Editor’s note: For more than 30 years, Myanmar’s unrecognised Wa State has endured an uneasy stand-off with the central government, independent in all but name. Cut off from the rest of Myanmar and ruled by the United Wa State Party and its military wing, the region has long been a refuge for gamblers, drug lords and exiles fleeing state persecution. Just over ten years ago, Southeast Asia Globe travelled to the reclusive region to witness the aftermath of a sweeping opium ban that cracked down on the state’s generations-old drug trade – and left countless poppy farmers scrambling to find new ways to support their families. Since then, Myanmar has embraced limited civilian rule in the form of State Counselor Aung San Suu Kyi’s leadership – but for those living in the nation’s borderlands, it can be hard to tell exactly what, if anything, has changed.
The temple grounds of the golden pagoda in Panghsang, the capital of Myanmar’s Wa State, have been transformed into an enormous casino. It is a day of celebration and more than 1,000 people have gathered. Some are entertained by a Shan theatre troupe; others prefer the Chinese barbecue stalls where spicy grilled meat and fish is washed down with cold Chinese beer.
Most, though, are attracted by the gambling tables surrounding the temple. One of them claims it’s not unusual for people to lose 1m yuan (about $120,000) in a day. He loses fast, but has no intention of giving up.
“A friend just won 20,000 yuan,” he says.
Many of the gamblers are ethnic Chinese. Others are uniformed soldiers from the United Wa State Army (UWSA), a formidable force that the US state department has dubbed the most heavily armed narco-traffickers in the world. It is also the strongest military group in Myanmar.
“So why are you crossing the border this way?” asks a Shan monk. We meet him standing on the bank of a river, where two small boats are shuttling people and goods across. The official border crossing between China and Myanmar is visible a few hundred metres upstream. The downstream option is for those who cannot, or do not want to, cross the border legally.
Visiting Myanmar’s northeastern Wa State has never been easy. The British never managed to conquer it and the Myanmar government has never gained full control. Living in isolation and numbering only 500,000 people on the Myanmar side of the border, the Wa remain one of the country’s most mysterious and least-documented ethnic groups.
During the first British expeditions to the area in the late-1800s the Wa were labelled as naked, dirty, dark-skinned, poor and barbaric. Their tradition of hunting heads, which were used as totems to secure good harvests and protect against disease, prevailed until about 30 years ago.
The area is closed to foreigners except for a handful of aid workers, and representatives of the Myanmar regime need permission from the Wa authorities to visit “Special Region 2” as it is called.
Everything is managed by the UWSA which, with 20,000 soldiers, has control of the area. In addition to self-rule, the army was allowed to trade in whatever it wanted, so it did not take long to realise that the most lucrative business in the Wa hills was the production and sale of drugs.
“The Wa hills are a strange place. Opium grows very well, but rice doesn’t grow,” says Jiao Wei. The 46-year-old colonel is responsible for the UWSA’s publicity department and the Wa’s TV station.
“Before the ban we did at least have some income to buy food and necessary medicines. Today we don’t have enough to eat. The rice only lasts for five or six months.”
In 2001, Myanmar was the world’s largest producer of opium. The UWSA dominated the industry and also produced large quantities of methamphetamine. That era is over according to Wei. Under pressure from China, the United States and the United Nations, Bao Youxiang, the UWSA’s supreme commander, promised that the Wa State would be free of opium by 2005. According to the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), as of now he’s kept his word.
Wei is disappointed that the drug ban has led to criticism from the international community rather than support. “We have asked our farmers to grow rice, tea and rubber, but it doesn’t give enough revenue. They don’t have enough food and need help,” he says. It is poverty at a level hard to describe. One hour’s drive west of Panghsang is the village of Maw Hai. It is comprised of about 50 wooden shacks with cattle and pigs roaming freely in the mud. A gang of malnourished children comes running.
“There used to be opium everywhere,” says Ai Nap, the village leader, pointing to the fields surrounding the village. He explained that the opium never made them rich, but now the situation is much worse. “Before the ban we did at least have some income to buy food and necessary medicines. Today we don’t have enough to eat. The rice only lasts for five or six months.”
“Many here are extremely wealthy, but because of their fear of getting killed or arrested they never leave the Wa hills. Instead they bring here what they like from the rest of the world,”
It is easy to blame the Wa’s leadership. The bigger question is if the world outside Myanmar cares. The UWSA warned the international community that alternative sources of income would be necessary after the ban. According to a paper released by the world food programme (WFP), 1,600 tons of rice was distributed to 90,000 people in the first six months of 2007. Some sugar and tea plantations had also been established but, the report argued, the contributions were not enough to meet the demand.
The UWSA’s reputation also leads to scepticism. Observers argue that people in, or connected to, the group are active in the drugs trade; despite Wei’s assurances, there is little doubt that large quantities of opium and methamphetamine continue to be channelled through the Wa hills.
A source connected to the illegal drug industry argues that the ban has made the drug trade more difficult. In addition to increased controls in China, traffickers risk being arrested by the Wa authorities. He remembers the days when truckloads of opium left Panghsang for China and a few days later returned with hard currency.
“Many here are extremely wealthy, but because of their fear of getting killed or arrested they never leave the Wa hills. Instead they bring here what they like from the rest of the world,” says our source.
A town built on narcotics, Panghsang has become a strange phenomenon. The nightclub Babe could be in New York or London. An advanced laser system illuminates the dance floor and two DJs brought in from China are playing hip-hop. Twenty-year-old Cheryl says that the youth of Panghsang is looking to the US rather than China when it comes to music and culture. “I love black hip-hop,” she says. “I don’t know why, maybe we look to black American culture because we are so much darker than the Chinese.”
Cheryl grew up in poverty in the village of Ying Pan, about three hours drive away. She remembers her childhood when the mountains were covered with poppies. Together with her aunt she used to harvest opium to make some pocket money at the local market.
Then, in the 1990s, her father became rich and today she lives in a huge wooden mansion in the centre of town. “I have been lucky and I do my best to help the people in my home village. They always come to visit, because our house is the only one in the village that has a TV,” she says.
The Wa State has become a sanctuary for monks and activists, many of whom have horrific stories to tell. “I had two choices, the first was to escape to Thailand, the other was to run here to Wa State,” says 20-year-old Sandimar. We meet the young monk together with his friend Sai Sai at a temple in Panghsang.
The two monks have escaped here from Rangoon where they experienced their worst nightmare during the September “Saffron Revolution”. Sandimar says he was among the crowd of monks filling the streets when the uprising started. During the night of September 28 he had to face the consequences when their temple was surrounded and attacked by heavily armed soldiers.
“They came at 4am, pointed their guns at us and told us not to move,” he says. “Those who didn’t follow the instructions from the soldiers were beaten. More than 100 monks were arrested at my temple.”
Their detention lasted for a week. Then they were released together with 70 other monks and told to leave the city. Sai Sai and Sandimar left Rangoon the following day. The journey to the Wa mountains took them four days.
They have no immediate plans to return to Rangoon. “We are safe in Wa state, the regime has no influence here,” says Sandimar.