29 Apr 19 - Source: Myanmar Times - Hidden deep in the forest about 250 kilometres from the notorious sin city of Mine Lar in Shan State is the decrepit Sut Lway jetty on the Mekong River.
Despite its tumble-down appearance, Sut Lway is the gateway for an illicit trade in luxury motor vehicles and other goods that make their way into Mine Lar and other parts of Shan State and neighbouring areas, sometimes all the way to Mandalay.
Luxury cars, such as Chevrolets, Fords, Porsches, BMWs and Lexuses, which are ubiquitous in Mine Lar and neighbouring Panghsang and Taunggyi, enter the country through Sut Lway.
The jetty is the only landing area in Myanmar on the Mekong River, which starts in China and flows through Myanmar, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.
Now the National Democratic Alliance Army (NDAA), whose territory includes the infamous port, is taking steps to shed its tawdry image. Sut Lway jetty is in the armed ethnic group's Special Area 4.
Like neighbouring Panghsang city and the Wa self-administered region, which are controlled by the United Wa State Army, Special Area 4 is beyond the reach of the Myanmar government. The NDAA, headed by Sai Lin, has its own government and laws.
While the NDAA admits that Mine Lar, the capital of the special area, is notorious for expensive casinos, prostitution and illicit wildlife trading, it tries to downplay the significance of Sut Lway.
"It is just a temporary port of call for ships," said U Kham Maung of the special area's executive committee.
On a busy day, about 80 container ships dock at Sut Lway, and it is for much more than just resting. Opposite the jetty is a much bigger port on the Laotian side, with casinos and other fun centres to soothe the weary spirits of sailors.
Besides the lightly taxed luxury vehicles and other goods that make their way into the mountains and valleys of Shan and beyond, state-of-the-art weapons make their way to the two armed ethnic groups from Sut Lway, security sources said.
One political analyst said the impressive array of weapons displayed by Wa fighters during the armed ethnic group's 30th anniversary of peace celebration earlier this month in Panghsang were unloaded at Sut Lway jetty.
He added that many of the foreign guests who attended the event had entered the country through the jetty, which has lax enforcement of immigration laws, despite the Myanmar government's ban on foreigners attending the Panghsang event.
The NDAA seems no longer keen on keeping the jetty a secret, having undertaken massive road improvements to make Sut Lway more accessible from Mine Lar and other parts of the region.
One car importer in Mine Lar expressed confidence that the road improvement will allow more luxury vehicles to be transported through the port when it is finished, especially from the Thai border.
He said that unlicensed vehicles passing through the Thai border have to pass rigorous inspections, aside from meeting strict documentation requirements. But those coming through Sut Lway only need to pass through the customs department controlled by the NDAA, he said.
"There is a big difference in the tax rates, and there are no problems getting into Special Area 4," he said.
One Mine Lar resident said that ships carrying goods from China and Thailand usually dock at the jetty to unload their cargo.
U Kham Maung said the NDAA imposes customs duties on all goods that pass through the port, which has become a major source of income for the NDAA.
One NDAA member agreed that the jetty has become an important financial hub and source of military might for the two armed ethnic groups.
"Sut Lway is the gift of the Mekong to our people," he said.