Yet the initial ceasefire agreements did not lead to a peace treaty or any integration of the region. Far from it, the groups demanded, and received, conditions that granted a great deal of autonomy, including the retention of their military capacity. It’s estimated that today the UWSA alone has command of over 30,000 men.
This limbo between war and peace continued for the next two decades, and, in its own way, the region thrived: The respective rulers remained close to one another and governed their fiefdoms unmolested. So while their counterparts in the Burmese Military ran a repressive crony operation with underhand business dealings, the heads of the border regions followed their own injurious path and raised revenue through drugs and shady business deals with their partners in Yunnan.
This town was seemingly filled with drugs, gambling, and prostitution
Over the past year Mong La has found itself the subject of renewed interest, its notoriety growing with each new sensational “exposé.” Recent coverage from the BBC, TIME and the New York Times paint a shallow but vivid picture of a “City of Sin,” a “Burmese Las Vegas,” a debauched “Wild East” outside the control of Burma’s central government. The region, and this town in particular, was seemingly filled with drugs, gambling, and prostitution. I had to see it for myself.
After taking off from Yangon, I survey the changing terrain below from the window of a slim and rather splendid ATR72 propeller plane. We fly north, roughly following the flat basin of the Irrawaddy River before veering east after Mandalay, the landscape slowly transforming into a canvas of green, undulating hills. Along a small plateau, I spot my last stop, Kyaing Teung, situated in the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle, and just 52 miles southwest of Mong La.
Kyaing Teung is a rather beautiful town where gentle hills are dotted with golden pagodas and several bodies of water, including the picturesque Naung Tong Lake. It’s a fairly popular tourist destination and is also, incidentally, home to liaison offices for both Mong La and the Wa.
Ethnic armed groups continue to exploit the geography
While relations remain cordial, a special permit is still needed to pass the numerous military checkpoints between the Kyaing Teung and Mong La. Thankfully, decades of uninterrupted peace between the NDAA-ESS and Burma proper have made acquiring that permit simple. No bribes are paid and no suspicious officials provoke or prevaricate.
Soon after I find myself in a breathtaking drive through the Shan hills—breathtaking in part because of the untouched green vistas, and in part because of the blind hairpin corners that we round with gusto. The severity of the land makes it clear why Shan was never truly under the control of the British colonizers when they claimed dominion over Burma.
The region has long been ruled through a number of separate principalities, each under their respective Sawbwas, or Lords of the Sky. These old rulers were once the only way the British, and the Burmese after them, contrived to enforce any influence over the domineering lands of Shan. A single group hoping to control the entire region would struggle with the harsh terrain, and today, in their own way, the ethnic armed groups continue to exploit the geography.
The location of these groups—immediately along the border with China—has provided them with a degree of covert, and not so covert, trade and support that has proven invaluable to their development and survival. Paul Keenan, a senior researcher on the region for the Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies, told me that he couldn’t imagine with whom else these groups were doing business, other than with the Chinese in Yunnan.
Beijing has invested billions of dollars in energy and development projects throughout Burma
Yet recent history has seen big changes that hint to a potential geopolitical shift. Burma’s military government, for several decades ruled under a self-imposed isolationist policy drearily titled “The Burmese Way to Socialism,” has opened up in the last five years and made rapid steps towards reform and liberalisation. As a result, Western sanctions have been dropped and Burma now promises a future of increased capability.
Meanwhile, Beijing has invested billions of dollars in energy, extractive and development projects throughout Burma, including $2.54 billion oil and natural gas pipelines that run from the Bay of Bengal through to Yunnan, its conduits flirting with the boundaries of Kokang, where recent fighting has raised apprehensive eyebrows on both sides of the border.