The United Wa State Party: Myanmar’s Most Powerful Ethnic Army


    1.0 Introduction

    The United Wa State Party, also known as the UWSP, is the ruling party of the autonomous Wa state – a region in northeast Myanmar. The UWSP was founded on 3 November 1989 as a merger of the Burma National United Party (BNUP) and several smaller organised non-communist Wa groups.

    The Wa people are an ethnic group which live in Northern Myanmar and also along the China-Myanmar border and in the Chinese Yunnan province. The UWSP’s armed wing, known as the United Wa State Army, effectively operates as a Wa ethnic militia group with numbers of around 30,000 organised and well-equipped fighters. Significant efforts have been made by the UWSP to combat the flourishing drug trade in Southeast Asia.

    Specifically, the focus lies on tackling methamphetamine production and the regional opium trade. The UWSP maintains close ties with China, and from which the group receives equipment and military assistance. Its organisational structure is based on that of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) which has allowed the group to operate the part of the Wa state under a one-party communist system. [Source].

    2.0 Symbols, Patches and/or History

    2.1 Symbols

    The United Wa State Party is heavily influenced by Chinese military doctrine. Its fighters parade in clothing and symbolism heavily inspired by the Chinese Army in that they are aimed at creating “a sense of equality among soldiers and [to] downplay individualism.” The UWSA uniform, often seen on parade, is reminiscent of Chinese military uniforms such as 90’s Chinese PLA uniform which again reaffirms its close ties to the Chinese state and military. [Source, source]

    UWSA soldiers during a ceremony [Source]

    2.2 Flags and Patches

    The UWSP flag is red with a gold star on it which is very similar to other communist flags including both the PRC flag as well as the Vietnamese flag which both feature a gold star(s) on a red background. The party’s armed wing, the United Wa State Army’s flag features a spear and a machete which is a common symbol on many flags representing armed struggle. These flags also regularly appear on UWSA and UWSP uniforms as patches.

    UWSP flag
    UWSA flag/patch

    2.3 History

    During the late 60s to late 80s ethnic Wa tribesmen served as the main fighting force of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in the insurgency targeting the Burmese Central government. Tensions arose within the CPB at the end of the 1980s over the fact that the Wa ethnic fighters composed the main bulk of the fighters whereas the leadership was mainly of another ethnic group, the Bamar.

    In April 1989, Wa fighters raided the parties hq in Panghsang (Pangkham in the present) and destroyed communist literature as well as communist statues. The Chinese, the main supporters of the CPB, approved this action, aiming to enhance their relations with the new central authorities of Myanmar after Ne Win’s fall in 1988. These fighters then established the BNUP and later merged with other non-communist groups into the United Wa State Party, founded on 3 November 1989. [Source]

    Since 1989 the UWSP has been active in reinforcing and ruling over its autonomous state province within Myanmar. They have repeatedly called for peace treaties with the Myanmar central government. One instance of this is when they invited Aung San Suu Kyi, a former State Counsellor of Myanmar, to engage in peace talks with the group in December 2019. [Source]

    3.0 Organisation

    3.1 Place within the broader government structure

    The UWSP is the ruling party of the autonomous region in Wa State, an autonomous region within the Shan State in Myanmar. This autonomous region is home to several armed militias which mostly represent the ethnic diversity of the area.

    The party governs the Wa state under a “one-party communist system,” consolidating all decision-making power in Pangkham, the party’s capital situated near the border with the Chinese Yunnan province. Its political structure follows the principles of “Maoist state-building,” prioritizing the examination of social consequences before implementing policies, rather than blindly adhering to introduced policies.

    As the successor of the Communist Party of Burma, the UWSP occupies a space in which the Burmese central government cannot and does not enter. Chinese observers have described the Wa State as a copy of the PRC. The term Shanzhai has been used which means “a mountain fortress in China” but it also doubles as a term describing a cheap brand copy of an item. Power in this region has been devolved from the central government and spread out to power networks involving UWSP-aligned former insurgent leaders, traditional elders, traders and business people. [Source]

    3.2 Wa nationalism

    Another crucial component of the UWSP organisational structure is its emphasis on Wa nationalism, as a distinct group of peoples rather than subscribing to a republican tradition in which varying nationalities are represented under the Myanmar flag.  The Wa State government has emulated many features of the PRC and has a central party (the UWSP) which also has a Central committee and a Politburo. The Wa State also has a Wa Peoples Congress and a Wa People’s Political Consultative Conference. The UWSP has allowed its subdivisions to implement its policies, most notably policies implemented in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.  The UWSP represents the roughly 800,000 Wa people who inhabit the region and live along the Chinese border. [Source, source, source]

    3.3 Financing

    The UWSP get funding from several sources:

    • The Chinese government: The United Wa State Party and its armed wing the United Wa State Army receive rice, funding, and equipment from the Chinese government. 
    • Crop production: To combat the opium trade in the region the Chinese government helped the Wa State to develop both tea and rubber plantations. [Source]
    • Gambling: The Wa State has a thriving gambling industry. This provides significant funds to the UWSP and relies upon rich Chinese tourists to visit and gamble in the capital Pangkham [Source, source]
    • Backroom deals: During the 1990s, the UWSP and UWSA commanders and politicians enjoyed relatively peaceful relations with the central government. This allowed for them to benefit from business deals in mining. Consequently, they control one of the world’s largest tin mines accounting for a sixth of the world’s source of tin. [Source, source]
    • Drug sales: The UWSP and UWSA have benefitted from the sale of methamphetamines and heroin in the Golden Triangle drug region. This ‘golden triangle’ spans across SE Asia and the Wa State has been accused of being run like a ‘narco-state’. [Source]
    • Arms Sales: The group has also turned to arms production in order to acquire funds. It has sold weapons to the other ethnic groups and militias in the region. [Source]

    3.4 Narcotic Trade Activity

    The United States has accused the UWSP and UWSA of simultaneously participating in and combating the region’s narcotics trade. The UWSA/UWSP was found to be involved in the cultivation of opium and the production of heroin. According to the US State Department, the UWSA is now implicated in the production of methamphetamines. On 29 May 2003, the United States Drug Enforcement Agency labelled the UWSA as a narcotic trafficking organization. It is considered one of the largest drug-producing organizations in Southeast Asia.

    The UWSP imposed a ban on poppy cultivation in 2005 which led to a decline in the region. The UWSP imposed this ban to gain international recognition for the state’s legitimacy. In 2004 criminal organisations in the region switched to producing amphetamines known as yaa baa. The UWSP has started to combat this trade and regularly engages Thai drug smugglers that operate through their territory.

    [Source, source, source, source, source, source]

    3.5 Key Figures

    Bao Youxiang

    Bao Youxiang, also known as Tax Log Pang and Pau Yu Chang (his Wa and Burmese names) is the current president of the Wa State government. He is also general secretary of the United Wa State Party (UWSP) and commander in chief of the UWSA. Born in 1949, when he was 21 he joined a Wa guerilla organisation which smuggled opium across the China-Myanmar border. In 1969 he joined the armed wing of the CPB (Communist Party of Burma).

    He also became the leader of a brigade operating near the Thai border. In 1989 the leadership of the CPB was challenged and its armed wing was disbanded. The establishment of the United Wa State Army followed soon after. After the fall of the CPB, Bao joined the UWSP and the UWSA. In 1995 he was elected as general secretary of the UWSP and commander-in-chief of the UWSA. He has been the de facto leader of the Wa State since 1995. Bao Youxiang has constantly negotiated for regional autonomy and a permanent ceasefire agreement with the central government. [Source]

    File:Bao Youxiang UWSA chief.jpg
    Bao Youxiang – Military commander of the UWSA and leader of the UWSP [Image source] 

    Other key figures of the UWSP/UWSA

    The UWSP and UWSA have several other key figures, mainly they are family members of Bao Youxiang:

    • Bao Youyi – Eldest brother of Bao Youxiang who stepped down as deputy general secretary of the UWSP after fainting in 2018 during the third session of the Union Peace Conference. [Source]
    • Bao Ai Kham – Bao Youxiang’s son who was promoted to become the UWSPs deputy general secretary after his uncle fainted [Source]
    • Bao Ai Chan – Bao Youxiang’s nephew who was promoted to deputy commander-in-chief of the UWSA [Source]
    • Wei Hsueh-Kang – Regional commander of the UWSA who was appointed in 1989 and operated as an infamous drug lord in the golden-triangle drug region. [Source]

    3.6 Recruitment

    The UWSA recruits its soldiers through an extensive program of conscription. The group doesn’t solely conscript people into the army however and has also conscripted people due to legal issues. The group has also conscripted family members of soldiers to replace soldiers who fled. They will usually hold these members of the family until the soldier returns to duty. The UN has reported that the UWSA is being involved in the recruitment of child soldiers. [Source]

    3.7 Connections to China

    The UWSP has extensive connections to China. These connections inform its ideological structure and also the structure of its armed wing, the UWSA. Maoist guerrillas laid the foundations of the UWSP’s governance structure, following Chinese models of governance. Chinese advisors, soldiers, and Red Guards (Paramilitary student organizations) guided these guerrillas. With support in the form of “rice, weapons, and equipment” from China, they established dominance in the region, subsidized by the Chinese state. Chinese observers have described the Wa State and the United Wa State Party as being a cheap copy of the People’s Republic of China or Shanzhai. 

    During the collapse of the Chiang Kai-Shek Chinese government in the 1950s, several KMT regiments fled to the Wa State. They stayed there until the Chinese PLA (People Liberation Army) moved into the region in the 1960s. The establishment of the CPB in the 1960s led the Chinese government to fund and equip the nascent CPB. Subsequently, they captured the Wa Hills region and drove out all competing armed organisations. This extensive support of the CPB and subsequent UWSP/UWSA has allowed China to maintain influence within the Wa region. [Source]

    3.8 Regimental structure

    The UWSA has around 30,000 active soldiers and has five “divisions” which are deployed along the Thai-Myanmar border:

    1. 778th Division 
    2. 772nd Division
    3. 775th Division
    4. 248th Division
    5. 518th Division

    The UWSA also has divisions deployed along the China-Myanmar border:

    1. 318th Division
    2. 418th Division
    3. 468th Division

    [Source, source]

    4.0 Equipment

    The UWSA, the armed wing of the UWSP, is heavily armed and is equipped with Chinese-made weaponry and vehicles. The uniforms of the UWSA and the UWSP representatives are very similar in design to older Chinese military uniforms. Veterans of the CPB and UWSA have stated that with Chinese support the armies were “Much better equipped than other armies and militias in the region”. [Source]

    4.1 Weapons

    The group has undergone periods of modernisation and has based most of its equipment acquisition on Chinese-supplied arms. This has included the Chinese versions of the AK platform and RPG variants. The UWSA also has set up a production line to produce small arms and ammunition in the Shan State. The group also portrayed what is believed to be a Chinese-made drone platform which has been armed with explosives. [Source]

    Some of the weapons in use by the UWSA are:

    Small arms platforms

    • Type 81 assault rifle
    • Type 56
    • Type 79 semi-automatic sniper rifle
    • QBZ-97
    • SKS

    Light weaponry platforms

    • QJZ89 HMG
    • Type 69 RPG
    • FN-6 MANPAD
    • 14.5mm ZU-2 AA
    • Type 96 122 mm howitzers
    • HJ-8 (Red Arrow-8) ATGM

    [Source, source, source]

    UWSA female soldiers equipped with Chinese-supplied QBZ-97 rifles – [Image source]

    4.2 Vehicles

    The group has used commonly available trucks and other forms of transport however it uses mainly Chinese-supplied vehicles. One of these is the Dongfeng EQ2050 which is a Chinese-made version of the Humvee.

    UWSA female soldiers stand at attention during ceremonies
    UWSA Soldiers posing on parade in front of the EQ2050 – [Image source]

    There were also reports that the group had purchased Mi-17 attack helicopters from China which the group denied and both Thai and Burmese military intelligence also denied these reports. Responding to these rumours the UWSA announced that it had purchased an engineless helicopter and a Fokker aircraft from Thailand as well as an unspecified “watercraft”. [Source, source]

    4.3 Operations

    Due to the ceasefire agreements signed in 1989 between the UWSA/UWSP and the central government in Myanmar, the group is not currently active in fighting but rather uses its forces to secure the Wa States border with both China and the Myanmar state. Its heavily armed nature means that it is well equipped to combat threats in the area and has been seen and recognised as one of the most heavily armed actors in the region. [Source]

    5.0 Future of the UWSP/UWSA

    The UWSP acts almost like a Chinese proxy group in the region due to the heavy amounts of support that the group receives from the PRC. This has allowed both China and the UWSP to secure its border with the Myanmar government which is too busy combatting the extensive and ever-growing insurgency within the country. Its heavily armed nature and continued importing of modern Chinese weaponry means that the UWSP and its armed wing the UWSA are well equipped to deal with any threat which may seek to destabilise the already fragile region in the future. As a state of stability in the increasingly fragile country, the UWSP is poised to take advantage to secure increased autonomy from the central government in exchange for not becoming involved in the fighting.

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