The United Wa State Army, a force of some twenty-thousand fighters, is the largest of Burma’s ethnic armed organizations. It is also the best equipped, boasting modern and sophisticated Chinese weaponry, and operates a formidable drug empire in the Golden Triangle region. This report examines the history of the Wa people, the United Wa State Army’s long-standing political and military ties to China, and the Wa’s role in Burma’s fragile peace process.

United Wa State Army soldiers march during a media display in Panghsang, in the Wa Self-Administered Division of Shan State, Burma. (Photo by Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)
United Wa State Army soldiers march during a media display in Panghsang, in the Wa Self-Administered Division of Shan State, Burma. (Photo by Soe Zeya Tun/Reuters)

Summary

The United Wa State Army (UWSA), with its twenty-odd thousand men in arms, is the largest of Burma’s ethnic armed organizations (EAOs). It is also the best equipped, boasting modern and sophisticated Chinese weaponry. Understanding the special relationship between the UWSA and China, as well as what long-term benefits China anticipates, is critical with respect to long-term peace prospects in Burma, as is better understanding the UWSA itself.

The conflict in Burma, ongoing since independence in 1948, involves numerous ethnic groups, most armed, some not. In 2015, the government in Naypyidaw and the Burmese military came to terms with some of those groups, but only 20 percent. The other 80 percent considered the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement a demand for surrender and declined to sign.

The first peace conference in Burma was held in the Panglong region in 1947. Its successor, 21st Century Panglong, was held in late summer of 2016. The UWSA and other EAOs attended, but walked out.

Early in 2017, these groups established the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee, replacing a previous Thailand-based alliance. Effectively led by the UWSA, the committee also includes the Kachin Independence Army, the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Shan State Army, the Arakan Army, the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, and the National Democratic Alliance Army. Given their numbers, and arms, peace in Burma without the active participation of the UWSA and its allies is clearly not a realistic goal.

In mid-2017, a second round of peace talks was held. This time the UWSA and its allies also attended, presenting a detailed alternative to the government’s and military’s agreement. Again they walked out. After much delay, a third and equally inconclusive peace conference was held in the summer of 2018. Neither side has indicated any willingness to compromise.

The West is hampered by the US indictments of most UWSA leaders for their involvement in the Golden Triangle drug trade. Thus no direct contacts between US officials and the UWSA are possible. Local and international organizations, however, could still engage with the UWSA and its political arm, civil society groups, and (possibly) church organizations.

About the Report

Supported by USIP’s Asia Center to provide policymakers and the general public with a better understanding of Burma’s ethnic conflicts, this report examines the role of both the United Wa State Army and China in Burma’s peace process and suggests ways forward to break the present stalemate.

About the Author

Bertil Lintner has covered Burma’s civil war and related issues such as narcotics trafficking for more than thirty-five years. Burma correspondent for the Far Eastern Economic Review from 1982 to 2004, he now writes for Asia Times and is the author of several books about Burma’s civil war and ethnic strife.

Related Publications

Nonviolent Action in Myanmar: Challenges and Lessons for Civil Society and Donors

Nonviolent Action in Myanmar: Challenges and Lessons for Civil Society and Donors

Friday, September 18, 2020

By: La Ring; Khin Sandar Nyunt; Nist Pianchupat; Shaazka Beyerle

The National League for Democracy’s decisive victory in Myanmar’s 2015 elections inspired hopes of a full transition from military rule and an opening of civil space. Neither has materialized, and the groups working to advance social, political, and economic change in Myanmar continue to face significant challenges. Focusing on three cases of organized nonviolent action in Kachin, Mandalay, and Yangon, this report explores the divide that has opened between civil society and the NLD government and the rifts emerging within civil society itself.

Type: Special Report

Nonviolent Action

The Dangers of Myanmar’s Ungoverned Casino Cities

The Dangers of Myanmar’s Ungoverned Casino Cities

Thursday, August 6, 2020

By: Jason Tower; Priscilla A. Clapp

As a struggling, incomplete democracy, Myanmar and its elected leaders face challenges that would confound any country. The best-known involve the military’s uneven loosening of a 50-year dictatorship; ethnic tensions and armed conflicts; the lack of a common national identity; entrenched poverty; and the complications of borders with five nations, including China. Less well known is an emerging threat that touches each of these vital concerns. Over the past three years, transnational networks with links to organized crime have partnered with local armed groups, carving out autonomous enclaves and building so-called “smart cities” to tap into the huge, but illegal, Chinese online gambling market. Myanmar’s leaders at every level and in every sector should pay serious attention to the alarming national implications of these developments.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Economics & Environment; Democracy & Governance

Myanmar: Casino Cities Run on Blockchain Threaten Nation’s Sovereignty

Myanmar: Casino Cities Run on Blockchain Threaten Nation’s Sovereignty

Thursday, July 30, 2020

By: Jason Tower; Priscilla A. Clapp

On January 20, a young venture capitalist named Douglas Gan sat down in a Philippine television studio to discuss, in part, an exciting new “Smart City” project his firm had become involved in. Sporting a black hoodie over a white tee-shirt, Gan described how one of his companies, Building Cities Beyond Blockchain, was already at work in Myanmar’s Yatai New City, recording instantaneous property transfers and showing the potential of blockchain technology. It’s a start, the anchor said. Gan agreed.

Type: Analysis and Commentary

Economics & Environment

Myanmar’s Casino Cities: The Role of China and Transnational Criminal Networks

Myanmar’s Casino Cities: The Role of China and Transnational Criminal Networks

Monday, July 27, 2020

By: Jason Tower; Priscilla A. Clapp

Seeking to profit from China's lucrative but illegal gambling market, a shady web of actors has begun building resort cities in Myanmar’s Karen State to cater to Chinese gamblers. This report casts light on the actors behind Myanmar’s illegal gambling sector, their linkages to Chinese government entities and to Myanmar's armed groups and military, and how their actions could upend Myanmar’s prospects for peace.

Type: Special Report

Economics & Environment

View All Publications