MONG LA, Special Region 4 — Economic growth? Yes. A model for development? That depends on who you ask. President Thein Sein last week described Mong La as an example of the economic dividend that can come from ending armed conflict, saying the Sino-Burmese border town owes its development to the 25-year peace it has enjoyed since rebels here signed a ceasefire with the government.
And while there is little doubt that business is booming, the economy of “Burma’s Sin City” is a curious thing to put on a presidential pedestal.
All manner of illegal trade, from prostitution and gambling to narcotics, arms and wildlife trafficking, have long flourished in the rebel-run town, which is part of a wider swathe of territory known as Special Region 4. Locals say the public infrastructure that has grown up around the once sleepy border village has been funded by vice-based tax revenues.
Mong La is administered by the National Democracy Alliance Army (NDAA), a 2,000-men-strong armed group that is a remnant of the now-defunct Communist Party of Burma. The NDAA signed a ceasefire with Burma’s central government in 1989.
Its leader, whose Chinese name is Lin Mingxian, also goes by Sai Lin or Sai Leun. For a quarter century, the ethnic Sino-Shan leader has helped nurture the often unsavory ties between Mong La and its neighbor to the north.
The Chinese character of Mong La is irrefutable, as is the dominance of Chinese moneyed
interests. Business is transacted in the Chinese currency, the yuan. If you carry a functioning cellphone in Mong La, it’s because you possess a Chinese SIM card using a Chinese telecommunications network. Mandarin Chinese is overwhelmingly the language used on the streets, and electricity too is supplied from China, with power lines strung across the border to fuel Mong La’s debauched border economy.
Much of that economy is based on the steady stream of Chinese nationals that pour across the border daily to take advantage of the vice on offer.
The Burmese government has made a token attempt to limit the Chinese influence, rather ineffectively ordering that inhabitants of the region speak Burmese. Chinese characters are used for most of the signage around town.
Access to Special Region 4 has long been a matter of course for the Chinese, but only relatively recently has it become an easily visited destination from inside Burma. Prior to the installation of Thein Sein’s nominally civilian government in 2011, Burmese and foreigners alike needed to obtain permission letters from Burma’s government.
Today, just two-and-a-half hours by car from Shan State’s Kentung Township, visitors can freely walk the streets, visit its open-air markets (teeming with illegal wildlife parts), and try their luck at any of Mong La’s dozens of casinos. Operators of the latter, however, are quick to make clear that photography is not permitted on the premises.
Although Mong La is a far more welcoming place than it was four years ago, the NDAA does not appear to have extended this mindset to its media relations. Sai Sam, an officer from the rebel group’s liaison office in Kengtung Township, refused to meet with The Irrawaddy last week.
“You can travel there [Mong La], there is no problem. But our leaders are not available to give interviews,” Sai Sam said in a one-minute telephone interview that would prove to be the extent of the government’s press availability.
When asked whether The Irrawaddy might visit the NDAA liaison office in Mong La, Sai Sam said that the officers there did not speak Burmese well, and that there was thus “no need” to visit. Like the town’s casino operators, NDAA soldiers also refused to have their photo taken.
Panning across the cityscape, multiple construction projects attest to the economic growth that the town is experiencing. The price of land has risen accordingly, fueled by Chinese investment.
While much of the development has been the product of wealthy Chinese businessmen, Chinese nationals are also filling out the ranks of the town’s employment sector, on average earning about 200 yuan (US$32) per day.
A wage like that, while higher than what most Burmese can earn, is not enough to become a homeowner in Mong La, according to Nang Moe Khan. The ethnic Shan woman estimated the cost of a plot of land and house at 200 million kyats ($206,000). The steep price makes homeownership impossible for many, and an NDAA requirement that a family member must have served in the armed group’s ranks makes untold others ineligible to by a house.
Some Chinese businesses operate under a kind of “build-operate-transfer” arrangement with the Mong La government—a common contract sees hotels constructed and operated by Chinese businesses for 30 years before they hand over ownership to the Mong La government.
The length of these agreements would seem to indicate that Chinese influence in the region will not be going away any time soon.
With all the money changing hands here, from the multimillion-dollar hotel projects to the 3 yuan ($0.50) bribes paid to the NDAA by Chinese seeking to cross the border illegally, there’s no doubt that Mong La offers one form of economic development. But is it really a peace dividend worthy of emulation?