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From headhunting to weaponized drones: Myanmar's Wa carve own path

Minority emerges as power broker amid post-takeover chaos

A Wa soldier walks through a rice field where opium was once grown in Myanmar's Shan State. (Photo by Adam Oswell)

CHIANG MAI, Thailand -- Once one of Southeast Asia's most marginalized groups -- hunting human heads within living memory -- Myanmar's Wa ethnic community has carved out a virtually independent nation for itself, fielding the largest nonstate army in Asia.

Feared as ferocious fighters and denigrated as savages of the mountains, the Wa have resisted rule by the Chinese, the British and Myanmar's majority Burman group. Isolated from the outside world, they lived for centuries in scattered, poverty-stricken villages, divided by clan loyalties and worshipping a multitude of spirits and deities.

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