The Burmese government has signed a ceasefire with the United Wa State Army (UWSA), an ethnic guerrilla group based in Shan state. Ethnic violence and separatist movements provide the single biggest challenge to the “New Burma” which has emerged after the transfer of rule from the military junta to Thein Sein’s civilian government.
The UWSA ceasefire adds to peace agreements brokered between the government and rebels in the Karen and Kachin provinces. Whilst there remains a long road ahead for the Burmese to manage inter-ethnic conflict, the agreements are a positive sign that the government is willing to compromise in its desperate bid to secure the country for further foreign investment.
Shan state borders China and some 400,000 of the ethnic Wa group live in the Chinese province of Yunnan. In recent years, China has been accused of supplying helicopter gunships and rifles to support the UWSA against the Burmese government. Such a statement is a sign of China’s willingness to pressurise its neighbours into complimentary policy moves. In this instance, it is not simply a case of solidarity for the Wa people (after all most of the Chinese population is Han), but a tool of economic pressure. The Chinese are keen to extend energy pipelines across the Burmese border and are targeting the abundance of natural resources and precious minerals within Burma.
A ceasefire with the UWSA (which is made up of remnants of the Burmese Communist Party that had close ties with China) reduces the chances of Chinese interference in the country’s security matters and provides an incentive for further bolstering cross-border trade and economic ties.
Stifling UWSA agitation through peaceful means may have a drawback, however. The Shan state has long been identified as one of the predominant opium production regions in the world and the UWSA has been linked to cultivation and trafficking. A withdrawal of the Burmese Army from the Shan region could allow such activities to escape punishment and flourish further, an outcome that will prove as detrimental to China as it will to Burma.
It is also argued that the Wa have an historic tendency towards violence which will ensure that any ceasefire is not strictly enforced. Notorious headhunters as late as WWII, the Wa shocked British colonial officials with their perceived barbarity. Keen practitioners of magical rites to appease the spirits and ensure agricultural success, the taking of heads (Latou) from rival clans is well documented. This history, some believe, is why the Wa have been associated with opium production, violent takeovers of rival plantations and military agitation.
As Farc rebels prove so regularly in Colombia, temporary ceasefires and peace talks rarely offer a lasting solution for security. It takes only one element of a group to break the agreement and the two sides are drawn back to conflict.
Whilst the ceasefire with the UWSA must be seen in a positive light, and offers further testament to the Burmese government’s intentions to initiate serious political and economic development, the potential barriers to a lasting peace must be acknowledged and a more permanent truce sought.