© 2024 WOSU Public Media
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Mekong Flows Along Troubled Myanmar's East

A novice Buddhist monk stands in a doorway at a monastery in eastern Shan state. Nearly everyone in this military-ruled country is Buddhist.
Christopher Brown for NPR
A novice Buddhist monk stands in a doorway at a monastery in eastern Shan state. Nearly everyone in this military-ruled country is Buddhist.

The Mekong spends about 120 miles flirting with Myanmar on the river's journey south — mostly as a border between Myanmar and neighboring Laos. I saw almost all of it from the deck of a Chinese cargo boat laden with apples headed for Thailand.

I was hoping to get a chance to stop and talk to a few people on the Myanmar side, but it never happened. In fact, the one stop we did make in Myanmar — a customs check near Wan Pasak — had our captain a little worried.

Stay in this room, he said. Don't take any pictures. And don't let anybody see you.

A cargo ship heads upstream toward China on the Mekong River in Myanmar. The river flirts with Myanmar for about 120 miles, mostly along the border it shares with Laos.
Christopher Brown for NPR /
A cargo ship heads upstream toward China on the Mekong River in Myanmar. The river flirts with Myanmar for about 120 miles, mostly along the border it shares with Laos.

A discreet look out the window revealed why: Myanmar government soldiers standing nearby and a long line of trucks piled high with huge logs waiting to be loaded onto boats like ours — the hardwood's origin and destination a mystery.

A Way In

It was clear the river was a bust in terms of talking to people. So I tried another route once we made port in Thailand: walking back across the border into Myanmar like any other tourist and then driving high into the mountains of Shan state, not far from the old colonial British-era hill station of Loi Mwe, far from prying eyes.

In this part of Myanmar's Shan state, they're still old-school when it comes to who lives where. The ethnic Shan majority lives in the lowlands, where the soil is better. The ethnic Akha live high in the mountains, while the ethnic Lahu and Wa live somewhere in between.

In an Akha village halfway between the Mekong and the market town of Kengtung, the dogs are suspicious, but the people are friendly. The dozen or so houses are the same simple wooden structures the Akha have built for generations.

But many other things have changed, says local farmer Mawai, 39. For example, it wasn't too long ago when the birth of twins in his community was not something to celebrate, he says.


"Twenty or 30 years ago, many Akha were still animists, and in our community, if a mother gave birth to twins, it was considered bad luck," he says.

It signaled such bad luck that newborn twins would often be killed, he and others in the village say, by putting ashes in their mouths. If the families refused, they would be forced out of the village.

Change Comes To Hill Tribes

All of that has changed now, Mawai says. Many people have become Christians, and the government has forbidden people from killing children.

Other positive changes have come, as well. Mawai now has a tiny, Chinese-made hydro turbine in the stream just outside his two-room, dirt-floor home. The turbine produces enough electricity to power a TV and a single light bulb. He likes Chinese action movies and historical costume dramas.

Developments such as a new school, TV and better access to markets all have made life easier now than when he was young, Mawai says.

It's also easier to communicate with the outside world — though up in the mountains at least, my guide says, business with the outside world is still conducted with the century-old currency of the former colonial power: the Indian rupee, courtesy of the British government.

My guide, who goes by the name Freddy, explains that when the British arrived in the Kengtung area, they used rupee coins to buy opium from the local hill tribes.

"Nowadays, these people, they still believe this coin. They believe it because it's silver and they can keep them easy. If you buy animals from them, like cow or buffalo or the land, we have to buy with this coin. They don't want the Myanmar currency," Freddy says.

Resentments Run Deep

It's not just the government's currency that's unpopular here. Most people in the area also want nothing at all to do with Myanmar's repressive military-ruled government.

Down the mountain road, in an ethnic Wa village, I meet farmer Ai Lun Keng, who has good reason to be wary of Myanmar's military.

He says the military forced him to play pack mule, carrying weapons and ammunition for government soldiers in their fight against ethnic militias here in the late 1980s. A shaky ceasefire has held, on and off, for more than a decade. But forced labor and conscription are still common in other contested areas, as is the use of child soldiers.

In a nearby ethnic Lahu village, though, the children are still in the classroom — for now. The area near Kengtung is controlled by the government.

But ethnic warlords and their militias rule much of the area in eastern Shan state, along the Mekong and the border with China. The militias are often supported by proceeds from the drug trade — methamphetamines and opium smuggled into neighboring Thailand and beyond.

Outside Yangon's Reach

At sunset at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Mong La, on Myanmar's border with China, novice monks listen to music on their cell phones as they watch the sun disappear behind the mountains. Mong La is the capital of Special Region No. 4, one of the areas controlled by ethnic militias and not the central government.

It feels more relaxed than government-controlled areas, too — even the rap music on the cell phones sounds a little mellower.

The special region has its own army, its own license plates and, it seems, its own national car: the Toyota Crown Mark II. They're all over the place, and they're all white, or off-white.

The cars come up the Mekong from Thailand and Japan and are refurbished here. They sell for a fraction of what they would cost in government-controlled areas, where corrupt officials keep a stranglehold on imports. In Mong La, a 10-year-old Mark II costs about $6,000; down the road in Kengtung, the same vehicle would cost $60,000 — or more.

Mong La is a bizarre world, more like part of China than Myanmar. Electricity, Internet and cell phone service are all wired into the Chinese grid. Everything in the market is Chinese, too, including the prostitutes. Mong La's chief industry is catering to Chinese and Thai gamblers who come across the border by the busload for entertainment.

The local warlord is Sai Leun, a big-time businessman who is part Chinese, part Shan, and rumored to be a onetime Red Guard. He seems to do a better job at providing basic services such as roads and electricity than Myanmar's generals do in Yangon. He lives in a spacious mansion just outside town that looks more like a country club than a home — except for the men with automatic weapons and smart uniforms standing at attention at the front gate.

Aside from entertainment, the other major industry in Special Region No. 4 is farming. The task is made easier for one farmer, Sai Wee Kyaio, with the addition of a brand new rototiller, which, not surprisingly, is from China, too.

Instability A Threat To China

In the past decade or so, legal crops — mostly rubber and fruit — have replaced much of the opium that used to be grown in the area. And almost all of what's grown here goes across the river into China, says the 52-year-old ethnic Shan.

"Business is good. I get my seeds from China — for watermelon, for example — then I harvest the fruit and sell it back to China. I sell the rubber I grow here to China, too. If they keep buying the way they are now, we're going to be rich," he says.

But there's a caveat, and it involves the ceasefire agreement between the military and the various ethnic militias like the one in power here. Myanmar's military now wants the ceasefire groups to lay down their arms and accept central rule before a general election later this year, and it has threatened to use force against the militias if necessary.

The militias, meanwhile, have shown no sign of giving up or giving in, and some observers say they are readying themselves for war.

All of this worries neighboring China, which has helped arm and fund some of the militias, with an eye toward keeping Myanmar's central government weak. On the other hand, China is wary of the potential instability and flood of refugees that any open conflict between the government and the militias might bring.

We choose not to take sides. If the government troops come here, we feed them, and if the militia comes, we feed them, too. But then they leave, and we stay.

But there are some in Shan state who couldn't care less either way.

Staying Above The Fray

In the no-man's land between Special Region No. 4 and the government-controlled area lies the village of Wan Yent. It's so high in the mountains and so far from the main road that neither the military nor the ethnic militias come here much, which is just fine with former village chief Ai Seng. He cares little for either side, or for the job he left last year.

"Nobody wants to be village chief. It's too much work, so now we take turns. I've done it twice now, once for two years, the last for five. And I hope I never have to do it again," he says.

A visit to Wan Yent is a trip back in time. The men hunt with homemade muskets and make their own gunpowder. The villagers are ethnic Loi, originally from China. They live communally in four long wooden houses, each with an enormous teak beam running down the middle, with about 30 people — or seven families — to a house.

Ai Seng sits next to his fireplace and pours a visitor some tea. A mountain antelope shot the same morning roasts on a skewer. A reluctant politician, Ai Seng is an even more reluctant ally.

"We choose not to take sides," he says carefully. "If the government troops come here, we feed them, and if the militia comes, we feed them, too. But then they leave, and we stay," he says.

My guide — who is from the government-controlled area — hates the military, likes the ethnic militias, but seems to envy and admire the Loi living here.

They're good Buddhists, he says. When they have money, they don't gamble it away; they give it to the monastery. They have no electricity, no TVs, no cars, nothing fancy, he says. But they don't seem to care. He shakes his head, clearly puzzled.

Then we thank our host and head back down the hill, and back to the Mekong River.

Producer Tung Ngo contributed to this report.

Next: The Golden Triangle, where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet.

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Michael Sullivan is NPR's Senior Asia Correspondent. He moved to Hanoi to open NPR's Southeast Asia Bureau in 2003. Before that, he spent six years as NPR's South Asia correspondent based in but seldom seen in New Delhi.