Ethnic Nationalism Along the China-Burma Border
China watchers are well aware of ethnic unrest involving Tibetans and Uyghurs, but little is known about independence movements and cultural rights activism among other ethnic minorities. Dui Hua research has explored the suppression of Christianity among China’s ethnic Koreans. Now, based on public security records obtained by Dui Hua (PDF 1.2MB), we expand our understanding of this topic to include the Wa and Lahu.
The Wa and Lahu primarily inhabit mountain villages along the border between China's Yunnan Province and Burma. Today there are an estimated 1.2 million Wa people worldwide, with 800,000 in Burma and 400,000 in China, and 800,000 Lahu, of whom more than half reside in China.
In the latter half of the twentieth century, authorities in Yunnan's Simao Prefecture (or present day Pu'er City) targeted the Wa and Lahu people in efforts to suppress nationalistic sentiments. Official sources trace ethnic nationalism among these groups to Zhadie (扎谍), a Wa man born in a contested territory between China and Burma in 1924. Records describe him as an overseas separatist instructed by the United States and Kuomintang to carry out counterrevolutionary activities on the mainland. (Some Kuomintang forces refused to retreat to Taiwan and instead withdrew to Burma after the Communist Party established the People’s Republic of China in 1949.)
Calling himself “old Buddha,” Zhadie saw increasing support among Burmese Wa and Lahu after the end of World War II. In 1950, he began sending his followers to Pu’er and Lincang, Yunnan, to spread the idea of establishing a Wa-Lahu nation.
Zhadie argued that Wa-Lahu independence was necessary to free the two ethnic groups from Han Chinese oppression. According to government records, one of his slogans was: “Han Chinese repress Wa. Exterminate the Han.” Early on, Zhadie likened himself to the Mao Zedong of the Wa and Lahu people. In the 1980s, he compared himself to the Dalai Lama, as the spiritual leader of Wa and Lahu in China and Burma.
The number of Zhadie's supporters is unknown. Spotty government records state that as many as 3,500 people from more than 30 Wa villages gathered in Yunnan in March 1959 to perform folk dances led by Zhadie's followers and to listen to their nationalist speeches. The government responded by saying that the villagers had been “deceived” and by reinforcing patriotic education in the area.
Between 1950 and 1961, government sources document 48 instances of infiltration associated with Zhadie. Eleven were small-scale armed rebellions or disturbances that were swiftly suppressed by the much larger joint forces of the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) and public security. The largest of these armed activities took place in June 1951. During the incident two to three hundred of Zhadie's rebels besieged the Wendong District government and kidnapped communist cadres with the support of Kuomintang forces.
Burma agreed to let the PLA fight Kuomintang forces on Burmese soil in 1961, putting Zhadie’s mainland activities on hold for approximately two decades. Zhadie’s influence diminished without the military backing of the Kuomintang, but it had a resurgence during the reform and opening in 1978.
From the mid-1980s to 1998, Simao police arrested 66 people in 20 incidents of subversion and sabotage linked to Zhadie. During the period, he made plans for a Wa-Lahu nation more concrete, stating that it would be established in the year 2000 and that he would serve as president. In March 1990, nearly 200 villagers joined his core supporters in celebrating the establishment of the “Zhadie District government” in Yunnan’s Ximeng County. Between 1991 and 1993, his supporters went to 121 Wa and Lahu villages to hand out photos of Zhadie and seals and flags of the new "regime."
It was not until the mid-1990s that China addressed the problems through diplomacy. In the spring of 1996, Chinese officials traveled to Burma's Mongmao County to meet with Zhadie, then age 72, and announce that he and his adherents had violated Chinese law. China threatened to impose sanctions on Burma and to close the border for religious worship during Chinese New Year. In response, the local Burmese government began imposing restrictions on Zhadie in 1998, greatly diminishing his influence in China.
Nonetheless, nearly ten years later, on December 27, 2006, The People's Daily named Zhadie as an overseas separatist force in Yunnan that was funded by western countries and supported by the US government and religious organizations.