Sai Leun has a long history of risking life and limb. Prior to becoming chief of Semi-Autonomous Region No 4, he was commander of the Communist Party of Burma's 815 War Zone and was widely viewed as one of the communists' ablest field commanders. He joined the CPB as a Red Guard volunteer in 1968 alongside Wa leaders Bao Yuxiang and Li Ziru.
After the breakup of the CPB in 1989, communist-held territory was divided into so-called special regions, each with its own military and political wings. The Myanmar generals, led then by military-intelligence chief Lieutenant-General Khin Nyunt, brokered ceasefire agreements with the militias, allowing them a large measure of local autonomy over their territories.
Mong La's resurgent gambling operations have coincided with an improvement in Sai Leun's health, which deteriorated rapidly after a series of alleged strokes that coincided with China's armed intervention at Mong La and more recent pressure from Myanmar's ruling junta to disarm his militia. Sai Leun is immensely popular in his autonomous area, in part because of his unilateral decision to exempt locals from paying taxes. He reportedly said during the April 27 opening of the new casinos, "The only burden you will continue to bear is supplying us with new recruits for our army."
An official in Mong La characterized the relationship between the NDAA and the UWSA as "not like brothers but like friends". This friendship is evident in the UWSA troops who guard and protect many territories around Mong La and the many luxury vehicles in the town that sport license plates marking them as from UWSA territories. A junta move against Sai Leun could enflame new armed conflict in the area, his supporters contend.
At the same time, Sai Leun has taken precautions against future disruptions to his gambling businesses - particularly from China. To preempt a possible power cut from China, he ordered the construction of a power plant in a converted sugarcane refinery, which became operational one year ago and is capable of independently supplying 30,000 kilowatts of power, well beyond the town's current needs. Mong La's telecommunication infrastructure, however, is still controlled by China, which could represent a pressure point on the casino's Internet connections.
China is still the sole importer of the remote region's rubber and other commodities and, judging by local markets, the local economy is increasingly reliant on imports of cheap Chinese manufactures. Sai Leun, casino operators reckon, has negotiated assurances from Yunnan officials against another Chinese crackdown on his new-fangled gambling operations. However, a Wa official who spoke with Asia Times Online in early June was less confident, saying, "The Chinese can change their mind at any time."
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