With a standing army of 25,000 to 30,000 soldiers, the United Wa State Army (UWSA) is one of the largest non-state armed groups in the world and the largest in Myanmar. It operates from a reclusive virtually autonomous area, called Special Region 2, that it controls along the border of China, as well as a semi-contiguous region along the Thai border in Southern Shan State. 

The UWSA’s military capacity—including its operation of gun and ammunition factories, anti-aircraft weapons, armoured vehicles and military drones (most reportedly purchased from China)—has understandably been widely speculated upon. It’s an act which, paradoxically, only serves to strengthen the Wa’s own seemingly contradictory strategy of building military capacity as a means of sustaining peaceful relations with the Myanmar military, while advancing its own interests in Shan State. 

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Brennan O’Connor worked for Canada’s leading media publications before dedicating himself full time to cover self-generated under-reported stories in the mainstream press. In 2010, he left his native country to move to Southeast Asia to follow a long-term photo project on Myanmar’s ethnic groups. O’Connor’s project was projected at the prestigious Visa Pour l'image in Perpignan, France, and honoured with the Lucas Dolega Award. His work has been published in the Guardian, Foreign Policy, Paris Match, L’Obs, Al Jazeera, Burn Magazine and The Walrus.