Burma’s Sin City Retains It’s ‘Special’ Features

By Seamus Martov 18 January 2014

MONG LA — This de facto capital of the National Democratic Alliance Army’s (NDAA) autonomous fiefdom in the far northeastern corner of Shan State has experienced quite a few ups and downs since 1989, when the group’s current leadership, who at the time were disgruntled mid level officers in the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), turned their backs on revolution and signed a ceasefire with Burma’s military junta.

Following the complete collapse of Burma’s strongest armed rebel group, what was once a small village in the northeast corner of CPB Zone 815 was quickly transformed into a mini Las Vegas, complete with casinos, hotels and a golf course, drawing thousands of Chinese punters from across the border on a daily basis. At its peak in the early 2000s, Mong La was infamous for its lady boy cabaret shows, Russian prostitutes and a human zoo that featured local women “bathing” semi-clothed beside a fake stream—just some of the exciting attractions that drew in the hordes from neighboring Yunnan Province.

The NDAA’s cash cow nearly came to end in 2003 after Chinese authorities took the unprecedented step of crossing into Mong La and raiding the casino. A scandal involving the daughter of a senior Chinese Communist Party official blowing more than $160,000 of government funds in Mong La casinos was reportedly the final straw for Chinese authorities, angered that millions in stolen public funds were being pocketed by the casino operators.  The Chinese intervention made Mong La a ghost town almost overnight, drastically reducing the number of visitors for a few years.

The NDAA’s response was to the move the casinos further inside their territory to Wan Hsieo, some 16 miles south of Mong La, where several casinos continue to operate.  Some of the casinos at Wan Hsieo are also equipped with high-speed internet connections and video cameras so chronic gamblers can place bets from the comfort of their homes in China. It is a lucrative innovation that is interrupted from time to time by Chinese authorities’ repeated attempts to block wireless internet signals.

Today, more than 10 years after the Chinese crackdown, the casino business appears, on the surface at least, to be raking in huge sums of money for NDAA and their Chinese friends, though reliable figures and statistics are difficult, if not impossible, to come by. On a recent trip to Mong La, this correspondent found nearly every one of the town’s dozen or so hotels fully booked.  The hotel room shortage will soon be solved, I was informed.  There are currently two large hotels under construction—one opposite Mong La’s standing Buddha—the larger of which, according to locals, will have hundreds of rooms.

Chinese visitors appear very much at home in Mong La, the town operates on Beijing Standard Time, 90 minutes ahead of Burma. The currency of choice is the yuan, with many stores and hotels flat-out refusing Burmese kyat. Burmese language speakers are clearly a minority in Mong La.

In addition to speaking their own dialects, most of the NDAA area’s indigenous Shan and Akha inhabitants speak Chinese, the lingua franca for Mong La and the neighboring special region controlled by the United Wa State Army (UWSA).

Gambling isn’t the only draw for Chinese tourists coming to the NDAA’s 4,950-square-kilometer zone of control, officially known as Shan State Special Region No. 4. Mong La’s also has a thriving sex trade involving hundreds of imported Chinese prostitutes. Sex workers from across Burma’s ethnic groups can also be found working in the town’s Karaoke bars and massage parlors, though their numbers are said to be dwarfed by their Chinese colleagues.

Undercover researchers from TRAFFIC and Oxford Brookes University found thousands of ivory pieces openly for sale in Mong La. (Photo: Vincent Nijman)
Undercover researchers from TRAFFIC and Oxford Brookes University found thousands of ivory pieces openly for sale in Mong La. (Photo: Vincent Nijman)

Tacky-looking Chinese-language flyers advertising prostitutes’ rates and services can be found everywhere, inserted under hotel room doors at regular intervals. But some things have changed—the Russian girls and the bathing zoo are a thing of the past, explains a Burmese repeat visitor well immersed in the town’s underbelly.

“If you want a girl, don’t get one from the street. They have disease,” he warns, urging instead that one should go to a brothel, where many of the women walking the streets were previously employed until they failed blood tests conducted by management.

In Mong La’s bustling market, conveniently located next to the red light district, animal parts of various Burmese endangered species, including tiger and leopard skins, are sold openly on the street and in Chinese-operated stores. For those interested in buying bear bile, tiger bone wine and seemingly any other aphrodisiacs made from near extinct animals, Mong La has it all.

This week, the international conservation alliance TRAFFIC announced that an undercover team of its researchers recently found more than 3,300 pieces of ivory and nearly 50 raw ivory elephant tusks for sale in Mong La. The investigators, who partnered with researchers from Britain’s Oxford Brookes University, were following up on the group’s previous research begun in 2006 monitoring Mong La’s ivory trade, which according to TRAFFIC is bigger now than it has ever been.

“Our observations suggest Mong La may be one of the biggest unregulated ivory markets in Asia, and it is doubtless one of those where ivory is most openly displayed,” explains the university’s Professor Vincent Nijman in the TRAFFIC press release. While some of the ivory likely comes from Burma and elsewhere in Asia, it appears that most of it originates from further afield. “My educated guess is that at least part of it, and perhaps even the majority comes from Africa,” Vincent told The Irrawaddy.

Chris R. Shepherd, TRAFFIC’s director for Southeast Asia was also quoted in the press release calling on Naypyidaw to do something about Mong La’s ivory trade, “as the market is situated in Myanmar, it is the responsibility of Myanmar’s authorities to take swift action and close down this illicit trade.” This seems to be a tall order, even if the Burmese authorities were serious about shutting down Mong La’s thriving trade in endangered species, it’s unclear how they could do this. The central government has little if any control over Mong La and no presence along the NDAA region’s lengthy border with China, from where TRAFFIC research indicates much of the ivory is smuggled.

Mong La’s Special Ruler

The head of the NDAA is the 60-something-year-old Lin Mingxian (also known as Sai Lin or Sai Leun), a Sino-Shan CPB veteran and one-time member of China’s Red Guards. Lin commands a militia estimated by Jane’s Intelligence Review as consisting of 5,000 troops, largely ethnic Shan and Akha.

In the 1990’s, Lin was regularly described in the US State Department’s annual International Narcotics Control Strategy Reports, as being heavily involved in the drug trade. With great fanfare in 1997 he declared his territory opium free. Although many observers were skeptical of this declaration, three years later, the State Department described Lin as having “successfully rid his area of opium cultivation.”

Despite the fact he was no longer appearing in the annual narcotics reports, internal US diplomatic cables continued to describe Lin as a “drug trafficker” who oversaw what one embassy official referred to in 2005 as “James Bondian private police force.”

Lin, who during his old ally Khin Nyunt’s heyday hosted a series of visits from the US politicians including congressmen Charles Rangel and Tom Campbell, and former House of Representatives Speaker Dennis Hastert, is rarely seen in public these days, reportedly for health reasons. He may also have other reasons for keeping a low profile. In January 2010, his colleague NDAA General Secretary Min Ein (a.k.a. Lin Hongshen) was gunned down in broad daylight in Mong La, a killing that remains unexplained.

Lin’s father in law, Pheung Kya-shin, the deposed chief of the Kokang-based Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), another faction that came out of the CPB’s self implosion, has been on the run since 2009, when his area was invaded by the Burma Army. Whether the same fate will happen to Lin and the NDAA remains to be seen, but Lin’s other former comrades in the United Wa State Army (UWSA)—currently Burma’s largest armed group—are said to be shoring up the NDAA’s forces to prevent this from happening.

“My understanding is that there’s still a close alliance between the UWSA and the NDAA, with Wa troops stationed at various places inside the NDAA’s territory,” said veteran journalist Bertil Lintner, co-author of a book on the UWSA.

The UWSA’s support for the NDAA is almost certainly more than a simple case of solidarity for old comrades. In addition to acting as a buffer between the Burmese military and the UWSA, the NDAA’s special region occupies what Jane’s calls a “strategically important belt of territory that provides the Wa Special Region 2 with overland access to the Mekong River communications and trade artery.”

Like the UWSA, the NDAA successfully resisted the government’s push in 2010 to transform itself into a Border Guard Force (BGF), this despite significant pressure from Naypyidaw to do so. A report by the International Crisis Group (ICG), citing Mong La business leaders connected to the NDAA, claimed that in the run up to the government’s deadline for armed groups to form a BGF, UWSA had “pressed” the NDAA “to refrain from negotiating or compromising with the military government on the BGF proposal.” According to the ICG’s sources, the “UWSA told NDAA that if they were to surrender to [the Burmese government], they may as well just surrender to UWSA.”

In October 2011, when the NDAA formally renewed its ceasefire agreement with Burma’s central government, it did so one day after the UWSA reached a similar agreement. Under the agreement the NDAA agreed not to “secede from the State at all and to devote all the capacities of Special Region (4) to perpetuation of the sovereignty of the State.”

More than two years on, there remains scant evidence that the central government’s has much, if any, sovereignty over Lin’s “Special” kingdom. The status quo appears to suit Mong La’s casino operators, brothel owners and ivory sellers just fine.