Spotlight shines on secretive Wa

United Wa State Army troops. Source: YouTube

Claims that some of the planet’s biggest corporations source raw materials from the pariah Wa state on Myanmar’s border with China has brought attention to this intriguing entity. 

The small narco-state has just started to allow international journalists in for carefully controlled trips. But in other ways the Wa seem unwilling to change the status quo. Despite being saddled with US sanctions, the region has grown wealthy with the income from illegal drugs, endangered animals and other goods.

More than 500 manufacturers, including Apple, have been named by Reuters as buying raw materials from Chinese-controlled firms that indirectly buy tin ore from a mine run by Wa rebels.

The Man Maw mine is controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which is under US sanctions for alleged drugs trafficking.

Washington’s sanctions forbid “direct or indirect” dealings with blacklisted groups. The world’s largest tin producer, Yunnan Tin Co Ltd, is one of the Chinese companies that buy tin from Man Maw, through intermediaries.

Apple said it was working with suppliers to maintain high standards “and those who are ultimately unable or unwilling to comply are removed from our supply chain”.

“While we have no evidence of illegal tin from Myanmar in our products, we’ll continue to investigate, address any issues we find and do all we can to raise standards and protect human rights,” the tech giant said.

Starbucks said small amounts of Yunnan Tin metal bought through intermediaries went into the ovens in its outlets. The coffee retailer said it had no evidence it was using Burmese minerals but said it was pushing suppliers for more details.

Other firms named by Reuters included Huawei Technologies, Macy’s, Nokia, Ericsson and Tiffany & Co.

The allegations shine a light on the world’s more shadowy corners. Nominally part of Myanmar, it is orientated almost entirely around China with a formidable military funded mostly by the trade in drugs and endangered animals.

In British colonial times the region was known for its “wild Wa”, who chopped off enemies’ heads and displayed them on poles.

The autonomous Wa region is about the size of Israel with about 500,000 inhabitants. Running next to the Chinese border, its independence from the Burmese state dates back to a peace deal with the then military dictatorship in 1989.

The Wa state built its reputation as one of the world’s largest heroin producers, although the authorities claim tea, coffee and rubber are increasingly replacing narcotics, with almost everything being sold to China.

The region reportedly feels far more like being in China. The Chinese yuan is the currency used, the main language is Mandarin or Putonghua, and electricity and mobile phone networks come from Chinese providers.

“I don’t know what we get from being part of Myanmar”, Construction Minister Yeng Gar told the BBC during a recent visit. “But we don’t want independence, we do want to be part of Myanmar.”

The Wa’s impressive 20,000-to-25,000-strong military keeps the Tatmadaw from interfering. A UWSA offensive in late September ended in the seizure of two mountain outposts and a checkpoint from its long-time ally, the National Democratic Alliance Army, while China has built infrastructure, with more impressive roads and schools than elsewhere in Myanmar.

The UN and US State Department accuse Wa state of manufacturing vast numbers of methamphetamine pills, known as “yaba”. The UWSA also appears perturbed about the recent removal of most US sanctions against Myanmar, which allows former junta members to be removed from the US Treasury blacklist, while Washington’s accusations of drug involvement mean the Wa administration still faces sanctions.

Justice Secretary Li San Lu told the BBC that meth production remained a huge problem with two tonnes of pills seized during 2016. “We locals don’t know how to make yaba,” he was quoted saying. “The ingredients are all being brought in from China, India and Thailand and then manufactured here. We’re the victims.” It is hard to believe this claim.

In Pangkham, the Wa capital, smart shops reportedly sell parts of endangered animals.

Tiger teeth and skulls, elephant tusks and pangolin skins are openly on sale with most customers allegedly coming from China and facing few problems crossing the border.

“These shops are not market stalls, but supermarkets of endangered animals’ parts. A previously undocumented gateway into the lucrative Chinese market,” the BBC’s Jonah Fisher wrote.

“It shows that there are more markets than we were previously aware of,” Nick Cox from the World Wildlife Fund said. “To see a market with such high-end stores selling highly finished products of critically endangered species show this problem isn’t going anywhere.

“There is still a massive demand and people have a lot of money to spend on these products.”

Having been pressured by the Chinese to attend the much-hailed 21st-century Panglong conference on August 31, the Wa delegation walked out after a day, saying they were offended at being given observer status rather than being allowed to speak.

The USWA appears unwilling to join Aung San Suu Kyi’s peace process. And why should it? It enjoys unrestricted access to one of the world’s biggest markets and specialises in such lucrative products.

As with so much in Asean, if the Wa region is going to change, it will depend on the will of Beijing.