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 236th Meeting – Tuesday, July 8th 2003


“The Wild Wa: Wilder without Opium?”

A talk and slide presentation by Dr. Ron Renard

Present: Nathan Badenoch, Hans Bänziger, Doug Blaisdur, Bonnie Brereton, John Butt, Martha Butt, John Cadet, Mimi Sae Choo, Pippa Curwen, Louis Gabaude, Jim Goodman, Emma Guegan, Oliver Hargreave, Reinhard Hohler, Peter Holmshaw, Richard Hudson, Richard Humphries, Japhet, Randolph Jennings, Khuensai, Tony Kidd, Siripan Kidd, Konrad Kingshill, Otome Klein, Gerhard Köberlin, Annette Kunigagon, , Sing Maw Lahpai, Sandi Leavitt, Rebecca Lomax, Maggie McKerron, Brian Migliazza, Jean-Claude Neveu, Ricky Op de Laak, Jeff Petry, Assoc. Prof. Ploysri Porananand, Joseph Rickson, Samantha, Piya Sansee, Masaki Sato, Horst Schneider, Clarence Shuttlesworth, Vanvadee Suvatanashaw, Plai-Auw Thonesawat, Masanao Umebayashi, Marion Vogt, John Ward, Hanna Wilder, Brock Wilson. An audience of 48.

Summary of the talk: This summary was compiled by Ron from, he tells me, 25 pages of text.

Since 1996, the Wa Authority, in Special Region No. 2 of Shan State in Myanmar, has been vowing to bring opium cultivation to an end in 2005.  The Kokang Authority, in Special Region No. 1, north of the Wa region and also on the China border, has already done so as of 2002.  Since these two regions comprise the major opium poppy cultivation area in all of Southeast Asia, this represents a significant reduction in opium production.

Of more local importance, this also represents a significant change in the way of life for the poppy growers. In the century and a half that opium has been cultivated for cash in these two regions, the farmers grew accustomed to the cash the poppy brings and became far less self-reliant.  Most only grow enough rice to survive on for six months and buy the rice for the rest of the year from opium sales.  They also buy many other items, from chili peppers to cigarettes.  Kokang has lost more, with few skills or handicrafts from which they could earn cash.

Both regions and their peoples have changed in important ways since they started growing opium poppy.  Both regions are characterized by steep limestone hills, reaching to some 3,000 meters, and narrow valleys where little paddy rice can be grown.  Most of the farmers in the both regions subsisted on swidden rice agriculture prior to the establishment of poppy as a cash crop in the late-19th century. 

For centuries, at least during the approximately seven centuries since the Shan moved into the area, Tai-speakers lived in the valleys while Wa lived in the hills.  Especially in the south of the Wa region other highland groups have settled including the Palaung, Lahu, Kachin, and Akha.

One change to this pattern occurred in the 17th century. At that time, a powerful nobleman and Ming loyalist, Yang Gao Sho, fled first from Nanjing to Yunnan during the Dynasty’s breakup at the hands of the Manchus who were then establishing the Ching Dynasty.  Yang Gao Sho later moved southwest from Kunming to the area east of the Salween River that is now known as Kokang.  Just managing to stay free of the imperial grasp, Kokang and the ruling Yang family remained autonomous through World War II, both from the government and from other power centers.  Kokang was only being integrated into the mainstream of national life in the 1950s and even then incompletely because there was little Myanmar cultural or political influence in Kokang. Over the years, Kokang had become predominately Chinese.  Since the 1960s, the Kokang Chinese[1] comprised 94 per cent of the population, living in both the highland and lowlands.

In the 1960s, Kokang leaders revolted against the Myanmar Government in a rebellion that lasted until 11 March 1989 when a new generation of rulers, under the leadership of Peng Ja Sheng, rebelled against the then governing Burmese Communist Party (BCP) and signed a peace agreement with the Government. Kokang was given the status of Special Region No. 1 under the control of the Kokang Authority.  Infighting within Kokang in the 1990s gave the government the opportunity to intervene militarily and thus gain some control over and influence over the Region.  Despite this, Kokang is still a special region with its own administration and army.

Kokang’s population is officially about 106,000 but records are incomplete; authorities suggest that if transient residents, including Chinese living in urban areas, were counted, the total would be about 200,000 for a population density of 80 people per square kilometer. Because of the absence of a satisfactory health infrastructure, no family planning services are available, fertility is high, and roughly half the people are under 15 with the average household size being seven people.  A rough estimate would suggest that the population of Kokang was perhaps 60-70,000 in 1989 and has been growing at (the exceptionally high rate of) about 4-5 per cent annually.[2]

After the cease-fire, Kokang’s main city of Laukai, located in the southeast of the Region, developed.  The urban area has expanded and the marketplace has grown to several times its former size as many of the transient Chinese settlers have opened businesses or work for others here.  A diesel-fired electrical generator has been installed along with city water works and other utilities.  The cobblestone streets have been paved and telephone and other communication facilities as well as a local television station have become operational. The rapidly growing population is nonetheless straining the ability of the Kokang Authority to provide food and other necessities to the people. 

Several educational institutions have been established.  The first was a primary school that became a middle school in 1995 and a Myanmar Government Basic Education High School in 2000. Quite a few Kokang people have gone elsewhere in Myanmar for further study and a number have also gone to China.  Nevertheless, the level of education remains low and the number of highly trained Kokang natives is small.

With the a near dual administration in place amid the heavy Kokang Chinese influence, the government is constrained with what it can do for a population in which hardly anyone speaks the Myanmar language.  Although this will change over time, at present this impedes technical and economic development in many sectors.

Peng observed that “You cannot imagine how poor the people are” in Kokang. To promote employment opportunities for the local people, the Kokang Authority has allowed numerous gambling casinos and small games of chance operators to open, catering to Chinese from across the nearby border checkpoints with China.  However, the low educational level among the people of Kokang resulted in approximately 80 per cent of the casino employees being also from China.  Karaoke bars, massage parlors, and other nightlife businesses have been established in Laukai and other Kokang cities so much so that they dominate the downtown streets.   

As for the Wa, by their cease-fire agreement that was negotiated with the government in 1989, the Wa Authority, under Bao Yu Chang, directly control the Region, operating through its Central Authority with branches including Agriculture, Treasury, Health, Politics (including education), and External Relations.  Another administrative section controls the Wa military that comprises several brigades stationed at strategic locations throughout the Region. 

The Wa lived isolated in the rugged hills of their region for centuries until the Burma Communist Party (BCP) set up operations there in the late-1960s. As many Wa put it today, the BCP “liberated” them from internecine rivalries and headhunting (apparently through the use of severe interventions) while also promoting unity among the Wa.[3]  Many people in the Wa Region joined the BCP in fighting the Myanmar Government for so long that the Chinese way of thinking eventually became a model for Wa leadership.  During these contacts, the Chinese leadership imbued today’s top-ranking Kokang and Wa officials with a top-down worldview rooted in macro-level approaches now ironically mostly outdated in China itself.

The Wa live mainly in the Region’s north, with the sacred lake in Long Tan considered their birthplace.  By comparison, in the south, where the UNODC Wa Project is being carried out, only 30 of 336 villages are Wa.  The total population of the Wa Region is about 600,000. The population density is low; only 24 persons are found per square kilometer in the Wa Region, not even one-third that of Kokang.  As with Kokang, the population is growing rapidly and half the population is under 20 (and maybe younger than that).

The Wa Authority has been eager to invest in macro-level projects such as rubber plantations and cigarette factories as well as a tin mine and a paper factory (using bamboo as the raw material) that they hope will give their people alternatives to depending on opium cultivation.  Unfortunately, however, these ventures have often failed to meet their goals due to the lack of technical expertise on the part of the Wa or because of insufficient market assessments. The Wa have also built roads, hydroelectric plants, communications facilities, and other infrastructure developments.  Big cities like Pang Sang and Mong Mau are becoming increasingly urbanized and a middle class is emerging there.

Nevertheless, making a living after opium will challenge the Wa. Few alternative sources of income exist for the people.  Water sources are scarce as are persons with skills appropriate for alternative development.  In this remote region, no outside agency can offer significant assistance and efforts so far to create local industry have not met with much success.  Markets are remote from both the Wa and Kokang and political issues can complicate the appropriate assistance. 

The villagers face major changes as the transition to the post-opium era moves inexorably forward.  Without significant assistance from outside, becoming opium-free is certain to victimize the growers in both the Wa and Kokang regions.

Following the question and answer session, the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Ron in more informal discussion over drinks and snacks.





[1] Essentially Yunnanese Chinese, with some minor dialectical and cultural differences that set them somewhat apart from the Yunnanese.

[2] By comparison, in 1960 when the government began promoting family planning, the rate was 3 per cent.

[3] Adopting, for example a Roman script devised by Baptist missionaries in the early-twentieth century for a dialect of Wa popular in China for use by all Wa groups.