Written by Alessandro Rippa.

On October 6, 2015, Bao Zhuoxuan, the teenage son of human rights lawyer Wang Yu and activist Bao Longjun was apprehended alongside two friends at a guesthouse in Mong La, Myanmar, near the Yunnanese border. He was then allegedly taken back to Inner Mongolia where he was put under close surveillance. Although reports remain unclear, it seems that shortly after the arrest of his parents — both involved in China’s latest crackdown on human rights activists — the boy was sent to Inner Mongolia to stay with his grandparents. Under circumstances that remain obscure, 16-year-old Bao eventually made it to Mong La, with the intention of then crossing into Thailand and from there to the United States.

According to a Radio Free Asia report Chinese policemen were involved in the arrest of Bao Zhuoxuan and his two friends, and the operation was carried out with the consent of Lin Mingxian (also known as Sai Lin), the leader of the 2,000-strong National Democracy Alliance Army (NDAA) that controls Mong La. Chinese authorities, in other words, were free to act according to their own interest inside a foreign territory, without any apparent involvement of the Myanmar government.

Mong La is the largest town of what is formally known inside Myanmar as Special Region No. 4, a small strip of land on the Chinese border, not far from one of Yunnan’s most famous tourist spots, Xishuangbanna. Despite being officially part of Myanmar, Mong La runs on Beijing time, the only currency accepted is Chinese yuan, and the only phone network available is China Mobile. The language spoken throughout the whole Special Region is Mandarin, and most workers and business owners are from nearby Yunnan.

Lin’s story is fascinating. A former Red Guard, still in his teens, in 1968, Lin joined numerous other volunteers fighting alongside the Communist Party of Burma (CPB). An able fighter, he rose to the rank of commander of the Communist Party of Burma’s “815 War Zone” in eastern Shan State – today’s Mong La area.

With the breakup of the CPB in 1989, Lin established a splinter faction, his own army, the National Democracy Alliance Army (NDAA), largely formed of ethnic Shan and Akha. Quickly the NDAA signed a ceasefire with the Burmese government, led then by military-intelligence chief Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt, which allowed Lin a large measure of local autonomy over his territory in exchange for not attacking government forces.

Beside his role in the CPB, Lin is said to have entered the drug trade in the mid-1980s, closely cooperating with the former CPB commanders of nearby Kokang. With the ceasefire, Special Region No. 4 thus became a major opium-production and heroin-refining hub, affording Lin and other local drug lords with massive profits.

Initially built on drug money, several casinos appeared in Mong La throughout the 1990s. In 1997 Lin eventually declared his territory opium free, a success which was later recognised by the State Department. Today Mong La is knows mostly for its gambling industry, the debauched nightlife, and the infamous wildlife market, and has thus often been described in Western media with expressions such as “Myanmar’s sin city”, “Burma’s wild east”, or the “Tijuana of China”. Mong La, however, is far from being solely a place of depravation and vice. Rather, Special Region No. 4 is run according to a well-structured network of contacts and common interests, in which China plays a preeminent role.

The case of Bao is not, in this regard, exceptional, as Chinese power into northern Myanmar goes well beyond the mere handling of criminals and dissidents. In January 2005, for instance, alarmed by continuous reports of corrupt officials gambling with public money, the Chinese government sent a small number of troops to shut down the casinos in Mong La, and even threatened to cut Mong La’s power supply, thus highlighting the region’s dependence on China.

China is not, however, the only interested actor, and the history of the region suggests that Mong La cannot be simply considered an extension of Chinese power into Myanmar. Within Myanmar, for instance, the NDAA’s most powerful ally remains the United Wa State Army (UWSA), the largest of Myanmar’s ethnic armed group with 20.000 men under arms and one of the largest narcotics-trafficking militia in the country. The casinos, moreover, are connected to investors from Singapore, Macau, and Hong Kong, and this particular model has been exported to other casino towns in nearby Laos, such as the Golden Boten City and the Golden Triangle Special Economic Zone recently studied by anthropologist Pal Nyiri.

Like Mong La, those places raise issues of sovereignty and trans-national justice. Generally analysed simply as extension of Chinese power into Southeast Asia, or as enclaves of vice and depravation, we still lack a comprehensive framework to understand what is actually happening along China’s southern borders. The answer likely lies at the juncture between a growing Chinese influence in the region, trans-national capitalist interests, political remoteness and the power of non-state actors such as rebel armies, drug lords, and smugglers. Until we are able to disentangle and eventually understand this complex network of power and interests, cases such as that of Bao Zhuoxuan not only will continue to happen, but will also escape any possible attempt to prevent them.

Alessandro Rippa is a postdoc at Ludwig-Maximilian University of Munich, part of the ERC starting grant project “Remoteness & Connectivity: Highland Asia in the World”. His current research focuses on the Yunnan-Myanmar border area, particularly on cross-border trade, memory and development. Image credit: CC by David and Jessie/Flickr.