On 27 October, the Wa TV channel announced that the United Wa State Army (UWSA) Vice-Chairman, Xiao Min Liang, had passed away at his home in Pangkham that morning. He played a crucial role in guiding the UWSA’s political direction, and it is felt as a big loss for the Wa people, the UWSA movement and Myanmar as a whole.
The UWSA is the largest ethnic armed organisation (EAO) in Myanmar today, with an estimated 20,000 troops under military formation. It was established in 1989 and entered into a ceasefire agreement with the Myanmar military government during the same year. Thirty-four years later, the truce still holds, despite tensions and a number of crises.
Xiao Min Liang was one of the Wa commanders in the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) who took part in a mutiny and seized the CPB headquarters at Pangsang (later renamed as Pangkham) in eastern Shan State on 17 April 1989, forcing the elderly Burmese communist leaders to seek political asylum in neighbouring China. With nationalism spreading among the Kokang and other nationality peoples along the Yunnan border, the CPB has been essentially defunct since this time.
The UWSA and United Wa State Party (the UWSA’s political wing) were created shortly after the munity, and Xiao Min Liang became the Deputy Party Secretary and one of the five members of the newly-formed Politburo – the highest institution in political power in the Wa region. Other key politburo members were Zhao Nyi Lai (deceased),1 Bao Youxiang (present Chairman, UWSP General Secretary and UWSA Commander-in-Chief), Li Ziru (deceased)2 and Bo Loi Kham (deceased).3
Ethnic tensions had been growing within the CPB for some years before the 1989 mutiny. Wa leaders, who were mainly in the communist People’s Army on the battlefield, felt that the old party leadership in the Pangsang Headquarters, who were mainly ethnic Bamar (Burman), were unrealistic and stubborn. They felt that the Wa, whose language is a branch of the Mon-Khmer linguistic family, were being used as cannon fodder for a conflict between the ethnic Bamar majority population in the country, bringing only misery and destruction to the Wa people and region. Xiao Min Liang explained:
“The main reason for our mutiny was that the leaders of the CPB refused to change. Most of the communist countries in the world, including China, changed their policies and made great efforts in improving the lives of their people. But the CPB leadership had a very conservative ideology. After we fought and stayed with them for over twenty years, we lost a lot of our young people. The living conditions of our people did not improve, but were getting worse. We were becoming extinct.”
Fuelling Wa nationalist sentiment, it was often said that the CPB never did anything good for the development of the Wa people: they never built a school, a hospital, an agriculture irrigation scheme or an inch of asphalt road. Despite this, Xiao Min Liang admitted that, during their struggle, the CPB did help lay the political, military and administrative foundations in the China border region which the UWSA was able to use as stepping stones in becoming the most prosperous and powerful EAO in the country today.
In earlier times in history, the Wa region was divided into many territories, each ruled by its own chief. These leaders never submitted to foreign influences and tried to avoid having direct contact with outsiders to their upmost abilities. The Wa chiefs were also in constant conflict with each other over different issues. Controversial subjects ranged from territorial disputes and arguments over arable land, water sources and hunting grounds down to the crop damage caused by grazing domestic animals from neighbouring villages. In consequence, the Wa region was left largely untouched by outside interference during the era of colonial rule and subsequent Burmese governments after independence.
The CPB first entered into the Wa region in late 1960s following Mao Zedong’s Cultural Revolution with military backing from China, creating a degree of socio-political stability in the area for the first time in history and putting an end to conflict between Wa communities. They also stopped the headhunting practices of what the British termed the “wild Wa” and established a modernised structure of administration, setting up a taxation system to generate revenue.
Xiao Min Liang was the only founder of the UWSA/UWSP who had received a higher level of formal education, graduating from a Chinese middle school. After this, he said that he dedicated his whole life and energy in the political struggle to realise the “Wa Dream” to be recognized as a “Wa State” in the Constitution of a Union of Burma. In China, where an estimated 400,000 Wa people also live, Wa ethno-political identity is recognised by an autonomous county in the communist system of government.
Despite his elevation in politics, Xiao Min Liang remained a modest person, never losing contact with the Wa and other local peoples at the grassroots after becoming a Politburo member in the UWSA/UWSP. The Wa region is also home to Akha, Lahu, and other non-Bamar peoples. Especially controversial was the issue of narcotics when opium poppy cultivation dramatically escalated after civil war broke out and Kuomintang remnants entered Shan State from China after Myanmar’s independence. But in a meeting with visiting foreign diplomats in Pangkham after the UWSA/UWSP announced their 1995 opium ban, Xiao Min Liang said:
“If you ask anyone here who agrees with the opium ban to raise their hand, I am sure that nobody will. We are making the decision against the will of the whole population in the Wa region. We are just snatching the rice bowl from our people, which they have been relying on as a traditional crop for several generations in the past. We understand that the life without opium is really difficult, and we are trying our best to help our people to sail through this critical period. However, the problem is too big for us to solve alone. We still need a lot of assistance both from our central government and the international community to prevent the outbreak of a humanitarian crisis in the Wa region that can be created by the opium ban.”
As a result of his advocacy for the people, communities at the grassroots levels and elite families in the Wa region equally loved and respected him. In political circles, he was often described as the “Wa Padoh Mahn Sha” for his visionary leadership in comparison to the late Karen leader Padoh Mahn Sha Lah Phan. He also had a good reputation among Chinese and Myanmar government officials, foreign diplomats and representatives from international development organisations who met with him on visits to the Wa region. One expatriate who used to work in the territory shared this memory:
“Xiao Min Liang was a great leader for the Wa people. I learned more from him than anyone in the Wa leadership. He was a great bridge between the Wa people and the world, and it is a great loss for them.”
Despite the historic isolation of the Wa region, Xiao Min Liang had a wider political view and kept himself updated with the changes in national, regional and international politics. Once he had to face the challenge of convincing district and central leaders in the Wa administration who were not satisfied with the approach in project implementation by international development organisations which, they feared, was not benefitting local villagers. But Xiao Min Liang explained:
“We need to understand and see the broader political view. Even though some of the foreigners working in our Wa region were doing nothing but just sitting in their offices, we have to accept and provide our cooperation with them. The reality is that the existence of international organisations in our region has earned us political recognition and legitimacy not only from the national government but also from the international community.”
Using these political skills, Xiao Min Liang was also engaged in the difficult balancing act of maintaining the UWSA ceasefire with the central government while advancing Wa political demands. Under the 2008 constitution, this saw the delineation for the first time on Myanmar’s political map of a Wa Self-Administered Division with a population of over 500,000 people on the China border, while the UWSA also controlled another territory, known as “Southern Wa”, close to the Thailand border to the south. This raised questions about UWSA relations with its neighbours, with contacts remaining close with old friends in China from the communist days. But, generally, the UWSA/UWSP continued to steer its own path, gaining acknowledgement from other ethnic and political forces as to how the movement was proving successful in promoting the Wa cause in the militarised landscape of national politics.
Xiao Min Liang’s passing comes at a difficult time for the Wa and all the peoples of our country. But with his soul now resting in peace, I believe that his political dream is shared by the younger generation of Wa leaders and will continue to guide them through the political struggles ahead.
* Aik Long is the pen name of an analyst in Shan State with long-standing experience of politics and development issues.