Sleepy town comes to fore during ethnic summit
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.
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.
Sleepy Mai Ja Yang will be at the heart of the action this week.