Was


Was
   An ethnic minority group who live in northeastern Shan State and adjacent areas of China's Yunnan Province, though before the coming of the Shans (Tai) they were more widespread and were probably the original inhabitants of Keng Tung. Of importance to the Wa people is Lake Nawngkhio (Nawng Kheo), near the present Chinese border, which is said to be their mythic place of origin. They speak a language belonging to the Wa-Palaung subgroup of the MonKhmer language group; in recent years, heavy Chinese influence has resulted in the widespread use of Mandarin.
   Their homeland, theWa States, bounded by the Salween (Thanlwin) River on the west and the Chinese border on the east, south of Kokang, is composed of mountains and steep-sloped hills and has little agricultural potential, leaving the Wa poor and undeveloped. Slash-and-burn agriculture has left many of the slopes denuded of vegetation. To generate income, they have become heavily dependent on the cultivation of opium poppies, the drug being exported to neighboring countries by the United Wa State Army (UWSA). During the British colonial period, the Wa States were so remote that only in 1937 were officials of the colonial regime, two in number, posted there. Both the Shans and the British divided the Wa into two groups: the "Tame Wa," who were exposed to Buddhism, influenced by Shan customs and were usually part of the jurisdiction of a Shan sawbwa, and the "Wild Wa," who lived in the remotest areas, were animists, and practiced head-hunting (a "skull grove" outside of Wa villages was believed to ensure good harvests and protection from disease and calamity). The Wild Wa had a fearsome reputation, which kept intruders out, and their hilltop villages were strongly fortified. In James G. Scott's words, "(t)he race is brave, independent, energetic, ingenious, and industrious. . . . The taking of a head is a sacrificial act, not an example of brutal ferocity" (Burma: A Handbook of Practical Information, [1921] 1999, 141).
   The remoteness of the Wa States left them out of the mainstream of Burmese and even Frontier Area history; they were not included in the 1922 Shan States Federation and were largely untouched by World War II. Although some Wa fighters joined Shan State insurgencies, it was only with the establishment of a strong Communist Party of Burma (CPB) base on the China-Burma border in January 1968 that their region was fully opened to outside influences, primarily from China. They formed a majority of the CPB's People's Army, often serving as "cannon fodder" in pitched battles with the Tatmadaw. Now they serve as soldiers in the 20,000-man strong UWSA. According to Shan sources, Wa women outnumber men three to one because of the decades of bitter warfare.
   No one can say with confidence how many Wa there are. The UWSA claimed in 1994 that they numbered half a million. In the late 1990s, the armed group began relocating 100,000 of them from their mountain homeland to the Thai-Burma border area, around Mong Yawn, part of a UWSA strategy to acquire a strategic position in southern Shan State from which to export drugs, especially amphetamines, to Thailand. The significant Wa presence in the south was made possible by the surrender of Khun Sa's Mong Tai Army in January 1996, but it has caused great hardship, both to the relocated Wa and to Shan and Lahu people who were forced to leave their villages. The Wa have always been good fighters and now constitute the strongest ethnic minority armed group in Burma, but while the leadership, including UWSA commander Bao Youxiang, grows rich on the drug trade, ordinary Wa remain among the poorest people in Burma and lack even the most elementary social services.

Historical Dictionary of Burma (Myanmar). . 2014.

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