Since Myanmar’s military seized power in a coup in early February 2021, a widening civil war has erupted, pitting a nationwide resistance in which fighters in areas dominated by ethnic Bamar have combined with various ethnic armed groups outside of central Myanmar against the armed forces. The economy is in free fall, and educational and healthcare institutions have crumbled as the military (or Tatmadaw) has limited cash withdrawals at banks, arrested striking healthcare workers, and hoarded COVID-19 pandemic relief supplies. Meanwhile, decades-long conflicts in ethnic minority areas that date back to Burma’s independence from Britain in 1948 show no sign of ending, largely driven by the Tatmadaw’s brutal destruction of ethnic minority villages and indiscriminate killing and torture of civilians.
Countless young people from the cities of central Myanmar have joined the People’s Defense Forces and sought training with ethnic armed groups on Myanmar’s periphery, such as the Karen National Liberation Army. However, several of the largest armed ethnic organizations, such as the United Wa State Army (UWSA), remain firmly on the sidelines of this conflict. The UWSA, by far the most powerful ethnic armed organization, controls an autonomous region within Myanmar’s northeastern Shan State, where their involvement in transnational drug syndicates and standing army of approximately 20,000 soldiers have given them a measure of independence from central authorities that no other ethnic minority in Myanmar enjoys. They are also rumored to enjoy significant material and political support from Beijing, which has simultaneously extended a cautious embrace to the junta.
On the one hand, Beijing initially withheld criticism of the coup, which they referred to quixotically as a “major cabinet reshuffle.” On the other hand, Chinese officials reportedly pressured the new military junta in Naypyidaw not to dissolve Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party, the National League for Democracy. Beijing had invested substantial energy and resources in Suu Kyi’s NLD, signing a raft of deals on infrastructure investment and bilateral cooperation in recent years. Most of all, Beijing would like to see the return of stability to its smaller neighbor Myanmar, through which energy pipelines pump the oil and natural gas that help drive China’s sizable economy. Myanmar holds significant other natural resources as well, including rivers for hydroelectric dams as well as jade and copper mines, and Beijing has major investments in the country which they want protected. The current instability is bad for business.
Veteran journalist and Myanmar watcher Bertil Lintner’s latest book, The Wa of Myanmar and China’s Quest for Global Dominance, captures the complexity of China’s historical relations with the Wa and thereby provides valuable perspective on the decades-long struggle between Myanmar’s most powerful ethnic armed group and the national armed forces. As Lintner illustrates in impressive detail, that conflict has disparate historical roots linking anti-Communist Kuomintang militias and the once-formidable Burmese Communist Party (BCP), Chinese warlords and opium traders, and a poor—and poorly understood—upland minority people seeking protection as well as a degree of freedom from their lowland rivals, the Bamar ethnic majority, which comprises roughly two-thirds of Myanmar’s population.
The book provides a remarkable overview of the history of the Wa and the myriad sociopolitical forces that have shaped contemporary Wa society. Lintner puts forward a compelling critique of predominant accounts of the Wa which depict them as more narco-state than ethnic nationalist resistance movement. He pushes back on this simplification of the Wa’s cause, arguing that rather than one or the other, the reality is a bit of both. The Wa have used revenue generated from the sale of opium and methamphetamines to finance their political goals, “promote Wa nationalism,” as well as fund local development such as roads, schools, and hospitals. Neither are the Wa truly a revolutionary Marxist group or ideologically aligned with Chinese communism. Their historical links to the Burmese Communist Party were born from pragmatism and desperation: the Wa needed arms, and the BCP was happy to oblige. Likewise, the Chinese Communist Party found willing partners in the Wa during their war against the Kuomintang in the 1960s.
However, as Lintner demonstrates, Beijing’s priorities shifted during the 1990s following the collapse of the BCP in 1989, a time of a mutiny within the ranks as well as a booming drug trade across the border with China. At the same time, under Deng Xiaoping, China’s leadership abandoned aspects of its revolutionary ideology. Instead of exporting communist insurgencies across the developing world, Chinese leaders began to seek business opportunities. Myanmar’s abundant natural resources and lucrative cross-border trade presented new ways of getting rich, and corruption facilitated this two-way street, particularly among Tatmadaw officers willing to work with their nominal enemies in the Wa hills.
Beijing has sold arms to both the Myanmar military as well as the numerous ethnic armed groups across China’s border, primarily through the UWSA. Lintner confidently adds that those arms transfers are “almost certainly directed from the highest level in Beijing.” Scratching beneath the surface, he eloquently sums up Beijing’s double game in Myanmar:
"China’s interest in the talks between Burma’s government, its military, and the country’s many ethnic armed groups is […] not motivated by a desire to find a final solution to decades of civil war. China does not seek peace, it wants stability which it can use to its geostrategic advantage."
As others have pointed out, Myanmar offers China vital overland access to the Indian Ocean, thereby providing insurance against what is frequently referred to as the “Malacca dilemma,” on account of the inordinate amount of energy imports which flow through the narrow Strait of Malacca off of Singapore, which links the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Ultimately, though, readers enticed by the title’s allusion to China’s “quest for global dominance” may find the book comes up short on this front. Only one, penultimate chapter is devoted to analysis of how the Wa fit into China’s foreign policy today, and it is hardly conclusive.
While this imbalance may reflect the editors’ discretion more than any limitations on the part of the author, Lintner’s latest is a remarkable achievement and puts forward valuable reading for Myanmar scholars as well as contemporary policymakers seeking to understand this conflicted sub-region of Southeast Asia, which has become another battleground for U.S.-China rivalry.
Hunter Marston is a doctoral candidate at Australian National University.