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  • An Alternative Review of The Wa of Myanmar and China’s Quest for Global Dominance by Bertil Lintner
  • Lucas Myers (bio)

After two and a half years of renewed civil war, Myanmar’s pro-democracy coalition contests half of the country. The forces of the State Administration Council (SAC) junta, reliant upon air power and artillery to hold the country’s urban areas, are weakening under the pressure of an increasingly capable alliance of a few longstanding ethnic armed organizations (EAOs) and the National Unity Government (NUG) along with its People’s Defence Forces (PDF) (Ye Myo Hein 2023; Davis 2023b). Yet, in spite of the tactical successes of the resistance against a demoralized enemy, the war remains stalemated at the strategic level (The Irrawaddy 2023b; Ye Myo Hein and Myers 2023a).

In this volatile political-security landscape, fence-sitting EAOs could play a decisive role in tipping the balance. Of the roughly two dozen EAOs, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) stands apart as the most powerful, with an estimated 20,000–30,000 troops well-equipped [End Page 496] with Chinese weaponry. Holding its position on the fence (Lintner 2021), the UWSA is often described as a narco-state and a Chinese proxy. Its influence as the de facto leader of the Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee grouping of China-friendly EAOs and their chief arms supplier grants it outsize influence.

Published just prior to the coup in February 2021, long-time Myanmar watcher and journalist Bertil Lintner’s work The Wa of Myanmar and China’s Quest for Global Dominance, offers valuable insights into understanding the Wa and the history of their relationship with China. Throughout the narrative, Lintner argues that, despite their closeness to and influence from Beijing, the Wa above all have always fought to resist centralized authority and assert their own autonomy.

The book begins by exploring the Wa people of the hills, emphasizing that Myanmar’s central authority never extended into their territory, which remained predominantly isolated even through the colonial era. The coming of modern borders disrupted traditional modes of Wa life only towards the mid-twentieth century, with incursions by the China-backed Communist Party of Burma (CPB) proving the most significant.

From the 1960s until 1989, the Bamar-dominated CPB leadership suppressed Wa culture and conscripted Wa people into the war against Burma’s military. However, as the CPB—increasingly sidelined by China after the 1970s—failed to advance beyond its border base areas and mistreated the ethnic minorities under its control, the Wa grew dissatisfied. Wa warlords Bao Youxiang and Zhao Yilai launched what amounted to a coup in 1989, giving the Wa newfound breathing space to develop following the cessation of armed hostilities with the Myanmar military.

As Lintner explores, over three decades the UWSA—still led by Bao today—embraced first the opium and later the methamphetamine trades before expanding its involvement into gambling, resource extraction and a variety of licit and illicit business ventures. Benefiting from Chinese cross-border trade, arms and political support, the UWSA, as described by Lintner, is key to China’s geostrategic [End Page 497] ambitions in Myanmar. His narrative concludes in 2020, just prior to the Myanmar military’s fateful coup d’état in February 2021.

Returning to the book in 2023 amid Myanmar’s escalating violence and China’s turn towards the SAC junta from its previous position of a pragmatic “double game” (Myers 2021), one is struck throughout Lintner’s narrative by the push and pull of Chinese influence, as well as the struggle by ethnic minority groups to assert local interests against distant authorities, both those in Myanmar and in China. This struggle continues today.

Most importantly, the UWSA defies easy categorization. Lintner argues that the UWSA is best understood as simultaneously an ethnic political movement, a Chinese proxy, and a non-state actor supported by narcotics trafficking and other illicit activities. Even if it remains close to China and often acts in Beijing’s interest, Lintner depicts the UWSA as fostering Wa nationalism and agency, paid for by profits from the drug trade.

Likewise, China’s interference in Myanmar is a complex and shifting...