It was a scorching June afternoon in 2010 when I had my most recent encounter with the Wa. I was walking down through a valley with a team from a relief group that was supplying basic medical care to villages in an area controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), in the so-called “southern Wa State,” near the Thai border. We came across a large group of young Wa soldiers who were attending an open-air school in a field.
“Who are you?” asked some of the adult members of the group. “No photos!” insisted others, who obviously had not been informed of our presence.
Many questions and a few tense moments later, however, everyone relaxed. Cigarettes and sweets were traded, and one man in his thirties—evidently the most senior UWSA leader there—started to jokingly compare his handgun with that of our escort leader.
We conversed in a mixture of Wa, Thai, Lahu and Chinese—everything except Myanmar. The Wa commander had fine, pale features, suggesting that he was ethnic Chinese, whereas his subordinates and the young cadets had the stockier build and darker skin typical of the Wa.
Although we all ended up smiling and shaking hands, we knew that we had seen too much. After all, we were in the heart of the fiefdom run by Wei Hsueh-kang, a Chinese-born UWSA commander who, along with several others, was indicted by the US government in 2003 as a major drug lord. Our request to continue our trip was rejected, for “security reasons.”
This incursion into Wa territory was nevertheless very enlightening. It came nearly two decades after my first visit to a UWSA-controlled area in 1992, when I ventured just across the Thai border to a place where the group was controlling vast poppy fields. In the years that followed, there would be half a dozen trips in all, including a 35-day expedition on foot and by mule in 1993 from the Thai border to Pangsang, the UWSA’s capital on the Chinese border.
Returning so many years later, what struck me most was that it looked like hardly anything had changed. Sure, there were no more human skulls on display from the not-so-distant days of head hunting still so dear to old leaders. But the people—mostly farmers and the families of soldiers—were still as destitute as when they were first moved from the northern Wa territory to the southeast in the mid-1990s.
I wondered what had become of the dams, roads and other infrastructure—including a gas station built by a Thai politician—that I saw under construction in 1999, when I traveled to Wei Hsueh-kang’s then headquarters of Maung Yawn, near the Thai border. At the time, they were displayed by the Wa leaders as pieces of a grand development plan for their subjects.
What I found instead of evidence of development was an abundance of signs that large-scale narcotics production was still in full swing, contrary to claims from the UWSA leadership that it was working to eliminate the local drug industry. Vast patches of dry poppy fields could be seen all over the hills from ridges along the Thai border. Inside sources confirmed that, besides the well-documented methamphetamine factories, the Wa were still running heroin labs.
This reminded me of another trip into UWSA-controlled territory that I made in 2003: Traveling in the company of soldiers from the Shan State Army–South, I came across a group of Chinese workers busy building a refinery on the bank of a river.
But the UWSA is far from being the only major player in the narcotics business. As one Shan source once put it: “From the moment you start doing business in eastern Shan State—whether you’re from an ethnic armed group, a local militia or the Burmese army—you are involved, in one way or another, in the drug trade.”
And this is the way it’s been for ages. Long before the UWSA came into existence, the Kuomintang and the Communist Party of Burma used narcotics to finance their causes.
My previous trips in Pangsang were possible only because I was invited by a faction of UWSA leaders who were actually trying to help end the drug trade, which had long stigmatized their people. They believed they could get rid of this business and win access to development aid and support from the outside world.
They were certainly true patriots, but they were also too naïve about the cynical drug industry and the local political chess game. They were all neutralized, sometimes in brutal ways: While one retired to a pastoral life of growing tea and apples in the north, another was gunned down in a Chiang Mai street.
Today, such internal divisions are not the only problem facing the Wa. Increasingly, the UWSA is coming under heavy Chinese influence, as the Myanmar government turns to the West to rebalance its relationship with Beijing. With its 20,000 to 30,000 well-trained and well-equipped soldiers, the UWSA gives China powerful leverage along Myanmar’s northern border.
There have been recent reports that China has provided the UWSA with armored vehicles and helicopter gunships—a first for an ethnic armed group in Myanmar. While this may be a boon for the UWSA, it is less clear how it will benefit the Wa people.
Perhaps I can ask them the next time I visit—if I’m invited.
This story first appeared in the October 2013 print issue of The Irrawaddy magazine.