April 2009
The recent tension between the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Burmese military Government has led to speculation about a renewal of the armed conflict. Tom Kramer examines the two decades of cease fire.

Twenty years ago, on April 17, 1989, ethnic Wa troops put an end to the communist insurgency in Burma and established the United Wa State Army (UWSA). With Chinese-donated weapons they inherited from Burman communists, the UWSA became the largest ethnic insurgent army in the country. Following the Wa mutiny, other ethnic armed opposition groups along the Thai border asked the Wa army to join their alliance. Instead, the war-weary Wa leaders decided to accept an offer from the military government for a cease-fire agreement.

This week the UWSA will hold a grand ceremony to celebrate their 20th anniversary. Wa leaders feel that they are doing better than ever before. The Wa region, an isolated and mountainous area in the northern Shan State along the Chinese border, is now at peace, and under the control of a Wa army led by Wa leaders, who are following an ethnic Wa nationalist agenda. Paved roads have been built, linking the major towns in the area, where Chinese-style concrete buildings have replaced bamboo huts. And after decades of international isolation, international NGOs are now implementing community development projects.

However, the UWSA faces serious challenges. First of all, the UWSA has been singled out and demonised by the international community for all the drug problems in the region. In 2005 the US Department of Justice announced the indictment of eight UWSA leaders on heroin- and methamphetamine trafficking charges, including UWSA chairman Bao You Chang. It calls the UWSA "one of the largest heroin-producing and trafficking groups in the world". This has confined Wa leaders to their region, further isolating them and making them more dependent on ethnic Chinese drug traffickers like Wei Xue-kang - who was also indicted.

This approach of trying to arrest "drug kingpins" follows the decades-old US-led war on drugs, which has been a complete failure.

Clearly the UWSA is not innocent of narcotics-related crimes. But to single them out for all the drug problems in the region and to blame all the problems on drug kingpins or "narco-armies" is too simplistic. There are very few conflict actors in Burma who can claim to have clean hands on this issue. Furthermore, the drug trade is a hugely profitable business, and it is clear that corruption and the involvement of people in high-ranking offices in all countries in the region plays an important role.

The Wa region was once Burma's largest opium-producing area. Under international pressure - especially from China - the UWSA banned opium cultivation in 2005. In return, it hoped to gain international recognition and development aid to offset the impact of the ban on the population. Instead they were "rewarded" by the US indictment, and most ex-poppy farmers still today have not been able to find alternative sources of income and resent the opium ban; but they are in no position to resist the UWSA's authoritarian leadership.

The weak capacity of the UWSA's leadership has also prevented it from transforming the economy of the region. It has promoted Chinese investment in rubber, tea and sugarcane plantations, but these are not benefiting farmers. Current levels of international assistance are insufficient to sustain their livelihoods. This raises serious questions about the sustainability of the opium ban.

Furthermore, twenty years on, the cease-fire with the UWSA still holds, but the tension with the Burmese military government is growing. The cease-fires with armed groups such as the UWSA are essentially military agreements, enabling the UWSA to administer its territory and maintain its arms. The cease-fires have ended open hostilities, curtailed the most serious human rights abuses, and brought some development to the region. However, the main weakness is the lack of political development and a genuine peace-process as a follow-up to the truces.

Instead, the military government started a national convention to produce a new constitution. Cease-fire groups such as the UWSA were invited to attend, and put forward their political demands. In May 2008, just days after Cyclone Nargis devastated the Irrawaddy Delta, killing 130,000 people, the regime organised a controversial referendum to approve the new constitution, which it claims was approved by 90 per cent of the voters. Opposition groups have denounced the referendum. The new constitution also does not reflect the main grievances and aspirations of the UWSA.

The northern Wa region along the Chinese border was the one of the very few areas that officially produced a "no" vote in the referendum. According to the Wa Education Bulletin, a monthly magazine published in the UWSA capital Panghsang, out of 38,000 voters, 55 per cent voted 'no', 35 per cent voted 'yes', and 11 per cent abstained.

The main aim of the UWSA is to build a Wa State in Burma. The new constitution provides for the creation of a Wa Autonomous Division. This excludes all UWSA territory along the Thai border, but more importantly for the UWSA, also the strategic Mong Pawk and Hotao areas in the north. "We have been managing and building that area for over 40 years," says UWSA vice-chairman Xiao Min Liang. "This is unacceptable for us."

The regime wants the cease-fire groups to disarm, but the UWSA is unlikely to do so unless some of its basic demands have been met.

"We are not willing to give up our weapons," says Xiao Min Liang.

The military government now proposes that groups like the UWSA will be integrated into the regular army, and become a kind of border force.

"They realised that it is not realistic to disarm all these cease-fire groups. They are still working on the details, and we have not made our decision yet."

UWSA officials say in principle they will participate in the 2010 election. "We have already 20 years of peace agreements, and our principle is not to be separated from Burma," says Zhao Wen Guang, the powerful UWSA Agricultural Minister.

"Because the current government of Burma is military, we will see the outcome of the election. If it is good, we will become more pro-active. But if it is still a military government, we will keep our current position."

The recent tension between the UWSA and the military government has led to speculation about a renewal of the armed conflict. But Wa leaders say they will not initiate hostilities.

"If the Burmese military does not shoot first, we will maintain the peace, and will not fight," says Zhao Wen Guang. "But we have to protect ourselves."


Tom Kramer is a researcher at the Drugs & Democracy Programme of the Transnational Institute (TNI).

The Nation

About the authors

Tom Kramer

Tom Kramer (1968) is a political scientist and with over 15-years of working experience on Burma and its border regions, which he has visited regularly since 1993.  

His work focuses on developing a better understanding of the drugs market in the region as a whole, the relationship between production and consumption, and alternative development (AD). Together with the Drugs and Democracy Programme, Kramer has created a regional network of local researchers, and is also carrying out advocacy towards policy makers in the region for more sustainable and human drug policies.

Since 2005 Kramer also works on Afghanistan, with a focus onthe relationship between drugs & conflict, and the involvement of western security forces in counter narcotic activities. Apart from his work for TNI, he is also a writer and freelance consultant, specializing on ethnic conflict and civil society in Burma. He has carried out field research and written reports for a wide range of international NGOs, institutes and UN organisations.

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