Myanmar's most powerful ethnic-minority insurgents on Wednesday marked the 30th anniversary of its founding with a military parade that for the first time saw the attendance of international observers, as the group seeks to shake off its reputation of being one of the world's biggest narco-armies.
The United Wa State Army (UWSA) made its show of force by displaying some of its high-tech arsenal – including heavy artillery, drones, and even a Chinese helicopter – at a stadium located on the outskirts of Pangkham, the de-facto capital of the unrecognized territory in eastern Myanmar known as Wa State.
"Poppy cultivation will never be allowed to reappear in Wa State again," Bao Youxiang, the UWSA's commander-in-chief, proclaimed during the parade.
"Until our political demands are realized, we will hold high the banner of peace and democracy in one hand and armed self-defense in the other," he added.
The celebrations also included traditional dances of the Wa, a minority ethnic group of about 1.2 million people who live on the lands that straddle parts of the Burmese borders with China and Thailand.
According to experts, the UWSA has around 25,000 enlisted soldiers and 15,000 reserve troops in its ranks.
A well-paved road surrounded by rubber-tree plantations leads to Pangkham, a prosperous town whose immaculate streets and modern urban development could be the envy of any other city in Myanmar and where the common currency is the Chinese yuan instead of the country's official kyat.
It is widely believed that the prosperity of Wa State stems from the mass production of heroin in the 1990s – when Myanmar was the world's biggest producer of the drug – and later from producing methamphetamine, which in 2008 led the United States Department of the Treasury to add the UWSA to its list of drug-trafficking organizations.
However, in recent years – especially since Myanmar initiated a transition to democracy in 2011 after five decades of military regimes – the UWSA has tried to improve its image, claiming that it was actively fighting against the production of narcotics.
The shift in strategy has seen the territory under UWSA control steer its agricultural output towards crops such as rubber instead of poppy, with the help of Chinese investors.
The UWSA emerged in 1989 from the remains of the armed wing of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) – which had also controlled a territory in northern Thailand for decades – when soldiers of the Wa ethnicity and other minorities rebelled against leaders of the Bamar ethnicity, forcing the latter to flee to China and seizing the weapons that had belonged to the CPB.
Founded on Apr. 17 of that year, the UWSA signed a ceasefire with the military junta less than a month after the uprising.
Since then, it has controlled a territory the size of Belgium that has in practice functioned as an independent state, although it is only recognized as an autonomous administrative division within Myanmar's current 2008 constitution.