The United Wa State Army (UWSA), an armed ethnic ceasefire group based in Shan State, northern Burma, is manufacturing arms and ammunition for use by its own battalions and to sell to other armed groups in the region, according to sources close to armed groups in Shan State.
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Tuesday, Sai Sheng Murng, the deputy spokesman of the rival Shan State Army-South (SSA) said, “For more than one year now, the UWSA has been manufacturing AK-47 rifles similar to those made in China.”
Another source close to the UWSA said, “They (the UWSA) learned how to make arms from the Chinese.
“The arms and bullets the Wa produce are not only for their own battalions. They sell the arms to their ethnic allies in Shan State,” he added.
There are several armed ethnic groups in the northern region, including the Shan State Army, the Kokang, Mongla and Kachin.
Currently, the munitions factory is situated in Kunma, the hometown of UWSA Chairman Bao You-xiang, in the Wa hills 125 kilometers (78 miles) north of the group’s headquarters at Panghsang on the Chinese border, said the source.
According to a Jane’s security report on December 12, the UWSA has turned to arms production to supplement their income from arms and drugs trafficking. The report said that the UWSA facility marks the first time an insurgent group in the region has succeeded in setting up a small-arms production line.
In May, Jane’s Intelligence Review reported that the UWSA were acting as traffickers and middlemen, buying from Chinese arms manufacturers, then reselling the weapons to Indian insurgent groups and the Kachin Independence Army, which has also signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military government.
The UWSA has an estimated 20,000 soldiers deployed along Burma’s borders with Thailand and China, according to Burmese military analyst Aung Kyaw Zaw, while an estimated 60,000 to 120,000 Wa villagers inhabit areas of lower Shan State.
The UWSA signed a ceasefire agreement with the Burmese military in the early 1990s. Leaders of the group, including its commander Wei Hsueh Kang, are wanted by the US government for their roles in the region’s drug trade.