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Myanmar's powerful Wa rebels seek a state of their own

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Myanmar's most heavily-armed and powerful rebel group has said it is looking to carve out a legitimate state, as experts say it is flexing its muscles amid tense relations with the government.

The United Wa State Army, which commands an estimated 30,000 troops, holds sway over a remote mountainous area on the northeast border with China that is believed to be awash with drugs and has long been aloof from central Myanmar control.

Shielded from the reach of the previous junta by its close links to Beijing and formidable military might, observers say the group is using political openings under a new government to push for greater official acknowledgement.

The Wa self-administered region consists of six townships in the rugged borderlands of Shan state, but UWSA spokesman Tone Sann told AFP that the current arrangement was "not enough".

"We want them to be acknowledged as a state," he said on the sidelines of a religious ceremony in northern Shan that marked a rare public appearance for officials from the rebel group.

The UWSA has upheld a ceasefire agreement with the government since 1989, one of the longest such deals in a country that has been riven by pockets of ethnic rebellion since independence in 1948.

A raft of tentative new ceasefires have been inked by the new quasi-civilian government that replaced military rule two years ago as part of reforms that have raised hopes of greater federalism in a nation long gripped by junta insistence on unity and conformism.

"The Wa have proven adept, in the past, at garnering the concessions they need," Nicholas Farrelly of the Australian National University told AFP, adding that the group's military, economic and political resources makes them a "force to reckon with".

"Moreover, given they run what often feels like an independent borderland fief, it is logical that the Wa leadership would be the first to test a new style of decentralisation."

Ethnic Wa make up about one percent of the Myanmar population, with about 800,000 people of various ethnic groups in the self-administered region, according to Tone Sann.

He said the UWSA made an official request for their region to be upgraded to "Wa State" in talks with a government peace team this month, adding they received assurances it would be considered in the country's parliament.

Myanmar has seven ethnic minority states and seven regions, mainly of the majority Burman ethnicity.

Tone Sann said the Wa want their region to be recognised as a state to take advantage of regional development, as resource-rich and strategically located Myanmar looks to reap the rewards of ending decades of isolation.

Sai Pao Nap, an upper house MP from the Wa Democratic Party said the group is also keen to deal directly with the central government, rather than the current arrangement of communicating through authorities in Shan state.

"I do not think their demand to be a state can cause any complication," said the politician, who is also a chairman of the parliament's National Races Affairs Committee.

But he added that there have been heightened tensions between the UWSA and the military for two years, when the group was asked to join a so-called border guard force under the command of the Myanmar army.

The Wa claim comes as the country's military is locked in a deadly conflict with rebels in neighbouring Kachin, where a 17-year ceasefire collapsed soon after the new government came to power in 2011.

Peace talks with the Kachin, which were set to continue on Tuesday, have stumbled at several hurdles and the unrest has continued amid suspicions that the army is determined to bring all the insurgents to heel once and for all.

A recent report by analysts IHS Jane's said the UWSA ceasefire was "fragile" and suggested the group had purchased armed helicopters from China as part "a programme of rapid rearmament" -- a claim denied by both Beijing and the Wa.

Tone Sann said some aircraft had been bought as "samples" to put on display to the public. "These are not real ones and cannot be used. We just wanted to attract more people to visit our museum," he said.

"It is not true that we bought helicopters from China," he added, also rejecting persistent claims of widespread opium and methamphetamine production in Wa territory as "just accusations".

Farrelly said China was the "sponsor and facilitator of Wa success", a situation that the Myanmar government may "resent" but would have little opportunity to counter.

"It is a borderland defined by its entanglements and ambiguities, with the Chinese playing an inevitable role in what they consider their own backyard."

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/130528/myanmars-powerful-wa-rebels-seek-state-their-own