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Tracking the source of ‘Weapon Providers’ for NE Rebels

Namrata Goswami was Research Fellow at Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi. Click here for detail profile.
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  • November 07, 2013

    Time and again, Indian security personnel have indicated that the armed groups in Northeast India have sustained their armed violence due to the uninterrupted flow of weapons from across the border in Myanmar. The suspects in Myanmar are the Karen National Union (KNU) and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA). True these two armed ethnic groups have acted as the interlocking chain for the illegal weapons flow from Yunnan in China via Myanmar to Northeast India. However, the most effective illegal weapons trader in Myanmar is the armed ethnic group, the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

    The UWSA is the military wing of the United Wa State Party (UWSP) founded in 1989 with members of Wa National Council (WNC), which represent the Wa ethnic group and former members of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). The UWSA declared its own Wa State Government Special Administrative Region within Myanmar on January 1, 2009, but not recognized by the Government of Myanmar. The Wa State is modeled after China, having a Central Committee and the UWSP. The UWSA is not demanding a separate independent state and has signed a cease-fire with the Myanmar government in 1989. The reality, however, is that the Wa territories are completely under the Chinese radar. Because of the absence of a written script, the Wa State government conducts its official activities in Chinese. Most commodities within the Wa State are from China and the currency of exchange is the Renminbi. The Chinese Phoenix TV is very popular and the cellular phone network is dominated by China Mobile. Even the Chinese postal codes are used for mail delivery. For China, its linkage with the UWSA is of strategic priority, even more so than its bilateral relationship with the democratizing Myanmar government. The opening up of Myanmar and its political reform have rendered Chinese influence thinner and other countries like the US are upping their stakes in Myanmar. The US interest is vindicated by the fact that the first foreign visit by President Barack Obama in his second term was to Myanmar.

    The geographic reality and strategic vulnerability of the China-Myanmar border explains why the UWSA is of critical importance to China. Five divisions of the UWSA are deployed along the Thai-Myanmar border and three divisions along the China-Myanmar border. The total strength of the UWSA is 30, 000 armed cadres with 10, 000 auxiliary force. Its writ is written large in these border areas and its dependence on China for financial and other support makes the UWSA a stakeholder in increased Chinese influence in Northeastern Myanmar. According to Jane's Intelligence Review of April 2008, China became the main source of arms to the UWSA, displacing countries like Thailand and Cambodia who formed part of the traditional black market sources.1 In a December 2008 report, Jane's Intelligence Review reported that “China…provided the Wa with advanced weapons to build up their defenses. The transfers included surface to air missiles and, for the first time, at least 12 armored vehicles the report refers to as 'tank destroyers.'”2 In 2013, Jane’s reported that several Mil Mi-17 helicopters armed with TY-90 air-to-air missiles were supplied to UWSA by China.3 These allegations have been dismissed by China but the Wa-China connection is deep seated and actively supported by the Chinese government and the PLA. China’s supply of the Mil Mi-17 helicopters has been corroborated by Southeast Asia specialist Bertil Litner in his June 25, 2013 article for the Asia Times4.

    Figure I: UWSA Territories and Arms Network

    Source: Namrata Goswami

    The UWSA’s biggest source of revenue is its involvement in the illegal small arms network across South and Southeast Asia. It manufactures Chinese weapons with an “informal franchise”, procured from Chinese ordnance factories. The main motive is to sell these weapons for huge profit to Northeastern Indian armed groups who are lucrative consumers of such weapons. The arms manufacturing unit in the Wa territories are supported by the Chinese factories in Yunnan. Most of the weapons manufactured include machine guns, pistols, rifles and revolvers. The fact that some of the UWSA members were earlier members of the CPB helps establish connection within China especially with Chinese arms factories across the border in Yunnan.

    Incidentally, the Wa people that the UWSA represents live largely in Northeastern Burma bordering China and Thailand. The Wa has ethnic kin in China’s Yunnan province and is one of the 56 ethnic nationalities officially recognized by China. In Myanmar, the Wa forms one of the 135 officially recognized ethnic groups. The border between the Wa territories and China is porous, and Han Chinese migration into these areas is on the rise. The Burmese Han population was approximately 1.6 million in 2012.

    Myanmar has made attempts to persuade the UWSA to sign a ‘nationwide ceasefire’. However, the UWSA did not participate in the four day conference that started early November on a ‘nationwide cease-fire’. This conference, held in the Kachin city of Laiza saw participation of 18 major Myanmar armed ethnic groups including the Kachins. The UWSA’s refusal to take part in this nationwide cease-fire stems from two issues. First, it is already under cease-fire with the Myanmar government. Second, accepting a nationwide cease-fire creates limitations for its demand for an autonomous Wa state.

    For India, there are three important security implications. First, the increasing role of the UWSA in illegal small arms proliferation in the Northeast India from Myanmar ensures that the armed ethnic groups in India’s border states will continue. Second, Myanmar’s political reform and the re-entry of the US as an important player in Myanmar incentivize China to increase its support for the UWSA for political leverage. Third, the absence of robust border-defense and monitoring mechanisms in India’s northeastern borders perpetuates this cycle of conflict and lawlessness. Therefore, prioritizing policy on the source of small arms from the UWSA is critical if India wants to disarm the armed groups in the Northeast.

    Views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the IDSA or of the Government of India.