A leader of the United Wa State Party (UWSP) has said the Wa-controlled areas in Shan State will under no circumstances seek a ‘Crimea-style’ secession from Burma with the support of China.
“Some wonder if something bad happens between China and Burma, Wa State will become a problem like Crimea. [But] they are just speculating as they wish,” said Aung Myint, secretary of the UWSP, the political wing of the powerful United Wa State Army (UWSA).
The Crimea region broke away from Ukraine and its predominantly Russian population joined Russia after a referendum in April that was condemned as flawed by Western nations.
“Those who understand history know there is no problem. Those who don’t would try to instigate problems and people might protests against [secession] because they don’t know the history,” he told The Irrawaddy by phone.
“Since we left the Communist Party of Burma 25 years ago, we released statements saying that the Wa people will never secede from Burma. We still maintain this position,” Aung Myint said. “We are asking for autonomy as Wa region is our land. It has nothing to do with secession.”
Since the collapse of a China-backed communist insurgency in northern Burma in 1989, leaders of the ethnic Wa, who comprised most of the foot soldiers, took over from the Burmese community party leaders.
Shortly afterward, the then military junta in Burma signed an agreement with the Wa granting them autonomy in Special Region 2 in northern Shan State on the border with China.
The group formed the UWSA and maintained their close links with China, while their border region became culturally and economically interlocked with Yunnan Province. These days, the Wa state region uses Chinese currency, Chinese mobile phone network and Chinese goods, and many inhabitants speak Chinese. Some UWSA leaders are believed to be ethnic Chinese.
Burma’s government only recognizes six townships in Special Region 2 as autonomous Wa area. The UWSA wants to create a separate Wa State in Burma and wants government recognition of nearly 20 townships under its control.
Since President Thein Sein’s reformist government came to power Burma’s relations with China have cooled significantly. Some observers have said China has supplied weapons to the Wa in order to maintain pressure on Naypyidaw.
When Crimea’s secession was making international headlines, some Burmese outlets wrote that is was not unlikely for Wa State to join China in a similar fashion.
The UWSA has grown into a heavily-armed insurgent force funded by first by opium drug trade and later methamphetamine production, mostly trafficked to Thailand and China.
The UWSA signed a new ceasefire with Naypyidaw in 2011, but the group are not participating in the ongoing nationwide ceasefire talks between the government and 16 ethnic armed groups.
Wa fighters are believed to number between 20,000 and 30,000, and have reportedly received Chinese heavy weaponry such as armored personnel carriers, surface-to-air missiles and even helicopters—a claim the Wa have denied.