Mong-La: the worst place you’ve never heard of

Mong-La, known as 勐拉 Meng3la1 or 小勐拉 (xiao3meng3la1) as it is known in Chinese, is a town on the Myanmar border with China, in Mongla Township in Shan State, Myanmar. It sits at something of a crossroads, as it is also close to the Myanmar border with Thailand, and was featured recently in the New York Times and Guardian, not for the casinos that have earned it the reputation as Myanmar’s Sin City, but for animal trafficking.

Mong-La is run by local warlords, under the gaze – but not direct control – of Beijing. The Chinese have provided military aid to Myanmar since 1989, and as one of the sole supporters of the nation after it was cast out by the international community, China has invested a great deal in infrastructure projects such as roads linking Yunnan province in China’s south to the Bay of Bengal. Viewed within in the context of the “String of Pearls”, Myanmar sits in a network of Chinese ports, commercial facilities, and military outposts that are an attempt to increase Chinese influence across key sea lines of communication. For Beijing, access to Myanmar not only means access to resources such as oil and natural gas, but also influence in the Bay of Bengal, South East Asia, and the wider Indian Ocean.

The Chinese have a great stake in Myanmar’s present and future, and so the lawlessness that is Mong-La and Special Area 4 in which the town is situated, is viewed warily by the Chinese. The town itself is distinctly Chinese in flavour, with many of the inhabitants of Chinese origin, and the restaurants, casinos, brothels, and markets are geared towards catering to their tastes. It is the gambling that has drawn the attention of officials across the border in China, who, alarmed at stolen public money being gambled away by Chinese government workers, sent the army across the border to close down the casinos. This had some initial impact, but the casinos opened up again, this time a few kilometres down the road, and the gambling continued.

What the Chinese do turn a blind eye to, however, is the animal market in Mong-La, which has become one of the largest markets of its kind in Asia. With Myanmar’s position next to India, China, and Thailand, as well as Mong-La’s location on the border with China and near Thailand, it has quickly become the channel through which regional animal trafficking is funnelled into southern China. Despite the Chinese government making moves to ban such items and practices, it is the voracious appetite of the Chinese that drives the market, and local level corruption in China – or a lack of interest – prevents the police from cracking down on buyers and stamping it out. The range of live and dead animals, pelts, and animal parts on display in Mong-La is extraordinary, and quite shocking: there are the pelts of cloud leopards and tigers, the mounted heads of antelopes, elephant skin, pangolin scales, porcupine quills, and a range of Chinese medicine such as bear bile, as well as ivory ornaments, rhino horn, and live animals that will be taken to the kitchens of southern China. As reported in the New York Times, there were 49 whole elephant tusks and 3,300 pieces of ivory for sale, as well as 40 rare and threatened species, such as the hairy-nosed otter, long thought to be extinct.

It is Myanmar’s location and abundant natural resources that have made her such an enticing prospect for governments and investors, but it is also what attracts poachers and animal traffickers. The lawlessness in Special Area 4 has allowed the market in Mong-La to operate so brazenly, and the thirst in China for ornaments, Chinese medicine, and bush meat, has created a situation where poachers are sucking the forests, jungles and plains of India, Burma, Laos and Thailand dry of their native animals and plants. Local level corruption within China must be tackled to allow the government and police to push back demand for trafficked animals, and programmes and campaigns need to continue to change mindsets regarding Chinese medicine and the role animal parts play within it, as well as countering the fashion for ivory products. A tough challenge indeed. Chairman Mao liked to tell the proverb of the foolish old man who removed two mountains through perseverance (and having sons, of course). Foolish as it might seem to chip away at the implacable face of tradition, with the perseverance of that foolish old man, why can’t these mountains be cleared away?

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