Sleepy town comes to fore dur­ing eth­nic sum­mit

The Myanmar Times - - Front Page - EI EI TOE LWIN eieitoel­win@mm­times.com – Trans­la­tion by Thiri Min Htun and Emoon

Once a gam­bling hub on the bor­der, Mai Ja Yang in Kachin State will play host to a piv­otal meet­ing of eth­nic armed groups this week.

ONCE a teem­ing gam­bling cen­tre over­run with late-night vice, this ru­ral town with a pop­u­la­tion un­der 6000 is now lulled into a somber quiet by around 6pm. By 10, the lamp-lit roads are all but aban­doned. This is Mai Ja Yang.

Few out­side of Kachin State have heard of the bor­der town, which abuts China, and even fewer have vis­ited the iso­lated ter­ri­tory con­trolled by the Kachin In­de­pen­dence Or­gan­i­sa­tion.

For­merly syn­ony­mous with its sor­did, bet­ting past, the rein­vented town is re­gain­ing the spot­light for its cen­tral­ity in a new kind of high-stakes ven­ture: Myan­mar’s peace process.

Later this week, Mai Ja Yang will play host to a con­tentious sum­mit slated to in­clude all eth­nic armed groups, as well as the two main eth­nic po­lit­i­cal al­liances, the United Na­tion­al­i­ties Al­liance (UNA) and the Na­tion­al­i­ties Brother­hood Fed­er­a­tion (NBF).

The Mai Ja Yang meet­ing is an­tic­i­pated to func­tion as a key pro­logue to the up­com­ing 21st-cen­tury Pan­g­long Con­fer­ence, the cor­ner­stone of the new gov­ern­ment’s peace plan. The Tat­madaw has spo­ken against stag­ing the Mai Ja Yang sum­mit, though has said it will not at­tempt to block the event.

South of the KIO cap­i­tal in Laiza, and due east of Bhamaw/Bhamo town, Mai Ja Yang is home to 27 vil­lages and 5903 peo­ple. With the KIO over­see­ing ad­min­is­tra­tion, health­care and ed­u­ca­tion for the town, as well as the se­cu­rity of the ter­ri­tory, lo­cals re­fer to the KIO as their gov­ern­ment.

While most of Kachin State has in­vari­ably been up­ended in the skir­mishes be­tween the Tat­madaw and the Kachin In­de­pen­dence Army (KIA), Mai Ja Yang is by com­par­i­son rel­a­tively tran­quil. Lo­cals re­fer to the strate­gic bor­der lo­ca­tion along­side China as a lucky draw.

“We have had few skir­mishes in our town be­cause it is too close to China and too far from the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment-con­trolled area,” said U La Dwe, a lo­cal from Mai Ja Yang.

“The Tat­madaw rarely at­tacks our town for fear of caus­ing trou­ble with China. China does not like when lo­cals have to run across the bor­der to hide from shelling,” he added.

But hav­ing China as a neigh­bour has also had its draw­backs, lo­cals are quick to add. With the per­fect storm of weak rule of law and ea­ger Chi­nese in­vestors, un­til the end of 2010, Mai Ja Yang ex­pe­ri­enced a sort of vice gold rush, in­un­dated with op­u­lence and casi­nos.

“In the past, peo­ple be­gan pour­ing in in the evening. The road would be flooded with cus­tomers headed to the casino. Peo­ple en­joyed the whole night for en­ter­tain­ment. At that time, Mai Ja Yang was a boom town. Peo­ple came to get rich on the casino-re­lated busi­ness. Even the Ba­mar who came to staff the casi­nos were earn­ing thou­sands of Chi­nese yuan a night,” said lo­cal Ma Htu Bu, 43.

In more pros­per­ous times, Ma Htu Bu ran a beauty par­lour in Mai Ja Yang. Now, the only rem­nant of her for­mer busi­ness is a left­over bar­ber’s chair and a mir­ror ly­ing dis­used in the cor­ner of her shop.

“I am mak­ing hats for sol­diers now,” she said, hold­ing up a sewing project. “I get 40 yuan for one hat.”

Af­ter cut­ting its losses in the gam­bling in­dus­try, Mai Ja Yang was gut­ted by a re­ces­sion. Moss and creep­ers re­claimed the for­mer, brightly lit, multi-coloured casino halls that were left de­serted. Af­ter nearly six years of no main­te­nance, cracked win­dows are just the outer man­i­fes­ta­tion of badly de­te­ri­o­rat­ing build­ings, giv­ing the city a de­cayed, hol­low feel.

Some res­i­dents blame the KIO for clean­ing out the only game in town and leav­ing ev­ery­one broke. With few al­ter­na­tives, most of the lo­cals have ei­ther sought em­ploy­ment in China, or work for a Chi­nese-owned sug­ar­cane plan­ta­tion on the Kachin side of the bor­der.

The KIO has never pro­vided an up­front, of­fi­cial an­swer as to why the gam­bling in­dus­try was closed down. Ac­cord­ing to ru­mours The Myan­mar Times has not been able to ver­ify, the end of the card tables came af­ter a Chi­nese politi­cian’s son was stabbed to death in one of the casi­nos in 2009.

“At first, the Chi­nese gov­ern­ment de­manded the KIO shut down the gam­bling halls. But the KIO couldn’t end the in­dus­try all at once be­cause Chi­nese busi­ness­peo­ple had in­vested a sub­stan­tial amount of money in the trade. So the casi­nos kept op­er­at­ing through 2010. Later, China sought re­course through the Myan­mar gov­ern­ment and forced the KIO’s hand,” said a mem­ber of the KIO who asked not to be named

Since strip­ping the town of its gam­bling halls, the KIO has tried to wipe out other vices from the town as well. Liquor can­not be bought or sold in Mai Ja Yang and un­ruly, pub­lic drunks are de­tained for 24 hours. The only al­co­hol al­lowed to pass through town legally is wine or beer im­ported from China.

N-Hkum Yaw, sec­re­tary of Mai Ja Yang dis­trict, said the un­usual tee­to­talling mea­sure is part of a coun­ternar­cotics strat­egy.

“There has been a sig­nif­i­cant de­crease in the num­ber of drug users since there are no more casi­nos,” he said, find­ing a sil­ver lin­ing amid the des­ti­tu­tion. “I do not mean there are no more users, but the de­cline has been dra­matic. And rule of law has also im­proved.”

While the anti-casino and an­tial­co­hol mea­sures have not earned the KIO much pop­u­lar sup­port, boost­ing the ed­u­ca­tion sec­tor has rekin­dled some mea­sure of op­ti­mism.

Re­sumed fight­ing be­tween the Tat­madaw and the KIA in 2011 meant high school grad­u­ates from KIO-con­trolled ter­ri­tory lost the op­por­tu­nity to study at gov­ern­ment-run uni­ver­si­ties.

Seek­ing to rem­edy the sit­u­a­tion and in­vest in ed­u­ca­tion, the KIO launched four schools in Mai Ja Yang, in­clud­ing a Fed­eral Law Acad­emy and Mai Ja Yang Col­lege.

The Fed­eral Law Acad­emy opened in a ren­o­vated Chi­nese cig­a­rette fac­tory in 2014, pro­vid­ing a two-year course for a le­gal diploma.

Mai Ja Yang Col­lege opened in a re­pur­posed casino for­merly called “Myan Ju”. Where Chi­nese guests once played mahjong, the col­lege man­age­ment com­mit­tee now chairs its meet­ings, and the stu­dents use card tables as class­room desks.

“The col­lege was es­tab­lished with the aim of steer­ing young peo­ple away from the wrong path be­fore peace can be made. We hope to be­come a na­tional col­lege for the Kachin peo­ple af­ter the coun­try at­tains peace and be­comes a fed­eral union,” said U Tang Gum, the school’s chief ad­min­is­tra­tor.

Ac­cess to Mai Ja Yang is still lim­ited. Vis­i­tors who have mus­tered the high de­gree of per­se­ver­ance re­quired for the trip must first ob­tain per­mis­sion from the KIO and then ar­range trans­porta­tion for a three-hour, har­row­ing car ride from My­itky­ina along a road con­trolled by the Tat­madaw. Those seek­ing an eas­ier route to Mai Ja Yang will be re­lieved to know there is a back­door en­trance, through Ruili in China, just a two hours’ drive away.

Photo: Nyan Zay Htet

Two men sit on a bench on a hill over­look­ing Mai Ja Yang in Kachin State, where eth­nic armed groups are due to meet to dis­cuss Myan­mar’s peace process.

Photo: Nyan Zay Htet

Sleepy Mai Ja Yang will be at the heart of the ac­tion this week.

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