307th Meeting – Tuesday, November 18th 2008  

Knowing the Lua and Wa: The State of Knowledge of a Barely Known Group
A talk and presentation by Ronald D. Renard

Bob Vryheid, Guy Cardinal, Ken Dyer, Derrick Titmus, Linda Rochester, Angela Srisomwongwathand, Woralun Boonyasurat, Fran Decoster, Bill Feetham, Bob & Carol Stratton, Ralph Kramer, Carol Beauclerk, Armin Schoch, Alex Brodard, Boong Chaladlam, Patarasri Jnkhao, Suriya Smutkupt, Anchalee Singhanetra-Renard, Pakanath Thadnik, Judy & Dale Harcourt, Donald Hodel, Bodil Blokker, Dorothy Engelmann, Dianne & Mark Barber-Riley, Thomas Ohlson, Hans & Saengdao Bänziger, Victoria Voniter, Ken & Orntip Kampe, John Butt, Jakatae Jayo, Carina zur Strassen, Janet Illeni, David Steane, Mike & Kay Calavan, David James, a Thai person, John Wickenden. An audience of 43.  

 A summary of his talk written by the speaker

Knowing the Lua and Wa

The prominent French anthropologist, Georges Condominas, once said that the Lua were “the key” to understanding Lan Na. However, their culture and that of the Lua and related groups, such as the Wa in Shan State and China, are disappearing.  If this happens, knowing the culture of the Shan, Lao, Thai and other lowland Tai groups will grow more difficult.

As it is, much about the Wa is known imperfectly or based on stereotyped descriptions. For example, a Time Magazine article on the Wa referred to them as a “narco-army”, as if the entire people were enlisted to grow and sell drugs.  While there is, to be sure, an illicit drug trade involving some Wa, the vast majority of the people are farmers more interested in their own day-to-day welfare than in marketing narcotic substances.

There are approximately one million people known as Wa and Lua.  Linguists classify both of these groups, along with other known as Bulang (aka Tai Loi) as “Waic” and part of the Northern Mon-Khmer languages.  This branch also includes Khmu (mostly in Laos) and Palaung (mostly in Shan State).  The Wa and Lua are found in a long arc beginning around Lashio in Northern Shan State and curving east through the Wa Region (also in China) down towards Kengtung (Chiang Tung) to Chiang Mai where these peoples are known as Lua.

In Chiang Mai evidence of their settlement is found in the name of Doi Suthep—Suthep was, according to local oral tradition written down in about the fourteenth century, a holy man living on the mountain.  According to these legends, he was the son of Pu Sae and Ya Sae.  They all converted to Buddhism but while the son could completely adopt the Middle Path his parents felt the need to eat meat once a year.  To meet this need, the Lua, along with the prince of Chiang Mai, conducted a buffalo sacrifice once annually.  But the son became a holy man and was the one who the legend says invited the Mon queen, Cham Thewi to come rule the kingdom of Hariphunchai (Lamphun).  One remnant of the early Lua settlement in Chiang Mai is the ruins of Wiang Chet Lin, a circular city site near the front of Chiang Mai University.

When the Thai (Tai) moved into the region about 700-800 (or more) years ago, they gained political ascendancy over the Lua and the Mon.  Many Lua and other related groups came to be known as Kha, a term that some linguists say is derived from Khmer. Just as the Thai took over much of the old kingdom of Angkor, so too did the Thai take over the Mon kingdom of Hariphunchai.  Those that did not assimilate into Tai (Thai) life stayed in rural areas and came to be known as Kha who were obliged to pay tribute or carry out corvée labor for the Thai overlords.  A similar situation existed in Kengtung (Chiang Tung). Even at present, there are Wa (or related peoples) who participate ritually in important ceremonies there.

These Wa and Lua and the other Mon-Khmer peoples were part of a linguistically-related population that covered most of Mainland Southeast Asia.  There are groups in India, such as the Munda, who together with the Mon-Khmer are called Austroasiatic.  In all there are about 74,505,000 million Mon-Khmer. The largest group is the Vietnamese who speak a Mon-Khmer language (but who got tones from the Tai or the Chinese and seem to have forgotten their kinship with the Mon-Khmer). 

Within these peoples are wide cultural extremes, from some very rural people in the Wa Region to sophisticated urban folk in Phnom Penh.  The Mon-Khmer are also characterized by wide diversity within the individual ethnicities.  Take example the De-ang (aka Palaung) in Northern Shan State. The Palaung (De-ang) cultural committee prepared a calendar for 2003 that shows twelve women, each wearing a distinctive form of dress.  Perhaps they are the dress of different clans but they all agree that all of them are De-ang (Palaung).

Another group related to the Wa are the Bulang who prefer to be known in Shan State as Tai Loi (Mountain Tai).  Although they are Mon-Khmer speakers, they prefer being known as Tai because, since they are (mostly) Buddhist and (sometimes) literate, they believe their social status is above that of the Kha.  Such peoples are found in and around Kengtung as well as in an area to the north and northeast known as Special Region 4.  In one such place, on the road to the Wa Region is a village where there are descendants of the so-called “Phya Tai Loi”, a Tai Loi prince who still retains regalia and other such things as spears and swords said once to belong to this ancestral prince.

In the Wa Region, an area recognized after a ceasefire agreement with the then Secretary 1, General Khin Nyunt, in 1989, there are Wa Buddhists who are quite similar to the Tai Loi.  They have books in Shan (but sometimes now in Wa as well) temples, and monks.  According to Wa leaders, the population is roughly one-third animist, one-third Buddhist, and one-third Christian.

All this points to a widely diverse group of peoples in a remote area.  In fact, there is much to be learned about all the Mon-Khmer peoples, most of whom (not counting the Vietnamese) who live in out of the way places hard to access and speaking languages few others understand.  The only country in the region run by a Mon-Khmer group that accepts this heritage is Cambodia. However, this country has had more than its share of difficulties in the recent past so it is unlikely that people from Cambodia will be able to take the lead in research the past of their ethnic neighbors and ancestors.  As minorities in other countries, researchers and ethnic studies institutes often focus on other groups.

Nevertheless, there is much to be learned from these small Mon-Khmer groups.  Take for example the Wa Region (aka Shan State Special Region 2).  This is the largest area under control of a Mon-Khmer group still remaining.  However, it is in danger of losing touch with its culture, something that might jeopardize its political autonomy.

After Wa leaders fighting alongside the Communist Party of Burma for about two decades took over the area from the Chinese leaders in 1989, they made their agreement with Khin Nyunt by which they promised to stay within the Union of Myanmar forever in exchange for a pledge that they would then enjoy considerable autonomy over their own land.  Since they also retained about 20,000 troops in their army, they have been better able to protect this autonomy than their lesser-armed neighbors to the north (Kokang) and to the east (Special Region 4) who had also been on the side of the CPB and then made their own ceasefire deals with Khin Nyunt.

The Wa Region in Shan State has a population of about 400,000. There formerly were about 470,000 but 70,000 were moved by Wa authorities to areas on the Thai and Lao borders over a decade ago to help the government defeat Khun Sa. When the were successful, the Wa were able to stay there.  Of the 400,000 in the Wa Region, about 70% are Wa followed by Lahu (particularly in the south of the region), Shan (in the valleys), Akha, Tai Loi, and Chinese in the cities and towns.  There are also quite a few other groups such as Kachin and a number that are Mon-Khmer speakers.  One such Tibeto-Burman group is the “Lo Me”, living in a few villages in Nam Kham Wu and on the China side opposite it.  According to Akha speakers familiar with the Lo Me, their language resembles Akha but also includes Lahu and sometimes Burmese words. There are many other examples of very small linguistic groups.

Among the Wa there is a great deal of local variation.  The dialects have never been studied but a Mon-Khmer linguist estimated there are several dozen dialects in the Wa Region alone (to say nothing of Bulang/Tai Loi and other speakers of other dialects).  Besides this diversity holding a store of traditional lore, it also poses obstacles to collecting that information. Many Wa villagers distrust strangers, including those, even Wa, speaking different dialects.  For the UNODC Wa Project this impeded learning about such things as rice production since villagers would tend to under-report their harvest figures. There could be other obstacles related to a lack of standardized measurements in the Wa Region. For example, one local measurement of rice was a bamboo joint, the volume of which almost always varied. Similarly, in another measurement of volume derived from cooking oil tins, a pong of unhusked rice roughly equaled 23 pounds while a pong of corn was 27 pounds.

This diversity also makes it difficult to provide education in the Wa language.  The Wa use a Roman alphabet invented by an American Baptist missionary, Vincent Young, along with various Wa in the 1930s.  One of those was Sara Yaw Shu (Joshua) who is still living and working in the Wa church in Lashio at the age of 96 (or so).  Problems arise when Wa of different dialects pronounce the same words differently (and thus interpret them as having different meanings for the same spellings).

Diversity can also be seen in the dress of Wa women.  In a non-scientific undertaking at a five-day market in early 2006, photographs were taken of all the different types of dress seen.  Ten different types of dress were seen, almost all of which could be associated with the people of certain specific village tracts.  However, no such survey could be carried out beyond this or followed up in any systematic way.

Most of these peoples cultivate traditional varieties of upland rice in their swidden fields. Until 2005, almost all those in the hills grew opium.  Before then it was possible to see quite openly fields of poppy as well as opium being sold in the markets with British India rupees showing the image of Queen Victoria or King Edward.  In the hills they practiced a variety of local crafts including cotton and silk weaving, making liquor from finger millet, and sharing an oral literature of unknown richness. 

The people of the area also consumed tea. Although many drink it, they also eat it which was the traditional way of using tea. This can be shown in the terms used for the substance. These include miang and la, both of which are Mon-Khmer terms (unlike tea or cha which are Chinese).  In Kengtung tea to drink is called nam la.  La is the Palaungic word for leaf. The “le” of the Burmese word for tea, lepet, is derived from this.  

There are still tea trees in the Wa Region, some over a meter in diameter.  They are of species related to common tea, indicating the likelihood that this species could well have originated in this region.  The connection between Mon-Khmer and tea extends to the Chiang Mai area where there are so-called Pa Miang (Miang Jungles) where tea was found growing wild in the hills. These were harvested by lowland Thai who migrated seasonally into the hills.  Interviews with the people who lived in the villages in the 1970s revealed distant connections with the Lua making it likely that in centuries past, Lua had cultivated tea in the Chiang Mai area.

This diverse cultural richness is beginning to disappear.  Many factors, some of which are listed below, cause this.


The Wa Region until recently was quite remote, requiring several days of travel to reach the main cities and more to the more secluded villages in the hills.  Now there are all-weather roads enabling one to travel from Kengtung or Lashio to the main cities in a single day (with a good vehicle). 

The remoteness is not just physical. Because of a history of headhunting, the reputation of the Wa (and maybe their sometimes warlike attitudes and actions) kept outside visitors from venturing into their area.  Unlike almost all the other groups of Shan State, no serious ethnography on a Wa group has ever been carried out (although good work has been done in Thailand by such scholars as Peter Kunstadter). 

An additional constraint is the fact that the Wa Region remains a restricted zone.  Tourists or other travelers cannot go there.  The only visitors officially allowed are those working with development agencies (such as UN agencies such as UNODC and the World Food Programme and NGOs such as German Agro-Action, Malteser, and CARE International) who then receive travel authorization from the Myanmar Ministry of Defense.  At any given time there are less than ten development workers in the area. However, Chinese travelers and officials can visit the region much more easily across the several bilateral crossing points between the Wa Region and China.


The reputation of the Wa as headhunters or drug dealers creates certain expectations among those people who have written about the Wa.  Because journalists and others who write about the Wa have little firsthand evidence of what life among the Wa is like, they often fall back on stereotypes which are of course far from accurate.  Headhunting ended in the Wa Region in the 1970s under pressure from the CPB.

          Priorities of Wa Leaders

The Wa leaders grew up in remote areas and generally lack formal education or experience in other countries except China.  Those who have school education received it in China and only at the primary or, at most, middle school level. Much of their practical training came from leaders of the CPB. When translated into policy planning, it is expressed as a desire for macro-projects such as promoted during the Great Leap Forward in China.  Projects undertaken by the Wa Authority include infrastructure, mines, a cigarette factory, liquor distillery, paper mill, and so on (many of which have failed).

When UNODC entered the region and began promoting bottom-up, participatory development to make use of indigenous knowledge, it largely fell on deaf ears.  For large periods of the first few years, the UNODC Wa Project was unable to work in villages because of Wa priorities and the distrust (or confusion) some Wa leaders had over what UNODC wanted to do (and sometimes this was the fault of UNODC for not explaining its objectives clearly and carefully at all levels).

This situation is complicated because Wa leaders have not thought through their educational policy with the result that the educational sector in the Wa Region remains underfunded. Although they recognize four official languages (Wa, Burmese, Chinese, and English) there are obstacles to teaching in each.  The dialectical diversity of Wa and the severe lack of reading material in Wa makes it impractical to use Wa as a teaching medium.  Furthermore, none of the top Wa leaders can read Wa.  As for Burmese, many Wa remember decades of fighting against the Burmese and are unwilling to learn it. While there are some Burmese language schools in the cities there are almost none in the villages.  There are quite a few Chinese schools but the Government of the Union of Myanmar objects strongly to having Chinese become a teaching medium in border areas (although they told UNODC project staff that teaching in local languages such as Lahu or Shan would be tolerated).  And for English, nobody knows it and there are no teachers who could provide instruction in it.  


One example of large projects favored by Wa leaders is the cultivation of rubber.  Hundreds of thousands of hectares of lowland and sloping land at elevations below 1,000 meters have been converted into rubber cultivation.  Chinese entrepreneurs have made deals with Wa leaders to grow rubber to feed the growing market for rubber in China.  This has turned much formerly ecologically diverse land into land use for agriculture mono-culture.  Furthermore, as much of this land is on land traditionally used for shifting cultivation, the area for swiddening is reduced, causing the likely extinction of traditional varietals of hill rice.  At the same time, as Wa shifting cultivators take up other ways to make a living, they often abandon their traditional ways of life, lose long-practiced skills, and abandon various types of ritual behavior.  Also, instead of producing their own clothing and growing crops for all their needs, they often start buying finished goods in the markets or simply doing without.

In its own way the UNODC Wa project contributed to this.  As a response to the elimination of opium poppy cultivation in 2005 (99% effective), the project promoted increased food crop production, especially lowland rice. This was also encouraged in order to protect prime land from rubber entrepreneurs.  After project leaders observed that the Wa leaders were reluctant to seize paddy land from the villagers, they promoted the development of small to medium irrigation schemes and land development projects.  In order to increase rice yields, open pollinated rice varieties were introduced such as China 203 by which their yields increased by 30%.  However, this also served to push traditional varieties towards extinction (of course the farmers need more food and cultivating China 203 fills an important need—however, these old rice varieties should be preserved somewhere somehow).

          Environmental Degradation

Not the least of the threats to Wa culture is commercial logging that was carried on at a massive scale until 2005 when the Chinese banned imports.  However, Wa leaders have not banned the export of other raw materials and forest produce such as fragrant bark, orchid species, and other items used in pharmaceutical preparations.  Throughout the region at markets and along the roads one can see piles of produce being bought (at very low prices) by Chinese merchants for export to China.

          Extreme Linguistic Diversity of the Wa

As discussed above this diversity makes providing an education in the Wa language a challenge. Although some efforts have been made by the Wa Army (which has an interest in soldiers understanding commands clearly) and the Wa Christian church (through the so-called “Bible Wa”) to develop a Wa-based lingua franca, these efforts have not reached the bulk of the Wa population.

          Distrust of Outsiders by Wa Villagers

As also noted earlier, this distrust precludes collecting information.  Additionally, the Wa Authority, particularly some officials in the northern town of Mong Mau, viewed by the Wa as the center and protector of Wa culture, have placed their own restrictions on travel by development workers.  This is particularly the case for those perceived as ethnic Burmese who may in fact be Karen or other groups unfamiliar to the Wa.  Fearful of spies from the rest of the country, Wa leaders are vigilant against persons coming into their area to collect data. This suspicion contributed about two years ago to the withdrawal of the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) from working in the Wa Region.  Sometimes Mong Mau authorities issued their own travel authorization that made it difficult even to visit a village under their control or where UNODC (or other agencies) had already initiated work.

          Priorities of Development Agencies in the Region

Development agencies are focused on development. Many such agencies and people working for them, and believing in the universal applicability of their inputs, consider cultural information superfluous to their task of providing water, increased agricultural yields, or other inputs to the “target population.”  Obviously, in such agencies, and working to achieve the mandate for which they are in the Wa Region will not contribute to the collection of cultural information except in some indirect or non-essential way.

          Wa Leaders’ Disinterest in Wa Culture

Wa leaders themselves, as shown by their ignorance of the Wa written script, often see the Wa as a backward people, far inferior to groups they perceive as civilized, such as the Chinese.  Into this vacuum, Chinese culture from just across the border is entering the Wa Region, first through the larger towns.  Chinese phones, Chinese Internet access, Chinese money, and other Chinese goods are becoming dominant.  Chinese forms of entertainment, such as karaoke lounges and Chinese-style gambling are also growing popular. This is also affecting traditional Wa dance and song. In 2006, a Wa dance troupe was sent to Shanghai for many months of training.  One result of such training is that Wa dance costumes for the women performers are becoming more revealing and dance styles adapted to show the “primitive” nature of the Wa people.

The result of all these obstacles is that Wa culture (in all its diversity and variations) is declining.  While it is not too late to promote it, all the indicators mitigate against the survival of many aspects of Wa culture. Not only will this make it more difficult to study the overall culture of the Greater Mekong Region but it will also make it more difficult to develop the Wa Region. The indigenous knowledge that could well be used to enhance and add value to efforts by development agencies (UN, Wa Authority, national, and international) seems to be disappearing little by little with no regrets by any of the involved parties.

 After an informed question and answer session the meeting adjourned to the Alliance Cafeteria where members of the audience engaged Ron in more informal conversation over drinks and snacks.