By Ethan Liu
On a bright, breezy Saturday afternoon in March, Li T’ao sat loose on a rocking chair on the balcony of his small tidy room, from where he could see the view of golden fields and limpid creeks nearby. He didn’t have many belongings in that room of a nursing home, and most of them were collected in plastic bags, giving me a misconception that he was ready for another long trip any time he wanted.
61 years old, talkative and energetic, wearing an old Khaki jacket with a tanned, solid figure, Li’s image of an ordinary country folk could barely convince people he had a dramatic experience overseas, although his posture was elegant and his diction was occasionally of someone who had a life-story of vagabond, misery and unforgettable agony.
Last winter, my father who was working for the state security department found a man without any authorized identity been sent back to his hometown by the government. During the inquiry, the man said he lost his whole family including two wives and two children in a plague and an even more horrible fire, then he escaped back from Myanmar to China, after 18 years of detainment by a Burmese triad.
I had never been to Myanmar, actually I didn’t even know its exact location. The highway from Changsha, the capital city of Hunan Province to where Li was living was about eighty miles, all that in my mind on the road were the fragments and pieces my father told me about the man, Li T’ao, they made me tossing and turning all night.
For a long time, China and Myanmar have been bounded together, caravans, adventurers, bandits, commissionaires, bounty hunters, opportunists are keep entering to the very region which characterized by continuous conflicts among at least three countries throughout hundreds and thousands of years.
According to Transformation of the Yunnanese Community by Yi Li, the history could be traced back to the Han Dynasty, such geographic, commercial and social connections developed during different historical eras were the premises for interactions as a cross-border international exchange, yet both the Chinese and Burmese developed a clear image of their own identities which is still one of the driving factors of ethnic clashes in Myanmar society.
Li T’ao’s life was buried in those millions individuals’ life, apparently.
The Journey Begins
The year 1984, Ho Yüan Village, Ku Kang County, tucked in the wetland of Hunan Province, a mountainous town in the south central of the mainland China, marbled with lakes and rivers, this is where the story begins.
He was 29 then, a “dauntless and ambitious young man” who “didn’t want to be an average Joe in his village hometown.” All his belongings could be put into one suitcase when Li left his foster parents, both his birth parents were died in the Cultural Revolution. Without any consistent economical supply during the six-year trip throughout the whole south China, he earned a living on the skill of fixing sewing machines by self-studying.
He suffered from an acute skin disease when he sojourned in Ssu-mao, Yunnan Province which was nearly 900 miles away from where he started, being extremely poor and couldn’t afford the medical aid, he decided to relied on himself.
“I’ve got some books about traditional Chinese medicine from a Chinese medicine doctor when I travelled in Guizhou, and from those books I learned multiple recipes of real significant remedial value,” Li said, “I climbed up to the mountains searching for herbs according to the formula. Finally, those self-made medicine saved me, and that’s the turning point of my life.”
With the raw medical knowledge which was also a gift of self-studying, Li made a career of a barefoot doctor in the remote mountain villages with poor medical and sanitation facilities. Ssu-mao, where he settled down, an underdeveloped inland town which is adjacent to the 2000-kilometer China-Myanmar border, is long been known as the frontier of the cross-border activities between the two countries.
This was both the marvelous and problematic thing about the certain interactions: most of the border was loosely guarded because of difficult terrain. Unguarded pathways along the border provided an ideal condition with the commercial and agricultural intercourses for the farmers from both sides, but what was more disturbing is it was also a bane for criminal activities back and forth, in which smuggling and drug trafficking were the most rampant ones, since the southwest Yunnan Province stood right in the forefront of China to the notorious Golden Triangle region, both geographically and politically.
Into the Foreign Land
1992, Li was then in the peddler’s trade, selling jade and human hair, yet he maintained the part-time job as a traditional Chinese doctor. He took a smuggler’s detour from Daluo, Yunnan Province to Mong La, the administrative seat of Mong La Township of Shan State, a city that was technically belonged to Myanmar though, the infrastructural works were heavily dependent on China.
“That was a nameless small village governed by the Mong La administration, although Chinese, English and Thai are the lingua franca there, most of the residents are either Chinese or Chinese descendants,” Li recalled, “I was very welcomed every time I came there not only for my goods but also my medical skills and the medicines I brought from China.”
According to him, the destitute hamlet in the verdant forests of eastern Shan State was extremely insufficient of professional medical helpers, “Villagers would give me a basket of eggs in exchange for drugs they could not afford, for instance, headache powder were eight cents per bag, and a syringe of Pethidine would cost you twenty yuan.” Li said. (1 USD approximately equals 8.7 RMB at that time, according to the Reformdata.org)
It was a big melting pot where people of different ethnic groups living together, most of them were chasing for profitable opportunities. Geographically and culturally, the certain area was mainly under the influence of Kokang, a region which was mostly populated by the Han Chinese people, a district which had long been a thorny problem of Myanmar government. Renminbi in China and Chinese were respectively the only currency and the mostly-used language here, but not their Myanmar counterparts.
Just like its neighbor, Kachin State, the zone enjoyed the reputation as a hub for the jade and hair trade. “I collected hair from the local Burmese girls, they had shiny black hair of the best quality, hair of 500 grams meant two or three months of salaries those days,” Li said, “The price was variable according to the market, ranged from twenty-two yuan per half kilogram to a hundred, most of my customers were merchants from Henan Province in the mainland China, although I had no idea what they would use the hair for, wigs, I suppose.”
However, hair or traditional Chinese medicine were no more than a piddling bonus, it was the jade business that made Li economically sustainable. During the peak seasons, he could make a monthly income of thirty to forty thousand yuan by purchasing and reselling jade stones. As a matter of fact, what lied behind was an enormous industrial chain.
According to the report, Jade: Myanmar’s Big State Secret conducted by Global Witness, the jade was mainly smuggled directly to China, bypassing official controls on both sides of the border, and licensed companies typically sell high volume, low value jade through government-sanctioned channels, an estimated Myanmar’s jade production in 2014 was US$31 billion, this breaks down to at least US$ 21,000 per person in Kachin State, and there was a US$122.8 billion production from 2005 to 2014.
Although he had a share in the big cake, Li was at the bottom of the pyramid all the time, and the share was negligible.
Meet the Mafias
Besides the trades and local markets, the village was also famous for its illegal organizations like brothels and casinos banned in China, yet the chaos was actually doing a big favor for the criminal syndicates.
“There is one thing you have to bear in mind when you’re making a rather short stay in that kind of place, you are never safe enough.” Li said, lighting up a cigarette, smoking deeply, immersed himself in the memory of the old times, “I was 38, handling my business in the village, two groups of local gangsters were in a fierce faction war, and I was taken away by one side as a captive, they threw me into a water dungeon and prisoned me for about 12 hours, suspecting I was a spy.”
“I reckoned it’s perhaps my Chinese nationality and irregularly comes and goes,” Li smiled bitterly, “Or maybe it’s just my bad luck.”
Luck could be even worse. Li then found they were not ordinary thugs or a motley crew, but well-trained triads in a sophisticated organization, or briefly saying, mafias.
According to Li, they were equipped with heavy-loaded weapons from 0.357 caliber Magnum pistols to AK-47 machine guns, even mortars. And its main capital source included drug trafficking, protection fee and kidnapping. They were the group of people that actually in charge in the very area.
“I have to admit when they took me to their boss, I was totally freaked out,” Li said, “He was an old man in his sixties who was easily got annoyed when we first met, they called him Mhank Sa, but I think it’s a pseudonym, no one knew his real name.”
The gang leader had heard of Li’s medical practices, after an oppressing inquiry, Mhank Sa decided not to give him a death sentence but asking him to be their private doctor. Considering he had no other choice, Li agreed. “But all that in my mind was escaping back to China during those days,” Li said, “They wanted me giving medical aid to the gangster members, I gave, but with a careless attitude.”
The leader noticed his delinquency soon after, and had a conversation with him. “Mhank Sa had already known what I was thinking about, he told me it’s absolutely impossible to return to China on my own,” Li said, “Even if the triads didn’t chase me, the tropical jungle where blood-sucking leeches and horrible beasts were everywhere would be a huge obstacle for me.”
“I just couldn’t make it on my own, and I’ve got no help from the others,” Li said, “Being hopeless and still want to gamble for one last time, I offered him a bellyful condition he would definitely refuse.”
For Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, Chinese triads raging everywhere was not a temporary pain of the local communities which were tortured by chronic, severe economic hardships and political strife, both of which were sharing an inextricably and subtle relationship with the violent organizations.
According to the report, Transnational Activities of Chinese Crime Organizations conducted by the Federal Research Division in 2003, the Shan State where Chinese are mostly populated was the center of the criminal organizations.
The village where Li lived was nothing different with anywhere else in the Mong La region. Pistols, stolen jewelry, fake note, heroin and all kinds of contrabands were widely available and could be easily bought from any street vendors spreading out their goods on a stall, and these traders and smugglers were directly under protection by the local gangsters.
According to the report, Cross-border Drug Trafficking between Myanmar and China conducted by the United States Department of Justice, the corporate model is the main form adopted by most Chinese criminal organizations in the area, in which at least five levels of hierarchy are assigned clearly with roles and responsibilities, a division of labor and chain of command is also presented in which roles and responsibilities are assigned according to members’ professional skills and talents.
And that’s the reason why Li’s relatively qualified medical knowledge could be a bargaining chip for him to save his life.
Mhank Sa was old, yet he had five wives among which the youngest one was just nineteen years old, “I asked him to give me two of his ladies, I was single, but what’s more important, I supposed this rude term would irritate him and let me go.”
But sometimes life is merely a bad joke, an evil humor born of indigestion. The boss not only agreed to the “ridiculous” offer, but also promised to build a new house for Li, “That house was worth more than thirty million Burmese Kyats, about three thousand yuan that time.” Li said. “I was totally stunned, cause at that moment I knew I would have to spend the rest of my life there.”
18 Years Living in Myanmar
Not exactly, but a couple of years, precisely speaking, eighteen years of life from 1993 to 2011, a life restrained by overwhelming power and stinting communication with the outer world, during that time, Li worked for the triad reluctantly and was blocked from any contacts with China, since the gang worried that once the information of Li being leaked, the China customs would take measures.
At the early stage of that new page of life, Li was absolutely hopeless at first, but his two newly-born babies with his elder wife afterwards was an encouragement to him, cheering him up to keep going on.
That was one of the most turbulent historical periods of Myanmar, but also full of radical changes. With the aggressive and harsh strike on criminal syndicates launched by the United Nations and Myanmar government and the historic destruction of Khun Sa and his army, not to mention the overall financial crisis of Southeast Asia in the late 1990s, all these disturbing chain of events making Li’s gang and village gradually withered.
“During those years, occasionally, I would wonder why my life is always full of misfortunes?” Li said, patting his chest heavily, “Why? Why me? Why was I the person who was so cursed?”
The hot, humid summer of 2011, malaria stormed the southeast Shan State and destroyed the whole village, according to Li, more than half of the population in the area was eradicated because of the terrible highly-contagious disease. The epidemic killed Li’s elder wife and his two children as well as Mhank Sa and most of his gang remnants, the “sin city” was at the edge of collapsing.
Although the younger one of his two wives whom he treated as a little sister all the time had survived from the malaria, but then unfortunately died in a car accident just one month later in a border city of Thailand, when she was purchasing the raw materials of traditional Chinese medicine for Li.
Malaria, being cured in many developed urban areas worldwide, but is still a type of disease that is particularly threatening in tropical and subtropical regions. According to the study, Controlling Malaria in Eastern Myanmar, the country has the highest incidence of malaria and mortality rates in Southeast Asia, there were an estimated 1.4 million cases in the country in 2012 with an estimated 2,900 deaths. The village was at the center of the deadliest region, especially when considering its poor sanitation infrastructure.
“Myanmar was never a modernized country in my eyes” Li said, “Too many tragedies happening every day because of sheer underdevelopment.” Most of the buildings were wooden or just perfunctorily made by thatch, the living conditions were horribly humble, and the houses were highly flammable.
According to the report, Infrastructure in Myanmar conducted by KPMG, there are significant gaps in Myanmar’s infrastructure development, the country was ranked 133 out of 155 in 2012 with an extreme lacking of transportation, medical, educational and telecommunication facilities.
All back to Zero
The last straw was a forest fire at the year of 2011, burning down the entire village or whatever was left. “My house and all what’s inside became ashes on the ground, I escaped from the fire, seeking for help from the China customs and finally passed the border,” Li said, “I’ve returned to Ssu-mao, awkwardly and penniless, back to the start after all these mess.”
Life could be incredibly difficult for someone without a legal ID card in China, but thanks to the assistance from friends and associates Li got acquainted with in his early years at Yunnan Province, the public security bureau gave him a provisional citizen status and some necessary financial help. After four years stay at Ssu-mao, he came home.
“I could barely recognize him when the government workers sent him back,” said Li Yu-chia, Li T’ao’s elder brother, “32 years are quite long enough to change a man.”
“Do you believe in Karma? I used to, but not anymore,” He said, “I feel lucky at least I can read and write, maybe I will write myself an autobiography.” He liked reading and smoking, and he said the only thing he felt regret was he couldn’t smoke the Burmese cigarettes any more, which tasted much better.
There was a piece of traditional Chinese calligraphy written by him hanging on the wall, what the sentence meant was intriguing: “Life is not an entertainment, but an arduous work.” Attributed by Leo Tolstoy.
- Burmese Attitude toward Chinese: Portrayal of the Chinese in Contemporary Cultural and Media Works.
- The Chinese Connection: Cross-border Drug Trafficking between Myanmar and China.
- Isolated in Yunnan: Kachin Refugees from Burma in China’s Yunnan Province.
- Jade: Myanmar’s Big Secret.
- Transformation of the Yunnanese Community along the Sino-Burma Border during the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries.
- Transnational Activities of Chinese Crime Organizations.
- Infrastructure in Myanmar.
- Controlling Malaria in Eastern Myanmar.
- A Border City on the Edge of the Law.