Page 2 of 2 Wardrums in Myanmar's Wa hills
By Anthony Davis
Finally, war against the Wa would inevitably incur the diplomatic wrath of China. Since May 2011, China and Myanmar have been joined in a "comprehensive strategic cooperative partnership", and Beijing has repeatedly impressed on Naypyidaw the importance of stability along their common border since well before then. The Tatmadaw's 2009 incursion into Kokang - essentially a minor policing operation by comparison with a potential campaign in the Wa Hills - prompted the exodus of an estimated 36,000 refugees into China and heated protests from Beijing. Any invasion of Wa territory would by some estimates drive at least 100,000 civilians across the border.
Nevertheless, there are also powerful arguments almost certainly being aired in the upper echelons of the Tatmadaw in favor of a
decisive move against the Wa. The most compelling is that the longer the Tatmadaw waits the more problematic the task will become.
Militarily, the UWSA is clearly playing for time while expanding its forces and modernizing its arsenal with increasingly sophisticated weapons. This rearmament has involved acquiring new systems from across the Chinese border, including armored vehicles and a limited number of 'Hip' Mi-17 transport helicopters for which UWSA crews have been undergoing training in China.
Far more important, however, has been a rapid build-up of stockpiles of infantry weaponry - including man-portable air defense systems (MANPADS) - and ammunition intended, if necessary, to sustain what one senior ethnic commander monitoring the resupply process described in late 2012 as a "10-year war."
Socially and economically, Special Region No 2 has come to resemble more an annex of China than a region of Myanmar. The lingua franca in the UWSA and the region generally is Mandarin Chinese; the currency is the Chinese yuan; and the mobile telephone network serving the area is Chinese. Meanwhile, Chinese investment in both the rubber and, more importantly, rare earth metal industries is significant and growing. Viewed from Naypyidaw, the continuation of the status quo, let alone the recognition of an autonomous Wa State, risks the region's de facto accession to China.
A second factor is a mood of rising nationalist pride and confidence inside the Tatmadaw. This trend appears to derive partly from a process of rapid military modernization which is reinforcing a long-held institutional mission of upholding and defending national unity and sovereignty - a mission which inherently demands an end to the anomaly of states within a state. Nascent militarism, which blends into rising Buddhist nationalism with decidedly xenophobic tinges, appears to be gaining currency across Myanmar society judging by social media posts and a number of popular jingoistic blogs.
Myanmar's new nationalism has focused on two main foils. Growing discrimination and outright attacks against the ethnic minority Rohingya community and Muslims more generally have been widely reported. Less visible but never far from the surface of the popular mood is angst over Chinese influence in the country.
Unease over China's fast expanding role in Myanmar's economy grew under military rule and found striking expression in the movement to halt the construction of the Chinese-backed Myitsone dam project in Kachin State in 2011. Against this backdrop, a military campaign against an armed group which is widely regarded as a Chinese proxy force operating within Myanmar's borders would likely not be a hard sell. It might even be popular, not least in the run up to general elections scheduled for 2015.
Internationally, any conflict with the Wa would be presented by Thein Sein's government with little need for cosmetics as a war on Asia's largest narcotics-trafficking cartel. The UWSA's unsavory record as an organization which since the late 1990s has engaged in industrial-scale production and region-wide export of methamphetamine and heroin and whose top leadership has been formally indicted in an United States court would go far to mute criticism in the West.
By contrast, China's reaction would be angry and loud. But having predicated its Wa strategy on deterrence - quietly assisting a UWSA build-up that makes war too costly for Naypyidaw to contemplate - the collapse of that deterrent would leave Beijing with surprisingly few options.
Sanctions against Naypyidaw, let alone active support for a protracted Wa insurgency, would serve only to push Myanmar more rapidly towards the US, Japan and Europe, compounding already lively Chinese fears over perceived containment. A more comprehensive breakdown in bilateral relations would also threaten China's extensive economic interests in Myanmar and the security of new natural gas and oil pipelines built across the length of Myanmar from the Bay of Bengal to fuel the growth of southwestern China.
From Beijing's perspective, allowing matters to deteriorate to that point would be virtually inconceivable. As was the case after the Kokang operation in 2009 and the Myitsone Dam reversal in 2011, China would probably have little choice but to protest and adapt to new realities.
In the final analysis, the central factor in the Tatmadaw's calculus remains a military one. The preferred option would clearly be a combined-arms blitzkrieg with heavy emphasis on artillery and air strikes that would swiftly overwhelm key military and administrative centers and smash the UWSA as a cohesive force. Were the Wa to succumb to the temptation of attempting to defend fixed positions against overwhelming firepower, a victory of sorts might well be achieved.
The risk for the Tatmadaw would be sliding into a morass of open-ended guerrilla resistance. Such a conflict could easily metastasize south into eastern Shan State and along the Thai border, destabilizing a wide swath of territory between the Salween and Mekong Rivers and inflaming relations with other ethnic minorities. Should a war with the Wa drag on with rising casualties, it could also do immense damage to the military's own national prestige and political leadership role.
The purely military calculus suggests such risks far outweigh the costs imposed by Wa intransigence and an unpalatable but hardly unbearable status quo. History, however, is long on examples of strategic miscalculations with far-reaching repercussions triggered by military hubris and national pride.
Anthony Davis is a Bangkok-based security analyst for IHS-Jane's.
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