Thursday, September 3, 2009

UWSA will be in a spot if Wei sides with junta

by Brian McCartan

Mizzima - Much has been made of the junta’s ‘divide-and-rule’ tactics, but often overlooked is the fact that Burma’s military rulers do not create many of these situations, but exploit existing divisions. One that could have potentially serious consequences to follow-on moves against the ceasefire groups is that between the northern and southern Wa under Wei Xuegang.

The territory under the control of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) is split between a northern region along the Sino-Burma border and a southern region on the Thai border. The northern region is the former operating area of the Burmese Communist Party (BCP) from which the Wa mutinied in April 1989 before signing a ceasefire with the government later in the year.

The southern area was originally the operating area of a non-communist Wa group that eventually joined northern Wa after the mutiny. The southern Wa was led by Maha Sang, a former Wa prince and his lieutenant, an ethnic Chinese from the Sino-Burma border area, Wei Xuegang. Designated the 171st Military Region, the area eventually came under the firm leadership of Wei and his brothers Wei Xueyin and Wei Xuelong.

In addition to the leadership of the southern Wa, Wei and his brothers are considered by many Burma watchers as the bankrollers of the UWSA. Appointed a central committee member of the group’s political wing, the United Wa State Party, in 1996, Wei was also the UWSA’s finance head from July 2006 until December 2007.

Wei’s financial standing in the UWSA comes largely from his control of heroin and methamphetamine production facilities along the Thai border and international trafficking connections. The huge profits made by Wei and his associates enabled the UWSA to greatly expand its control over areas of Shan State as well as increase its number of soldiers and quality of equipment and weapons.

Further reinforcing Wei’s position was the forced relocation of tens of thousands of Wa villagers from the China border to the southern Wa area in 1999. The Wa came to dominate the area, establishing new villages and towns and largely forcing the original Shan inhabitants out. Many of the old strongholds of former opium warlord Khun Sa, which the Wa had fought against for years, were absorbed by Wei’s group after his surrender in 1996. Many of those areas were along the Thai border giving the organization increased opportunities for trade in various forms of contraband including narcotics.

Where Wei and the rest of the UWSA leadership differ is in their political outlook. While many of the ethnic Wa leaders of the UWSA have definite nationalist interests as well as business, Wei is known to be dismissive of politics and interested more in ensuring the continued expansion of his business interests.

An outbreak of fighting with the Burmese Army would certainly not be good for business from Wei’s standpoint. Most of his more legitimate businesses are in central Burma and he would stand to lose them. Hostilities could also potentially disrupt narcotics production and trafficking, particularly if Thai security forces support Burmese moves on their side of the border.

The junta certainly understands this as well and has made several attempts to persuade Wei to make his own peace and transform his forces into a government-backed militia. Although details are sketchy, it can be assumed any arrangement would include a provision wherein Wei would be granted non-interference in his narcotics production and trafficking.

Should Wei cast his lot with the junta, it would put the UWSA in serious financial difficulty. Lost would be access to Thailand and the large amounts of cash generated by Wei’s narcotics business. Cross-border trade to China would not be able to make up for the shortfall and a prohibition on narcotics trafficking to China is reportedly a condition for Chinese assistance on development projects and other forms of cross-border aid as well as political support against Burma’s generals. While victory would by no means be as swift as against the Kokang last week, without Wei’s forces and financial backing, the UWSA would find it all the harder to resist the Burmese Army.

So far, the southern Wa have resisted the junta’s overtures saying that all negotiations must be with Panghsang and Wa troops are reportedly on standby for any outbreak of hostilities. The rapid fall of the Kokang last week and the replacement of Peng Jiasheng with a rival backed by the government, however, may give Wei reason to rethink his options. After all, a precedent has already been set by the retirement of Khun Sa in 1996. The old warlord went on to live very comfortably in Rangoon until his death in 2007.

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