Sex and drugs in the Shan state
January 29: Mongla: With its hill-tribe villages and opium warlords, the Shan state of northern Myanmar is among the least developed regions of Asia. But as you approach the Chinese border, the landscape is suddenly transformed. Like a hallucination, a garish town of concrete, neon, casinos and night-clubs appears. “Welcome to Mongla Special Region No. 4″, a billboard proclaims.
Remote and once dirt-poor Mongla has been reborn as a tourist destination, a process that started in 1989, when Myanmar’s army reached a ceasefire and autonomy deal with the Shan. The local warlord, a Shan Chinese named Sai Leun (also known as Lin Mingxian), built Mongla with an unorthodox mixture of opium profits and technical aid from China’s neighbouring province of Yunnan.
Around 350,000 Chinese tourists visit every year to gamble, frequent the massage parlours, and perhaps take in a Thai transvestite show. Lin Mingxian, as he was born, has clearly come a long way from his days as a Red Guard during the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s. Mongla’s authorities earned $9.6m from tourism in 2002-and it is entirely possible that they concealed some of their income.
But is it still Myanmar? Apart from the fluttering of Myanmar’s flag by the side of government buildings, there is little to suggest any connection with the rest of the country. Myanmar’s kyat are scorned; only Chinese yuan are acceptable. The street signs, the language, and most government employees are Chinese, though many are ethnic Chinese born in Shan state, as well as Yunnanese immigrants.
Opium poppies used to flourish openly in the hills around Mongla, but in 1997 Sai Leun declared his fief an “opium-free zone”. Chinese advisers were brought in to develop alternative crops, and Sai Leun promoted his new image as an anti-drugs campaigner-he is chairman of the Mongla Action Committee on Narcotics-by opening an opium museum to educate people about the evils of drugs. It strangely neglects to mention that until 2000, the name Lin Mingxian featured prominently on America’s most-wanted list for major heroin traffickers.
Mongla’s carefree existence may be threatened. For one thing, China is disappointed that despite some efforts at crop substitution in Mongla, there has been no real impact on the flow of heroin into China, and the growing tide of addiction in Yunnan.
And in October last year General Khin Nyunt, who as Myanmar’s prime minister and intelligence chief, brokered the 1989 ceasefire deal, and was close to Sai Leun and other figures in the Golden Triangle drug trade, was ousted from the troika that runs Myanmar. The Shan, as well as other ethnic minorities, like the Wa and the Kachin, who reached similar deals with Khin Nyunt, fear that Myanmar’s re-ordered junta may now renege on the agreements. Thousands of Wa soldiers are said to be mobilising for a possible fight. Caught between the junta, Chinese drug warlords, and the new casino capitalists, there seems little hope of development for the ordinary people of Shan state.