TIME Burma

Burma’s ‘Wild East’ Is a Debauched Land of Drugs and Vice That Reforms Forgot

Burmese gamblers crowd around a dice table in Mong La, Burma
Burmese gamblers crowd around a dice table in Mong La, Burma Steve Finch

Mong La by Burma's border with China is the ultimate oasis of sin

Mong La’s degeneracy became all too apparent straight after check-in. On the hotel carpet, in the doorway of Room 286, lay a calling card advertising prostitutes as young as 16. The flat-screen TV shows round-the-clock porn — mostly Japanese housewives punctuated by bronzed American couples — and a sign by the bed lists hotlines serving up yet more sex with teenagers.

“We’ve got girls aged 15,” said the Yunnanese madam who runs the massage parlor cum brothel adjoining the Ba Lai Hotel. “They’re asleep upstairs. Do you want one?”

Carved into a jungle valley on northeastern Shan state’s border with China, Mong La is the biggest town in tiny Special Region 4, a land that Burmese reforms forgot. While much of the former pariah state has witnessed greater freedoms since the election of a quasi-civilian government in 2010, the rebels that run this autonomous fiefdom — slightly smaller than Delaware — have instead pursued freewheeling economic policies based around garish Chinese casinos. After authorities across the border in Yunnan province began to restrict access following stories of gambling excess, rising numbers of Chinese began entering illegally to head to the casinos, to party and to do business.

“Most cross early in the morning or late at night,” said a Burmese motorbike-taxi driver looking at a gaping hole in the mesh border fence. “But it’s easy to enter at any time. Everyone does it.”

(MORE: Burma’s Opium Production Has Hit Record Levels Because Farmers Have No Choice)

With the influx of Chinese, fortunes have flourished. Mong La’s potholed roads boast a sprinkling of Range Rovers and Mercedes — rarities elsewhere in the impoverished Southeast Asian nation — and there’s a construction boom of hastily built hotels and apartments.

Mong La runs on Beijing time, 90 minutes ahead of Burma proper — the country is now officially called Myanmar. Every word spoken is in Mandarin, and everything paid for in Chinese renminbi. In Kengtung, the nearest major government-controlled town 75 miles (120 km) away, a woman told me she was eagerly heading to Mong La to open a hair salon with hopes of cashing in on the boom.

But easy money has come at a price. As Chinese have taken over Mong La, forcing Burmese to the outskirts, the downtown area has turned into an oasis of vice. Locals, including teenagers, gamble up to 50 yuan ($8.15) on dice at one casino. At others frequented by Chinese, stakes reach a hundred times that.

Meanwhile, the easy passage of visitors across this porous border has created smuggling routes for drugs, human traffickers and endangered animals. On Mong La’s main dining strip, a Sichuanese restaurant features a tank filled with a rotting tiger carcass on a bed of ginseng, its head emerging from a pond of baijiu, or Chinese liquor. “It will make you virile,” urges a giggling Chinese waiter.

(MORE: Can Burma Avoid the Curse of Sex Tourism?)

A shop across the street was selling dead, curled-up pangolins (a type of scaly anteater) in baijiu, a tiger skin, ornaments made of ivory and bear-bile powder from nearby Laos. Much of the exotic wildlife comes from Burma, the rest is brought in illegally from Africa, India and China as smugglers have sought the comfort of lawless Mong La, said Chris Shepherd, Southeast Asia director of the wildlife-protection agency TRAFFIC.

“In terms of animal parts being sold for trophies, meat and medicine, it’s pretty much the biggest market in Southeast Asia right now,” he said following a January visit to the area. “Something has got to be done.”

Special Region 4 has its own police force, but the rules — if any — are unclear. Central Burmese government has no jurisdiction here, and China’s efforts to rein in Mong La remain half-hearted, said Shepherd, even though his team has alerted authorities.

Ruled by the enigmatic 66-year-old warlord Sai Linn, Special Region 4 has proved adept at playing off much bigger powers. And with no oversight, it is difficult to know exactly what is happening here. The U.N. has limited access, the only newspaper folded more than a decade ago, and there is no immediate prospect of democratic reforms seen in the rest of Burma. Like China, Special Region 4 has an unelected leader and a standing committee, which is headed by the leader’s son, Thein Linn. “Elections haven’t been discussed so far,” Special Region 4 Agriculture Secretary Aik Daw Mwe tells TIME in a rare interview.

(MORE: The Scramble for Burma)

Following the end of fighting with the Burmese military in 1989, the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA) that runs the area set about appeasing China by cracking down on morphine and heroin commonly trafficked into Yunnan, declaring itself “opium-free” in 1997. Since then, mass seizures of amphetamines in China and nearby Thailand have led to widespread suspicions the NDAA and the much bigger Wa area next door are concocting crystal meth in jungle labs.

“We don’t have any production of opium or other drugs in this area,” says Aik Daw Mwe. He and external-affairs officer Sai Mouk claim their administration has enacted strict drug policies including forced rehabilitation programs lasting six months and urine testing on every one of the region’s 89,000 residents.

If true, such a scheme would be remarkable. “I have not heard of any place in the world where they have tested the entire population,” says Tom Kramer, a Rangoon-based researcher for the Transnational Institute’s drugs-and-democracy program in Burma. Moreover, such a program would violate international human-rights standards, he adds. Then again, judging by what’s on offer at the Ba Lai Hotel, Mong La was never going to shine on that score.

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