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The Wa Authority and Good Governance, 1989–2007

From: Journal of Burma Studies
Volume 17, Number 1, June 2013
pp. 141-180 | 10.1353/jbs.2013.0006

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This article examines, based mainly on interviews and field data collected from 2003 to 2007, what factors have motivated Wa leaders in their administration of the Wa Special Region since 1989.

The Wa Authority’s banning of poppy cultivation and opium use in 2005 in what was then the largest poppy-growing area in the Mekong Region was supported by probably the biggest concentration of international development aid in the country since independence. This has likely been the most effective and efficient banning of opium in history with perhaps 99 percent of cultivation ended within the first year.1 Although some Wa leaders may well have invested in cultivation elsewhere, poppy growing in the Wa Region was brought to a sudden halt.

The opium ban is the best-known event in the history of the Wa and is perhaps the only thing many people know about them in Burma. Much less well known is how the Wa managed their own area, Wa Special Region 2, which was established as part of a ceasefire negotiated with the leaders of the country, in particular Secretary 1, Khin Nyunt.

When the Wa took control of their area from the Burma Communist Party, which had played a dominant role there from the early 1970s, they faced many challenges. There were few roads, schools, health clinics, or businesses (except for the opium trade). Very few Wa leaders had any formal education and their only practical experience was running an insurgency. There were almost no trained technicians, teachers, or physicians. The treasury was so depleted in 1989 that soldiers’ pay had to be raised through loans by the Wa leaders.2 Although the Wa Authority inherited a system of rule from the Burma Communist Party and a few Chinese administrators remained in the Region after 1989, the Wa lacked all forms of practical administrative experience. They lacked a common language; the local population spoke various Wa dialects, some of which were mutually unintelligible. Most of the population was illiterate and were not able to speak Chinese well, which the Wa Authority had adopted as its working language. The two top leaders of the Wa in fact did not (and do not) know how to read Wa. At a meeting with them in 2007, when it was mentioned that there was a Wa staff member who was composing Wa poetry and other texts, the response by Xiao Ming Liang (the Number Two Wa leader) was that neither he nor Chairman Bao could read their own language.

Wa leaders themselves, as shown by their ignorance of the Wa written script, often see Wa as backward, far inferior to groups they perceive as civilized, such as the Chinese. For example, when I mentioned at different times to Central Committee members that the Wa should not be selling raw materials to the Chinese but doing some processing first in order to gain a better price, two officials, at separate occasions, replied, “What can we do — we are just Wa.”

With this background, the fact that the Wa Authority has maintained its control over the area so completely as to carry out the rapid and comprehensively effective ban of poppy cultivation in 2005, is remarkable and shows the Burma Communist Party’s (BCP) influence on the Wa way of life. This untrained Wa Authority, in spite of many obstacles, built infrastructure, established an administrative system, generated revenue, maintained an armed force numbering 20,000, and avoided the internal splits that contributed to the weakening of neighboring regions such as Kokang.

Nonetheless, challenges remain. The central, district, and township officials ran their domains in a top-down way that represented a break from the decentralized clan-based Wa society in the past. Although there is little information on traditional Wa social life,3 it seems there was little hierarchy within the village. Unlike Burmese and also Shan, the lack of social honorifics in the Wa language points to a society where most people were considered equals.

By the late 1980s, the leaders gained near total control over their people. Local people had few rights and little representation in decision-making. The Wa army came to run a parallel administration alongside the local...



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