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Mekong Flows Along Troubled Myanmar's East

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Mekong Flows Along Troubled Myanmar's East

Mekong Flows Along Troubled Myanmar's East

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Melissa Block.

Now the second part of our series on the countries and cultures along the Mekong, one of Asia's longest and most storied rivers.

Today, NPR's Southeast Asia correspondent Michael Sullivan takes us to Myanmar's eastern Shan State. It's an area, like the river itself, with an often troubled past and a place where reporters aren't welcome.

(Soundbite of a motorboat)

MICHAEL SULLIVAN: 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.

(Soundbite of conversation)

SULLIVAN: The boat's crew worked hard but played hard too. And I was hoping they'd allow me the chance to stop and talk with people on the Myanmar side, but it didn't happen. In fact, the one stop we did make in Myanmar - a customs check near Wat Pa Sak - had our captain a little worried.

Stay in this room, he told us. Don't take any pictures and don't let anybody see you. A quick look out the window revealed why: Myanmar government soldiers standing on the shore and a long line of trucks piled high with hardwood waiting to be loaded on the boats like ours; the timbers' origin and destination a mystery.

The river clearly a bust, I tried another route once we made port in Thailand, walking back across the border into Myanmar like any other tourist then driving high into the mountains of Shan State, far from prying eyes, not far from the old British hill station of Loi Mwe.

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

(Soundbite of barking dogs)

SULLIVAN: In this Akha village, the dogs are suspicious but the people friendly. The houses, the same simple wooden structures the Akha have built for generations.

The outside world has brought some change. Local farmer Mawai, for example, says he remembers a time not too long ago when the birth of twins in his community was not something to celebrate.

MAWAI (Farmer): (Through translator) 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.

SULLIVAN: Such bad luck that newborn twins would often be killed, he and others say, by putting ashes in their mouths. If their parents refused, they'd be driven from the village. All that's changed now, he says. Many Akha have now converted to Christianity; Myanmar's government has also forbidden people from killing newborns.

And there are other changes. Mawai now has a tiny Chinese-made hydro turbine in the stream just outside his dirt-floored home. It produces enough electricity to power a TV set and a single light bulb. He likes Chinese action movies, he says, and historical costume dramas too.

MAWAI: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: A new school, TV, better access to market - all have made life easier now, Mawai says, and easier to communicate with the outside world.

Though, up here at least, business with the outside world, says my guide Freddy, is still conducted with the century-old currency of the former colonial power.

FREDDY (Guide): When you look at the coin from 1906, 1904 or 1889, something like that, one rupee India. The British government, when they arrived to Kengtung area, they used these coins to buy the opium from the people. And nowadays, these people, they still believe this coin.

They believe it because it's silver and they can keep them very easy. If you buy the animal from them, like cow or buffalo or the lamb, we have to buy with this coin. They don't want the Myanmar currency.

SULLIVAN: It's not just the government's currency the people here don't like, most people here want nothing to do with Myanmar's repressive military regime at all.

(Soundbite of cowbells)

SULLIVAN: Down the road and down the mountain a bit, I followed the cows home to an ethnic Wa village and meet farmer Ai Lun Keng, who has good reason to be wary of Myanmar's military.

Mr. AI LUN KENG (Farmer): (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: He says he was forced to play pack mule by the military, carrying weapons and ammunition for government soldiers in their fight against ethnic militias here. 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, so is the use of child soldiers.

In this ethnic Lahu village though, the children are still in the classroom -for now. Near the market town of Kengtung, it's controlled by the government, but much of the area to the east, along the Mekong and the border with China, is ruled by ethnic warlords and their militias, militias often funded with proceeds from the drug trade: methamphetamines and opium smuggled into neighboring Thailand and beyond.

(Soundbite of music)

SULLIVAN: Sunset at the Shwedagon Pagoda in Mong La, on Myanmar's border with China, the novice monks listening to music from their cell phones as they watch the sun disappear behind the mountains. This is part of what's called Special Region Number 4, one of the areas controlled by the ethnic militias, not the government. It feels more relaxed than government-controlled areas, too, right down to the rap on the novice's phones.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man (Rapper): (Rapping) I need you and I miss you and I want you and I love you, girl. I want to hold you, I want to...

SULLIVAN: Special Region Number 4 really is special, a bizarre world with its own army and its own license plates. The de facto capital, Mong La, more China than Myanmar: the electricity, the Internet, the cell phones all wired into the Chinese grid.

(Soundbite of conversation)

SULLIVAN: Almost everything for sale in the market is Chinese, too, including the prostitutes, Mong La's chief industry catering to Chinese and Thai gamblers who come across the border by the busload for entertainment.

Unidentified Woman: I like you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

SULLIVAN: The local warlord here - part Chinese, part Shan - is a big-time businessman rumored to be a one-time Red Guard. And he seems to do a better job at providing basic services, roads and electricity, than Myanmar's generals do elsewhere in the country. He lives in a spacious mansion just outside town, one 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.

(Soundbite of a rototiller)

SULLIVAN: In Special Region Number 4, the other major industry besides entertainment is farming. And it's made easier for this farmer with the addition of a brand-new rototiller. And yes, it's from China too.

Much of the opium that used to be grown here has been replaced in the last decade or so with legal crops, rubber and fruit mostly. And almost all of what's grown here, says farmer Sai Wee Kyaio, goes across the border into China.

Mr. SAI WEE KYAIO (Farmer): (Through Translator) Business is good. I get my seeds from China, for watermelon, for example, then I harvest the fruit and I sell it back to China. I sell rubber I grow here to China too. If they keep buying the way they are now, we are going to be rich.

SULLIVAN: But there's a caveat, and it involves the ceasefire agreement between the military and the various ethnic militias. 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.

All 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 a potential instability and flood of refugees that any open conflict between the government and the militias might bring. But there are some here in Shan State who couldn't care less either way.

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

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. AI SENG (Former Village Chief): (Foreign language spoken)

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

Up here, the outside world, the modern world hasn't made much of a dent. The men still hunt with homemade muskets and make their own powder. Ethnic Loi, who trace their roots back to China, they live communally in four long wooden houses, about 30 people or seven families to a house.

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

Mr.´┐ŻAI SENG: (Foreign language spoken)

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

Up here in no man's land, they can get away with not choosing sides. Down below, it's not so easy. We thank our host and head down the mountain toward the Mekong.

Michael Sullivan, NPR News.

BLOCK: And tomorrow, Michael continues his journey down the Mekong River to the golden triangle, where Myanmar, Thailand and Laos meet.

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