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Another wrong turn in Mong La

Let’s raise a glass to celebrate that the BBC has discovered Mong La and brought us the news that it is “Myanmar’s lawless region where anything goes” (See Jonah Fisher’s 18 August installment). Now let’s have another glass to help dull the pain that the BBC’s reportage not only produces Orientalist narratives but also takes an unsophisticated pro-statist view which ignores that “anything” also goes in Burmese government-controlled areas. Instead, it attempts to elicit shock from viewers with a visual postcard of “un-Burmeseness” in an area beyond the clutches of the state.

Burma’s recent reforms have created an atmosphere of journalistic possibilities, but many foreign journalists have failed to capitalise on the opportunities presented by access to areas previously restricted to engage in more extensive coverage of ethnic politics. Many Burma-based correspondents remain unfamiliar with the historical context of their subjects, their editors also share this ignorance and limited budgets often restrict reporting to the confines of the capital and the former capital, preventing them from developing a keener understanding through on-the-ground contacts. The recent BBC story on Mong La is emblematic of a larger malaise that tarnishes reporting of events beyond Rangoon and for this reason the following article critically examines the report.

The Mong La story is not new. The Trouser People by Andrew Marshall includes one of the early journalistic accounts of the area and its publication in 2002 inspired countless other journalists to head up to Mong La. Covering this topic and others, such as a comedy troupe in Mandalay, has become a rite of passage for those trying to draw attention to their journalistic prowess by reporting on events taking place beyond Rangoon. But, their stories are essentially an unwitting repackaging of older ones, as these writers often appear unaware that theirs is a well-trodden path.


The attempts in the recent BBC report to ascertain the political conditions that allowed for the emergence of Mong La are amateurish. The author employs descriptive exoticism, referring to the “weird wild world of Mong La”. There’s nothing weird or wild about Mong La when one considers how it came into existence and that many of its illicit features are also present elsewhere in Burma.

It is useful to point out that the Burmese government did not give the territory of Mong La to its present leaders, but recognised their authority to administer it. In fact, central government leaders have exercised only limited control over the area. In the early independence period, the Chinese Kuomintang remnants exercised control over this area. In the early 1970s, the Communist Party of Burma (CPB) extended their control over the region and established the “815 War Zone”. After a mutiny triggered an internal revolt within the CPB, four separate self-administered regions emerged in its place as the result of ceasefire negotiations with the military.  The 815 War Zone became known as Special Region Four, which is now known as Mong La — its administrative center. The three other special regions that emerged were administered by ethnic Wa, Kokang and Kachin organisations.

The so-called “secretive leadership” of Mong La is headed by Lin Ming Xian, one of several Chinese volunteers from the adjacent area of Yunnan, who joined the CPB in the late 1960s. He is Sino-Shan and also has a Shan name, Sai Leun, and became one of the CPB’s  most effective military commanders. After the mutiny he established control over this area and formed the organisation now known as the National Democratic Alliance Army.

Fisher’s covert nighttime foray into the jungles of eastern Burma to find a “hidden, illegal” gambling complex conjures memories of The Secret Life of Walter Mitty. When one leaves Rangoon for reporting upcountry, the likelihood of discovering illegal gambling halls increases dramatically. And gambling by proxy – the gist of the “headset scoop” – has been commonplace in the border casinos of Laos, Burma and Cambodia for almost a decade.

[pullquote]”When foreign journalists resemble travel writers in their coverage of ethnic areas, one of the few potential sources of independent analysis on the situation in ethnic areas is lost.”[/pullquote]

One of the most disturbing aspects of this Mong La report is its lack of context. The story leans on a crutch common to bad travel writing – the superlative. The implicit treatment of Mong La is that it is the “unique-est” in terms of lawlessness. But are drugs, gambling, Chinese-ness and the illicit trade of endangered wildlife unique to Mong La? To argue so would be on par with the tomfoolery of suggesting that ngapi is bland. Moreover, the suggestion that we should be shocked that the lingua franca, the currency, the electricity and cell phone system are Chinese belies an innocence of how borders operate and ignorance that such dynamics are commonplace across Burma’s border with China in both government and non-government controlled areas. Like many others, the author has gone for the low hanging fruit – the Mong La story – and  revels in revealing the outrage of its Sino-centrism to us. Such is a tired tale oft repeated over the last twenty-odd years.

What is at stake is that when foreign journalists resemble travel writers in their coverage of ethnic areas, one of the few potential sources of independent analysis on the situation in ethnic areas is lost. Part of the problem is that  journalists often know little about ethnic issues and, instead, may sometimes construct stories framed in terms of the exotic. In doing so, they fail to take into account that many of the dynamics they report on are commonplace in other parts of Burma and operate under the awareness of officials. In contrast to Mong La, there are many places where the Burmese government and other complicit parties do not tolerate nosing around by journalists. This is evidenced by the jail sentences recently issued to journalists from the Unity Weekly journal for their reporting on an alleged secret weapons factory in central Burma.

But myopic perspectives, such as that of the BBC, fail to acknowledge that these dynamics are symptoms of a larger crisis of governance, rather than their cause. Instead, they imply that government rule is more desirable than that of non-state actors. In the case of Mong La, the leadership’s efforts at creating a multi-cultural community — in part through the use of multiple ethnic languages and support for the cultural rights of its non-majority ethnic groups — is unusually open for Burma. But more to the point, important issues regarding ethnic politics critical to the future of Burma remain insufficiently addressed by the media.

But let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater. The report draws attention to the trade of endangered wildlife in Mong La. Although, again, the trade in endangered wildlife is pervasive, and most journalists do not report on it unless it is right under their nose. One need not go to the lawless land of Mong La to find the trade, but look to the high-end aquariums and zoos across Southeast Asia. Bottoms up.


Danny Deck frequently travels to Burma and has visited Mong La.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not reflect DVB’s editorial policy.




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