A United Wa State Party (UWSP) spokesman has denied that the ethnic rebel army in northern Burma continues to be involved in drug trade, saying their autonomous region is “drug-free.”
Aung Myint, a spokesperson from the UWSP, told The Irrawaddy that the heavily-armed group was involved in drug production and trade in the past, but said that the Wa Special Region 2, located on the Burma-China border, “has been a drug-free zone” for close to a decade.
“We stopped planting opium crops since the year 2005. We do not grow a single plant in our region. You can come around and check for yourself at any time,” he claimed in a phone interview, adding that on World Drug Day 2005 the Wa ended all involvement in the illicit trade.
Aung Myint said opium crops in the Wa region have been replaced with rubber plantations and that some 120,000 hectare of farmland is under rubber cultivation.
A 2012 UN Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report that surveyed areas of opium cultivation in Burma and Laos through remote sensing techniques found no evidence of poppy growing in the UWSP’s Special Region 2.
A retired officer from the Mong Tai Army, a former armed group of the deceased Shan State drug lord Khun Sa, said he visits the Wa region regularly as a businessman and had seen only small-scale poppy cultivation.
“The cultivation of opium farms has reduced considerably. Yet, I can still see some people growing it when the season comes. The opium plants are not as good as before, they get emaciated lately,” said the man, who declined to be named. “It’s hard for the people who grow opium crops to change to other work since cultivating opium is profitable and you can have a good income.”
Opium and meth has long been produced in northern Burma, where the trade is directly tied to the country’s decades-old ethnic conflict, which continues to fester in many parts of Shan and Kachin states.
Since 2006, opium cultivation has been on the rise, reaching 58,000 hectares of poppy last year, according to UNODC, while the flow of meth from northern Burma continues unabated.
From 1998 to 2006, opium production was in decline after Burma’s former military regime and the ethnic Wa, Kokang and Mongla rebels enforced bans on poppy cultivation in northern Shan State following growing international pressure to stem the flow of drugs.
A recent report by the Transnational Institute said the bans had effectively pushed opium production to southern Shan State where it had proliferated.
Of the Wa, Kokang and Mongla rebels it said, “These groups officially banned the production of and trade in heroin and methamphetamine, mainly due to Chinese pressure. Nevertheless, they continued to be accused of involvement in production of heroin and especially of having switched to large-scale methamphetamine production.”
In January 2005, the US Department of Justiceannounced the indictment of eight UWSA leaders of charges of trafficking heroin and methamphetamine. The department described the Wa as one of the world’s largest drug producing and trafficking groups.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA), the military wing of the UWSP, was formed from the remnants of the Communist Party of Burma after it collapsed in 1989 and its Burmese leadership fled to China.
The Wa army is the strongest ethnic rebel group in Burma with an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 soldiers and sophisticated weaponry, such as surface-to-air missiles, helicopters and armed personnel carriers, reportedly supplied by China.
It signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese government in 1989, which it renewed in 2011. The Wa are not involved in the ongoing nationwide ceasefire process between the Burmese government and 16 ethnic rebel groups.