Wei Yu Hua sits on the floor of his bamboo hut in the hilly Chiang Rai province of northern Thailand. The hut looks back over the steep fields he worked in after fleeing from nearby Myanmar, the culmination of a journey that began at the age of 13. At a time when awareness of the use of child soldiers was low, Wei Yu Hua, along with many other young Wa boys, was recruited to fight for the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). CPB forces had recently re-entered Myanmar from China and established its “northern base” in Wa areas. Following the collapse of the CPB in 1989, Wei joined the United Wa State Army (UWSA). The UWSA established control over much of the CPB’s former territory, what is now known as Wa Special Region 2 (WSR2).
As part of an informal agreement between the UWSA and the Tatmadaw (Myanmar’s military), the UWSA leaders agreed to wage battles against the army of infamous drug baron Khun Sa and subsequently the Shan State Army (SSA). Wei was involved in significant battles against both of these armies. According to Wei however, Wa soldiers were often unenthusiastic contributors to the battles, realising that they were closer ethnically with their opposition than with the Burman-dominated military that their leaders were collaborating with. In Wei’s experience it was not unusual for battles to involve soldiers firing over the heads of their opponents. While the Yangon regime had co-opted the UWSA in its fight against the Shan, it seems that Wa identity could not simply be bought.
Given the significant proportion of their revenue that the UWSA derives from trade in narcotics, it is usually Wa soldiers that are called on to make the long and dangerous journeys trafficking drugs to the Thai border. Wei was deployed within small teams carrying packs filled with yaba (amphetamine) pills, to trek from WSR2 to southern Shan state where the drugs would be taken on into Thailand.
Contributing to the disenchantment of Wa soldiers has been an increasing influence on power in the UWSA by ethnic Chinese who are attracted by the business opportunities in WSR2, and who make the most of their connections with rebel leaders. The UWSA is now largely Chinese-speaking, and the key figures in it are an ethnic mix of Wa and Chinese. The rise to power of this “borderlands mafia” led regular Wa soldiers to question their leadership’s sincerity in campaigning for Wa autonomy.
The balance of power in the organisation has important implications for the assertion of Wa identity. When questioned regarding the accuracy of perceptions that the Wa are little more than drug producers and traffickers, Wei Yu Hua puts the blame squarely on “Chinese businessmen”. Whether Wei makes a distinction between Chinese in the Wa leadership, and those that dominate the business community in Panghsang, the de facto regional capital, is not entirely clear. It seems likely however, that such actors are seen by many Wa as closely related.
Adding to this discontent during the 1990s, increasing numbers of Wa soldiers were sent by UWSA commanders on suicide missions in order to inflict major damage on their enemies. This issue, among others, led Wei to desert the UWSA and escape from Myanmar to the Chiang Rai province of Thailand.
In the diversely populated hills of northern Thailand, Wei was able to work alongside people from Karen, Akha and Lahu ethnic groups. He was eventually able to settle down in a village officially labelled “Lahu” by Thai authorities, although in reality its makeup defied any simplistic categorisation. Wei married a Karen woman, also a refugee.
Such is the stigma surrounding the Wa in Thailand, that Wei is perfectly willing to identify himself as Lahu to government census collectors, Karen and/or White Karen to inquisitive foreigners and even some local Thai, and only rarely as Wa. In addition, Wei has learnt to speak Thai and Lahu languages, in addition to Wa and Chinese.
In Myanmar the Wa are politically represented by the United Wa State Party (UWSP), the political wing of the UWSA. The party asserts a unique Wa identity, in contrast to the other ethnic groups in Shan state and the Burman majority. However, while there is a clear expression of ethnic rights at a group level, it is important to recognise that people may be willing to adopt alternative or multiple identities at an individual level, which may even seem contradictory. This plays out in the case of an individual such as Wei Yu Hua, who has interacted with a range of people in different countries, and adopted different identities in different situations. At the same time, Wei maintains a fundamental difference between the Wa and the Burmans is worth fighting for.
Some scholars have called for distinguishing between the “internal and external sovereignties of a State”. This may involve “using the term ‘internal sovereignty’ to mean ‘effective [State] control of a territory’ and noting that ‘external sovereignty’ – recognition by international community – is the basis on which a State is considered sovereign” (Dean 2005: 811). In the context of observations regarding the formation of Wa identity, it becomes clear that internal sovereignty may be as important in the everyday lives of the Wa as external sovereignty. It seems important then, to examine the legitimacy with which the UWSA/UWSP enacts its internal sovereignty in the region.
It is also clear that representative organisations such as the UWSP may not be accurate and legitimate ambassadors for the group, even with regard to the assertion of group identity. While the organisation may have been founded with the intention of defending ethnic rights, some have more power than others in shaping the agenda. The subversion of the international border has increased interaction with the region of China in which forty percent of the Wa population lives, and has led to a significant level of influence of non-Wa over the activities of the UWSP/UWSP. Given that it is the UWSP that has so far been, and will most likely continue to be engaged in negotiations with the Myanmar government, it would be reasonable to consider these issues in any analysis of the negotiations.
The ambiguous nature of identity creation poses interesting questions for the nature of power relations in a country like Myanmar. For instance, if a political resolution to the tension between the Myanmar regime and the UWSP resulted in the establishment of an official Wa “autonomous” area, what would be the implications for the assertion of a unified Wa identity? How much autonomy should the UWSP enjoy from Naypyidaw, and how much influence should it have in the day-to-day lives of Wa people? While it is clear that at a group level, many ethnic groups are keen to express their opposition to the state, it is equally clear that individuals may be flexible in their identification with ethnic identity.
It seems that structures of state, as necessary as they are, can only ever be approximations of localised identity. In this regard, it seems fair to maintain scepticism in relation to claims by those with power or influence who may assert the right to speak on behalf of a particular group. It is also important to consider the implications of identity formation for arrangements of state, be it by central or regional authorities.
Note: The name Wei Yu Hua is a pseudonym.
Dean (2005), ‘Spaces and territorialities on the SinoтАХBurmese boundary: China, Burma and the Kachin’, Political Geography, v.24, pp.808-830.