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In jungles of Myanmar, sin city looks to a better future

Upon cruising on its wide, well-paved streets, the first question that enters a visitor’s mind is whether the city is still part of Myanmar.

Past the lush green mountains where the concrete roads snake through the hinterlands, past what seems like never-ending rice fields, lies the concrete jungle of Mine Lar city, popularly known as Mong La.

The city in eastern Shan State bustles with tourists, mostly Chinese from Yunnan province, which borders Mine Lar. The metropolis of a few thousand people can easily compete with the economic capital of Yangon in terms of modern buildings and other amenities.

Along city streets where vendors sell different wares and one finds workers of all stripes and colours, there are also tables where people play mahjong.

There are construction sites everywhere, and casinos and gambling houses as well – the lifeline of Mine Lar’s economy.

Mention Mine Lar to a local or a tourist and one will either get a frown or a knowing wink.

It is the sin city of Myanmar, the “Las Vegas” of the country, where gambling, sex and drugs and illegal wildlife trade abound.

A kingdom unto itself

The city and its surrounding areas are collectively called Special Region No. 4. It is not in any way under the control of the Myanmar government – not the police, not the Tatmadaw (military), and not the civil service.

It is governed by the National Democratic Alliance (NDAA), one of the three armed ethnic groups in eastern Shan State that helped the government defeat the communists in 1989.

A grand billboard inscribed with “Following the leadership of Peace and Unity Committee, let us strive for the good of the people by supporting regional administration” is posted in Myanmar and Chinese near the entrance to the city – a reminder to visitors that they are entering a different territory.

“Our mechanism is complete,” committee member U Kham Maung said proudly. He said the NDAA has its own military, police, security force and its own system of government with full autonomy from the Myanmar government.

U Kham Maung proudly said that the city and the other areas in the special region were developed under the leadership of NDAA chair U Sai Lin.

Every city street is equipped with a CCTV camera, and security forces patrol the city throughout the night.

Despite the place teeming with casinos, gambling houses, bars, massage parlours, gaming shops and other establishments, peace reigns in Mine Lar: one follows the law, no matter how soused one is.

The city poppies built

When the 4950-square-kilometre Special Region No. 4 was established in 1989 after the putsch that toppled the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) and the subsequent ceasefire with the military, Mine Lar comprised about three villages with about 500 people in 80 households.

“Mong La was a small village with thatched houses,” U Kham Maung recalled.

But the then military government gave U Sai Lin, a former field commander of the CPB, business privileges, including in the opium poppy trade – implicitly, of course.

By the early 1990s, U Sai Lin was one of the most powerful drug lords in the so-called Golden Triangle and was on the most-wanted list of the US State Department’s International Narcotics Control Strategy Report.

The poppy trade turned Mine Lar into a bustling drug hub, which jump-started its transformation into a business centre.

But in 1992, U San Lin started cooperating with the UN, and a drug control programme in Mine Lar began. By 1997, local and foreign drug enforcement authorities announced Mine Lar and the NDAA’s territory as poppy-free.

“There has not been any trace of poppies since. We can check the whole region via satellite,” U Kham Maung said.

The birth of sin city

Foreign assistance flowed in to get Mine Lar back on its feet without the poppy trade, and the basic infrastructure of the area – such as roads, bridges – was built. Soon it became a watering hole for weary border traders and other businesses, such as gambling houses, prostitution and illegal wildlife trade.

U Kham Maung admitted Mine Lar’s economy relies on entertainment and tourism revenue. There are more than 100 hotels in the city, and more are under construction.

“Most investors are from China. Some rich locals are also among them,” he said.

Local authorities in Mine Lar conceded that most tourists come to the city to play in the casinos, which are about 13 kilometres from the city. But these tourists book accommodations with hotels in the city.

With the casinos comes the sex trade. Provocatively dressed women give out business cards and phone numbers, competing with the glitter of neon lights. Aside from Myanmar women, those from Russia and China, and recently from Vietnam, engage in the oldest profession in Mine Lar.

Looking beyond the fleshpots

While the entertainment industry remains the pillar of Mine Lar city and Special Region No. 4, the NDAA government has started boosting its agricultural sector to ensure food security.

“There were orders to develop our region after the ceasefire. We haven’t broken the promise,” U Kham Maung said.

He said roads and bridges in distant areas are being constantly upgraded, adding that the autonomous government has spent about 10 billion yuan (K2.23 trillion) on infrastructure projects.

The government has also constructed four medium-sized hydropower plants to ensure a steady power supply for the city and the region’s estimated 60,000 people.

“There was no such thing as hydropower before. That’s why we built hydropower projects. We have electricity as well as good road transportation now,” U Kham Maung said.

NDAA leaders said they are also focusing on education and social projects to help improve people’s lives.

There’s no doubt China plays a vital role in Mine Lar and the region – the currency of trade is the Chinese yuan not Myanmar’s kyat, and the lingua franca is Chinese not Myanmar. But NDAA leaders are determined to carve out the ethnic group’s own distinct identity.

“As the area is linked (with China), there may be some reliance on China but not in all sectors,” U Kham Maung said. “We rely on China for many things, but our economy still mainly depends on the Mong La people.”

Mine Lar and the region have come a long-way from a small group of villages 30 years ago, but there is no doubt that the place and its people continue to evolve, hoping that one day it will outgrow its reliance on the entertainment industry and become a major engine of growth for that part of the country.

“We will develop our industries one day,” U Kham Maung said. “We hope to do our bit for the progress of our country.”

Source: Myanmar Times

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