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KYAING TONG, Myanmar, Sept 10 (Reuters) - For decades they were known as some of Asia's most ferocious fighters, a tribe of fearless jungle warriors with a penchant for chopping off their rivals' heads.
These days, however, the "Wild Wa" of eastern Myanmar's Shan State, a rag-tag militia of former communist and narco-army guerrillas, are going out of their way to avoid a fight.
Drafted in by the former Burma's military junta in 1999 to wage a proxy guerrilla war against ethnic Shan rebels on the Thai border, the Wa have instead acquired a taste for the good life in the heart of the "Golden Triangle", Shan sources say.
Up to 120,000 are thought to have moved from their homelands 500 km (310 miles) to the north. Eight years on, their tea and macadamia nut plantations -- not to mention drug labs and opium fields -- are bearing fruit.The Wa are in no mood to move.
"Sometimes they are only fighting for show," said one man in Kyaing Tong, a sleepy Shan town 150 km (90 miles) north of the Thai border and the murky front lines between the United Wa State Army (UWSA) and Shan State Army South (SSA).
The conflict, in which shots are fired only every few years, is one of many rumbling away in Myanmar's hinterlands between the Burmese-dominated junta and ethnic militias struggling for autonomy, independence -- and control of the drug trade.
"The Wa seem to have struck a gentleman's agreement with the Shan not to fight. They realise they are all from the same nation, and that if they fight, the Burmese government will be clapping," the Kyaing Tong resident said.
According to the Thailand-based Shan Herald Agency for News, a Wa War Council decided last month to resist pressure from Yangon to fight, and even turned their defences around in case the Burmese army decided to attack from the rear.
"In the past, all their 11 fire bases were placing their mortars and machine guns against us," Lieutenant-Colonel Gawnzeun, commander of a Shan base, was quoted as saying. "Now, all of them are facing in the opposite direction."
COMMUNISM AND NARCOTICS
For the last 60 years, the Wa have been mired in the myriad ethnic guerrilla conflicts, fuelled by a heady mix of communism and narcotics, that have plagued post-independence Myanmar.
Tough mountain-dwellers with their own language and animist beliefs, they wanted little to do with outsiders and were left alone by the British, whose colonial officials steered clear of the severed human heads staking out the Wa hills bordering southern China's Yunnan province.
Their last reported ritual beheadings were in 1976.
When remnants of Chiang Kai-shek's Chinese Nationalists fled the 1949 communist revolution, the Wa took up arms and in 1968 became the backbone of the Communist Party of Burma's militia, with opium sales paying for a steady supply of Chinese arms.
Their struggle lasted until 1989, when they finally brokered a deal with the ethnic Burmese generals who had seized power 25 years earlier.
By then, however, the Wa had paid a terrible price.
According to a report by the Thailand-based Lahu National Development Organisation (LNDO), the ratio of men to women in a population of only 500,000 had sunk to 1:3.
Despite this, the Wa saw peace with the Burmese as an opportunity to challenge "Opium King" warlord Khun Sa for control of Myanmar's multi-billion dollar heroin trade, more than half of world output throughout the 1990s.
Four years after Khun Sa cut a deal with the Burmese and switched sides, the heads of the UWSA -- by now one of the world's biggest narco-armies with up to 10,000 men under arms -- saw a chance to secure a route south into Thailand.
Ironically, the pretext for moving entire Wa villages was opium eradication. The junta just wanted the Wa to squeeze the remnants of Khun Sa's Shan army and end its decades-long struggle for self-rule.
"Most were herded into trucks to travel south, but many were forced to walk through the mountains taking over two months. Some died en route," the LNDO said in its report on the Wa migration.
Unused to the new terrain and diseases, especially malaria, up to 4,000 people are thought to have died in the first year.
"They tried to cure themselves with magic and traditional medicines," one tribesman was quoted as saying. "They offered chickens, pigs, dogs and buffalo to the spirits, but they did not get better."
POPPIES TO PILLS
Despite the privations, the Wa proved as adaptable to their new surroundings as to the changes in taste of Asia's drug users.
When Washington labelled the UWSA a narcotics-trafficking organisation in 2003 with a $2 million bounty on the head of its leader, Wei Hsueh-Kang, the Wa had already begun a switch from opium and heroin to chemicals.
Records of official seizures compiled by the United Nations suggest that in 2006 Myanmar was the source of half of Asia's methamphetamine, or yaba, as it is known in Thailand. Most of the drug labs are under Wa control, experts believe.
"Methamphetamine production is booming on the Thai border," said Bertil Lintner, a leading expert on Myanmar's opium trade and ethnic conflicts. "The factories have been there for a long time, but have become more secure since the Wa took the area."
The question now is whether Yangon's generals allow the Wa to pump out the pills without paying the price.
"The Wa are the strongest private army in Burma, but if they're not willing to fight the Shan any more, what's the point in letting them stay on the Thai border?" Lintner said.