« Engaging the UWSA: Countering Myths, Building Ties » by Andrew Ong, 20/08/2018, Tea Circle, An Oxford Forum for New Perspectives on Burma/Myanmar
Andrew Ong makes the case for the international community to reach out to the UWSA and build trust.
The carefully staged photos of tatmadaw Commander-in-Chief Min Aung Hlaing serving soup to United Wa State Army (UWSA) commander Bao Youyi, hospitalised after fatigue and hypertension at the Third Union Peace Conference (UPC) in July 2018, raised eyebrows across the country. The photo was posted to the former’s Facebook page and gestured towards bridge-building between the tatmadaw and the UWSA, the country’s strongest Ethnic Armed Organisation (EAO).
Building genuine trust however, will take far more than birds’ nest soup.
Not captured in the photograph were the UWSA’s demands for an official Wa State, amendments to the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) and the 2008 Constitution, and recognition of the Wa-controlled territory on the Thai border.
The UWSA had in September 2016 walked out of Aung San Suu Kyi’s landmark attempt to build peace with EAOs, the 21st Century Panglong Conference (now UPC). The formation of the UWSA-led coalition, the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) in April 2017, was a further blow to her NLD government’s hopes for significant progress in the peace process. The FPNCC submitted its demands at the Second UPC in May 2017, which were largely ignored. This Third UPC saw little concrete progress made, and now runs the risk of halting its momentum.
Perceptions and Myths of the UWSA
The UWSA was formed from the fracturing of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1989, its leaders quick to sign a ceasefire with the tatmadaw, one that has held to the present day. It controls fully two large swathes of territory along the Chinese and Thai borders, protected by an army of around 30,000.
Narratives about the UWSA have focused on secrecy and isolation, with sensationalised reporting about “an empire built on guns, drugs and blood”, or unverified allegations of the acquisition of helicopters and other weapons. The scant scholarly material centres on the political economy of opium and drugs, with book covers predominantly depicting soldiers in poppy fields.
In May 2015, the UWSA hosted the first EAOs summit at its headquarters in Pangkham, without the presence of Myanmar government representatives, and created the first opportunity for the press to visit Wa Region. Journalists were invited by the UWSA again in October 2016.
Paradoxically, while these visits gave a glimpse into life inside Wa Region, they also created distance – exaggerating the secrecy and remoteness of Wa Region, or its similarities to China. Across the media, representations of the UWSA invariably depict young soldiers marching, training, or guarding checkpoints, alongside charges of vice and lawlessness, and exotic visuals of the wildlife trade and casinos.
Little wonder then, that the UWSA remains “feared and poorly understood”, and few in Yangon can imagine ever engaging with the UWSA. Two serious misconceptions circulate in Yangon: first that the UWSA is a part or pawn of China, and second that they are mysterious, isolated and disengaged from Myanmar.