Mong La: Burma’s City of Lights
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Tuesday, April 23, 2019


Mong La: Burma’s City of Lights

By Joan Williams/Mong La, Shan State JAN, 2003 - VOLUME 11 NO.1

Cosmopolitan, garish and connected to the outside world via Internet and mobile phones, visitors to Mong La wonder if they are really in Burma anymore. For a while it seems like a road to nowhere. Only army checkpoints and small clusters of huts indicate some life. Then, quite suddenly, the view widens into a valley and the road changes from dirt to tar. At dusk the city ahead looks like a space shuttle that descended upon earth. Abundant neon lights line the buildings. Along a wide avenue, street lamps flash like fireworks. This is Mong La, the capital of Special Region Number Four in eastern Shan State. One wonders if this is still Burma. "Yuan," demands an old woman selling water when she is given kyat. A Chinese employee in the hotel hands over the key without the form filling and other paperwork so typical of the bureaucratic control elsewhere in the country. A condom in the basket of toiletries suggests there are other freedoms to be enjoyed too. "You will not worry about how to play around as we guide," advertises the Lamton Nightclub. "Hot dancing team with beautiful and sexy girls from every country around the world perform colorful dances for guests aged from 18-100." "Sauna meets all requirements for those people pursuing perfect life." It is rush hour in the streets. Shiny taxis drive on and off. Hundreds of Chinese flock into brightly lit casinos to try their luck at baccarat and roulette. Chinese banks offer services around the clock for those running out of cash. "Massage? Massage?" giggle girls at the entrance of a nightclub; from behind their backs blares Madonna’s "Material Girl". A street musician with a guitar makes an attempt to perform, but his tune gets lost in the surrounding noises. "Business is good here," says a young woman from Rangoon. With her Chinese customers, Dior sunglasses at 800 yuan (US $97) sell easily, as do Prada coats for 1,200 yuan. It is hard to imagine that about 14 years ago Mong La was an unknown village in a sparsely populated area. Nowadays, it receives between 700 to 1,000 visitors a day. Some people call Mong La the Las Vegas of the East, others, the Anus of China. How did this transformation ever come about? A large billboard of two smiling men shaking hands gives a clue. The one dressed in a Shan national costume is Sai Lin, the ruler of Mong La. The other, wearing a military uniform, is Gen Khin Nyunt, Secretary One of the State Peace and Development Council (SPDC) and head of the dreaded military intelligence. Sai Lin, a.k.a. Sai Leun—whose real name, Lin Mingxian, indicates his Shan-Chinese descent—is an ex-Red Guardist who came down from neighboring Yunnan in the late-1960s to strengthen the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). He became a field commander in CPB zone 815, or present-day Mong La. When the Party disintegrated after the Wa rank-and-file revolted against its leadership in 1989, Lin headed one of the largest breakaway factions, the National Democratic Alliance Army. He was one of the several ex-CPB commanders to sign a ceasefire with the government in Rangoon. To placate Lin and guarantee he would not take up arms again, Burmese authorities granted him generous terms. Mong La became an autonomous zone and his well-equipped private army of several thousand men retained its arms. Additionally, he was given several business concessions—the tacit permission for the opium trade being the most lucrative. As the billboard commemorates, it was Khin Nyunt himself who flew in to seal the pact with a shady handshake. Soon new refineries in his area went into operation. By the early-1990s Lin headed one of the most powerful drug syndicates in northern Burma with an output of one to two thousand kilograms of pure heroin annually. For years he was high on the hitlist of the US State Department. Meanwhile, Mong La boomed. Casinos, nightclubs and hotels were built with opium revenues and investments from Chinese business partners. After mounting international criticism and pressure from China—where drug addiction and HIV/AIDS in Yunnan had increased at an alarming rate—a UN-sponsored drug eradication program started. Lin was promoted as a respected figure who sat at state ceremonies and featured as "a leader of national races". Mong La was declared an "opium-free zone" in 1997. Poppy fields are no longer to be seen along the road to Mong La or in the vicinity of town. They may be gone from the area, but many foreign drug experts believe that Lin is still involved in the trade, especially in the amphetamine business closer to the Thai border. The man who generated a fortune from this all rarely appears in public. The 53-year-old leader reportedly suffered a stroke over a year ago and spends most of his time inside a modern bungalow on a hill overlooking the border with China. Two young soldiers guard the entrance.

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