United Wa State Army

   At the beginning of the 21st century, the most powerful ethnic minority armed group in Burma, with a strength of 20,000 men and a notorious reputation as Southeast Asia's best organized "narco-army." Although statistics are unreliable, it is believed to make as much as US$550 million a year from the sale of opium, heroin, and amphetamines to international markets. The UWSA was established in November 1989, after a mutiny by ethnic commanders led to the breakup of the Communist Party of Burma, and was one of the first armed groups to sign a cease-fire with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC). Its leader since 1989 has been Bao Youxiang, who also became chairman of its political wing, the United Wa State Party, after its first chairman, Chao Ngi Lai, died of a stroke in 1995. Its headquarters are at Panghsang, a Burma-China border town that has grown prosperous through the drug trade.
   The UWSA not only controls the traditional Wa States region east of the Salween (Thanlwin) River in Shan State but also occupies extensive territories along the Thai-Burma border, especially around Tachilek and Mong Yawn (Mong Yun). Both locations enable it to export large amounts of drugs by way of Yunnan Province in China and northern Thailand. To consolidate its control over the southern region, in 1999 the UWSA began to relocate some 100,000 Wa villagers to the Burma-Thai border; there were many instances of forced relocation, and the new settlers suffered because of inadequate supplies and because their new homes were in a hotter climate than their native highlands. Moreover, many of the original inhabitants of the resettlement areas, mostly Shan and Lahu, were driven from their villages.
   After the cease-fire with the SLORC was signed, the cultivation and export of opium and heroin in areas under UWSA control increased tremendously. Bao Youxiang has promised that his territories will be "opium free" by 2005, but nothing has been done about the trade in cheap amphetamines (known in the Thai language as yaabaa, "crazy medicine"), 80 percent of which is controlled by the UWSA.
   The UWSA has proven to be both a blessing and a curse for the State Peace and Development Council. It has played an effective role in the junta's "divide and rule" strategies in Shan State: UWSA pressure contributed to Khun Sa's decision to sign a cease-fire in January 1996, causing the breakup of his Mong Tai Army, which had been strong enough to frustrate the military regime's objective of controlling central and southern Shan State. But the UWSA is powerful enough to deny the Tatmadaw access to its own territories, in contrast to the situation in Kokang, where the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army, another cease-fire group, is much weaker and internally divided. The UWSA's aggressive behavior has led to occasional border clashes with the Thai Army, though border problems have not prevented political and business leaders in Bangkok from pursuing profitable relations with the SPDC.
   Flush with cash from drug dealing, the UWSA has expanded into a variety of businesses. It controls the Myanmar May Flower Group, a Rangoon (Yangon)-based enterprise that includes one of Burma's largest private banks, and has a stake in Yangon Airways, a private airline that caters to Burma's tourist trade. Reports by the few outsider observers to enter Wa territory indicate that while UWSA leaders like Bao are fabulously wealthy, ordinary Wa people endure some of the worst poverty in Burma.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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