An unexploded projectile stuck on the roof of a house on February 4, following fighting in northern Shan State. (AFP)

Starving in the mountains: Poverty and isolation grip Mong Yaw

Mong Yaw, an isolated area in Myanmar’s northern Shan State, has seen limited conflict since the coup, but blockades and a lack of supplies are taking a toll on one of the most impoverished parts of the state.


The little girl arrived at the clinic emaciated, short of breath and with clouded eyes – symptoms of acute malnutrition.

“When I first saw the child, she couldn’t even open her eyes,” said Lway Phyu Win, the nurse who treated her. “Her fever was very high and her breathing was fast. She was so exhausted she couldn’t even cry.”

The one year eight month old child had been discovered the day before, on May 11, while Phyu Win’s team was patrolling the Mong Yaw area of northern Shan State’s Lashio Township. The nurse asked to be identified by a pseudonym and withhold the name of her organisation, due to fear of military reprisals against parallel public services.

The next day, a motorcycle taxi brought the girl and her grandmother three hours to Phyu Win’s clinic in Man Lar village, where the patient was immediately administered a saline solution.

“The child will surely die if she doesn’t reach a hospital within three to four days,” said Phyu Win at the time.

Thankfully, the next morning another motorbike took her to Lashio General Hospital, a grueling six hour journey through forests and mountains, passing through checkpoints manned by the Myanmar military and various ethnic armed groups along the way.

Mong Yaw, a valley surrounded by mountains on all four sides, is about 50 kilometres east of Lashio town, and is one of the most underdeveloped areas in Shan. It’s so poor that it has become infamous as a source of child labour, as parents often send their children elsewhere to work to help support their families.

The little girl’s parents had both left Mong Yaw to find work – the father in the jade mining hub of Kachin State’s Hpakant Township, the mother working as a dishwasher and house cleaner first in Lashio town and then in Mandalay city. But both vanished, leaving the grandmother in charge of their five young children.

Around half of the 60 villages in Mong Yaw are predominantly Ta’ang, and over the decades, poverty has pushed many Ta’ang farmers there to grow opium, especially in times of economic hardship, such as the downturn since the February 2021 military coup.

Many powerful ethnic armed groups operate in the area, including the Ta’ang National Liberation Army, but none are dominant enough to administer it, leaving it in a social service vacuum.

The poverty, isolation, preference for opium over subsistence crops, nearby conflict and related travel restrictions have combined to put the area at severe risk of a humanitarian crisis.

Insufficient healthcare

According to the Lashio General Administration Department, as of 2019 the Ministry of Health operated five rural health centres in Mong Yaw, but they’ve all been closed since the COVID-19 pandemic began in early 2020, leaving local civil society organisations to fill the gap.

The situation worsened markedly after the Three Brotherhood Alliance of ethnic armed organisations launched a sweeping offensive dubbed Operation 1027 in October last year. The groups seized several northern Shan townships on the Chinese border from the military, dealing it a humiliating blow before agreeing to a China-brokered ceasefire in January.

The fighting barely touched Mong Yaw, but international organisations and local civil society groups said that the junta’s restrictions on travel and essential supplies – including food, medicine and fuel – have devastated the area since then.

According to Phyu Win, her organisation provides basic healthcare to about 13 Ta’ang villages in Mong Yaw. She said there weren’t any significant problems with malnutrition in these areas prior to Operation 1027, but it’s become common in nearly every Ta’ang village since then.

She said these days, about two thirds of the patients they see in Mong Yaw suffer from malnutrition. A primary culprit is the shortage of rice in many Ta’ang villages, which has caused prices to soar. Prior to Operation 1027, 16 pyi (34 kilograms) of rice cost around K70,000 (around US$15 at the market rate), but after the operation the price leapt to K120,000.

“If there is no rice, they eat millet. They can’t afford to eat meat. They find vegetables in the forest and cook them,” Phyu Win said.

Phyu Win added that because many Ta’ang people are poor and live in the mountains, they mostly grow poppy for opium. Lashio-based social welfare groups said opium cultivation decreased during the National League for Democracy administration, from 2016 until the coup, but has seen a resurgence since then.

A poppy field in Shan State on February 26. (AFP)

A staffer for an international non-government organisation based in Lashio told Frontier that this contributes to the food shortage, because farmers cultivate opium rather than subsistence crops they can eat.

The Ta’ang aren’t the only people facing difficulties. Residents of the 21 Shan villages in the Mong Yaw area are also suffering from food shortages and malnutrition, according to those living in Pang Hto Len, Kawng Kai and Mong Kyat villages.

A 56-year-old Shan woman in Pang Hto Len said the village has a health centre but no healthcare workers.

“If a villager gets sick, they have to go to Lashio General Hospital. But they can’t go to the hospital if they don’t have money,” she said.

The medical costs for the little girl from Mong Yaw exceeded K2.2 million, but a fundraiser on Facebook managed to raise enough funds to cover the cost.

Crippling junta blockades

Doctors at the hospital in Lashio managed to keep the little girl alive, discharging her on May 21, but that was not the end of her ordeal. When she returned for a follow-up appointment on June 2, she was diagnosed with tuberculosis.

She spent another two days in the hospital, before being sent home with one month’s worth of medicine, and orders to return for another check up on July 2.

However, in anticipation of a possible Brotherhood assault on Lashio town, the regime closed the two roads connecting it to Mong Yaw on June 13.

“Her condition is now very worrying. Tuberculosis only will get worse if she doesn’t receive enough nutrients. But it’s difficult to go back to the hospital because the military has completely closed the roads,” Phyu Win said.

The road closures also prevented her organisation from taking four other toddlers suffering from severe malnutrition to Lashio General Hospital. The clinic in Man Lar has only two full time workers and is running out of medicine, and can no longer resupply due to the road blockages.

To make matters worse, fighting between the regime and the Brotherhood erupted again in late June. The TNLA has termed the offensive Operation 1027 Part II, seizing Kyaukme and Nawnghkio towns, while the Myanmar National Democratic Alliance Army has resumed fighting in Lashio Township. The clashes haven’t yet reached the Mong Yaw area, but will likely condemn it to further isolation.

TNLA spokesperson Lway Yay Oo told Frontier that more than 500 personnel from the group’s health department are working to implement healthcare services in the seven towns in northern Shan it took during Operation 1027. However, the TNLA’s presence in Mong Yaw is limited because it’s a mixed area where many other armed groups also operate.

“We don’t have enough presence to open clinics in the Ta’ang villages in this area, so our ability to provide healthcare and treatment is still low. There’s still a lot we can’t do,” Yay Oo said.

Even in areas fully under TNLA control, Ta’ang civil society groups face challenges due to the junta’s blockages of medical supplies and a lack of qualified medical professionals.

“The biggest challenge is the complete restriction on transporting medicine, food and other necessities. Local people are struggling to survive,” said the INGO worker based in Lashio town.

A spokesperson for the Ta’ang Women’s Organization painted a grim picture. Ta’ang villages in Lashio Township have long been neglected, she said, with failing agriculture, education and healthcare infrastructure.

“The situation could deteriorate significantly. Unless the political crisis ends, there’s no hope for improvement.”

More stories

Latest Issue

Stories in this issue
Myanmar enters 2021 with more friends than foes
The early delivery of vaccines is one of the many boons of the country’s geopolitics, but to really take advantage, Myanmar must bury the legacy of its isolationist past.
Will the Kayin BGF go quietly?
The Kayin State Border Guard Force has come under intense pressure from the Tatmadaw over its extensive, controversial business interests and there’s concern the ultimatum could trigger fresh hostilities in one of the country’s most war-torn areas.

Support our independent journalism and get exclusive behind-the-scenes content and analysis

Stay on top of Myanmar current affairs with our Daily Briefing and Media Monitor newsletters.

Sign up for our Frontier Fridays newsletter. It’s a free weekly round-up featuring the most important events shaping Myanmar