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Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Holiday Travel -Tales from Poppy Land

In the late afternoon of Sept 27 last year, a Malaysian friend called to ask if I could file a story on Myanmar’s latest situation. That very day, Japanese journalist Kenji Nagai had been among those killed by the military suppressing a pro-democracy demonstration in Yangon.

At the time, my wife and I were about to cross the Sino-Myanmar border in Kokang in Myanmar. The crossing was not timed with the Yangon mayhem, though we were aware of the vehement protests being led by the Buddhist clerics.

We were just paying our regular visit to Kokang to inspect the school we had set up and to attend to the spiritual needs of believers. We felt greatly relieved therefore to find no unusual movement of troops on either side of the border, an indication that the Myanmar unrest hadn’t spread to its countryside, at least not in Kokang.

It was business as usual in Kokang especially for its ubiquitous casinos and other entertainment centres. The only inconvenience was that it had become difficult for the locals to travel to Lashio and move on to Mandalay and Yangon, the two cities in turmoil.

Keen to learn: The writer and wife with the young children of their school, Sheepfold.

A team of EU representatives scheduled to visit Kokang had to be flown in by helicopter from Lashio. Kokang’s head of government Chairman Peng Jiasheng, immobilised more than a month by back pain, had deputised his brother to receive the foreign guests. We were naturally more concerned with visiting the Chairman, something we always did whenever we landed in Kokang.

To ensure that the Chairman was well enough to see us, my wife Esther called his mobile. The line was immediately connected, blaring out Peng’s favourite song from the movie Shanghai Beach. There seemed a certain affinity between the “Kokang king” and the Shanghai mafia.

The 76-year-old man we counselled three days later appeared even more humble, perhaps humbled by sickness.

He noted, “I trust God and (know) the devils, but I don’t trust men.”

Peng was born in 1931 and as a teenager he joined the militia of the Yang family, which ruled over Kokang. In 1949, Peng received military training together with fellow students like Luo Xinghan under retreating Kuomintang officers.

From 1959 to 1968, Kokang came under political upheavals. The Myanmar government drove the Yangs out of power with Luo backing Yangon and Peng fighting it as a guerrilla leader.

By 1969, Peng recovered Kokang under the banner of a China-backed Burma Communist Party. Opium production jumped to bankroll armed insurgency. In 1989, Luo succeeded in getting Peng to stage a coup against the Communist leadership and Kokang was granted autonomy.

Yangon appointed Peng chairman of Kokang and allowed him to keep his armed troops (MNDA Army) and run his court of law. Some years later, Peng survived a mutiny and subsequently cleansed Kokang of opium by the end of 2002. In the name of economic survival, Peng allows gambling and the flesh trade to flourish in this frontier town bordering China’s Yunnan province.

And so Kokang continues to attract complex people to its doorstep. In Kokang, not many will tell you their real names, let alone their purpose for being there. There are habitual gamblers, drug and arms dealers, seekers of carnal pleasure, undesirable elements on the lam, corrupt officials, poor people making an honest living, and spies.

Chairman Peng in a good mood.

Kokang, because of its geography and history, remains a place where information related to narcotics and other crimes is actively sought. China has undoubtedly planted its people in the Kokang government to safeguard its backdoor. Likewise, Yangon has its informants roaming the Kokang streets. For years, mutual distrust has developed between Peng and the military junta of Myanmar.

Starting a school

The initial appearance of Esther and I there must have aroused suspicion, mistrust or plain bewilderment in many minds. Our repeated returns to Kokang, however, won us the friendship and favour of the Chairman. Peng allowed us to start a humble school offering free education to the children of former poppy farmers.

Until Kokang’s crop substitution programme succeeds like that of northern Thailand, the Kokang farmers will remain poor. Some have virtually been subsisting on rations handed out by the United Nations and other NGOs.

Our privately-funded school, called Sheepfold, takes in their children as well as orphans and those from single-parent families. Many children in Kokang have been left behind by parents who have either been summarily executed or are serving long sentences in China for trafficking drugs.

Sheepfold provides normal education in Chinese and Myanmar for children aged six to 13. We employ local teachers and have a small committee to help oversee the school. Presently, we have some 40 pupils housed in one room but are taught separately under three levels, a practice common in rural China.

Peng gives us a free hand to run the school and helped us solve a sticky problem in March last year. He extends favour to us in other ways too. We have a certain amount of freedom, for example, to move around in Kokang including security areas manned by the MNDA Army.

We love to mingle with Peng’s soldiers, many of whom started their career as kids. It’s not uncommon to see a very young soldier in oversized uniform and an equally oversized rifle slung over his shoulder.

Zhou Zhengrong, for example, joined the Kokang army at 13. When we first met him in 2005, Zhengrong was 17 and appeared undersized and sickly. He was one of the eight children of a poppy farmer.

Since poppy cultivation had been banned, Zhengrong dropped out of school with just a year of formal education. Later, he followed in the footsteps of his siblings and became a MNDA soldier. We met him recently and were glad that he had become healthier and looked tougher. Military training has done some good for Kokang boys who have neither a decent education nor job opportunities.

Another example is Shen Caogui, a lanky bodyguard of Chairman Peng. Like many other MNDA soldiers, Caogui has difficulty writing his own name. However, he has a chance to make good as a soldier and was picked to provide round-the-clock protection to the Chairman. He once watched his boss praying with us and later wanted similar blessings for himself.

Girls have better chances of employment in Kokang. Young girls with secondary school education usually go for higher paying jobs in casinos, though they are required to work long hours in a not-so healthy environment. Since May, the MNDA Army has recruited its first batch of 90 female soldiers. All in, there are some 2,000 soldiers on the army roll.