Saturday, May 23, 2009

Burma's Wa army flexes its muscles

Speculation over the health of strong man Pau Yu Chang was proved to be wrong when he presided over a parade by the United Wa State Army last month

By: Maxmilian Wechsler
Published: 24/05/2009 at 12:00 AM
Newspaper section: Spectrum

Labelled by many foreign governments as one of the world's biggest drug lords, Pau Yu Chang, the supreme leader of the Wa people, looked every bit the commander-in-chief when he officiated at a show of military muscle last month.

EX-DRUG LORD: Peng Jiafu above in white.

On a brightly decorated stage in the Wa capital of Pang Sang, not far from the Chinese border, Pau Yu Chang stood with all the authority of an absolute ruler in green fatigues and a Castro-style cap. He was flanked by his wife and an entourage of Burmese military officials, leaders of the disparate armies in the Shan State and associates from his days in the drug-trafficking trade.

A US federal grand jury issued an indictment for Pau Yu Chang on Jan 24, 2005, on drug-trafficking charges. But that now seems like ancient history after the Wa supreme leader's promise nine years ago to phase out poppy production in five years, otherwise "you can chop my head off".

THE BROTHER: Pau Yu Yi, above right.

Pau Yu Chang has faced many difficulties over the past few years. Several United Wa State Army (UWSA) commanders planned to overthrow him in 2004. There was also speculation that he was seriously ill and near death with a fatal brain disease. But sources close to the UWSA have confirmed to Spectrum that he was suffering from trichinosis, a food-borne infection caused by eating raw meat, which the source said he had recovered from after being treated at a Beijing military hospital.

Pau Yu Chang has absolute power over the lives of 400,000 to 550,000 people who live in Wa state, officially called Special Region 2 of Burma's Shan State. The region is divided into two areas, with Pang Sang north, on the Chinese border, and the second part south, along the Thai border.

Pau Yu Chang serves as both chairman of the United Wa State Party (UWSP) and commander-in-chief of its military wing, the UWSA.

THE MAN IN CHARGE: Pau Yu Chang in the Wa capital Pang Sang last month.

On April 17, he presided over a military parade to mark the 20th anniversary of what the Wa, renowned for their fearsome fighting skills, call "peaceful construction" of the state. Spectrum was provided with rare photographs of the ceremony by a businessman who attended. The parade was held in People's Square, opposite the UWSA headquarters, and witnessed by about 30,000 spectators.

As he walked around chatting with people at the parade he didn't appear worried about his safety, although a security detachment watched over his every step. Also on the podium were officials from ceasefire groups in the north, centre, south and east of Shan State, where it is believed that poppy cultivation is still going on. They included the Myanmar National Democracy Alliance Army (Kokang), the Shan State Army-North, the Pa-O National Army and the National Democratic Alliance Army (see map).

Pau Yu Chang arrived at the ceremony in a new black Lexus SUV, licence number WS 0001 (WS stands for Wa state). The car is not armour-plated, a source said. Parked not far away was a green US-made, armoured Humvee used to escort Wa leaders.

THE SUCCESSOR: Shao Minliang, UWSP deputy.

Pau Yu Chang observed about 2,000 well-equipped UWSA troops marching past in formation and 400 others from the 171st military region bordering Thailand performing military training exercises.

To the disappointment of many of the spectators, the UWSA didn't have on display any of the heavy weapons and sophisticated military hardware obtained recently from China.

''It was still a very impressive display of UWSA might,'' said Ai Meung, a prominent Wa businessman who has close connections to the leadership and was one over 1,000 VIPs who attended the ceremony.

He spoke to Spectrum from Mae Sai after returning from Pang Sang with his colleagues. The 20th anniversary marked the defeat of the Communist Party of Burma and the formation of the UWSP/UWSA in April, 1989. Celebrations were held in Pang Sang from April 15 to 18, Mr Ai said.

Pau Yu Chang wasn't the only one on the stage with a background in drug trafficking, his elder brother, Pau Yu Yi, also indicted on Jan 24, 2005 was there, looking relaxed and chatting freely. Former notorious drug kingpin Peng Jiafu was also a guest, along with representatives of the ceasefire armies who claim to have given up the drug trade, though it is possible they still have some involvement, said Mr Ai.

ON PARADE: The 20th anniversary celebrations in Pang Sang included marching and the display of military might. Burmese soldiers, right, filmed the event.

''Everything that happens in the Wa state evolves around Pau. He will make the final decision on everything. It is him, for example, who allowed the drug business to flourish for years and then almost closed it down,'' he said.

Pau Yu Chang made international headlines in 2000, when he told then Burmese Prime Minister Khin Nyunt: ''If we have any more opium here after 2005, you can come and chop my head off.''

After the military parade, Pau Yu Chang delivered a speech, a hard copy of which was given to Spectrum which said in part: in which he said: ''In 1990 we made a plan to eradicate poppy growing within 15 to 20 years in our territory. The poppy ban decision was our own initiative, not influenced by external pressure, in order to comply with the international drug control movement. On June 26, 2006, we formally announced Wa to be poppy free. Joint monitoring and surveillance by domestic and international drug control agencies for the past several years have found no new poppy cultivation.''

DRILLS: The Wa army’s Thai border fighters put on a display.

Pau Yu Chang thanked foreign organisations for helping the Wa state over the past 20 years of ''peaceful construction'', naming, among others, the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC), the World Food Programme and Health Unlimited.

''Pau created at least a 25,000-strong army consisting of eight divisions positioned in the north and south and built it into a formidable force. The UWSA is now the strongest after the Burmese army. They are well equipped, trained and organised,'' Mr Ai said. ''Its other component is the village militia, with about 10,000 people armed with M16 assault rifles whose duties are to recruit soldiers, to gather intelligence and to collect food for the UWSA''.

According to Mr Ai, the UWSA possesses AK-47 assault rifles made in China and some produced locally. A small factory in Wa state has been secretly producing AKs and ammunition for four or five years, he said. It is rumoured that some of the rifles are sold to other groups in the region.

''The UWSA has mortars of different sizes, and rocket-propelled grenades. It also has several small four-wheel armoured vehicles, armoured personal carriers, anti-aircraft and field guns, surface-to-air missiles and Chinese-made trucks to transport soldiers. Everything originates from China and is kept away from public eyes,'' Mr Ai said.

''Maybe they didn't want the Burmese officers _ some of whom were very busy filming and photographing the military parade and other events _ to see their weapons. They came with two Caucasians who were also sitting on the stage.

''The UWSA is run by very capable and smart people who use computers, high-tech satellite navigation, etc. Most of them are educated in China. They can buy everything from China, whether through official channels or from merchants. The UWSA also runs a TV station based in their headquarters,'' he added.

Now that the drug trade has been curtailed, the UWSA makes money from many ventures, Mr Ai said.

''All divisions have their own business in the area they control. They own cigarettes, beer, whiskey and drinking water factories, make DVDs and cables, have logging companies and operate jade mines. The giant Hong Pang Group is controlled by the UWSA as well,'' Mr Ai said.

Mr Ai observed that the the Burmese army had no control or bases in the Wa regions. ''In fact, they even need permission from the Wa authorities to enter,'' he said. He added that the Wa have their own police force and customs.

A source told Mr Ai that in case anything happens to Pau Yu Chang, his replacement would officially be Shao Minliang, the current vice-president of the UWSP.

''However, I heard from some UWSA commanders that the most powerful man in the future could be his younger brother, Pau Yu Liang. He is currently looking after the Wa's financial affairs,'' Mr Ai said.

The US Department of the Treasury labelled the Wa group in November 2008 ''the largest and most powerful drug trafficking organisation in Southeast Asia and a major producer and exporter of synthetic drugs, including methamphetamines''.

According to Mr Ai, the UWSA should be classified as ''anti-narcotic'' as it was no longer involved in the drug business, with the exception of some rogue individuals who do it covertly.

Pang Sang is a bustling city. Expensive cars including Toyota Prados, Land Cruisers and Mitsubishi Pajeros are driven around. There's a lot of construction going on of hotels, shopping malls and residential homes, Mr Ai said.

''The buildings in Pang Sang are made of concrete and up to eight-storeys high. There are two or three casinos that are frequented by tourists from China. No photos are allowed to be taken inside or around the casinos.

''I met a few Thais there. Some of them are believed to be intelligence officers. Some Chinese spies are also operating in and around Pang Sang. They are mainly focusing on drugs,'' Mr Ai said.

He said a lot of consumer goods come from China and Thailand. ''You can buy everything you want there like TV sets, refrigerators and other appliances but you cannot find drugs. Goods from Thailand include Coca-Cola, Red Bull, food, shampoo, soap, toothpaste and medicines.''

Mr Ai confirmed that the smuggling of cars _ especially SUVs _ from Thailand, continued unabated.

He said that Chinese yuan and US dollar were the most-used currencies in Pang Sang and around the Wa state. He has never seen Burmese money there.

''People are generally happy there, but not in the rural areas because since the Wa authorities banned opium growing the farmers are suffering. They now grow rubber, tea and fruit, none of which are as profitable as opium. However, the authorities are very strict and will punish them harshly if they grow opium, but the Wa administration has several projects to develop rural areas and to help the farmers,'' Mr Ai said.

''There are many schools offering good and free education. But to study at a university you have to go to Kunming or to other cities in China.''

He said the UNODC had an office in Pang Sang staffed by locals, but foreigners come from time to time. The UNODC has access to about 70% of Wa state to conduct inspections.

He claimed that ''there's no more opium in the state but methamphetamines are still produced and some heroin refineries are still operating, mostly by Chinese criminals and by some criminal elements not officially connected with the UWSA leadership. When Pau gets information about a methamphetamine factory or refinery, he will immediately order to stop them.''

The Wa want complete autonomy but not independence. They still want to be a part of Burma.

''The Wa leaders also invited some rebel groups such as the Shan State Army-South and the Karenni National Progressive Party to the anniversary celebrations, but I don't know if they came or not. Maybe they were there. No Chinese military representatives came, however,'' Mr Ai said.

He said all the guests, especially from the ceasefire armies, were impressed by the military parade.

''Over 1,000 VIP guests were invited to have lunch with Pau on the evening of April 18. Some of the ceasefire groups met after behind closed doors to discuss how to deal with the SPDC in the future,'' he said.

Mr Ai said every ceasefire group looked towards the UWSA because it was the biggest and best-armed army in Shan State.

The UWSA has two or three small factions, including that of Wei Hseuh-kang who is still dealing drugs, Mr Ai said. He said no one was surprised that Wei Hseuh-kang was one of a very few Wa leaders who didn't turn up for the military parade as he is wanted in Thailand and the US on drug-trafficking charges. The US Department of State is offering a hefty reward of up to $2 million for information leading to his arrest or conviction in the US.

According to Mr Ai, Wei Hseuh-kang who stays in the southern Wa area is still powerful, but his influence is slowly declining.

Wei Hseuh-kang was arrested in Chiang Mai in November 1988, following the seizure of 680kg of heroin in southern Thailand the previous year, which was linked to him. He was sentenced to life imprisonment, appealed the verdict, was granted bail under mysterious circumstances and fled to Burma.

The Thai court overturned the previous verdict and sentenced him in absentia to death in October 1990. Wei was indicted for drug-trafficking in the US on Jan 24, 2005.

''One UWSA senior officer told me that when the UWSA leaders meet, if there are more than 30 people present, he will never attend. If fewer, he will come, but prohibit photos from being taken. He is now extremely careful knowing that there's an effort to capture him,'' Mr Ai said.

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