Columns of soldiers goose-stepped in perfect formation on a parade ground. Trucks towed heavy weaponry while armored fighting vehicles drove past a grandstand of observers.

The ceremonial show of force along the Myanmar-Chinese border in mid-April was similar to military muscle-flexing in many places in the world. But this was no normal fighting force; it was the United Wa State Army (UWSA), arguably the largest and best-equipped non-state army worldwide.

The ethnic Wa were celebrating the 30th anniversary of the founding of their own military force in what effectively amounts to a self-governing buffer state between Myanmar and China. Myanmar security authorities prevented foreign journalists from attending the celebrations at the UWSA’s Pangkham headquarters, which was attended by thousands of tribesman from both sides of the China-Myanmar border.

But Bao Youxiang, the UWSA’s commander-in-chief and chairman of its United Wa State Party political wing, responded to Asia Times’ questions via email in a rare exclusive interview.

“We want peace and we can discuss anything under the condition that it does not mean that we have to surrender our weapons,” Bao replied in Chinese to Asia Times’ question about the status of the Myanmar government’s peace process, a signature policy of the current Aung San Suu Kyi-led elected administration.

But that is exactly what the Myanmar military, known as the Tatmadaw, wants: DDR, or “disarmament, demobilization and reintegration,” a strategy usually deployed by UN peace-keeping outfits following civil wars.

United Wa State Army soldiers at a military parade to commemorate 30 years of a ceasefire signed with the Myanmar military in Wa State, in Panghsang, on April 17, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

Bao, born in the northern Wa Hills in 1949, has shown no inclination to give up his arms. As a young, local militiaman he joined forces with the Communist Party of Burma in the late 1960s and served as commander of its 683 Brigade in central Shan State. In April 1989, the Wa rank and file of the insurgent Communist Party of Burma (CPB) rose in mutiny against their mainly ethnic Burman leaders and drove them into exile in China.

The UWSA subsequently emerged as the most powerful of the four ethnic armies that rose from the ashes of the old CPB. But instead of fighting the Myanmar army, the UWSA made tentative peace with Myanmar’s central authorities. In exchange, the Wa were allowed to retain their guns, control the Wa Hills near the Chinese frontier and run their own lucrative businesses, including the cultivation of opium and later production of methamphetamines.

The UWSA grew rich on the narcotics trade but have more recently diversified into more legitimate businesses. The upshot has been a 20,000-30,000 strong ethnic army without equivalent in the insurgency-prone country. It controls a 20,000-square kilometer area in northeastern Myanmar and its modern, sophisticated weaponry includes surface-to-air missiles, artillery and what could be described as light tanks.

In the UWSA-controlled territory, the local administration uses Chinese alongside Wa for most official purposes. The Burman language is spoken by only a few in the Wa hills, underscoring the Wa’s de facto separate status. Chinese renminbi is the preferred currency in their area, and mobile phones and the internet are powered by China-based, not Myanmar-controlled, networks.

In recent years, the UWSA has also emerged as the most important player in peace talks between Myanmar’s central authorities and the country’s many ethnic armed groups.

The UWSA now heads the Federal Political Negotiating and Consultative Committee (FPNCC), an alliance of seven groups representing more than 80% of all non-state armed actors in the country that have refused to sign a “Nationwide Ceasefire Agreement” (NCA), which Myanmar’s government launched in October 2015.

Myanmar's military parade to mark the 72nd Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar March 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun
Myanmar’s military parade to mark the 72nd Armed Forces Day in the capital Naypyitaw, Myanmar, March 27, 2017. Photo: Reuters/Soe Zeya Tun

The committee’s name says it all: the assembled groups want discussions about the country’s future status before they sign any agreement, not the other way around, as proposed by Myanmar’s government and military.

In peace processes in other parts of the world, a political agreement – and demands for a DDR process – usually come after talks have been held. Given the UWSA’s massive and impressive arsenal, it is hardly surprising that Bao does not see such a sequence of steps as a way forward.

Without their guns, the Wa would lose all their now strong bargaining power, though maintaining a strong military force doesn’t necessarily mean that they are prepared to take on the Tatmadaw.

“We are like a bodybuilder. We want to show everyone that we are strong so no one will dare mess with us,” a Wa spokesman told Asia Times. “But like a bodybuilder, we don’t want to fight.”

Although he does not say it overtly, Bao is clearly suspicious of the government’s intentions. Asked by Asia Times whether the UWSP would be willing to sign the NCA, Bao said: “That is very difficult to do because the local armed forces [the UWSA] do not believe that the Myanmar government will abide by its promises.”

Those are strong words coming from the leading force in the FPNCC, but reflect the distrust that endures between Myanmar’s central authorities and the country’s many ethnic armed organizations.

United Wa State Army leader Bao Youxiang at a military parade to commemorate 30 years of a ceasefire signed with the Myanmar military in Wa State, in Panghsang, April 17, 2019. Photo: AFP/Ye Aung Thu

At the same time, Bao is keen to emphasize that his movement is not a separatist force. They want to have their own state within the Union of Myanmar: “We demand complete autonomy, not independence,” Bao wrote in reply to Asia Times’ questions.

That may be good news for Myanmar’s central authorities but not for the Wa’s neighbors. Presently, the Wa Hills and the UWSP-administered area form part of Shan State. If the Wa are one day given their own state, similar demands may be raised by other ethnic minorities in Shan State such as the Pa-O and the Palaung, both of which have their own armies.

Foreign countries and groups are playing key roles in the talks between Myanmar’s central authorities and ethnic armed organizations, according to Bao. He emphasized that China is the most influential force, noting Beijing’s big geo-strategic interests in Myanmar.

“Myanmar is a country where China wants to have access to a seaport from where oil and natural gas can be transported. That also includes other goods that now are being shipped through the Malacca Strait and Singapore,” Bao said.

“The commander of the Myanmar army, Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, was invited by [Chinese leader] Xi Jinping before the water festival [in mid-April], which goes to show that the Chinese government values ties with the current military strongman of Myanmar.”

When it comes to the involvement of other countries, Bao said: “The United States, Japan and India have only one goal: to join hands to win over Myanmar in order to counter China politically, militarily and economically.”

But the US is also facing a dilemma in Myanmar, according to Bao. At the same time as Washington aims to counter China, there is the question of sanctions which were partly re-imposed after Muslim Rohingya were killed en masse in western Rakhine state, an assault the United Nations has said may have had “genocidal intent.”

Senior General Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar Commander In-Chief (L) and National League for Democracy (NLD) party leader Aung San Suu Kyi (R) shake hands after their meeting in Naypyidaw in a file photo. Photo: AFP/ Phyo Hein Kyaw
Min Aung Hlaing, Myanmar’s commander In-chief (L), and de facto national leader Aung San Suu Kyi in a file photo. Photo: AFP/ Phyo Hein Kyaw

Under growing international pressure, even State Counselor Suu Kyi has been forced to step in line with the Tatmadaw. Until then, the US and the West were among Suu Kyi’s staunchest supporters.

According to Bao: “She wants democracy but that’s hard for her because she doesn’t have a strong team or support from the military. And she is also losing popular support because of corruption, higher living costs and unresolved ethnic conflicts.”

The role of India, Myanmar’s other giant neighbor, is mainly that of providing some military, and mainly naval, assistance because New Delhi wants to settle the issue of rebels operating on both sides of the common border, according to Bao.

Bao also acknowledged that Japan has helped Myanmar economically with loans and grants, and that Japanese organizations are assisting civil society with the construction of hospitals and through cultural exchanges.

But the common threat among the US, Japan and India is what Bao says is concern over the rise of China and Beijing’s long-term strategic interests in Myanmar. And there, the UWSA is playing a central role as well.

Most of the weaponry and other military equipment that was put on display in Pangkham in mid-April were Chinese-made, which goes to show that even this tribal force in Myanmar’s remote northeastern mountains cannot readily be ignored by the outside world.

But the “body-builder” may also have been eager to show that it is not, as many outsiders believe, a Chinese puppet army. It is a force in its own right, with political objectives that will weigh heavily on whether Myanmar stays at war or eventually achieves national peace.