Mekong Flows Along Troubled Myanmar's East As it winds its way to the South China Sea, the Mekong River runs along Myanmar's remote and often troubled Shan state. The repressive military government in Yangon controls parts of the state, while ethnic militias and warlords rule the others.
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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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MELISSA BLOCK, Host:

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.

BLOCK: 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: 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: (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: 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: 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: 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.

AI LUN KENG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: 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)

BLOCK: (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.

BLOCK: 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: 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.

SAI WEE KYAIO: (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: 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)

AI SENG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: 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.

SENG: (Foreign language spoken)

SULLIVAN: 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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