Webinar on “Insurgent Political Culture and the Prospects for Peace: The United Wa State Army in Myanmar”

In ISEAS’ first webinar, Dr Andrew Ong examines how Wa political culture and its understanding of the political world shape the UWSA’s relations with Myanmar, China and the international community. He also lays out a set of considerations for engagement with the UWSA and the implications of those considerations for the peace process in one of the world’s longest-running civil wars.


Friday, 3 April 2020 – The Myanmar Studies Programme of the ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute held its inaugural webinar, on “Insurgent Political Culture and the Prospects for Peace – The United Wa State Army in Myanmar”. Dr Andrew Ong, Post-doctoral Fellow at the Asia Research Institute of the National University of Singapore, delivered a lecture on the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and the need to understand its political culture in order to enhance peace prospects in Myanmar. More than 40 people from the diplomatic corps, the civil service, educational and research institutes, and the public, some logging in from outside Singapore, participated in the event.

Dr Andrew Ong (right), presented ISEAS’ first webinar on the United Wa State Army. Dr Nyi Nyi Kyaw moderated the session. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

Dr Ong began the lecture by addressing four (mis-)framings and caricatures of the UWSA. Often, the UWSA has been depicted as drug-lords, a highly secretive organization, militarized rebels, a Chinese proxy or “communists”, and spoilers of the peace process in Myanmar. However, as Dr Ong underlined in his presentation, such caricatures of the UWSA as being difficult to deal with and refusing to engage with the Myanmar state have led to cultural mistranslation and thus hindered peace processes. It is important to avoid such caricatures, since the UWSA and its constituencies are, according to Dr Ong, fundamentally concerned with autonomy rather than rebellion, separatism or ethnonationalism. Dr Ong argued that flawed framings of the UWSA can be traced to the “greed and grievance” and “conflict economy” models adopted in various discourses.

In challenging such framings of the UWSA, Dr Ong emphasized that histories of autonomy rather than rebellion have marked the UWSA and the Wa region. The Wa people had never been subjected to other polities or agreed to subordination to them. The region’s oscillating relations with Myanmar have, however, resulted in ambivalence in the making and breaking of those relations, leading to both much uncertainty and, at the same time, a form of stable stalemate. As a way of preserving autonomy, the Wa state depends on a “conflict economy”, with linkages to neighboring states, operating in sectors such as rubber, property and business, timber, tin and casinos. Yet, Dr Ong argued, there is a need to engage with the UWSA in order to understand how power operates locally, and understanding the political culture and self-image of the UWSA makes such engagement and understanding possible.

Dr Ong laid out Wa political culture, with its stress on (1) promises and personal ties; (2) patronage and provision; and (3) provision and obligation. Drawing on stories from the field, Dr Ong explained that this culture often ran up against Myanmar’s or the international community’s political culture. Misunderstandings that could have an impact on peace prospects were the result. In addition, Wa notions of provision and obligation – particularly in the UWSA’s relations with and economic dependence on China – resulted in the UWSA’s feeling an obligation to participate in the Myanmar peace process while at the same time adopting a deferential attitude toward China. Dr Ong then underlined the need, grounded in understanding of Wa norms concerning power, to shift from asking, “what do they [UWSA] want?”, to the question of “how do they see the world?”. Such an understanding can pave the way to better engagement in exploring peace prospects with the Wa and the UWSA.

More than 40 people from the diplomatic corps, the civil service, educational and research institutes, and the public, some logging in from outside Singapore, participated in the webinar. (Credit: ISEAS – Yusof Ishak Institute)

A robust question-and-answer session with the online audience followed Dr Ong’s presentation. The discussion revolved around the UWSA’s relations with Myanmar, with the Wa people and also with other armed groups, and the implications for peace and development prospects. Audience members were curious about the UWSA’s attitude toward Myanmar’s upcoming 2020 elections. There was also keen interest in aspects of Wa political culture, such as the difference between that culture and those of other minority groups and its impact on everyday and elite politics. Finally, audience members asked about the role of China, particularly the seeming dependence of the UWSA on that country, and Myanmar’s position on UWSA-China relations.