The Everyday Politics of Conscription in the Wa State of Myanmar

Houses and New Road in Yaong Rai, Wa State
Houses and New Road in Yaong Rai, Wa State

In this essay, Hans Steinmüller provides some additional insights from his fieldwork in the Wa State of Myanmar that formed the basis of his recent CSSH article, “Conscription by Capture in the Wa State of Myanmar: Acquaintances, Anonymity, Patronage, and the Rejection of Mutuality.”

Located along Myanmar’s northeastern border with China, the boundaries of the Wa State do not appear on Google maps. Officially part of the Shan State of Myanmar, in reality, it is a de-facto state governed by an insurgent army, and Myanmar’s national government and its army, the Tatmadaw, have no say in its internal affairs. The Wa State even has its own Independence Day, April 17. On that very day in 1989, a group of Wa soldiers announced the establishment of the “United Wa State Army” (UWSA). On April 17, 2019, the UWSA celebrated its 30th anniversary, with pomp and circumstance, including evening galas, sports competitions, and a huge military parade in the capital, Pang Hsang. The anniversary was accompanied by a huge propaganda effort, including a 90-minutes video about the history and current situation of the Wa State. Commentators and pundits were generally impressed at the demonstration of military strength, as well as infrastructure building and local development. The surprise at the development of the Wa State contrasts with decades of international reporting about drugs and war. According to many observers, the elite of the Wa State have major stakes in the production and trade of illicit drugs (opium and heroin in the past, and methamphetamines today).  1 At the same time, and partly because of the historical closeness to China, the UWSA is now a major player in the complicated politics of highland Myanmar.

For all these reasons, it is not easy to do fieldwork in the Wa State: Even though the Wa authorities welcome visitors, it is very difficult to acquire border crossing and research permits. It took me three years of repeated visits, language study and preliminary research to establish the contacts and local knowledge required to do fieldwork in the Wa State. And in the Wa State itself, the purpose of doing long-term ethnographic fieldwork in a village required constant re-negotiation with army units and government representatives.

Transplanting Rice in Yaong Rai, by Hans Steinmüller
Transplanting Rice in Yaong Rai, by Hans Steinmüller

When I finally settled in Yaong Rai, a village in the Northern Command of the Wa State, in early 2016, I was struck by the constant presence of the army, war, and militarism in everyday life. Most families lost someone in the wars of the 1990s (when the UWSA fought the army of Khun Sa, the then-most powerful warlord in the ‘Golden Triangle’), and have sons and daughters serving in the army today. Everyone has relatives in the Southern Command at the Thai border, where thousands of Wa villagers have been forcefully resettled. Men wear army fatigues to work on the fields, and villagers regularly have to perform compulsory labor, overseen by police and army units. The institutions of local government (including village councils, militias, and schools), are modelled on the military and are meant to prepare villagers to serve in the army.

One phenomenon struck me in particular: The army commonly captured villagers and held them hostage to force relatives who had deserted their army units to return. Local government and police used similar tactics when dealing with delinquency: Suspects were simply ‘captured’ and held captive for extended periods before their cases were even discussed. What sometimes seemed like a ‘cat-and-mouse’ game, on closer observation, turned out to be a core principle of military government. In my CSSH article “Conscription by Capture,” I describe this principle as the fourfold transformation of personal relations: acquaintance, anonymity, patronage, and rejection. In the absence of an effective bureaucracy, these relations facilitate state legibility, and with it, the violence of sovereignty.

The creation of these new relationships had been set in motion when the guerrilla armies of the Communist Party of Burma entered the Wa hills in the 1960s. Since then, many men have served in the army, thereby creating new links of acquaintanceship with others far from their own families and villages. The flipside of these links was a new form of anonymity; that is, the anonymity of those who were not part of the new network. Related to the purposes of government, as well as for doing business, new relationships of fictive kinship and patronage formed on the basis of those acquaintances. Yet sometimes, those new relationships also required active exclusion: the rejection of (possible links of) mutuality. In the article, I analyze the dynamics of those four relations when put into action: In order to capture local children, the army takes recourse to local acquaintances and patronage networks. At the same time, anonymity is required (soldiers are almost never employed to act against their own relatives), and sometimes, the active refusal of mutuality (for instance, when a local headman denies a possible connection with fellow villagers whose children have been captured).

Conscription by capture is not unique to the Wa State. As I point out in the article, most of Myanmar’s non-state armed groups recruit child soldiers, as do the Tatmadaw, Myanmar’s armed forces. Historically, forced conscription was common in many armies: In China, the KMT and the CCP forcefully recruited villagers into their armies during the Chinese Civil War, and in England, men were caught by press gangs and had to serve in the Royal Navy in the 18th and 19th centuries. Rather than an exception, the violent separation of children from their families is central to any national sovereignty that relies on an army.

Clearly, the situation and the size of the Wa army is very different from the armies of the Chinese civil war or the British Royal Navy of the 19th century. Given the relative weakness of ethno-nationalism and the inefficiency of the bureaucracy, the Wa Army relies on non-bureaucratic means to make its population legible, and to force children into the army. The micro-analysis of everyday politics in the Wa State in general, and the personal relations that facilitate conscription by capture specifically, therefore point to broader lessons about connections of state legibility, violence and sovereignty. One important lesson is that the capture of child soldiers is not a simple endeavor (as in, an army truck shows up and takes the children away): Rather, it follows an identifiable social logic. This social logic creates state legibility and allows for the exercise of violence: It is thus at the heart of sovereign power.

  1. An example is a 2016 report by the BBC that starts as follows: “The remote Wa region of Shan state in Myanmar’s east is a place few outsiders have seen. The people who live in this unofficial, effectively autonomous state within Myanmar used to be called the Wild Wa, and as the BBC’s Jonah Fisher found, drugs, money and the wildlife trade are flourishing.” 

By ltwstu

Lecturer of Anthropology University of Michigan Associate Managing Editor Comparative Studies in Society and History