22 October 2019
Government propaganda in Yunnan province says police are fighting hard against drug smugglers. Photo: Brendon Hong
Government propaganda in Yunnan province says police are fighting hard against drug smugglers. Photo: Brendon Hong

Looking beyond Suu Kyi’s victory: war, drugs, racial conflicts

Aung San Suu Kyi’s National League of Democracy (NLD) is Burma’s current flavor, and the ballots cast by the Burmese voters—at least those eligible to participate in the electoral process—has put many members of her political party into parliament.

As the victory celebrations die down in what some call a new Burma, other issues plague the nation. Here is one.

In March, I spent some time in Shan (撣邦), the eastern state of Burma that borders Yunnan province.

My assignment was to cross the border by biking over mountains until I reached a vice town called Mong La (勐拉) which was built by shady Chinese businessmen, talk to a few individuals who traded illegal wildlife, and spend some time in the casinos whose proprietors are banned from returning to China. To the north, war was underway.

Like most armed conflicts, it was layered with shaky allegiances and betrayals. A drug lord named Pheung Kya-shin (also known as Peng Jiasheng or 彭家聲), who previously was the recognized ruler of a section of Shan, experienced a split in his Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA).

A hunted man by up-and-comers who formerly served under him, Peng allegedly fled to Yunnan, where Chinese allies provided shelter.

In the Drug Elimination Museum of Mong La, I saw an old photograph of Peng shaking hands with Burmese generals. The place is a showpiece. There are no visitors. The staff, absent, had not bothered to take down the photograph.

This year, Peng’s faction rallied its forces and tried to retake the territory.

MNDAA’s in-fighting drew the Myanmar Armed Forces into the conflict.

Fueled by yaba—a cheap derivative form of methamphetamine—and cooled down by heroin, troops did battle in the streets of Kokang (果敢) and the hills of Shan. Some of the soldiers were children.

At night, hilltops were set aflame and an orange glow lit up the sky for eight hours.

By morning, spent bullets littered the streets of Chinese border towns. The Burmese Air Force, on orders from Naypyidaw, dropped bombs. Some landed across the border, a brief drive from where I was at the time.

Peasants who lived in Yunnan died in the blasts and were written off as collateral damage.

The events saw limited coverage within mainland China.

Refugees from Shan fled to Yunnan. Many lacked proper identification documents.

Chinese border police set up checkpoints every few kilometers to stop all traffic. Security checks were as you would expect—slow, thorough, often rude. Young men were sometimes asked point-blank: “Are you a drug mule?”

Those fleeing the conflict expected this. If the price of safety was mere suspicion of carrying opium, meth or heroin, they were willing to deal with the barrage of repetitive questions and full body searches.

Most families left one man behind in Kokang to guard their homesteads, and to provide regular updates about the conflict through WeChat. Even war requires a social media presence.

One young woman, a hairdresser from Kokang, fled to Nansan, where the Chinese Red Cross had set up refugee camps for the influx.

I asked her how she identified herself. “First Kokang,” she said, “then Han, then Burma.”

The political tickings in Naypyidaw, Yangon or Mandalay weren’t hers. Local warlords and kingpins called the shots where she lived.

To her, Burma—or Myanmar, or whatever the people in power called it—wasn’t one nation.

What are the implications of the NLD taking parliament majority in Burma?

The tea leaves haven’t settled, but there are obvious hurdles in place, should they commit to reform.

Major business holdings, like Burma’s famed jade mines, remain in the control of army generals, or individuals affiliated with them. Some ethnic minorities, like the Kachin in the north, want independence.

The Rohingya in Rakhine (若開邦) face discrimination and attacks by Buddhist mobs. A spokesman of Aung San Suu Kyi’s political party has said the plight of the Rohingya is a backburner issue.

New Burma is only free and fair if you ignore racial conflict and the economic entrenchment of certain individuals.

An NLD win may be the result of democratic reform, but it amounts to a moment of euphoria and that doesn’t necessarily mean things will be getting better any time soon.

As for those from Kokang who were displaced by war, they’re back home, at least for now.

But they’re still ready to run when the next shot is fired, whenever that may be.

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Another propaganda mural pays tribute to Chinese police for protecting villagers. Photo: Brendon Hong

Mong La is a city in Myanmar near the border of China’s Yunnan province. Photo: Google Maps

A refugee wanders out of the Red Cross camp to do a bit of shopping. Photo: Brendon Hong

Casinos have sprouted in Mong La for mainland Chinese gamblers. Photo:

EJ Insight contributor