This story is over 5 years old.


Backed By China, a Massive Narco-Army Angles for More Power in Myanmar

By inserting themselves into Myanmar's delicate national ceasefire negotiations, the reclusive but heavily armed Wa State rebels could be making a play for greater autonomy.
Photo by Ray Pagnucco

Myanmar's already prickly ceasefire negotiations became even more complex this week. On Tuesday, leaders of the country's ethnic armed groups (EAGs) involved in the talks announced that they're replacing their negotiators with a new team ahead of a scheduled meeting with the government.

The original group of negotiators, dubbed the Nationwide Ceasefire Coordination Team (NCCT), will still have five of its members on the new 15-person negotiating team; it's not known who the other 10 will be. With both the government and the ethnic rebels hoping to have a ceasefire agreement signed before the country's November elections, leaders of the EAGs held a series of meetings aimed at uniting the groups and moving negotiations with the government forward.


The first such meeting was hosted by the United Wa State Party and their military wing, the United Wa State Army — the region's largest rebel-led narco-army — last month, with more than a dozen members of the NCCT attending in direct defiance of the government of Myanmar. This meeting was especially notable because the Wa, who boast up to 30,000 troops armed with weapons from China, had previously been watching the ceasefire negotiations from the sidelines, having had their own bilateral ceasefire agreement with the government since 1989.

Related: Can Anyone Put Myanmar Back Together Again?

The Wa billed their summit, held in the Wa capital of Panghsang, as a way for non-NCCT groups to have a dialogue about the recently agreed-upon draft ceasefire text. Despite the government's refusal to acknowledge smaller armed groups as participants in the nationwide ceasefire process — and the government's continued attacks upon these groups — they were nonetheless invited to the meeting in Wa territory.

During the conference, the Wa explained what was needed in order for them to agree to the nationwide ceasefire: The agreement must include the Kokang, a rebel group that has recently returned to Myanmar after having been driven out by the government; the Kokang have to stop fighting; a peacekeeping force must be deployed in the area; there needs to be support for an independent Wa State separate from the Shan State; and the various EAGs must unite and work together.


"For the signing of the national ceasefire agreement, firstly, we think that no matter the government or ethnic groups, it should be based on national peace and stability," said Xiao Ming Liang, vice general secretary of the United Wa State Party. "Signing the national ceasefire agreement is not only the desire of all Burmese, but also the aspiration of the Wa State people and I. We hope we can sign this agreement as soon as possible."

But while the Wa have publicly stated that they want the ceasefire to be signed, their actions suggest otherwise.

"The Wa have never been on good terms with the Myanmar government, and they tried to use the recent ethnic summit to sort of get at the issues that would annoy [the government in] Naypyidaw in some way," Phuong Nguyen, research associate for the Sumitro Chair for Southeast Asia Studies at the Center for Strategic & International Studies, told VICE News. "I think the Wa have always had ambitions to have their own state, and the reality is the Myanmar government is never going to let them have that, so the recent meeting that they held in Wa territory was a push for autonomy and a Wa state in whatever form that would be."

[ooyalacontent_id="ExaWN4dDo4N2vk_wP85QWQFCCGxHDWcs"player_id="YjMwNmI4YjU2MGM5ZWRjMzRmMjljMjc5" auto_play="1" skip_ads="0"]

The VICE News documentary 'Bangkok Rising'

The Wa, considered by many to be ethnic Chinese, have a long-standing relationship with China that goes back to the late 1960s, when the Communist Party of China decided to give all-out support to the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The Wa, who made up most of the CPB's fighting force, had lots of contact with their Chinese benefactors, either directly with Chinese volunteers who came to fight alongside the CPB, or through political education in China, as Xiao received. After the 1989 bilateral ceasefire agreement, Chinese workers, engineers, and military advisors continued to work with the Wa as they built up their territory along the Chinese border.


The other EAGs, however, are unlikely to follow the Wa's lead in building relationships with China, Nguyen told VICE News.

"The other ethnic groups don't have as powerful a military or as well-equipped a military, and they reside in areas where Myanmar's military has more control, and the regional commands of the military can actually decide if they will let these ethnic armed groups do their business or not," Nguyen said. "So it makes more sense for those groups to deal directly with the government than to try to replicate something that the Wa have."

Related: Fighting Continues in What Could Become the Crimea of Myanmar

Following their meeting with the Wa, the other EAGs took part in a conference in Karen State in early June. At a press conference following the summit in Karen State, NCCT Chairman Nai Hong Sar reiterated a point made by the Wa, telling reporters that a ceasefire that doesn't include all the EAGs currently fighting the government's military would mean little.

"We have decided that we don't accept leaving behind some groups," he told the press. "We stand by the principle of signing the agreement together."

Meanwhile, the Kokang, one of the NCCT member groups, declared a unilateral ceasefire yesterday. Rebel spokesman Htun Myat Lin told the Associated Press that Kokang fighters made the declaration in response to an appeal by China for a peace along the border region, and to ensure that elections expected in Myanmar later this year are peaceful in the area. The decision comes on the heels of the Wa's announcement that the EAGs should not sign a nationwide ceasefire unless fighting was ended in Kokang territory.

The EAGs may have made it clear they will not sign any agreement that does not include all rebel groups, but it remains uncertain whether that will convince the government to reconsider allowing non-NCCT groups to take part in the ceasefire talks.

Follow Raymond Pagnucco on Twitter: @RaymondPagnucco

Follow Jennifer Peters on Twitter: @EditrixJen