RANGOON — The largest ethnic armed group in Burma, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), has selected 30 soldiers to receive pilot training in China, according to members of other ethnic rebel groups who recently visited the Wa headquarters in Panghsang in northern Shan State on the Burma-China border.
The claims are likely to fuel further speculation over whether or not the heavily-armed UWSA have acquired helicopters, as was first reported last year.
A senior officer of the Karen National Liberation Army (KNLA) who visited Panghsang last month told The Irrawaddy that he had been informed of plans to send ethnic Wa fighters to China for pilot training.
“They [UWSA officials] said that they had selected 30 professionals. They will provide them with aviation training. They didn’t say why they will train their soldiers. But, I think they have big plans for military purposes,” said the KNLA officer, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
A military official of the Karenni National Progressive Party (KNPP), who also visited Panghsang recently, said the UWSA leadership had made similar remarks indicating that Wa rebels will receive aviation training in China.
The Karen and Karenni rebel sources said they believed that the Wa were in possession of two helicopters, adding that they had seen helicopter landing grounds at UWSA’s headquarters. Both sources, however, said they had not observed any helicopters during their visits.
According to these sources, the UWSA also owns surface-to-air and air-to-air missiles, and a weapons-making facility that produces AK-47 rifles, explosive devices and other military hardware.
In April last year, Jane’s Intelligence Review reported that China had delivered several Mil Mi-17 ‘Hip’ medium-transport helicopters armed with TY-90 air-to-air missiles to the UWSA. Veteran Burma journalist Bertil Lintner reported in June 2013 that “two helicopters are reportedly stationed at a remote location near Pangwei in the northeastern Wa Hills, far from prying eyes.”
In August, a member of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) said that he had seen the helicopters at an UWSA base. The KIO officer said at the time that they were “simple helicopters” to be used for transport purposes and likely to be operated by China-trained Wa pilots who were sponsored by the UWSA to study at Chinese universities.
Both Beijing and the Wa rebels, however, dismissed the report in reactions to the media. Aung Myint, a spokesman for the UWSA in Rangoon, said the claim was groundless as no one in the UWSA could fly a helicopter.
Last October, Sai Sam, deputy commander-in-chief of the UWSA, said, “We don’t have such helicopters. But, we do have one helicopter and a small aircraft without engine in a public park for show.”
UWSA is the largest ethnic rebel group in Burma with an estimated 25,000 soldiers. It signed a ceasefire agreement with the government in late 2011.
When the Burma Army launched airstrikes on KIO positions in late 2012, it was reported that the UWSA supported the Kachin rebels with missiles in order to counter the government air attacks.
The UWSA mainly relies on funding from the regional illicit drug trade for its long-running insurgency. Due to financial connections with UWSA commander Wei Hsueh-kang, 11 individuals and 16 companies in Thailand were labeled as “specially designated nationals” and “blocked persons” by the US Department of the Treasury’s Office of Foreign Assets Control (OFAC) in November 2005.