A reporter and a soldier from the Kayin State Border Guard Force.
Illustration by Jared Downing

The taming of Shwe Kokko

Frontier’s Naw Betty Han reflects on a rare victory for media and civil society, and the part played by her own harrowing ordeal at the hands of a powerful armed group in Kayin State.

This article is from the January 28 issue of Frontier

When the Kayin State Border Guard Force was locked in crisis talks in January over Tatmadaw demands that its leaders resign, I put in a call to a senior BGF official to seek updates.

When he picked up the phone, I told him who I was and where I worked.

“Ah, I don’t want to talk to you. Your reporting has only caused us trouble,” he said.

I thought he might hang up, but then he added, in a resigned voice: “But if I don’t talk to you, you’ll probably write something even worse about us.”

He answered my questions.

In Myanmar, journalism can sometimes be a dispiriting job. You put all your effort into a story on an important topic, but all too often it changes nothing. 

The response from the BGF official, though, reflected the fact that Myanmar media and civil society have recently chalked up a rare victory.

In 2019, media organisations (including Frontier) began drawing attention to an unusual project at the BGF headquarters, a place called Shwe Kokko about 20 kilometres north of Myawaddy on the Thai border. Overseas Chinese investors were proposing a US$15 billion development that would include luxury housing, hotels, a casino and much more. 

Something didn’t seem right – and it wasn’t just the fact that they were building way beyond the scope of their Myanmar Investment Commission permit. 

More concerning information began to emerge, linking Shwe Kokko to online gambling, organised crime and other nefarious activities. 

And then something unusual happened: the government took action, forming a tribunal to probe the project. Then the Tatmadaw began to respond, investigating senior officers responsible for the region. The Tatmadaw eventually brought matters to a head with the BGF, which is under its command. It demanded the BGF’s leaders give up their business interests or resign.

You can debate whether these developments are going to lead to any real change in Kayin State. I’m sure some people would say it’s just a case of journalists stirring up unnecessary trouble.

Read more: How the Kayin BGF’s business interests put Myanmar at risk of COVID-19

But without attention from the media and civil society, I’m sure that the BGF and its Chinese partners would have got much further with their grand plans for Shwe Kokko. All we revealed was that the government and the Tatmadaw, who were supposed to be keeping an eye on the BGF and making sure it followed the law, were asleep at the wheel. We just woke them up before they drove off a cliff. 

This is a deeply personal story for me. Back in early March last year, a photojournalist and I were detained by BGF soldiers while gathering information on illegal Chinese workers inside the compound of a BGF-linked casino in Myawaddy on the bank of the Thaung Yin River, which marks the border with Thailand.

The soldiers put us in a car, made us wear blindfolds and took us into a forest. We were handcuffed and beaten, then kept in a tiny cell without water, food or light, but the worst part of it was that nobody knew where we were. We endured a sleepless night and were finally released after 28 hours. BGF leaders apologised to us and took action against the soldiers responsible for our arrest.

Our detention prompted a fresh wave of media reporting ­– not only on our experience, but also the BGF’s activities at Shwe Kokko and in Myawaddy. I think it contributed, in some way, to the government finally stepping in.

Apparently, I’m not the only one who noticed. When I spoke to the BGF official in December, he said, “All the problems over the Shwe Kokko new city project started when you were arrested.”

It’s not something I would ever want to repeat, but at least something good seems to have come from our terrible experience.

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