Saving Rangoon: The Battle for Burma’s Ancient and Colonial Heritage

First published in the Guardian 4th May 2015

For more than two decades Moe Moe Lwin watched helplessly as Rangoon, her home city, transformed beyond recognition.

Pavements vanished and the streets became clogged with cars. Beloved cinemas fell to bulldozers and green spaces slowly disappeared.

“We had walked, played and worked all around these beautiful areas, and they had become totally normal, just a part of daily life,” remembers Lwin. “It’s only really when you start seeing these changes [that] you begin to appreciate what you had and what you have … we have a long history of architecture in Burma and a lot of history attached to these streets and buildings.”

With Victorian and Edwardian buildings still punctuating much of downtown Rangoon, the city serves up a dizzying array of buildings; a decaying reminder of Burma’s unique history of colonial occupation followed by decades of socialist isolationism.

Many are more than a century old, their age written in the fading colours, filigrees of damp, and decades of creeping mould that envelop most exteriors. Some maintain the glorious porticos that provide shelter from the rain and sun, but most were destroyed when the streets were first widened in the 1990s.

Between 1990 and 2011, an estimated 35% of downtown Rangoon was destroyed to make way for new development projects: shopping mall and overpriced condominiums and hotels.

The city as Lwin knew it was at risk, so in 2012 she and a number of like-minded conservationists came together to form the Yangon Heritage Trust, which she now directs.

Over the past three years of preservation and advocacy, the group’s aim has evolved from “focusing just on the old buildings to judging the overall liveability of the city – to inform and have more of a relationship with it.”

Earlier this year Rangoon hosted the country’s first-ever Art and Heritage festival.

With the theme “My Yangon My Home”, the festival gave Rangoon locals the opportunity to visualise their city’s future by looking closer at their history and heritage.

“We wanted to show a different side to [the city]. We used public spaces, old heritage sites for the events, so everyone can see,” says Htein Lin, a Burmese artist and activist who co-curated the festival.

And considering the rapid changes the city has already undergone, Lin also notes the timely nature of the inaugural festival.

“With all this construction and demolition of buildings and public spaces, [this] is such a good time to be sharing information about these things – to let people know what they were and what they can be.”

In a small alley dwarfed by the bright red brick of Rangoon’s supreme court, a steady stream of hungry punters order breakfast at a simple street-food stall.

Hidden in the cool shade of the one-hundred year-old neo-baroque edifice, a 22-year-old engineering student polishes off a bowl of Mohinga noodle soup before contemplating the city’s future.

“We think we need to be New York, or Tokyo, or Bangkok,” says Kyaw, echoing the sentiments of his nodding classmates beside him. “But look around you. Why would we destroy this? We could be like a Rome or a Prague instead.”

While such feelings to preserve Rangoon’s heritage are spreading, they are by no means universal.

An older man at the stall is in favour of development. He points out that Kyaw and his friends are too young to have experienced the stagnant years the country spent under the xenophobic “Burmese Way to Socialism” policy.

“He thinks now we need to catch up with the world,” says Kyaw. “Like this is a race or something.”

Back in her office, Moe Moe Lwin understands the different opinions. “Some people have argued ‘this is British, this is not us’. Even some architects think this, but we have been using these places since the British left us over 60 years ago and we have been using it as we wanted. This is a part of our life – we can’t say this is British or Indian anymore.”

With Rangoon’s infrastructure decaying to a level of near collapse, most inhabitants of the city believe that some serious development is necessary. However, the priorities and degrees of development remain in dispute.

“You need to find a balance between developing and saving what’s important. Your pride in the city should be maintained. The people will love it, and the younger generation will feel pride,” says Lwin.

“This is the balance. If you don’t take care of what you have, then you’ll end up with just another big city.”

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Yangon’s ‘Pork on Stick’

First published on Vice Munchies 27th April 2015

For Aye Min Win, the day starts early—very early. A good 45 minutes before the sun even threatens to break the horizon, Aye Min Win is already up, dressed, and out of the door.

In the pre-dawn dark, he rides his pushbike towards the local market, an easy journey before Yangon’s rush hour traffic and almost enjoyable when the oppressive heat has yet to surface.


A Yangon street market.

For the past 16 years, Aye Min Win has worked with his father and brothers to provide the people of Yangon with one simple street dish: Wet Thar Dote Htoe or, literally, “pork on stick.”

And that’s exactly what it is: pork offal (that includes anything from pig lungs and intestine to tongue), cooked with soy sauce, and skewered onto a bamboo stick. But Wet Thar Dote Htoe’s appeal isn’t in the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin simplicity of its recipe, it’s how you eat it.


Offal used to make Wet Thar Dote Htoe.

Gaining popularity from near-obscurity 20 years ago, the food can be found almost everywhere in Yangon, vying with mohinga (a kind of fish noodle soup and easy contender for national dish of Burma) for popularity in the former capital. Almost always on the streets, it’s hard to not notice the vendors’ huddle of mini-stools, skewered meat, and bubbling black sauce.

It was Aye Min Win’s father who picked up on the Wet Thar Dote Htoe’s  potential some 16 years earlier. At the time, the family lived near Yangon’s Chinatown, where the “pork on stick” concept is rumoured to have been conceived. In a single downtown street in Yangon, the extended family now runs 12 different Wet Thar Dote Htoe stalls.


One of Aye Min Win’s family Wet Thar Dote Htoe stalls.

Around 3 PM is when Aye Min Win begins selling at his street corner. Under the shade of a large umbrella, he chews blood red betel while gently shepherding his infant daughter away from the busy road and tending to the food.

Acting as nucleus of his stall, a deep cauldron filled with a black, treacly liquid slowly bubbles away. Underneath, a gas stove or white-hot coals maintain heat while air pockets break the thin layer of oil above, disseminating the almost sickly sweet soy smell with every mellifluous “pop.”


Around the cauldron, small bowls of fresh garlic and chillies are provided as condiments, and a halo of skewered pig parts circles the bubbling vat. This is where Aye Min Win distinguishes himself from the other vendors.

“I only buy the best pork,” he explains before pausing to baste the meats sitting above the pot. “That’s why people come to me. They see I charge more [than the others] but that’s because I use better ingredients.”

From most vendors, a single skewer can cost as little as 50 kyats (around $0.05) making them a prime snack affordable to one and all. At Aye Min Win’s street stall however, he charges four times the amount for a similar piece of pig.


Pork offal used in Wet Thar Dote Htoe recipes.

“They still come. Some days, people will eat around 50 skewers and spend as much as 10,000 kyats ($10) in one sitting.”

You won’t find bits of pork loin, ham, or jowl on Aye Min Win’s skewers.  Instead, the prized parts come in the shape of intestines, cartilage, tongue, eye, heart, liver, kidney, appendix, and oesophagus. This is the point where most Westerners turn away and I struggle to think of friends who would be open to eating such a dish without fetishising it as “an experience.”

“It’s all pork!” says Aye Min Win, who knows all too well the Western bias against recognising what you eat. “These are basically all internal organs because the people are used to eating it, they love it. It’s easier to prepare too.”


Small bowls of fresh chilli and garlic are provided as condiments to the “Pork on Stick.”

Aye Min Win’s concept of easy preparation is questionable. From visiting butchers at daybreak to setting up stall in the afternoon, most of his waking hours are spent diligently preparing and cooking the day’s dishes.

“It’s pretty simple,” he says of the seemingly time-consuming preparatory work. “The first thing you do is you must clean it all very thoroughly.”

Aye Min Win’s hands begin mimicking his morning cleaning sessions and he suddenly skewers a bit of lower intestine. Holding it up to the light he adds, “Sometimes these will still have poo in them so we are very careful.”

Once all the parts of the meat are cleaned, the next step is boiling. Aye Min Win boils the pieces for a specific time to ensure they are completely clean. He then adds a touch of sugar, seasoning, and soy sauce to the boiled water before steaming the offal until it is cooked to tender perfection.


A customer enjoying Wet Thar Dote Htoe at a Yangon street stall.

“I keep the steam liquid too,” Aye Min Win explains. “That’s what makes up the sauce. You add a bit more sugar and soy and let it reduce.”

A friend of mine from Kachin State in north Burma happily digs into Aye Min Win’s fare.

“Oh yeah,” he says with a slight nod of the head. “This is a good one.”

Thanks in part to Aye Min Win’s family street vending empire, Wet Thar Dote Htoe has popped up in cities outside of Yangon. However the dish remains a relatively new phenomenon in the country as a whole.


Aye Min Win’s stall stays open well into the night.

“We don’t have this in Kachin,” my friend tells me. “I actually didn’t know you guys [Westerners] didn’t like the internal stuff. It seems like a waste. What do you do with your internal organs?”

I pause for a moment, before meekly responding: “Uh… sausages?”

Aye Min Win continues to baste his pork skewers as we talk. From 3 PM until well after midnight, he will keep his stall open to anyone who feels a need for skewered pig parts. As we prepare to leave, Aye Min Win stands and wrestles in his pocket for a green business card. His stall’s name is printed in bold at the top: A Tall Guy.

I look back quizzically at the 5-foot-8-inch vendor and he sheepishly responds, “Yeah, that’s actually my brother’s nickname. He’s taller, I guess.”

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With Historic Elections Approaching, the People of Yangon Ponder Their Fate

Script from the hour-long PRI radio program on Burma, published April 23 2015

Yangon Mosque Pagoda 2

In the heart of downtown Yangon — formerly known as Rangoon — the 2,500 year-old Sule Pagoda buzzes with the chants of monks and worshippers. Over the years, this iconic Buddhist structure has been a major attraction for both the pious and the political in Myanmar, serving as a rallying point for what was then called Burma’s 1988 student uprisings and again for the 2007 Saffron Revolution.

This country’s incredible diversity of cultures, backgrounds, religions and ethnicities are crushed together in the rapidly developing city. Yet many of its residents share the experience of decades of oppressive isolationism and military rule.

Meandering through gridlocked traffic below the Sule Pagoda, Muslims filter past their Buddhist countrymen and cross the street to the Bengali Sunni Jameh Mosque, just in time for sunset prayer. Down a small alley by the mosque is Mg Mg Nyunt’s electronics store. In a small, air-conditioned office at the back of his shop, he considers how the political landscape is changing.

“I haven’t seen any real democracy in my lifetime. But everybody wants to see something new, and they are eager to have democracy. We even have a common saying now whenever we go to a funeral, we feel sad for the person because they never had a chance to see democracy,” he says.

Nyunt has followed international affairs since childhood, and he’s now keen to analyze politics a little closer to home. And yet, even with his excitement, he’s quick to temper his positivity.

“I’m really not too optimistic, even though Aung San Suu Kyi’s party will win the election. I think these transitional problems will continue for decades,” he says.

A few blocks to the east of Sule Pagoda, Than Than Naing busies herself at her food stall, quickly loading plates with hot food and shouting orders to her family. For her, the politics of elections come second to surviving and the practical realities of making a living.

“The reason I’m not interested in the elections is we are running a business, so we can’t keep politics in mind too much. I have to care about myself, I have to struggle myself, whichever government comes in. I hope that something will change. It would be much better if the country had justice and rules of law. Everybody is struggling and I want everybody to be alright,” she says.

Just around the corner from her food stand sits a small newspaper shop. Inside, a worried Kyaw Wanna Soe seems overwhelmed with the myriad issues affecting the people of Myanmar.

“There are a lot of problems right now. The problems between the students and the government and the different types of people. There are problems here and there and it never gets solved. If one problem is solved, another pops up,” he says.

With his floors a mosaic of newspapers and his walls plastered with posters of Aung San Suu Kyi, Soe feels torn between a desire for a stability that won’t threaten his livelihood, and a desire for a National League for Democracy (NLD) victory and positive change.

“I’m worried about whether the demonstrators will cooperate, or if the elections will be canceled, because I witnessed the Saffron Revolution and when that happened I had to stop my business for some time. If something like the 1988 demonstration happens again, I truly worry what the future of my business will be,” he says.

Another part of his anxiety lies in the constitutional ruling that bars Aung San Suu Kyi from becoming president. For him, this is a sure sign that true change is not coming anytime soon.

“Everybody wants change, everybody hopes there will be change. But I have to say that the change that everyone hopes for is not really happening so far,” he says.

For many, Aung San Suu Kyi is the personification of change. And yet for others, her worrying silence on more recent human rights matters, such as the plight of the Rohingyas, Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim population, is concerning.

David Mathieson can see why people would feel this way. He’s an Australian in his 50s who’s been travelling to the country for 20 years and now works as the main researcher for Human Rights Watch. He says many people in the West — and in Myanmar — are oversimplifying the situation she’s in.

“I think the new disappointment with Suu Kyi is a convenient diversion for their own delusions for how complicated the country is,” he says.

Myo Yan Naung Thein, a former political prisoner and research assistant for Suu Kyi’s NLD party, agrees that things are more complicated than they appear to be.

“People still recognize her as an ideal, [the] human rights leader of the world, and at the same time they want to see her to be a successful politician. She is trying very hard,” he says.

While the international community and many within Burma place the spotlight solely on Aung San Suu Kyi, for the ordinary people of Myanmar the priorities are simple: A chance to enforce positive changes for others like them. Reforms have been a start, but with the elections just around the corner, too many feel there is too much at stake where too little is guaranteed.

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The Chinatowns of East Burma

First Published in Roads and Kingdoms, 20th April 2015


From the top of a hill on the Burmese borderlands, a 30-foot tall golden Buddha stands in the cool breeze and solemnly watches over Mong La, a gambling mecca that has come to symbolize much of this border regions’ most peculiar aspects. Less than a mile from the statue’s back is China, whose influence over the town looms much larger than the Buddha’s.

Shadowing China’s southern Yunnan province within Burma’s Shan state, a number of ethnic armed groups have governed a landmass the size of Switzerland for more than two decades. Through a shared history of conflict and détente, these groups have helped form an eccentric region that is today more Yunnan than Yangon.

Three main groups can claim de facto control of this peculiar region: the powerful Wa and their United Wa State Army (UWSA); Kokang and the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army (MNDAA), itself split in allegiances; and Mong La, under their National Democratic Alliance Army-Eastern Shan State (NDAA-ESS).

Together, they once formed the core of the Communist Party of Burma (CPB), a one-time major actor in an ongoing ethnic conflict—one of the longest ongoing civil wars in the world. With backing from China just across the porous border, the CPB were able to maintain effective resistance to central Burma for a number of decades before finally succumbing to pressures in 1989.

The reformist Deng Xiaoping, China’s then Premier, was never too happy with the CPB’s hard-line Maoist stance; Deng himself was twice purged during China’s Cultural Revolution. Moreover, Deng’s economic-reform mentality meant improved relations with Burma’s military government was almost inevitable. This reality left the CPB, already struggling with internecine ethnic tensions, feeling somewhat isolated and vulnerable. The Kokang were the first to split, signing a ceasefire with Burma in 1989. The Wa and Mong La quickly followed suit.

Yet the initial ceasefire agreements did not lead to a peace treaty or any integration of the region. Far from it, the groups demanded, and received, conditions that granted a great deal of autonomy, including the retention of their military capacity. It’s estimated that today the UWSA alone has command of over 30,000 men.

This limbo between war and peace continued for the next two decades, and, in its own way, the region thrived: The respective rulers remained close to one another and governed their fiefdoms unmolested. So while their counterparts in the Burmese Military ran a repressive crony operation with underhand business dealings, the heads of the border regions followed their own injurious path and raised revenue through drugs and shady business deals with their partners in Yunnan.

Over the past year Mong La has found itself the subject of renewed interest, its notoriety growing with each new sensational “exposé.” Recent coverage from the BBCTIME and the New York Times paint a shallow but vivid picture of a “City of Sin,” a “Burmese Las Vegas,” a debauched “Wild East” outside the control of Burma’s central government. The region, and this town in particular, was seemingly filled with drugs, gambling, and prostitution. I had to see it for myself.

After taking off from Yangon, I survey the changing terrain below from the window of a slim and rather splendid ATR72 propeller plane. We fly north, roughly following the flat basin of the Irrawaddy River before veering east after Mandalay, the landscape slowly transforming into a canvas of green, undulating hills. Along a small plateau, I spot my last stop, Kyaing Teung, situated in the heart of the infamous Golden Triangle, and just 52 miles southwest of Mong La.

Kyaing Teung is a rather beautiful town where gentle hills are dotted with golden pagodas and several bodies of water, including the picturesque Naung Tong Lake. It’s a fairly popular tourist destination and is also, incidentally, home to liaison offices for both Mong La and the Wa.

While relations remain cordial, a special permit is still needed to pass the numerous military checkpoints between the Kyaing Teung and Mong La. Thankfully, decades of uninterrupted peace between the NDAA-ESS and Burma proper have made acquiring that permit simple. No bribes are paid and no suspicious officials provoke or prevaricate.

Soon after I find myself in a breathtaking drive through the Shan hills—breathtaking in part because of the untouched green vistas, and in part because of the blind hairpin corners that we round with gusto. The severity of the land makes it clear why Shan was never truly under the control of the British colonizers when they claimed dominion over Burma.

The region has long been ruled through a number of separate principalities, each under their respective Sawbwas, or Lords of the Sky. These old rulers were once the only way the British, and the Burmese after them, contrived to enforce any influence over the domineering lands of Shan. A single group hoping to control the entire region would struggle with the harsh terrain, and today, in their own way, the ethnic armed groups continue to exploit the geography.

The location of these groups—immediately along the border with China—has provided them with a degree of covert, and not so covert, trade and support that has proven invaluable to their development and survival. Paul Keenan, a senior researcher on the region for the Burma Centre for Ethnic Studies, told me that he couldn’t imagine with whom else these groups were doing business, other than with the Chinese in Yunnan.

Yet recent history has seen big changes that hint to a potential geopolitical shift. Burma’s military government, for several decades ruled under a self-imposed isolationist policy drearily titled “The Burmese Way to Socialism,” has opened up in the last five years and made rapid steps towards reform and liberalisation. As a result, Western sanctions have been dropped and Burma now promises a future of increased capability.

Meanwhile, Beijing has invested billions of dollars in energy, extractive and development projects throughout Burma, including $2.54 billion oil and natural gas pipelines that run from the Bay of Bengal through to Yunnan, its conduits flirting with the boundaries of Kokang, where recent fighting has raised apprehensive eyebrows on both sides of the border.

Back in the taxi, I check my watch, trying to estimate how close we are to entering Mong La, the de facto capital of the zone known as Special Region 4. The driver rounds yet another speculative corner with unabashed confidence and I suddenly find myself upon a sharp valley.

The dark green hills on either side loom ominously over the road. As we draw closer I begin to notice four or five camouflaged pillboxes embedded in the hills and pointlessly try to peer into the black slits. I have no idea if they are occupied or empty. A handsome guard with a rifle waves us to stop and takes my permit while I cautiously survey the rest of the checkpoint from my passenger seat. Planted all over are flags with the insignia of the NDAA-ESS.

“Welcome to Special Region 4,” reads a large, peeling sign.

Strangely enough, within Special Region 4 even the land itself seems to change. The terrain no longer feels as unsullied—even the gentler hills give the impression they have been tended to by a prodigious landscaper. For the first time in the trip we run into real traffic. Huge lorries grunt their way up inclines, some filled with basic aggregate; others carrying dozens of metal barrels, black oil leaking from the rust. The Chinese company names “LiuGong” and “Sinomach” are proudly emblazoned on most of the machinery.

Our road detours onto a rough, loose gravel path while what looks like a four-lane highway nears completion. The air is filled with yellow dust and the hills exposed of their red-brown rocks. Alongside the road, indigenous trees are mostly felled, replaced instead with banana and watermelon plantations. Construction is underway everywhere.

We round another corner and a large, gleaming-white casino garishly called Galaxyse appears. Just beyond it, a pristine golf course stretches away from sight. Where once there were huts and agriculture, now there is high speed Internet, pristine fairways, and all-you-can-eat buffets.

Looking around, it’s hard to believe that 20 minutes earlier I was high in the untouched greenery of the Shan mountains. It’s hard to believe I’m still in Burma at all.


In the near distance I begin to see an outline of the town itself, or rather, I can make out the tall hotels that could only mean Mong La. My taxi driver pulls up outside the central market and I slowly trudge my way to a nearby hotel where a Chinese-American friend, who had arrived from China two days before, was waiting.

The city itself is surprisingly simple, almost quaint if not for the hotels and heavy construction. Acting as locus is the marketplace, a square some 400 meters in length, split into quadrants and with a tiny roundabout at the middle. Nearby, the muddy Namp Ma creek oozes through the town and above, some distinctly Burmese Pagodas dot the hills, arguably the only real reminder that you are not on the Chinese side of the border.

It’s true that many shops still carry the Burmese script, but it’s difficult to see them as much other than a forgotten footnote; the Burmese on many signs often left to fade away with time.

In my early vigor I begin making note of every distinctly Chinese thing I see. The architecture, the signs, the language, the cell phone networks, the shops, the money, the power grid, the food—it all screams China. The town, as my friend puts it, “looks almost like any other fourth-tier industrial Chinese town.”

After our quick tour, my friend and I sit down in a central market drinking station and call over the owner-cum-waiter. A moustachioed man from Nanjing strolls over and brings us two of the house beers: Tsingtao.

I sit back and casually watch the other punters at our host’s bar. It’s suddenly clear that the very tables at which we are sitting also double up as automated electronic mahjong tables. Gambling is technically illegal in both Burma and China, so I guessed everyone was seemingly making the most of any opportunity. I soon afterwards realized that such opportunities are practically everywhere.

Early the next morning, my friend and I decide to venture to the corner of the market where the endangered animal goods are sold. When we arrive just a few sleepy men and women display their illicit goods among fishmongers and vendors of watermelons. The most objectionable artifacts on offer—pangolin hides, tiger penis, bear paws—were surprisingly few in number and of questionable authenticity.


A little underwhelmed, that evening we passed the town’s red light district where healthy looking women handed out business cards and spoke cordially with enquiring Chinese men. Many simply hung out in their open brothels, talking and laughing amongst themselves.

It occurred to me that once this border region’s obscure context is considered, Mong La’s mystical aura quickly disappears and the city’s peculiarities become more typical of the region at large. In Wa, the UWSA have built Chinese-backed casinos too. The signs in Wa and Kokang are in Chinese, and the most common language used is Chinese. Most towns here, like Mong La, are hooked to China’s electricity grid and prefer the use of the renminbi. Yet the commonalities run deeper than just appearances or exploits in the illicit.

After decades of cross-border contact, intermarriages have further clouded already blurry ethnic lines and regional relationships. Many people carry two spellings of their name: one Chinese and one Burmese. The leader of Mong La is a case in point and starting with him, we quickly discern one example of relations that run across the entire borderlands.

Sai Leun (or Lin Minxian) is Shan-Chinese, a known drug lord and the son-in-law of Peng Jiasheng, the long-time ruler of the Kokang region.

Peng Jiasheng, an ethnic Han Chinese octogenarian druglord, commanded the CPB’s Kokang forces in the 1980s, and later spent time in Panghsang, the one-time capital of the CPB, now the de facto capital of Wa State.

The Wa, for their part, are the strongest ethnic armed group in the country. Their 30,000 fighters pose a serious deterrent to any consideration of intervention by the Burmese government. Yet more than their numbers, the UWSA have a capable military arsenal that is almost entirely obtained from China.

A Shan Nationalities League for Democracy (SNLD) member put these dynamics in layman’s terms when we met before my trip: “The Kokang and Mong La won’t do anything without consulting the Wa, and the Wa won’t do anything without speaking to China.”

Yet with Beijing entering into ever more lucrative deals with Burma proper, the ethnic armed leaders and their business partners in Yunnan – those most invested in consolidating the status quo – recognise a changing landscape. Too much ostentatious chaos could now risk an intervention from Beijing or Naypyidaw; an intervention that would imperil the fiefdoms they have come to dominate and profit from.

These dynamics came to light when Peng Jiasheng was ousted from Kokang in 2009 after the Burmese exploited a split in his MNDAA. Almost none of the other groups stepped in to help. It seemed that at least one group in the region had fallen under the control of the Burmese government. But earlier this year Peng Jiasheng came back with a vengeance. On February 9, just three days before the country commemorated Union Day, he launched a bloody counter-offensive to regain control and the fighting remains unresolved—a nearly impossible feat without some kind of support, or so the Burmese government says.

The accusations have been flying thick and fast: Who is helping Peng Jiasheng to reclaim Kokang? China, the Wa, and Mong La have all had to deny supporting the ageing warlord.

So while the fighting in Kokang continues, and the accusations towards China, the Wa, and Mong La persist, construction grows in the de facto capital of Special Region 4. Chinese tourists are the bread and butter of Mong La, and hotels with names promoting the tripled symbol, jin, or gold, continue to promise riches to their guests. Gambling is the main attraction now.

Back in Mong La’s marketplace from my seat at the aptly named Kokang restaurant, I watch while the other men and women ready themselves for yet more gambling. Everyone carries a bulging man bag of cash, slung over a shoulder or tied to the waist. Cars bearing the license plates “SR4…” registered in Mong La, “SHN…” registered in Shan, and several Chinese license plates, registered in Yunnan, once again head out into the night for the chance to make a fortune, or lose it all.

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An hour long radio documentary from Public Radio International’s America Abroad Media on Burma in the buildup to the elections later this year.  First broadcast on Tuesday 7th April with my contribution starting at 27 mins.

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April 9, 2015 · 11:15

Burma’s Mines Desperately Need Reform as Foreign Firms Implicated in Abuse

First published in Vice News – 10 Feb 2015

Amnesty International has claimed foreign companies are profiting from serious human rights abuses perpetrated in Myanmar’s mining industry, as well as accusing the country’s authorities of violent repression and forced mass evictions in the pursuit of mineral riches.

In a report released on Tuesday, the rights group focuses on the notorious Monywa copper project, comprising the Sabetaung and Kyisintaung (“S&K” mine), and the Letpadaung mine in the country’s central Monywa District. Since beginning operations in the 1980s, the project has fallen short of nearly every good-practice indicator, according to the report, titled Open for Business? Corporate Crime and Abuses at Myanmar Copper Mine.

In 1978, a Myanmar government-owned enterprise began developing deposits at what is now the S&K mine in central Myanmar. In 1996 a subsidiary of the Canadian company, Ivanhoe Mines (now Turquoise Hill Resources) entered into a joint venture with the government-owned enterprise and reaped the rewards for over a decade.

In 2010, the Monywa project was taken over by the Myanmar military company, UMEHL, and Wanbao Mining Ltd, a subsidiary of the Chinese state-owned military company, Norinco. As is often the case with mines, it didn’t take long for the first of many abuse cases to spring up, with the initial development in 1996-97 forcibly evicting thousands of people.

“These concerns have been in the public domain since the early 2000s,” Meghna Abraham, Amnesty International’s corporate crimes researcher, told VICE News. “After all that attention, one hoped that the government would finally take some corrective measures and address the issues… and that’s just not happened.”

As well as the forced evictions, Amnesty details the lackluster environmental assessment, the opaque sales of corporate assets, and the collusion of abuse by the foreign companies involved. The report also mentions the harsh crackdowns on peaceful protesters — including the shooting dead of a woman in December 2014 and the infamous use of white phosphorous to clear a sit-in protest in November 2012.

“No one has been held accountable,” continues Abraham. “There has been no accountability of officials who have been implicated… and the companies haven’t been held accountable.”

According to the report, both the Canadian Ivanhoe Mines, and the Chinese Wanbao Mining have “built their business on a foundation of human rights abuse.” With regards to Ivanhoe, the forced evictions of the S&K mines’ inception was apparently done with their knowledge, yet the wrongs were never addressed. Wanbao Mining, meanwhile, is charged with “directly engaging” with the forced evictions and even providing “material assistance” to police during protests. Both deny the charges and wrote full ripostes, attached in the report’s appendix.

Despite the focus on just one project, the issues raised show wider-reaching structural flaws in the investment and development sectors of a country suddenly exposed to the full might of globalized capital. The report calls its own findings, “a cautionary tale for the government of Myanmar and investors.”

Myanmar has a long history of mining, with silver, zinc, lead, tin, tungsten, and precious stones having been mined since the fifteenth century. The country itself is incredibly rich in gems, mineral resources, and oil and gas reserves. Yet after undergoing the military dictatorship’s 26-year-long policy of isolation from 1962 until 1988, coupled with Western sanctions, the country found itself near destitute and with a seriously underdeveloped infrastructure.

In 2012, after sanctions on the country began to ease, foreign companies and investors eagerly spied the country’s potential. In just one example, Coca-Cola immediately returned to Myanmar in 2012 after nearly 60 years out of the country. On my last visit, a large coke poster even welcomed me to the country.

Yet with regards to the extractive industries, a restrictive 1994 mining law has meant that many companies and investors have adopted a more patient, wait-and-see approach. Meanwhile, the promise of new legislation, designed to improve practices and clear the way for further foreign investment, continues to rattle around the country’s houses of parliament.

“We believe that within the month the law will be [passed] by parliament” U Aye Lwin, secretary general of the Myanmar Federation of Mining Association, told VICE News. “I will say that there are so many possibilities for mining projects now.”

It seems to be only a matter of time before the extractive industry is capitalized on more by both domestic and foreign money, and the worry is that the old structures will continue to oblige social and environmental abuse, even if new reforms and laws are enacted.

“The challenge in implementing those reforms, once adopted, will be lack of government capacity, and lack of transparency,” Vicky Bowman, director of the Yangon-based Myanmar Center for Responsible Business, told VICE News. “But we have to start somewhere.”

Abraham believes that the Myanmar government has begun moving in the right direction, but has shown through Monywa that it is still falling short. “Definitely in the last couple of years the government have taken some positive steps; that is undeniable. I think what we are seeing is a lack of commitment to follow through, especially when, in this context, the military owns the business involved.”

The issue of the military, as well as the country’s omnipresent “crony” cliques, is yet another hurdle for reform. With strong ties to big business, the military, and politics, the cronies of Myanmar are infamous for operating with apparent impunity.

“That’s the question,” said Abraham, “will the government act when the military is involved in some of the business? So far we haven’t seen that.”

“In the case of the Letpadaung mine, this may well have been a contributory factor to the current problems,” added Bowman. “UMEHL, the military partner (in the Monywa Project), apparently has significant responsibility for overseeing community engagement by the joint venture, which is not a good starting point, given their reputation and also their lack of experience in doing this in any context.”

Nonetheless, Lwin is optimistic that with the new law and reforms, mining in Myanmar can be beneficial for the country’s economy and its people, without abrogating the rights of locals or the environment. “Now we are a member of the EITI (Extractive Industries Transparency Initiative). We are going to follow the regulations and we will be adhering to them and submitting papers to them,” he states.

Abraham is also hopeful for Myanmar’s future in the extractive industries. “The nature of human rights is we have to be optimistic,” she tells me with a chuckle, before continuing: “When we went to Myanmar, we see a clampdown, we see arrests but there is a change. The civil society space has increased. There are amazing activists and lawyers and others working on this. And I think there are people in government who are trying to make change happen too.”

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Stateless: Human Trafficking in Thailand’s Highland Villages

The Salween River

First published in Vice, February 3rd 2015

The village of Baan Thatafang sits alone on a small hilltop by the edge of North Thailand. Below, the Salween River’s brown, treacle waters slowly wind south, the meandering current demarcating Thailand’s border with neighbouring Burma, whose dark green mountains dominate the village vista.

The view is breathtaking, yet Baan Thatafang’s idyllic setting belies a major issue that affects many more villages like it: human trafficking. Baan Thatafang has now become one of the latest ethnic minority settlements to be identified by local NGOs as being at threat from Thailand’s sprawling business in the trafficking of desperate people.

An estimated 1 million ethnic minority people live in North and West Thailand, but exact numbers are hard to come by. Many villages are informal; entire groups roam around large areas, surviving through swidden and subsistence agriculture. Most importantly, though, huge numbers of people are unregistered.

The hill tribe area of Mae Sam Laep

In the Thai Government’s last statement on registration, way back in 2005, its Interior Ministry estimated that some 50 percent of these groups remain unregistered under any legal status category. Without registration and ID cards, these peoples end up living in a limbo of “statelessness”.

UN research in these regions has long identified this lack of legal identity as the single greatest threat to these communities.

In a UNIAP (UN Inter-Agency Project on Trafficking) report from 2001, the risks of being officially “stateless” are made brutally clear. Without their legal status, these peoples are put under a cornucopia of constraints and handicaps. They are not permitted ownership of land, access to state medical care, suffrage, school or marriage certifications, free travel nor the ability to work outside their own province. These suffocating restrictions are key ingredients to the melting pot of desperation and easy exploitation that traffickers have long preyed upon.

Steps have certainly been taken at both the governmental level and on the international level, most notably the more decisive 2008 Anti-Trafficking in Persons Act and UNESCO’s Highland Citizenship and Birth Registration Project.

Yet in mid-2014, the US State Department’s latest Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report downgraded Thailand to Tier 3, the lowest grade, putting it among the likes of North Korea, Saudi Arabia and Iran. In the report, the US State Department specifically cited “…members of ethnic minorities, and stateless persons…” as being “at the greatest risk of being trafficked”.

The unregistered masses continue to be exploited.

Mickey Choothesa, COSA

“We know a few girls who work in the red light district now who came from our target communities, because they couldn’t find any jobs [due to their lack of registration],” explains Mickey Choothesa, founder of the local anti-trafficking organisation COSA (Children of Southeast Asia). “Usually, if they have opportunities to stay at school, a strong community base, or any other opportunities really, you find that they will not get mixed up with trafficking.”

Mickey has been actively working against the trafficking of young girls from hill tribe communities for nearly a decade with COSA. “We focus on girls who are being misled and don’t have that opportunity of choice,” he explains.

While we may think of trafficking through a Western mindset, which evokes scenes of midnight snatch-and-grabs (which do happen), Mickey explains that most of those trafficked from the hill tribes are simply economically desperate. Devoid of opportunity, they sell themselves – or their children – without fully understanding the debt bondage and slave-like conditions they will end up in. At COSA, Mickey tries to identify these vulnerable individuals and provide decent opportunities for them before the spectre of trafficking strikes.

Life at COSA’s shelter for rescued girls

Since its inception in 2006, COSA’s Chiang Mai base has slowly expanded to include a school bus service for isolated villages, outreach programmes in the hill tribes, educational programmes and a large shelter, where some 27 at-risk girls now live, and many more have found sanctuary in the past.

In his office, Mickey sits among a plethora of military-grade equipment – a reminder of his previous life as a US military photographer, and handy when working in the world of human trafficking. Bulletproof vests rest against a table heaving with first aid equipment. A small pistol peers out from a nearby bag. “You’ve got to be prepared, man,” he says with a shrug when I express my surprise.

Outside, a small group of girls trickle back to the shelter after finishing at the nearby school. Most have been taken in by COSA after their individual living situations were deemed “at-risk” to trafficking by Mickey and his social workers.

“For example, we have two girls whose mother is a sex worker. We found she just couldn’t take care of her two daughters,” Mickey explains when I ask how he identifies who is vulnerable. “They have never been to school, are always alone at home. We deem that to be a high-risk environment, so we got the girls out and into our shelter.”

As the years have progressed, COSA, like many other local NGOs, has found it necessary to work in conjunction with the local authorities. Unfortunately, these local forces are occasionally levied with charges ranging from incompetence to collaboration with the traffickers – a problem that local NGOs have experienced, too.

“It’s absolutely necessary to make sure you know who you are working with,” Phensiri Pansiri explains to me with regards to the authorities. As programme coordinator of FOCUS (Foundation of Child Understanding), previously TRAFCORD (Anti-Trafficking Coordination Unit Northern Thailand), Pansiri is in almost constant communication with the government and the local authorities for her work.

Lunch time at the COSA shelter

“We have had times before where we have given details to some police and the details were leaked. Then you know that person cannot be trusted,” she says.

“When you deal with human trafficking, you deal with a lot of corruption,” says Mickey. “These guys earn next to nothing and a little more money can be very tempting, it’s understandable to a degree.” Despite this, both Mickey and Pansiri talk of the importance of involving the authorities, saying that “building relationships” and “trust” is of the utmost importance.

Back in Baan Thatafang, Mickey and our (trusted) police escort, Captain Pauridet from the local vice and trafficking unit, slowly trudge up the hill towards the local primary school.

The local primary school where girls have been trafficked

“We heard of a few girls being trafficked here and have since been coming back and watching it closely,” says Mickey, gesturing to the various huts that dot the surrounding hills. “Normally, it’s the schools [who] tell us what has been happening, as they are with the children almost every day.”

Captain Pauridet explains that, usually, people are lured away with the prospect of working in the restaurant business in the cities for better money, and are then forced into other work. “Often, the girls end up in the sex industry,” he says.

Fifty years ago, Baan Thatafang was the setting for an outpost of the Border Patrol Police, a ruthless paramilitary unit created with CIA assistance to counter any perceived Communist threat from neighbouring countries. Today, the area is home to a few hundred villagers, mostly of Karen ethnicity. The majority are from the state of Karen just a few hundred metres away in Burma, and the signs around the village are still written in both Thai and Burmese. Other Karen families, however, have been calling this plot of Thailand home for centuries.

Artwork on the walls of the primary school

Baan Thatafang is about as isolated as they come. Located in a river valley among the mountainous Mae Sam Laep sub district of Mae Hong Son province, just getting there requires a dizzying drive through the mountains before a precarious dirt road forces us onto a boat for the final stretch.

Eventually, we make it to the primary school. The main hall of the school, I am told, was once the main office for the old BPP. Standing high on wooden stilts, flags from all the Southeast countries flicker in the light breeze.

Girls doing homework at COSA

Inside one of the classrooms, a couple of 13-year-old Karenni sisters sit anxiously. Mickey and another staff member from COSA greet them warmly and slowly get a conversation going. “How are you?” they ask the girls, who shyly mumble back.

“We’re meeting their family next week. They should be coming to COSA, it’s just not safe for them at their homes now,” explained Mickey, not wanting to elaborate further.

Children on the banks of Mae Sam Laep

The school only accommodates those up to the age of 13, and the next school is almost 40km away through the winding mountains and dirt roads. Unsurprisingly, many won’t undertake such a journey.

Outin, a teacher at the school for 12 years, tells me how the work of the UN and NGOs has helped register pupils, yet the numbers of unregistered remain shockingly high. “Right now I think we can estimate that it’s around 50 percent who remain unregistered,” she says, her colleague nodding his approval.

Her estimate isn’t far off what was found in the 2010 UNESCO survey on the Mae Hong Son ethnic minority highland peoples, which estimated that at least 40 percent of those in Mae Sam Laep have no ID card at all.

A man hassles a woman in a bar in a red light district of Chiang Mai, where some previously trafficked employees worked. There is no indication that any of the people in the photo are involved in prostitution.

“We’re very aware of the trafficking phenomenon, and the majority of kids here become vulnerable to it in different ways,” says Outin. “Those that are unregistered have less choices than if they have that card.” Mickey agrees wholeheartedly. “Without any sort of ID, they have zero opportunities. They won’t go to high school and they will soon be tempted by those who offer them easy money from outside.”

It is apposite that we meet at a school as, through his years of experience, Mickey is adamant that greater education is the key to battling trafficking. “We need to educate the older generation on what their rights are, as so many don’t know,” he says as we walk back to the boat. “Then we have to focus on the next generation.”

“My battle is one kid at a time, one village at a time, one day at time. I may help one girl, but that girl could go on to educate and save more. That’s my wish.”

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