Tuesday, April 25, 2006

Wave of refugees shows weakness in Wa army

Nation Multimedia

Caught in Burma's politics of opium and insurgency, Wa villagers continue to be pawns in a game played by warlords.

Just when Thai officials thought they had some breathing space, another 2,000 ragtag Wa villagers arrived on the Kingdom's northern doorstep.

According to Chiang Mai-based Shan Herald Agency for News, they were transported in 39 trucks from a region along the Burma-Chinese border where Wa headhunters once roamed.

The forced relocation is supposed to be part of an ambitious plan to end opium cultivation by the 20,000-strong United Wa State Army (UWSA), a nominally pro-Rangoon outfit that operates independently in an autonomous region in the Burmese sector of the Golden Triangle.

However, Thai officials see the expansion as a potential security threat, as there have been numerous shootouts between Wa troops and Thai security forces over the years.

"We are concerned with the arrival of Wa peasants and the expansion of the UWSA. We will continue to monitor developments," said a senior narcotics officer who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Since 1999, some 60,000 peasants living in the UWSA's Special Region 2 (SR2) near the Chinese border have resettled in newly built towns near Thailand's northern border. The resettlement came to a halt in early 2005 because of intense fighting between the UWSA and the rebel Shan State Army (SSA). Rangoon claims the SSA acts as a Thai proxy.

The clashes lasted for eight weeks and ended in the deaths of hundreds of Wa and Shan soldiers whose bodies were scattered along the rugged foothills that zigzag across the Thai-Burmese border.

Thai security officials said the Wa army wanted to show the ruling junta that they were still a useful friend in spite of shaky relations between the two sides that have resulted from Rangoon's suggestion that the world's largest drug army turn over their arms to the government.

Few think the sacrifices made by the UWSA have translated into anything meaningful, because ties continue to be uneasy as Rangoon seeks to amend the 1989 cease-fire agreement.

While the UWSA maintains that the relocation is part of its plan to end opium cultivation in the northern Wa area along the Chinese border, and has made efforts to extend an olive branch to the Thai side, Thai officials are not buying any of it.

Opium cultivation indeed may have been reduced in SR2 due to the mass relocation. However, according to the anonymous narcotics official, Wa-owned heroin refineries have been popping up in the Chinese-Kokang area not far from Lashio, a major commercial hub of northern Shan State just to the west of SR2.

Moreover, the fact that eight of the UWSA's top leaders have been indicted by a US federal court on drug charges early last year makes it difficult for anybody to cut any kind of deal with the Wa.

Despite all these difficulties, the Wa continue to expand their turf southward to areas near the Thai border. They are hoping to open up a new front so they won't have to depend solely on China and Burma as their windows to the world.

But on the surface it seems that the Wa army is serious about kicking the habit. A small survey of opium fields conducted by the UN's Office of Drug and Crime in Wa-controlled areas near the Chinese border showed a sharp decline in cultivation.

The Wa leadership announced publicly last June on World Drug Day that cultivation had ceased in SR2. A ceremony was held in Panghsang, the Wa capital, and hundreds of invitations were issued. But the Burmese didn't like the fact that the UWSA was overshadowing them and denied permission for invitees to travel upcountry to witness what was supposed to be a historic day for the ethnic army, which are desperately trying to be seen as legitimate outfits in the eyes of the world community.

Whatever the future holds, observers of the Golden Triangle say the Wa army faces troubled times. Since the fall of former Prime Minister Khin Nyunt, the man who engineered the 1989 cease-fire agreements with the Wa and other ethnic armies, Rangoon has sought to redefine their relationship with these groups with the ultimate aim of disarming them.

So far there is no indication that the Wa army is going to give up their arms, said an official in the Thai Third Army on condition of anonymity. "If anything, they are preparing for a worst-case scenario. Wa soldiers on the Thai border are doing push-ups everyday," he said.

Besides being at loggerheads with the Burmese, trying to be a good neighbour to Thailand has not produced the desired outcome. Efforts have been made to obtain technical assistance from Mae Fah Luang Foundation's crop substitution project, which is conveniently billed as a prime example of Thai-Burmese counter-narcotic cooperation.

But the project has failed to secure any money from the world community for the simple reason that nobody believes that the Thai or Burmese leadership has the interests of the Wa peasants at heart. And so they continue to be a pawn in this cut-throat world where warlords play for keeps.


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