Bao Youxiang (鲍有祥), also known under his Myanmar name Pau Yu Chang and his Wa name Tax Log Pang (Chinese Wa: Dax Lōug Bang), receives little attention in Myanmar’s political history literature alongside Khun Sa and Lo Hsing Han as one of the „kings“ of the opium trade in the Golden Triangle.
Often, his name is only a footnote related to the Communist Party of Burma as well as the ‘Wa’ Self-Administered Division1 in the Shan State. But while Khun Sa and Lo Hsing Han have long withdrawn from the political stage, this is not the case with „Chairman Bao“.
Although Bao Youxiang has not attracted the same media attention as the notorious Khun Sa, he can still be considered one of the most powerful war lords in Southeast Asia. He has become the head of a de facto independent Wa nation-state that is not officially recognised by any other country and envied by the leaders of other ethnic groups in Myanmar that fight for greater autonomy from the central government.
How it came to the development and the connection between him, the drug trafficking and the minority conflicts in the Shan State will be explained in this short biography.
Bao Youxiang (鲍有祥) was born in 1949 as the son of a Wa clan Chieftain in the village called Kunma in the Wa Region, located in the northern part of Myanmar’s Shan State and directly bordering the southern Chinese province of Yunnan (云南). The region is populated by a variety of minorities, such as the Bamar and Karen, as well as many Burmese Chinese and various smaller tribes. Although Bao Youxiang belongs to the Wa minority, his name is Chinese. This among other reasons is due to the geographic proximity to China and the close economic ties to the neighbouring country. As a consequence, Chinese is widely spoken here the lingua franca in addition to the many minority languages across the Wa Region.
The early youth of young Bao Youxiang was rather unspectacular. He was the second youngest of a total of 8 brothers and had – according to his own account – never left his home village Kunma in his youth. Nevertheless, as a member of the Wa minority, he remembers having felt the pressure of the central government, which sought to oppress independence movements and calls for autonomy in the Shan State after the military coup of March 1962.
Already at the age of 17, Bao Youxiang together with his older brother Bao Youyi and his uncle Bao Sanban founded a guerrilla group in Kunma, making a name for themselves with the force of the gun. In order to finance the resistance against the Burmese government, Bao Youxiang like many other smaller warlords got involved in opium smuggling. Due to its strategically favourable location, the Shan State borders to southern China, Thailand and Laos, making this area an important hub for smuggling within the Golden Triangle. Adding to that, the wild mountains and forests as well as the lack of control by the central government helped to make smuggling a lucrative business, through which several armed groups financed themselves throughout the decades.
Despite his success as a rebel leader, Bao Youxiang can only be seen as one of the countless little warlords and drug smugglers during this episode of his life. It was only when he joined the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) in 1969 that Bao Youxiang began his political career.
As a means to unite the Wa Region under one leadership, Bao Youxiang and other rebel leaders like Zhai Nilai, Lu Xingguo and Ai Ken joined the CPB.
He worked in the military party wing where he first served as battalion commander for his home village in Kunma, but rose swiftly to the rank of a brigade commander. Together with Li Ziru from the Chinese Communist Party, he led the 683 Brigade near the border between Thailand and Myanmar. At the 3rd Party Congress in 1985 held in Panghsang (Pankham)2 he also became a member of the Central Committee of the CPB.
Despite his merits and steep rise within the party, Bao Youxiang, like many of his Wa compatriots, saw the CPB merely as the means to the end of procuring weapons and resources for the Wa troops and to fight the Burmese government. This was due to the reality, that the majority of the members of the Politburo was comprised of ethnic Burmans. Accordingly, a few years later, Bao Youxiang’s true loyalty was revealed.
In 1988/89 several groups within the communist party started to question the inner leadership and even went as far as to openly defy the party. Many armed groups under the CPB, such as Kokang and Wa, were dissatisfied with the leaders of the CPB. The positions of the party’s leadership was considered too unrealistic and dogmatic. There was also the accusation that ethnic Kokang and Wa soldiers were being used as cannon fodder in a political conflict between ethnic Burmans instead of advocating for the interests of all ethnic groups.
The infighting resulted in the internal uprising of 1989 by the ethnic minorities against the CPB’s leadership, that was driven out to China, resulting in the dissolution of the CPB and its army.3 In its stead several new factions were formed along ethnic lines. As a result of the fragmentation of the CPB, Myanmar’s government began negotiations with various Wa rebel leaders such as Bao Youxiang, Peng Jiasheng and Zhao Nyi lai. On April 17, 1989, the Wa Region broke away from the CPB and formed the United Wa State Party (UWSP). Bao Youxiang was first commander of the United Wa State Army (UWSA), which formed the armed wing of the UWSP and at the time of its creation comprised about 10 000 men. Current estimates, however, assume an army strength of approximately 20,000 to 30,000 men and thus the strongest of all armed groups contesting the Tatmadaw, the army of the Myanmar state.
A few years later in 1995, Bao Youxiang also took over the UWSP leadership as Chairman Bao, thus replacing his predecessor Zhao Nyi Lai (1939-2009) who had to resign for health reasons as a result of a stroke. Since then, Bao Youxiang has taken the position of the military and political head of a quasi-autonomous Wa State in eastern Myanmar.
Due to health problems, Bao Youxiang resigned as party chairman in 2005 to his youngest brother, Bao Youyi. However, Bao Youxiang has not withdrawn completely from the political scene and has remained the leader of the UWSA.
Striving for an independent Wa State
In the ceasefire agreement signed on May 18th, 1989 with the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC)4, the UWSP formally recognized the government in Myanmar as sovereign, and in return was awarded a self-administrative status in the northern part of the Shan state. Since then the Wa Region has been led by the UWSP from Panghsang as its capital like an autonomous state and later officially dubbed “Wa-State” by Bao Youxiang. With the ceasefire agreement of 1989, the UWSP had in principle accepted its place as part of the state of Myanmar. According to UWSP’s Chairman Bao Youxiang: “Wa State is an indivisible part of the Union of Myanmar. As a minority autonomous region, we only ask the government to grant us more power in self-administration.” This status had later been officially acknowledged within Myanmar’s constitution from 2008, which recognized six townships in the Wa-Region as the ‘Wa’ Self-Administrative Region.5
Although the ceasefire agreement had created a relative stability, it had failed to resolve the issue of economic sustainability. The access to legal trade and business with other parts of Myanmar was restricted. The relative autonomy of the UWSP in the Special Region 2 combined with that of the ceasefire thus constituted an indirect toleration of all drug trafficking and even led to its expansion. The lack of economic alternatives, as well as the historically evolved structures, led to a consolidation of the cultivation, trading and smuggling of opium as a major economic branch within the Wa State. Thus, after 1989, opium production increased significantly.
Drug trafficking reached such proportions in the early 1990s that Bao Youxiang, along with many other leaders in the Wa area, were also wanted by the Chinese police for their involvement in drug trafficking. As a consequence of this development, Bao Youxiang and Zhao Nyi Lai had signed the Cangyuan Agreement (沧源合同) with local officials in the Cangyuan Va Autonomous Region (沧源佤族自治县) in China, agreeing: „No drug goes into international society (from Wa State); no drug goes into China (from Wa State); no drug goes into Burmese government-controlled-area (from Wa State).“
However, a noticeable change did not seem to appear until Bao Youxiang took over the UWSP leadership in 1995 as „Chairman Bao“. With Bao Youxiang’s takeover, the UWSP took further action against the drug trade and announced in 1997 the official goal to make Wa State opium free by the end of 2005. Following this announcement, Bao Youxiang ordered the reallocation of tens of thousands of villagers in 1999. For this purpose, poppy farmers and impoverished villagers in the Wa Region were resettled from their mountainous homelands in the north to the more fertile southern valleys of the southern Shan state, where they were able to grow other crops. In this context, the previous residents from other than the Wa ethnic groups – Shan, Lahu and Akha – were expelled, and their land was often confiscated without compensation.
Measures of the UWSP’s anti opium policy culminated in the official prohibition of opium cultivation, which was announced in 2005. Since drug cultivation had been the main source of income for most farmers, the UWSP, with the help of the United Nations and the Chinese government, sought to create new alternatives. Attempts were made to incentivise Chinese investments in rubber, tea and sugar cultivation. However, these measures were insufficient to present a sustainable alternative.
Bao Youxiang had hoped to turn the Wa region into a tourism hub and economic zone through the introduction of the opium ban. Even though there had been no major changes at first, some minor successes were achieved over the years. In 2004, UWSP announced the completion of 1,800 kilometres of road in the north of the Wa Region and another 600 kilometres in the southern command centre of the UWSP near the Thai border. In addition, according to the UWSP seven power plants were built and further urbanization projects started with the help of the UNODC (United Nations Office on Drug Crimes). In addition, a small industry of its own started to emerge in the Wa area with the construction of a cigarette and paper factory in Panghsang, as well as a lighter factory, mineral water factory and beer brewery. The construction of larger casinos in the Wa Region however has become a particular important source of income as they attract investments from China.
Investments and ventures outside the Wa state were other means through which Bao Youxiang and several leading members of the UWSP tried to generate new revenue sources. For example, Bao Youxiang’s son-in-law, Ho Chun Ting, who holds the majority of shares in Yangon Airways and is also the chairman of Tetkham Co Ltd, which operates a hotel chain.
As a military leader, Bao Youxiang continued to play an important role in the country’s development and the relations to the ‘big neighbours’ of the Wa region, China and Myanmar. His main aim seems to keep both at a distance in order to maintain as much autonomy for the Wa people as possible. The UWSA however still maintains a close relationship with China. This was recently publicly demonstrated when China’s Special Representative Sun Guoxiang (孙国祥) met with Bao Youxiang in 2019 for the 30th anniversary of autonomy in the Wa Region to attend the ceremony. On the occasion of the 30th anniversary and the visit of Chinas Special Envoy, Bao Youxiang was quoted as having proclaimed:
What we need is ethnic equality, ethnic dignity, ethnic autonomy, and we ask the government to give the Wa an autonomous ethnic state; then we will fight for our lives. Until our political demands are realized, we will hold high the banner of peace and democracy on one hand, and armed self-defence on the other, and maintain the status quo.6
Bao Youxiang furthermore proclaimed during his speech that “The Wa people are masters of their own destiny,“ and that his 600,000 “war-tested” people would never accept a role as pawns in a proxy war.7
On April 19th, 2017, Bao Youxiang became chairmen of the newly founded Federal Political Negotiation and Consultative Committee (FPNCC) formed in Panghsang by seven armed groups that did not sign the National Ceasefire Agreement with the Myanmar government in October 2015.8 This was seen as an alternative to the peace conferences organised by the Myanmar government entitled the 21th Century Panglong Conference. Chinas Special Envoy for Asian Affairs Sun Guoxiang (孙国祥) who regularly meets with UWSA’s leadership to discuss the peace process in the region bordering China, attended the ceremony. On the other hand, the UWSA was invited to attend the Panglong Conference and Bao Youxiang’s brother attended the meeting that took place in Naypyidaw in May 2017 shortly after the anniversary celebrated in the Wa State. However, there are no indications that the Wa leaders will make contributions towards a breakthrough that might lead to and end of the “stable limbo” existing for many years in Eastern Shan State and elsewhere on Myanmar soil.
Bao Youxiang is thus a key figure in the peace-building process with the government of the Union of Myanmar and makes use of the special location between Myanmar and China as well its close ties with other rebel groups operating in the north-eastern parts of Myanmar.
Today the opinion on Bao Youxiang is divided. As leader of the UWSA, he is regarded as a warlord and responsible for drug trafficking in the Golden Triangle by many members of the international community. In 2005, the US Department of Justice charged Chairman Bao Youxiang among with several other UWSP leaders with trading in heroin and methamphetamines. It denounced the UWSA as „one of the largest heroin-producing and trafficking groups in the world.”9
Adding to that, several various human rights violations can be attributed to Bao Youxiang, such as the use of child soldiers and the violent expulsion of minorities from Wa areas. This lets appear Bao Youxiang as an unscrupulous War Lord.
However, the use of drug trafficking as well as some other crimes cannot all directly be attributed to him, since many resistance groups had financed themselves via drug trafficking before and after 1989. Furthermore, it must also be noted that in the wake of the fragmentation of the CPB, the UWSP was still involved in combat operations with the drug kingpin Khun Sa until 1996.
It was also with Bao Youxiang’s takeover of the party´s chairmanship in 1995, that a change in the UWSP’s drug policy was initiated to make the Wa Region opium free until 2005. During this time, a number of concrete measures were undertaken to combat opium cultivation. It could therefore be argued that Bao Youxiang himself sees the opium trade as a problem and seeks to rid his people from it on the long run by creating long-term alternatives. These however make the Wa State more dependent on investments and goodwill of other actors such as China.
Despite of the anti-drug measures implemented since 1995, the Wa Region continues to be a region heavily dependent on smuggling and drug trafficking, raising the question of the sincerity of Bao Youxiang’s actions. For example, crystal methamphetamines are now being manufactured for export.
However, the slow development of the Wa Region and the failure of the Wa leadership’s anti-drug policy cannot only be blamed on an assumed unwillingness of the leadership to really change its ways. The Wa leadership still faces a lot of barriers put in place by Myanmar’s government. The approval of new companies and products by the administration of Myanmar is complex and long-winded. Furthermore, the central government had put restrictions in place not allowing companies in the Wa Region to send their products to Central Myanmar. Also, the export to international markets is restricted and only possible through certain border checkpoints controlled by the central government in Myanmar. The export of own products from the Wa Region is therefore often hampered by corruption and bureaucratic obstacles. This partly serves to regulate official trade with China, but had also served as a strategy of the Burmese government to weaken the ceasefire groups. It is therefore all the more understandable that Bao Youxiang is seeking out China as his strategic partner to develop the Wa Region in a semi-legal fashion.
As one of the central figures in the Wa Region, Bao Youxiang has managed to create an autonomous area in the Shan State, where the Wa minority can manage its own affairs. This has even been recognized in Myanmar’s Constitution of 2008, where in Art. 56f it officially defined the townships of Hopang, Mongma, Panwai, Nahpan, Metman and Pangsang (Pankham) as the ‘Wa’ Self-Administered Division.
It can be speculated that Bao Youxiang himself, as a member of the Wa minority, has been guided by his own national feeling and wish to fight for the rights of his people in creating an independent state. However, today his legacy is overshadowed by the discussion of drug trafficking, corruption and smuggling. The choice of Bao Youxiang’s methods led many of his critics to accuse him of selling out the Wa area resources and enriching himself at the expense of his people. Like so many drug traffickers who have become wealthy warlords, Bao Youxiang has also accumulated a lot of capital and invested it in various corporate groups in Myanmar, such as the Myanmar May Flower Group.
Thus, no conclusive judgment can be made. Bao Youxiang continues to be the de facto president of the Wa Region, shaping many decisions of the leadership in the Wa Region. His legacy will therefore depend on his ability to create more legal alternatives and further the economic development of the Wa Region through Chinese support.
1 This is the name used in the 2008 Constitution of Myanmar. The area was known before as the Wa Special Region 2.
2The town can be regarded as the capital of the Wa State and is the headquarter of the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and its precedents.
3 The internal purges in the CPB during the Cultural Revolution combined with the failure to use the 1988 demonstrations as an opportunity served as the last straw that led to the uprising of the different minor armed groups against the CPB (Kramer, 2019: p.11-44).
4 Subsequent to 1988 demonstrations, the State Law and Order Restoration Council (SLORC) led by the general Saw Maung had replaced the previous socialist government BSPP (Burma Socialist Programme Party). (Kramer, 2019: p.9)
5 According to Art. 56f of Myanmar’s Constitution the townships Hopang, Mongma, Panwai, Nahpan, Metman and Pangsang (Pankham) were forged into the ‘Wa’ Self-Administered Division.
6 The Irrawaddy, 17.4.2019 (https://www.irrawaddy.com/news/burma/uwsa-leader-repeats-demands-autonomous-wa-state-30th-anniversary.html; accessed 13.3.2019)
7 Mratt (2019)
8 In April 2017 the Arakan Army (AA), Kachin Independence Army (KIA), Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), and Ta’ang National Liberation Army (TNLA), Shan State Progress Party/Shan State Army (SSPP/SSA), Shan State East National Democratic Alliance Association (NDAA) and United Wa State Army (UWSA) jointly formed the FPNCC. (Tønnesson 2019, S.1)
9 Justice Department (2005)
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