Shops, hotels and restaurants in Panghsang, the unofficial capital of Myanmar’s northeastern area controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), display signs in three languages: Wa, Chinese and Bamar.

But while Wa, Chinese and other ethnic dialects are widely spoken in the city, very few residents can speak or read, Bamar. Other social and political influences from the country’s largest ethnic group are also largely non-existent.

The UWSA and its political wing, the United Wa State Party (UWSP), have what the country’s many ethnic armed organizations crave: an autonomous region with no interference from central authorities, armed forces equipped with sophisticated weapons and, most significantly, bilateral ceasefire agreements with the Myanmar military, one of which has held firm for three decades.

Now, however, the UWSA is under pressure to also sign the government’s Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA), an initiative launched by the previous military regime that the current elected administration has made a pre-condition for political talks on the fractious nation’s future as a unitary state or federal union.

“The government wants us to give up our weapons, but we can do that only when a political agreement has been reached, and when there is peace in the whole country. Only then, not now,” said Zhao Guoan, a member of the UWSP’s politburo’s standing committee tasked with handling foreign affairs, in an Asia Times interview.

“Our experience of 30 years of peace tells us that if we don’t have weapons, we have nothing,” Zhao said.

The Wa may have enjoyed three decades of peace with Myanmar’s armed forces, or Tatmadaw, but it is also closely allied with ethnic rebel armies that continue to wage war against the government.

United Wa State Army (UWSA) soldiers in a collective salute. Photo: Twitter

They include the Arakan Army, Ta’ang National Liberation Army, the Kachin Independence Army the Shan State Army-North, a local army in Kokang north of the Wa Hills and a ceasefire army in the hills north of Kengtung.

Together, they comprise the Wa-led Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), which accounts for over 80% of all active ethnic fighters in the country.

The FPNCC’s armed forces have made a mockery of the government’s claim that only a handful of so-called “non-signatories” have failed to enter its NCA. The government sees the NCA as the only way forward while the ethnic armed organizations complain about the government’s lack of flexibility when it comes to what it contains.

Several ethnic groups want to include a pledge to establish a democratic, federal union in the text and that the government should withdraw its troops from conflict areas, he said.

Zhao also emphasized that the UWSA has not acquired its impressive weaponry because it is itching for a fight. Rather, it is meant for self-defense, he said, and to keep safe the area under the UWSA’s control.

“We would never fire the first shot, and we will never provoke the Myanmar army so they could attack us,” Zhao said.

When asked what would happen to the UWSA and all its weapons if and when a final peace agreement is reached, Zhao laughed and said cryptically, “That’s a question for the future and we may not know the answer during our lifetime.”

The Wa are evidently quite content with the status quo and are in no hurry to follow the Tatmadaw’s demand that they “disarm, demobilize and reintegrate”, known locally as “DDR.”

Areas in orange indicate UWSA controlled territory in Myanmar. Pangkham is a variant of Panghsang. Source: Twitter

The UWSA’s relationship with China is a pillar of its autonomy. But while the Wa are close to the Chinese across the border, and possibly also Beijing’s security services, it would be wrong to brand the group as a Chinese puppet.

“Because of the geography and for historical reasons, we have close relations with China,” Zhao said, declining to elaborate.

China has a strategic interest in maintaining a foothold inside Myanmar through the Wa, but also benefits economically through the exploitation of minerals in the Wa’s area that are exported across the border.

Although Zhao did not mention it, the arsenal of the UWSA’s 20,000-30,000 strong military includes MANPADs, or surface to air missiles, heavy artillery and armored fighting vehicles, all of Chinese origin and not the type of kit that would accidentally fall from the back of a truck.

Nor would it be possible for local arms dealers in across the border in China’s southern Yunnan province to sell such sophisticated weapons on a black, or even gray, arms market.

A well-armed UWSA that does not fight against Myanmar’s government is in China’s strategic interest, not least because it gives Beijing negotiating leverage in issues related to trade, investment and access to the Indian Ocean through the development of ports.

When then-president’s office minister Aung Min met with local people protesting a controversial Chinese-backed copper mining project at Letpadaung, he tellingly said: “We are afraid of China…we don’t dare to have a row with [them]. If they feel annoyed with the shutdown of their projects and resume their support for the communists, the economy in the border area would backslide.”

UWSA soldiers parade what is believed to be a Chinese-made armed drone, Panghsang, 2018. Photo: Twitter/Network Media Group

By the “communists” he clearly meant the UWSA. But the Chinese are not only arming the Wa: They are also actively involved in Myanmar’s peace process through special envoys like Sun Guoxiang, a veteran diplomat, who maintains contacts with the Myanmar government as well as ethnic armies.

It could also be argued, as Singaporean researcher Andrew Ong wrote for the Myanmar news site The Irrawaddy in May, that Myanmar’s central authorities “have done little to bring [the UWSA] into the Union, aside from personal business collaborations between leaders.”

On the other hand, the political demands of the UWSA are crystal clear. Zhao emphasizes that the Wa don’t want to secede from Myanmar but insist upon having their own autonomous state, not just a special region within Shan state.

Zhao and other Wa leaders also said that a future Wa state would have to include what’s referred to as “the northern areas”, or former territory controlled by the Communist Party of Burma adjacent to China, as well as “southern areas” along the Thai border.

The latter base area was established when, in the early 1990s, the UWSA moved tens of thousands of Wa down to the Thai border. It was a forcible action that caused many of the former inhabitants, mostly ethnic Shan, to flee to Thailand.

That area was first given to the Wa by the Myanmar military when the UWSA was fighting against the Möng Tai Army of notorious drug warlord Khun Sa, who is now deceased.

After he surrendered to the Myanmar government in January 1996, the Myanmar military asked the Wa to return to their territory in the north, but the UWSA rejected the request and instead moved even more people to the south.

Many Shan may be opposed to the idea of carving out a separate Wa state from Shan state, as it could lead to similar demands by the Pa-O, the Palaung, the Kokang Chinese and other ethnic minorities in the state.

UWSA leader Bao Youxiang in a military parade to commemorate 30 years of a ceasefire with the Myanmar military, Panghsang, April 17, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Neither the central government, nor the Shan, would be willing to give the Wa permanent control of two areas, one in the north and another in the south, separated by 150-200 kilometers of government-controlled territory.

In other words, finding a political solution to Myanmar’s entrenched ethnic problems is a formidable task that requires much more than asking ethnic armed groups to sign the NCA and disarm without any political guarantees.

The grand ceremony at which the NCA was signed on October 15, 2015 is in retrospect more clearly viewed as a face-saving gesture by then-president Thein Sein and the foreign donors who had lent financial support to his stillborn “peace plan.”

Now, after years of inconclusive talks and intensified fighting, the situation appears even more grim, significantly at a time when China has sidelined Western nations and emerged as the most important foreign player in Myanmar’s hamstrung peace process.

Zhao points out that civilian leader, State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi, had urged ethnic armed organizations to think carefully before signing the NCA while she was on the election campaign trail.

After winning the election that year, she quickly changed her tune and pursued the previous military-aligned administration’s same failed policy. “It is hard to know what to believe,” said Zhao.

What is clear is that as long as a lack of trust prevails, and the government remains obstinately committed to the NCA, there will be more, not less, fighting in Myanmar’s frontier areas.

Given the leading role that the Wa play in the FPNCC, and in sight of their close relations with China, the ethnic group is positioned better than most to eventually get what it wants.