Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Producing Intransigence: (Mis) Understanding the United Wa State Army in Myanmar

Academic journal article Contemporary Southeast Asia

Producing Intransigence: (Mis) Understanding the United Wa State Army in Myanmar

Article excerpt

On 1 September 2016, the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the strongest of Myanmar's twenty or so Ethnic Armed Groups (EAGs), walked out of the "Twenty-first Century Panglong Conference", the country's most ambitious peace talks since armed insurgencies erupted across the country in the 1950s. The peace talks were meant to be a shining symbol of State Counsellor Aung San Suu Kyi's new National League for Democracy (NLD) government's commitment to peace, inclusion and development. The walkout was a serious blow to the peace talks, as it now lacked the involvement of the largest EAG. In April 2017, the UWSA, together with the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and five other groups, formed the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), which sought to negotiate with the Myanmar government as a bloc. While eight EAGs had signed the Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement (NCA) with the government in October 2015, the FPNCC refused to endorse it and instead proposed their own version of the NCA. A new political coalition had now formed to challenge the "divide-and-rule" tactics that had thus far served the Myanmar military (Tatmadaw) well.

The rise of the UWSA to the forefront of ethnic armed opposition in Myanmar in 2015 came as a surprise to many. Previously described by observers as "secretive" and "reclusive", the Wa Region (2)--located in the mountains on Myanmar's border with China--was known as a narcotics-producing area of the Golden Triangle, supposedly run by a ruthless and well-armed "Speed Tribe" (3) that made it onto the cover of Time magazine in December 2002. The UWSA was said to be solely interested in profit and autonomy. Yet in May and November 2015, a year prior to the Panglong Conference, it began forays into collective diplomacy, holding two EAG summits in Pangkham, the "capital" of the Wa Region. Fifteen and later 11 armed groups attended the "rebel" meetings, without any Myanmar government representatives present. (4)

Paradoxically, while rare media visits gave a glimpse into everyday happenings in the Wa Region, their reportage also served to estrange and exoticize. Sensationalist headlines abounded: '"Secret Garden' that 'Leaves Much to the Imagination'", "Wonders of the Wa: The Vibrant Culture of Burma's Mysterious Mountain Dwellers", or "Drugs, Money and Wildlife in Myanmar's Most Secret State". (5) Since 2015, media images and photographs have mainly shown armed UWSA soldiers (some female, some children) marching, training, or manning checkpoints, and different types of military weaponry. (6) Attempts to bridge boundaries ultimately created distance and alienation. Scholarly writing on the UWSA was more balanced, focusing on the drug economy in the 2000s and its relation to conflict, or the history of its establishment and governing apparatus, (7) but offered less social insight into contemporary political culture and the self-image of the UWSA, the mindset and norms which govern decision-making and political practice. (8) Little surprise then that the prevailing sentiment among policymakers, researchers, NGO staff and journalists in Yangon in 2018 seemed to be that the UWSA were distant, not open to discussions, rigid in their stance on the peace process and unyieldingly dictating the terms of negotiations as they mustered alliances with other EAGs.

This article examines the casting of the UWSA as an intransigent and obstructionist actor in the Myanmar peace process. It analyses the way journalistic and research reports on the Wa Region and the UWSA express two simultaneous yet opposite qualities: rigidity and fluidity. In these narratives, fluidity evidences the untrustworthiness of the UWSA and the danger it poses, given its supposed access to illegible shadow networks and resources; while rigidity is read as an uncompromising and hostile stance towards the peace negotiations. Both narratives frame interpretations of UWSA political practice and statements, and produce an image of UWSA intransigence that is widely accepted. …

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