- by A J Carruthers
- The Guardian
- Issue #2025
UWSA chief Bao Youxiang.
“Our study of the laws of revolutionary war springs from the desire to eliminate all wars; herein lies the distinction between us Communists and all the exploiting classes.” – Mao Zedong
World media is quick to paint Wa State under the leadership of Bao Youxiang and the United Wa State Party (UWSP) as simply the work of an opportunistic ethnic army, a wild state that has sprung up amid the chaos of disunity in post-communist Myanmar. The story coming of this autonomous region, however, looks a little different when we fill it with facts.
The first thing to note is that what has been achieved in the region in the present time is peaceful coexistence. Pangkam, on the Wa side, communicates and coordinates peacefully with Naypyidaw, the Burmese central government. Despite more difficult periods in 2009-10 and the long road to resolution following the fall of Ne Win in 1988-89, fighting is now limited. No one can deny that this is a troubled region, particularly post-coup – thus to achieve this level of peace is something to be celebrated.
Another thing that must be emphasised is both proximity and difference with the Chinese side. Wa State is not China, and China doesn’t consider Wa to be its territory. The development path followed by Wa State cannot be reduced to “Chinese influence.” Victories won by the UWSP have been won in their own style and on their own terms. This is a type of Maoist state-building (let us call it Baoism) that has characteristics we haven’t seen before. Among them is the use of infrastructure drives to help connect the fledgling state and put an end to corruption, beginning the long process of economic construction. The history of the UWSP is distinct both from the history of the CPC and the Communist Party of Burma under Ne Win.
No one can deny that the shape and potential of the Wa economy, arguably a war economy, has been impacted by the harsh conditions it find itself in. Hans Steinmüller puts it in terms of E P Thompson: the moral economy of the peasants in swidden agriculture brought forth into an age of the moral economy of militarism. But we could just as easily claim it as a marginal example of War Communism. Why? What is at stake in Wa State are not just moral economies across two phases, but the ideological and practical demands of a state that must combine labour and defence. It is indeed a conflict of value and of the socialisation of the economy. Zhao Guoan, of the Standing Committee of the UWSP Politburo, noted in 2019 that “our experience of thirty years of peace tells us that if we don’t have weapons, we have nothing.” But, it is necessary to add, that is most impressive is precisely how Wa State is able to achieve stronger levels of social development than in government-controlled areas of Myanmar; why, for instance, its COVID-19 response has been coordinated, scientific, and effective. The narcotics problem is halfway solved by forcibly moving production toward rubber, tea and coffee. Steinmüller hints at this but goes no further: if there are strong “moral imperatives” to support the military state, foremost among these is the defence against a Burmese national army that would “exploit the people and the land.” The UWSA needs resources and men, which as “raison d’état” or “historicism” in the terms the leadership uses, justifies forced conscription and the army’s monopoly on land and labour.
There are many things to celebrate about Wa State and the model it follows. As it achieves stability and as the effects of the development model play out, we may have a hopeful model for socialist state-building in the most trying conditions imaginable. Moreover, it is a moral issue at stake in the world-historical present: the right of a people to pursue a socialist path of development, and to achieve lasting peace in an asymmetrical and challenging environment.