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Mong Tai Army (MTA)
United Wa State Army (UWSA)

The self-governing ethnic minority known as the Wa live mainly in Burma, where they have their own army, the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA). The UWSA, which numbers some 16,000-strong [a 2005 estimate] to 30,000 full-and part-time fighters [2013 estimate] and controls towns along the Chinese and Thai borders in northeastern Burmas Shan state, is in a fragile cease-fire with the Burmese military.

The Wa are detached from the rest of Burma. The region has its own power station, owned and operated by Wa leaders, and its own water treatment facility. The Wa constitute one of many ethnic minorities in Burma that have chafed for decades against military rule from Rangoon. And the extent to which they define themselves as a separate ethnic group reveals the enormous challenge of making peace between the Burman majority and other ethnic groups. The ethnic Wa region of Burma is very Chinese. Even though they are in Burma, they use Chinas 86 country code for international calls; however, vehicles there have their own Wa registration. All supplies into the region come from China and the road and shop signs are often written in Chinese.

The Wa emerged as a major factor in Yangon's politics as the sword-arm of the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma (CPB). In 1968, Beijing-backed CPB forces crossed from China to carve out a 'liberated area' along the border east of the Salween River, several tribal chiefs in the remote Wa Hills rallied to the communist cause. In a reflection of hill-tribe resistance to lowland Burmese rather than any loyalty to Marxist ideology, Wa troops formed the backbone of CPB forces throughout the 1970s and 1980s.

In March 1989, Wa forces took over party headquarters at Panghsang on the Chinese border after the collapse of the CPB. That May, they agreed to a ceasefire with Yangon along the lines of the pact signed in March by the Kokang-based forces of the CPB's Northern Bureau, reborn as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA). These deals, later extended to virtually all ethnic insurgent groups, guaranteed the rebels autonomy within their own regions, while the junta secured peace in the borderlands giving it breathing room to better deal with the democracy movement in the Myanmar heartland.

The Wa established the United Wa State Party and the UWSA in November 1989. The new group united the ex-communists in the northern Shan State with a small, southern nationalist faction, the Wa National Army (WNA), based near the Thai border. The Northern Command was headed by Wa commanders Chao Ngi-lai and Pao You-chang, with Li Zi-ru, an ethnic Chinese former Red Guard volunteer from Yunnan, serving as Pao's deputy. The southern group was dominated by three ethnic Chinese brothers Wei Xue-long, Wei Xue-gang and Wei Xue-yin, who were previously involved with Chinese Nationalist (KMT) forces that had operated in the Wa Hills in the 1950s and 1960s before finally settling in northern Thailand.

After breaking away from Khun Sa and the SUA, the Wei brothers joined the UWSA in late 1984, which at that time was the Wa National Army/WNA, the hated rival of the Shan United Army (SUA). The Wei brothers have already amassed great wealth, and still add to that wealth through continued drug trafficking. The Wei brothers were believed to have invested heavily in the infrastructure and development of Mong Yawn in Burma. They are also reported to have invested large sums of money throughout Southeast Asia.

As a result of the Wa aligning themselves with the Burmese Army in its 1994-95 battles against Khun Sa's Shan United Army (SUA), the Wa gained territory near Doi Laem and Mong Kyawt, close to the Thai border. Both the Wa and the SUA coveted these areas, which are gateways to strategic trade routes into Thailand. In 1994 the ex-communist Wa (still referred to by the Thais as 'Wa Daeng' or Red Wa) finally arrived on the Thai border. In August 1994, troops under Wa commander Wei Jia-tang -- popularly known as Ta Tang -- moved from the Northern Command to reinforce Southern Command forces in their battle with opium warlord Khun Sa. The Myanmar military supported the move, eager to use the Wa as a proxy force against Khun Sa's increasingly powerful Mong Tai Army (MTA), then the dominant force on the Thai border. Under mounting pressure, Khun Sa abruptly surrendered to Yangon authorities in January 1996, whereupon the UWSA took over some areas including the Doi Lang area and the Mong Yawn Valley opposite Mae Ai district of Thailand's Chiang Mai province.

After the SUA surrendered and was driven from the region in hard-fought battles, the Burmese Army ordered the Wa to vacate the region. The Wa defied the order and, with eventual government acquiescence, occupied the area, referred to as their Southern Military Region (SMR) or Southern Military Command. The Government of Burma tolerated the Wa, due to the UWSA's significant military force and a standing cease-fire agreement. The Government of Burma, however, took action against all traffickers, including Wa traffickers outside UWSA-controlled areas. The pressure exerted by the Government of Burma on trafficking and refining operations outside Wa-controlled areas is forcing various smaller drug insurgent groups to form alliances with the Wa. These alliances enabled the smaller groups to produce heroin and methamphetamine in Wa-controlled territory unchecked by Burmese authorities.

The SMR is located in the Mong Yawn Valley near the Burma-Thailand border. Part of the Southern Command was under the control of Wei Hsueh-kang, and the Independent Regiment of the Southern Command was under the control of Wei Tsai-tang. Wei Hsueh-kang's division received logistical support from Thailand and the Kuomintang in Thailand and Taiwan. The Northern Command (Northern Military Region) is located at Panghsang, Burma, under the control of the over-all Commander-in-Chief of the UWSA, Pao Yu-hsiang. Panghsang is located near the Burma-China border and received logistical support from China. The northern Wa is sometimes referred to as the Red Wa because of its affiliations with the former Burmese Communist Party and the Chinese Communists. Both the Northern and Southern Commands traffic in heroin and methamphetamine, which are processed in collocated refineries in Burma.

Wa forces began a major development program in the Mong Yawn Valley in 1998. The build-up involved the construction of new roads, dams, an electricity generating plant, underground fuel storage facilities, telephone lines, military command posts, barracks, schools and a 40-bed hospital. Work also began at a second Wa base area at Wan Hong or 'Mong Mai' (New Village), set up by Wei Xue-gang and situated some 6 km inside Myanmar, opposite Thailand's Chiang Rai province.

Thai companies, some with military connections, eager to cash in on the new border boom, from mid-1998 onwards, undertook most of the spade work involved in the crash development of Mong Yawn. In July 1998 a new border check-point linking Thailand's excellent northern road network with Mong Yawn was opened at San Ton Du village. In a circumvention of normal procedures, the new crossing-point was apparently quietly approved by Thailand's then National Security Council secretary-general Boonsak Kamhaengrithirong, then Army Chief General Chetta Thanajaro and then Third Army commander Lieutenant General Sommai Wichaworn. The move was in keeping with an overall policy promoted by the Thai military aimed at increasing cross-border trade with Myanmar.

Thai military intelligence estimated Wa units along the border to number around 3,500. Some were grouped in the Mong Yawn- based 894 Brigade of northern Wa commander Ta Tang. Others were commanded by Wei Xue-gang, based at his 361 Brigade command headquarters (named after the feature on which it is situated, near Mong Yawn) and with the 46 Brigade at Wan Hong.

Thai concern was further fuelled by a rapid increase in the number of civilians in the Wa border bases. Truckloads of ethnic Wa and Chinese settlers moved to the border from UWSA Northern Command areas. Some were even understood to have come from the border districts of China's Yunnan province that border the Wa Hills. The population of Mong Yawn, estimated in early 1999 at 10,000, had by the end of the year reached an estimated 30,000. Other settlers are moving into Wei Xuegang's 46 Brigade base at Wan Hong.

At least part of this population movement is the result of a grand plan aimed at ridding all Wa areas of narcotics production by 2005, according to a joint Yangon/UWSA public relations offensive. Given the difficulty of classic crop substitution strategies for opium poppy farmers in the Wa Hills, which account for the bulk of opium harvested in UWSA-controlled areas, up to 50,000 villagers would simply be relocated south to the Thai border.

The track record was not impressive: from 1991 onwards, 'deadlines' set for eradication of opium poppy cultivation by other major heroin traffickers (notably ethnic Chinese ex-CPB warlords in Kokang) have nvariably not been met. The UWSA's new crusade on drugs would carry greater credibility were the organization not stepping up its methamphetamine production at the same time that it is discussing an opium crackdown. It is also apparent that the numbers moving south were far larger than can be accommodated by fruit and livestock projects. This suggests either bad planning or other motives.

The former insurgent groups with whom the government has negotiated cease-fire agreements, including the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAAKokang Chinese), remain armed and heavily involved in the heroin trade and in the manufacturing and distribution of synthetic drugs. They are also largely immune from government action. To cite only one example, under the terms of the cease-fire agreement, Burmese troops cannot even enter Wa territory without permission from the UWSA.

As of 2000 the United Wa State Army (UWSA), across the border in Burma, was not a regional organization capable of reaching into Thailand with terrorist activities. The UWSA exists primarily as a separatist organization, seeking autonomy from the central government in Burma. It funded its separatist activities by being the major international drug trafficking organization in the region.

A substantial proportion of UWSA narcotics profits have been ploughed back into expanding its military capabilities and areas of operation. The UWSA fields a standing force estimated at between 15,000-30,000 troops. This force is backed by a large number of village militia, making it the most potent insurgent force in the Asian region. Given its pro-Beijing communist background it is no surprise that its forces are mostly equipped with Chinese-manufactured inventory that includes 12.7 mm and 14.5 mm heavy machine guns, and mortars of up 120 mm. It is believed that the Wa had acquired man-portable surface-to-air missile systems, probably from sources in Cambodia.

Thousands of refugees were displaced by the last military engagement between government and Wa troops, with 39 villages attacked and hundreds of houses burned down. The fighting erupted in August 2009 between government troops and members of a militia known as the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), breaking a ceasefire the government and the militia signed more than 20 years earlier. The ostensible spark for the clashes was a move against a gun-repair factory the government believed was being used as a front for narcotics manufacturing, but fighting escalated, with Burmese troops taking control of Laogai, the Kokang capital. The Kokang fighting drew in other groups including the UWSA, which with some 20,000 fighters was the largest ethnic army, but a ceasefire between the UWSA and the government appears to have held since then.

China provided missile-equipped helicopters to Burmas largest armed ethnic rebel group, according to an April 2013 report, in a move that one Burmese military analyst said could hurt bilateral ties. The report by U.K.-based intelligence monitor Janes Information Group said China had delivered several Mil Mi-17 Hip helicopters to the United Wa State Army (UWSA) in late February and early March 2013, citing sources from the Burmese government and the military wing of an ethnic rebel group.

The helicopters, armed with TY-90 air-to-air missiles, were sent to the UWSA-administered area by way of Laos, instead of coming directly from China. The ethnic minority military source said the UWSA had procured five helicopters, while the Burmese military source could only confirm two had been delivered, according to the report. The helicopters are the UWSAs first acquisition of rotary-wing capability and could provide a serious deterrent to the Burmese military, it said.




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